The Far Less Sensational Truth about Jesus’ ‘Wife’

Since the discovery of the “Gnostic Gospels” at Nag Hammadi in 1945, scholars and the general public cannot seem to get enough of alternative versions of the life of Jesus. The Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Mary, and most recently, the Gospel of Judas, have all raised provocative questions about Christianity. Were stories of Jesus intentionally left out of the New Testament? Were these alternative versions of Christianity suppressed (or oppressed)? And do the canonical gospels really give us an accurate picture of Jesus?

Just as the dust had settled from the discovery of the Gospel of Judas, a new discovery has now reopened all these questions. During my class break yesterday (ironically just before I began my lectures on apocryphal gospels), I received news that a new manuscript was discovered that portrays Jesus as having a wife. This is noteworthy because—despite the claims of The Da Vinci Code—we have no text within all of Christianity that explicitly says Jesus was married.

This new manuscript—aptly titled the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife—is a fragment of a fourth-century codex written in Coptic (Sahidic) that in one place reads, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife . . . she will be able to be my disciple.'” The fragment is quite small (4 x 8 cm), with faded writing on the back. The main text is written in a cramped, semi-literate hand. Most notably, Karen King of Harvard University has suggested that while the manuscript is fourth century, the original composition should be dated back to the middle of the second century.

So what shall we make of this new discovery? Here are several considerations.


Forgery is not uncommon in the antiquities market. I am not an expert in Coptic palaeography (my work is in Greek manuscripts), but I had concerns about the initial appearance of the manuscript. In particular, the sloppy nature of the scribal hand, and the wide and undifferentiated strokes of the pen seemed problematic. In addition, the color of the ink seems off—it’s too dark, almost as if it were painted. Ancient inks tend to be lighter in color, though there are exceptions. This scenario is exacerbated by the ambiguity about the place of its discovery and the identity of its anonymous owner.

However, according to Karen King’s forthcoming paper, this manuscript was examined by Roger Bagnall and AnnMarie Luijendijk, two reputable scholars, who both found it to be authentic and attributed the odd style to the blunt pen of the scribe. Other indications of authenticity are the use of the nomina sacra (abbreviations of certain words) and the faded ink on the back of the page (something that would have required considerable time). But my friend and Coptic scholar, Christian Askeland, is skeptical of its authenticity due to, among other things, the odd formation of some of its letters (particularly the epsilon) and omissions in the Coptic text.  Other scholars have also expressed skepticism about the fragment.

At this point, there is no way to know whether it is genuine or a forgery. We cannot be certain until more scholars have an opportunity to examine it.


Assuming for the moment that the manuscript is genuine, questions remain about its composition. First, what kind of document are we dealing with here? At first glance, the document appears to be composed as a gospel-like text that contained stories and sayings of Jesus. In fact, Jesus seems to be doing what he often does in other gospel texts: he is having a conversation with his disciples. Some scholars have suggested this fragment may be a magical text like an amulet, particularly given its small size. However, amulets normally did not have writing on the back of the page (the verso). If the writing on the back of this fragment is continuous with the front (which is unknown at this point) then it may simply be a miniature codex. Miniature codices were popular in early Christianity and often contained apocryphal texts. For more on this subject, see my article here.

Another question pertains to the date of the story this fragment contains. When was this story first composed? King argues that it was composed in the middle of the second century based largely on the broad similarities with the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Philip, which both existed during this timeframe. This is certainly a possibility, particularly given that we know a number of other apocryphal gospels were composed in the second century (e.g., Gospel of Peter, P. Egerton 2, P.Oxy. 840). However, this argument does not require a second-century date. This story could have been written in the third century and may have simply drawn upon writings like the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Philip.

Most important, there is nothing that would indicate that the composition of this gospel should be dated to the first century. It was produced long after the time of the apostles, along with all other known apocryphal gospels.

Historical Value

The key question is whether this particular gospel account can tell us anything about what Jesus was really like. Does this text prove that Jesus had a wife? Does this gospel provide reliable historical information? No and no.  There is no reason to think this gospel retains authentic tradition about Jesus. It is a late production, not based on eyewitness testimony, and likely draws on other apocryphal works like Thomas and Philip.

Moreover—and this is critical—we do not have a single historical source in all of early Christianity that suggests Jesus was married. None. There is nothing about Jesus being married in the canonical gospels, in apocryphal gospels, in the church fathers, or anywhere else. Even if this new gospel claims that Jesus was married, it is out of step with all the other credible historical evidence we have about his life. As King herself noted, “This is the only extant ancient text which explicitly portrays Jesus as referring to a wife. It does not, however, provide evidence that the historical Jesus was married” (p. 1 here).

Conspiracies and the Canonical Gospels

Everybody loves a good conspiracy theory. It would certainly be far more entertaining for our culture if one could show that apocryphal books were really the Scripture of the early church and that they have been suppressed by the political machinations of the later church (e.g., Constantine). But the truth is far less sensational. While apocryphal books were given some scriptural status from time to time, the overwhelming majority of early Christians preferred the books now in our New Testament canon. Thus, we are reminded again that the canon was not arbitrarily “created” by the church in the fourth or fifth century. The affirmations of the later church simply reflected what had already been the case for many, many years.

When it comes to these sorts of questions I like to remind my students of a simple—but often overlooked—fact: of all the gospels in early Christianity, only Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are dated to the first century.  Sure, there are minority attempts to put books like the Gospel of Thomas in the first century—but such attempts have not been well received by biblical scholars. Thus, if we really want to know what Jesus was like, our best bet is to rely on books that were at least written during the time period when eyewitnesses were still alive. And only four gospels meet that standard.

  • Richard

    Thank you, Dr. Kruger for your analysis. It will be interesting to see how the media picks this up and reacts to it. Dr. Karen King continues to push a view point that sees vast diversity in the early church so that this is indicative of forces of “orthodoxy” somehow “silencing” alternative voices. I quoted some of Dr. Ben Witherington’s interactions with Dr. King’s earlier argumentation on the diversity of early Christianity in this regard in this blog post

  • Alex Macdonald

    Good article! I enjoyed reading a bit deeper into it.
    Another one worth reading is an interview that Australia’s Bible society/Eternity Newspaper did with John Dickson. He’s a prominent historian, pastor and apologist in Australia, and gave a really good rundown of some of the historical importance (or lack thereof).

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  • Abram

    Thanks for this–good stuff.

    The hard thing for me is that saying Jesus *wasn’t* married feels mainly like an argument from silence. Of course, saying he *was* married would be, too, since the Gospels don’t mention it either way.

    So then the question becomes–why default to an assumption that he wasn’t married, especially if it was more common for men in those days to be married?

    I’m not saying I believe Jesus was married–just curious why the church has for so long taught that he wasn’t. Do we have any written sources or oral traditions from antiquity (or doctrinal principles) that specifically rule out his being married?

    • Ashley

      Abram…think about it. We don’t need to dig deep here to understand why it’s taught that Jesus wasn’t married. Who in the world would he have married?? There would have been absolutely no reason for him to marry since His purpose on this earth was to preach the Gospel. As Genesis tells us, God created marriage for man (as it is not good for man to be alone), not for himself. I could go on and on and on for hours, but I’ll spare you.

    • dean

      Its kind of a long shot but Jesus was concerned about his immediate family with relation to the cross. He did instruct care be given but I dont recall a wife being mentioned…having great honour for marriage i dont think he would of forgot.The apostle Paul also remained unmarried & encouraged others to be like minded.

      • Abram

        Dean, this is a good point.

    • Nana

      I have only been taught in passing commentary that Jesus wasn’t married. I don’t think there has been a stringent attempt to teach on his marital status mainly because the Bible makes no issue of it. I don’t see many reasons why true Christians should either, except, perhaps, to debunk attempts to force the issue one way.

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    • dean

      Thankfully… the Lord provides, one body many parts.

  • Lisa Peterson

    There is too little of the passage to know its intent. In 2000 years if someone finds a small passage of “The Lord of the Rings” will they conclude there were once hobbits and wizards? If you’ve seen Galaxy Quest, when the aliens make the mistake of thinking our T.V. shows are historical records, it is funny because the audience understands a similar error is possible when we treat all ancient records as attempts to provide historical information. Sometimes people make up stories.

    The belief that Christ was not married is not an argument from silence. The ancient world is not silent about who Christ was. Those who wrote of his life (the gospel writers), made no reference to a wife. These same writers gave us his lineage, place of birth, his parentage, his travels, and descriptions of his disciples and friends. We safely assume if his wife existed, it would be included. In the same way that I assume if he was a siberian twin, someone would have mentioned it…

  • Ed Gaunt

    If these were really Jesus’ words, they would have been printed in red ink!

    • Tim W

      Hah! :D

    • Phil

      AND they would’ve been in King James-style English!

  • MarkG

    This fragment seems to be only of scholarly value, and of course of value for the press. There are apocrophal gospels that say stuff about Jesus, like he turned some little bullies in to birds or some such. The Bible itself refers to Christ’s disciples as his bride. The gnostics had some obscure ceremony involving the bride of Christ. Even if this text does say Jesus referred to a wife and she was his disciple how could one ever determine that it was actually saying Jesus was married? The professor who presented the finding was on the radio and said this presents no evidence that Jesus was married.

  • Matthew Linder

    Well of course he did not have a human woman as a wife, however, he is referred to as the bridegroom throughout the bible and his bride is the church. So yes one day at the end of history we will all celebrate in the marriage feast of the lamb as he takes his one and only wife the church. Was Jesus married when he was on the earth? Nope. Will he one day be married to those of us who make up his church? You bet.

  • Martin

    I’ve thougt about the question of whether it is possible that Jesus was married. If He was, it wouldn’t shake my faith. We are told that He was without sin. Now to be married and without sin – that is really something! (said tongue in cheek) :)

  • Dean’na Smiley

    Many thanks to Dr. Kruger for his writing of this article. It is written with authority, yet in such a way that a layman (or the wife of one of your students) can read and understand it. Previously, such an argument would not have drawn my attention- after all, my husband is the one in seminary, not me. Ha!Ha! I have found that even the housewife and stay-at-home mother needs to be well versed in her theology and up to date on current events not only for her own sake, but for the sake of the gospel as well. Even though I no longer work as a nusre, regular shifts, co-workers and such- I still find myself in conversations with others at the store, the pediatricians office, the pharmacy, and so on that present opportunities to talk about current events such as this one and lead into an opportunity to share the gospel. Thank you for helping to give me the language needed to articulate a strong argument.

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  • Kim

    My question is why are we refering to this scrap of paper as a “gospel”?

  • Seth

    what about the gospel of the holy twelve? Says he was married, but the vatican wouldn’t allow us to see the true scroll.. Too bad

  • Josh

    Very timely…I really appreciated this. Thank you for ministering to me.


  • Megan

    A Jewish apologetic I read a few years ago argued that Jesus’ bachelor status was not only culturally unusual for a Jewish man of his age and stature (as rabbi), but also contradicted biblical prophesy, because Isaiah 53:10 states that “he will see his offspring and prolong his days.”

    • Richard

      You may be interested in the work of Dr. Michael Brown who is the author of a 5 volume set entitled “Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus.” He deals briefly with this objection regarding “seeing seed” from Isa 53 on his web page:

      Objection: 4.17. “Isaiah 53 cannot refer to Jesus because it says that the servant of the Lord would see seed, an expression always meaning physical descendants in the Hebrew Bible.”

      Answer: “Actually, the passage you refer to is the only occurrence of the Hebrew expression ‘see seed’ in the Tanakh, so it is not wise to be so dogmatic about the meaning of the expression, especially since ‘seed’ is sometimes used metaphorically in the Scriptures, and since it can sometimes refer simply to a future generation. This much is certain: Through his continued life after resurrection, we can honestly and fairly say that Jesus the Messiah fulfills the description of ‘seeing seed.’” (See Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, vol. 3, pp. 83-86.)

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