Jesus’s Wife on the Web

The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife (GJW hereafter) is one of the most heavily publicized ancient forgeries of the twenty-first century; yet, it is not a commonly-discussed text in traditional (i.e. peer-reviewed, printed via academic journal) scholarly circles. Media coverage concerning GJW, too, effectively halted after its provenance became clearer. Within the field of Early Christian studies, GJW is quickly becoming an important case study for considering how scholars should present research and produce knowledge in a digital age. Currently, the field struggles to reconcile its traditional academic structure to the rapid creation and dissemination of scholarly research via social media and blogs. The growth of open scholarly networks via new media has led to interactions between scholars from diverse geographical locations and various levels of professorship and academic prestige.

The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife. Photo: Karen King.

Before blogs and “academic Twitter” began their virtual discussion of GJW, online newspapers and related media popularized Karen King’s 2012 announcement of the papyrus fragment. The impact of these news sources, however, sensationalized GJW in unexpected and often negative ways. Within a couple weeks of the September announcement, King had received “angry, hateful emails” and claimed that one of the largest media missteps was the title of the papyrus — unfortunately, the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife has not been replaced with a less inflammatory or provocative title.[1] The preliminary (and now-standard) title of GJW, as well as titles of articles flooding the media in late 2012, provoked interest in ways that King did not approve. Even though King was clear that GJW does not prove or disprove anything about Jesus’ marital status, media sources were quick to portray it as such; for example, Huffington Post Religion posted, “‘The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife,’ New Early Christian Text, Indicates that Jesus may have been Married” and The New York Times posted, “A Faded Piece of Papyrus Refers to Jesus’ Wife” on the text’s release date. Even Ariel Sabar’s journalistic article –– known as the final nail that put GJW in its coffin –– appears with a different title in a Google search: “Did Jesus Have a Wife?” Due to the sensationalist titles of news articles concerning GJW, scholars such as King, Joel Baden, and Candida Moss have attempted to clarify that the text bears no evidence, even if authentic, on the marital status of Jesus. Baden and Moss note:

People have been speculating about Jesus’s romantic life since at least the second century AD, too. In a noncanonical text from that period known as the Gospel of Mary, for example, Peter says to Mary Magdalene, “Sister, we know that the Savior loved you more than all other women.” The second- or third-century Gospel of Philip gets somewhat more explicit, calling Mary his “companion,” and describing Jesus as having “loved her more than all the disciples” and having “kissed her often on the mouth.”

One of the potential pitfalls of such a public and hurried release of GJW was the lack of careful contextualization that scholars were able to give to the document via media coverage. Since many outside of Early Christian studies have not participated in scholarly discussions concerning the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Philip, and ancient debates surrounding Jesus’ sex life, the possibility of a married Jesus was all the more shocking — whereas for scholars of Early Christianity, these claims (whether in genuinely ancient texts or modern forgeries) are less of a surprise.[2]

In November 2016, King again reminded both scholars and popular readers that have followed the GJW story arch that the “focus on whether it’s a forgery or not is taking attention off the things that really matter, which are the issues about authority, women’s roles, sexuality, and everything attached to them.” In other words, just because the scholarly community has condemned GJW as a forgery does not mean that GJW is now devoid of meaning or unworthy of further inquiry. Instead, scholars and lay audiences can utilize the historical events surrounding the forgery and publication of GJW as a tool to conceptualize the intersections of religion, gender, sacred text(s), and authority.[3] King’s appeal to focus on issues, ancient and modern, beyond the “authenticity” of GJW is pertinent.

Along with the impact of media coverage, GJW also had a healthy following via academic blogs and “academic Twitter.” As we have noted in the timeline of GJW, blogs such as Evangelical Textual Criticism, Mark Goodacre’s NT Blog, and others were quick to debate the authenticity of GJW in a publicly-accessible online setting. As James McGrath noted in a recent paper, blogs and digital humanities function as a two-edged sword for scholars:

One of the major shifts in the Digital Humanities in recent years is the transformation of a digital desert’s economy of scarcity into a deluge that threatens to drown us with more raw data than we could ever hope to tame. The overabundance of material — for instance, the sheer number of manuscripts and out of print books that have been scanned and made available — means we cannot manage it, cannot ever realistically hope to become personally acquainted with it all. This gives a certain advantage to the forgers: a forger need only find an obscure, neglected text and copy it, and the likelihood of their being detected is minimal.[4]

While the scholarly community was able to come together and reveal GJW as a forgery, this accessibility to resources was exactly how the papyrus was first forged. Goodacre, Askeland, and Bernhard all contributed to the realization that the forger of GJW and the related Coptic John fragment utilized Thompson’s 1924 edition of the Qau Codex (made accessible online between 2005–2008) and Grondin’s interlinear translation of the Gospel of Thomas (made accessible online in November 2002). Just as Anthony Grafton argued in his seminal work, Forgers and Critics:

Of necessity, modern forgers must be more technically skillful than their predecessors. But the basic techniques and topoi by which forgers evoke belief, the basic willingness of many readers and even many experts to be deceived, and the basic fact that apparently firm documents are often deeply dubious have remained unchanged. So has the rhythm by which criticism develops, demand-driven, as new ways of forging require new methods of detection.[5]

In other words, the creation of forgery and the detection of forgery exist in type of symbiotic relationship — the forger and critical scholar benefit from each other’s successes and advancements as they compete to utilize the newest technologies in order to create or detect.

As we have seen from the entire case study of GJW, blogs and other new media were indispensable in the unraveling of the papyrus’s provenance. Yet, the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), the “oldest and largest society devoted to the critical investigation of the Bible from a variety of academic disciplines,” still does not take seriously the significance of new media and digital humanities in religious scholarship. For example, even The SBL Handbook of Style, updated as recently as 2014, still phrases the information concerning citations of websites and blogs as secondary: “Material published informally online must nevertheless be included in notes and bibliography. (Blog entries, however, may be omitted from the bibliography.)”[6] If SBL and the broader community of religious scholars want to keep up with the technological advancements of forgery in the twenty-first century, it is imperative to embrace the digital humanities and new media. Scholars of religion, especially in subfields of the ancient and premodern world, are still learning how their own education, teaching, and scholarship does (and should) interact with new media.

In the age of digital humanities and academics speaking in “real time” on blogs and Facebook comment threads, how much of a distinction is there between the “formal” modes of peer-reviewed scholarship and institutional pedagogy and “informal” comments concerning a scholarly topic online? How much has –– and will –– the Internet impacted our understanding of the peer-review process, and how much can we distinguish between the “real” and “online” persona of a scholar? In addition to McGrath’s exhortation for Early Christian scholars to “learn patience,” I would add the additional encouragement for students and enthusiasts to keep updated with the ways in which humanities scholars are utilizing cross-disciplinary methodologies and tools, as well as how researchers are collaborating in order to produce comprehensive and carefully-constructed knowledge.

[1] Also see Caroline Schroder, “Gender and the Academy Online: The Authentic Revelations of the Gospel of Jesus Wife,” in Fakes, Forgeries, and Fictions: Writing Ancient and Modern Christian Apocrypha. Proceedings from the 2015 York University Christian Apocrypha Symposium, Tony Burke, ed. (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2017), 321–323.

[2] See Karen King, The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge, 2003); Jean-Yves Leloup and Joseph Rowe, Gospel of Philip: Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and the Gnosis of Sacred Union (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2004); Dale Martin, “Sex and the Single Savior,” in Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation (Louisville/London: Westminster John Knox, 2006), 91–102.

[3] For examples of how scholars of ancient religions are reconceptualizing “forgeries” with an interest in literary creativity and discourses of authority — rather than a simple “authentic”/”deceitful forgery” binary — see chapters in Edmund P. Cueva and Javier Martínez, eds., Splendide Mendex: Rethinking Fakes & Forgeries in Classical, Late Antique, & Early Christian Literature (Groningen: Barkhuis, 2016). For an example of the challenges of feminist education in religious studies, see Zehavit Gross, “Introduction: Challenging Patriarchy: New Advances in Researching Religious Feminism and Religious Education,” in Gender, Religion and Education in a Chaotic Postmodern World, Zehavit Gross, Lynn Davies, and Al-Khanassa Diab, eds. (Dordrecht: Springer, 2013), 1–17, esp. 7–10. Also see Helen Bond, “Sexism and NT Scholarship,” The Jesus Blog, 10 December 2014, http://historicaljesusresearch.blogspot.com/2014/12/helen-bond-on-sexism-and-nt-scholar-ship.html.

[4] James McGrath, “Learning from Jesus’ Wife: The Role of Online Scholarship in Creating and Exposing a Forgery,” (paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the SBL, San Antonio, TX, 21 November 2016); also see McGrath, “Slow Scholarship: Do Bloggers Rush in Where Jesus’ Wife Would Fear to Tread?” in Fakes, Forgeries, and Fictions: Writing Ancient and Modern Christian Apocrypha. Proceedings from the 2015 York University Christian Apocrypha Symposium, Tony Burke, ed. (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2017), 326–340, esp. 335–340, regarding his urge for scholars not to be too hasty with conclusions in the digital era, but rather strengthened online scholarly communities and further open-access resources.

[5] Anthony Grafton, Forgers and Critics: Creativity and Duplicity in Western Scholarship (Princeton: Princeton University, 1990), 35.

[6] The SBL Handbook of Style: For Biblical Studies and Related Disciplines, 2nd edition (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2014), 103

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