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Jesus’ wife and the lure of scandal

Harvard professor Karen King broke the sensational news in September 2012: a papyrus fragment which contains the words “Jesus said, ‘my wife…’” had been revealed by an anonymous owner.

The tiny fragment went on to say “she will be able to be my disciple”. If accepted as accurate, it would affect debate about centuries of biblical scholarship and women priests.

The hopes of those avid to believe it a genuine document, including much mainstream media, were raised when scientific tests released in April concluded that the papyrus and ink were likely ancient, rather than a modern forgery.

Volume 107/2 of the Harvard Theological Review in April this year was dedicated to the fragment, with scholarly articles on the script, ink, papyrus, carbon dating and infrared microspectroscopy tests, and more.

Then last month the Wall Street Journal announced that the “hoax” had fallen apart: a young American scholar in Germany had noticed that another fragment released at the same time was a forgery, and the writing was identical to the so-called Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.

He also noted that the fragment, measuring four by eight centimetres, used a Coptic dialect that was extinct by the time the papyrus was made. It seemed Karen King and others had succumbed to an elaborate hoax.

It was a severe blow, though defenders have not given up entirely. The issue is less important than it might seem – even if genuine, the document is no earlier than fourth century and maybe 400 years later, and takes its place amid a multitude of late and apocryphal gospels. All it would prove is that some later followers believed Jesus was married.

The question the Wall Street Journal posed that particularly interested me was, why were the media (and others) so keen to embrace the idea that Jesus had a wife, and that Christians had been wrong for two millennia. No evidence for a wife exists in the thousands of orthodox documents dating back to antiquity, said the Journal’s columnist, Christian scholar Jerry Pattengale.

To me, media interest should be expected. The impact on the church, on traditional structures and beliefs, could be profound, the claim is obviously controversial and surely would interest large numbers of people. It brilliantly passes the “he would say that, wouldn’t he?” test, whereby something is not news if it’s someone simply saying what would be expected, and it comes at a time when Dan Brown’s book The Da Vinci Code encouraged innumerable people to be suspicious of traditional authority, exacerbated by loss of trust through the clergy abuse scandal.

If the journalists seemed credulous, few – if any – had the expertise to contradict a Harvard professor and a full array of scientific tests. The Vatican were sceptical, but, well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?

A bigger surprise was the Australian reaction to this astonishing claim: a brief flurry of wire service reports in many papers on the day of the announcement, then a later sentence or two of reservation in just the Adelaide Advertiser and Herald Sun. Since then, silence.

A fair question is, how did this claim escape the attention of the one mainstream newspaper religion reporter at the time?

Barney Zwartz is a senior fellow of CPX, and was the one mainstream religion reporter at the time.

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