How a Scrap of Papyrus Launched a Reconsideration of Early Christianity

Ariel Sabar on Jesus and His Wife

Dr. Karen Leigh King had reached the summit of her field as a dazzling interpreter of condemned scripture. On her bookshelves at Harvard Divinity School were ancient texts as mysterious as they were startling. Among them were the Sophia of Jesus Christ, the Secret Revelation of John and the Gospel of Judas. The Gospel of Mary—as in Magdalene—was a favorite. So was The Thunder, Perfect Mind, a poem voiced by a female god whose paradoxical self-affirmations King found “incredibly inclusive.”

Such writings were nowhere to be found in the church-sanctioned collection of sacred literature commonly known as the New Testament. Early bishops had rejected them as heresies and sought their eradication. For hundreds of years, no one knew what became of them. But in the late 1800s, fragments of papyrus bearing traces of these lost scriptures began turning up at archaeological sites and antiquities shops across Egypt. The story they told about the earliest centuries of Christianity would force historians to reexamine almost everything they thought they knew about the world’s predominant faith. The more pieces of papyrus the deserts disgorged, the more the official history of Christianity—“the master story,” as King called it—began to look like a lie.

To King, these newly unearthed texts were the missing pieces of a Bible that might have been, had history taken a different course. In the suppressed writings of ancient believers she saw a Christianity more open-armed and less taken with violence than the one passed down by the long line of powerful popes and Sunday sermonizers. “We are only beginning to construct the pieces of a fuller and more accurate narrative of Christian beginnings,” she declared. “The dry desert of Egyptian Africa has yielded a feast for the nourishment of the mind and perhaps for the spirit as well.”

When colleagues published a book celebrating her scholarship, they titled it Re-Making the World. “In a quiet voice,” they wrote, “she has changed the face of early Christian studies.”

*

As an eminent Harvard historian of banished gospels, King could pack a college lecture hall nearly anywhere in the world. But students weren’t the only ones who sought her instruction. Her work at the fringes of faith drew notice from mystics, conspiracists and mediums, some of whom regarded her as a bearer of secret knowledge. One email correspondent sent her a code he said unlocked the mysteries of the Bible. Another asked for the key to the seemingly random order of Jesus’s sayings in the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas. “Some woman offered me ‘True facts about Mary Magdalene,’ because, she told me, ‘I am Mary Magdalene,’ ” King recalled. “I get a lot of that kind of stuff.”

To many orthodox and evangelical believers, the gospels King studied were no less blasphemous now than they had been to the Church Fathers: they were delusions wrought by the devil, detours from the one true way. And this explained the other genre of email King had to contend with—the dark stream of threats and hate. Some messages were so toxic that King quarantined them in a folder she labeled “Poison.”

“Repent,” people had urged her, “while there’s still time.”

*

July 9, 2010, was a Friday at the end of a long Boston heat wave. At a little before noon, King, who worked at home in the summers, received an email that Harvard Divinity School’s spam filters had labeled “SUSPECT.” King didn’t recognize the sender. But the subject line—“Coptic gnostic gospels in my collection”—suggested someone more credible than the “kooky” strangers who sometimes emailed. The scriptures King wrote about, which dated from the second to fourth century A.D., were sometimes called Gnostic, because of their view that salvation came not from the death and resurrection of Jesus but from personal knowledge, or gnosis, of the divine. Coptic, meanwhile, was the language of Egypt’s earliest Christians and of some of the oldest surviving copies of the gospels. Most of the known Gnostic manuscripts were discovered between the 1890s and the 1940s, and many had long since been cataloged and conserved in libraries and museums in Egypt, Germany and the United Kingdom. Were a set of previously unknown gospels to come to light now, it would electrify biblical studies. The field had so few texts for so many scholars that every discovery occasioned a kind of stir—along with sometimes jealous fights for access.

The sender introduced himself as a manuscript collector. He told King he had about fifteen fragments of Coptic papyrus, one of which had recently rekindled his curiosity. “Unfortunately I don’t read Coptic,” he wrote. But he had an English translation. It “points,” he wrote, “towards a gnostic gospel, in which Jesus and a disciple had an argument about Mary.

“Since I read some of your publications you [sic] name came to my mind,” he continued. “If you are interested in having a closer look, I gladly email photos.”

King replied that she was very interested.

Five hours later, the man emailed images of a dozen papyrus fragments. He called her attention to two. Coptic Papyrus 01-11 was a piece of the Gospel of John he believed dated to the third century A.D. The other—Coptic Papyrus 02-11—was the text about Mary he’d mentioned in his first email. He now called it “an unknown Gospel.” A metal ruler, pictured along its bottom edge, showed it to be about three-by-one-and-a-half inches, nearly the dimensions of a business card. Its front side, or recto, was covered with eight lines of thickly stroked Coptic handwriting. Every line was incomplete, a sign that the scrap had probably broken off, or been cut, from the middle of some larger page.

What riveted King was the one line lacking any known precedent: “peje Iēsous nau ta-hime” was Coptic for “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife.’”

King recognized some of the surviving words. The first line, for instance, recalled a verse from the Gospel of Thomas. Other phrases smacked of the Gospel of Mary, a second-century text that depicted Mary Magdalene as superior, in Jesus’s eyes, to the male apostles. It happened that King was the world’s foremost expert on the Gospel of Mary; her research on it, as a young scholar in California, had first brought her to Harvard’s attention in the 1990s. In books and lectures, King had used the text to dispel what she saw as one of the most pernicious falsehoods in the history of Christianity: the portrayal of Mary Magdalene as a repentant prostitute—a slander, sanctioned by popes, whose true purpose, King believed, was to keep Christian women from power as the fledgling Church courted the patronage of patriarchal Rome.

The parallels between these familiar texts and the collector’s “unknown Gospel” were remarkable. But what riveted King was the one line lacking any known precedent: “peje Iēsous nau ta-hime” was Coptic for “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife.’”

The phrase was so extraordinary that King didn’t quite believe it. But the surrounding words seemed to leave little doubt. Just before Jesus speaks, the disciples pose a question about the worthiness of a woman named Mariam, or Mary. “My wife . . . ,” Jesus replies, “. . . she is able to be my disciple . . . / . . . Let wicked people swell up . . . / . . . As for me, I dwell with her in order to . . .”

It was a portrait of Jesus—married, living with his wife Mary Magdalene, cursing her detractors—unlike any known to history.

*

For more than fifteen centuries, Christian authorities had equated sex—and, in turn, women—with sin. For centuries, preachers and theologians taught believers to feel shame and revulsion at the most human of yearnings. If evidence existed that Jesus married and chose his wife as a disciple—or even just that some early Christians believed he did—it would bring unprecedented scrutiny to how and why this vilification of sex prevailed. The celibacy of clergy and the exclusion of women from the priesthood were predicated, in no small part, on the presumption of Jesus’s bachelorhood and on his choice of only male apostles. If a group of early Christians saw Mary Magdalene as Jesus’s wife, it might explain why the Church went to such lengths to recast her as a prostitute—a tearful outcast who washes Jesus’s feet with perfumed hair after repenting her sins.

King had spent much of her career questioning the completeness of the Church’s “data,” as she pointedly called it. Modern discoveries like the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary—and now perhaps this text, too—showed just how effective the Church Fathers had been at skewing the data by literally burying the beliefs of Christians they didn’t like. Indeed, the sands of Egypt might have swallowed these forbidden scriptures forever, were it not for the territorial ambitions of a twenty-eight-year-old French general.

*

On July 1, 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte landed in the Egyptian port of Alexandria with forty thousand soldiers and dreams of empire. Fresh from his victories in Italy, he lusted for greater glory—a spectacular conquest that would simultaneously thwart British trade with North Africa and slake what some have called his “Oriental complex.”

“I saw the way to achieve all my dreams,” he said of Egypt. “I would found a religion, I saw myself marching on the way to Asia, mounted on an elephant, a turban on my head, and in my hand a new Koran that I would have composed to suit my needs.” He aimed to exploit “the realm of all history for my own profit.”

The expedition was, for Napoleon, a rare military fiasco. Under the cover of an August night in 1799, he slipped onto a frigate back to Europe, leaving Egypt to chaos and his soldiers to privation and mutiny. Napoleon could claim for his misadventure just one triumph: it had opened the land of the Pharaohs to the exploits of Western scholars. Along with arms, ships and soldiers, Napoleon had ferried with him from France some 170 intellectuals, or savants—some of the most luminous scientists, artists and engineers of his day. The savants returned with drawings of Egyptian wonders, from the tombs at Luxor to the zodiac at Dendera. A company of French soldiers expanding a fort near the town of Rosetta, meanwhile, uncovered a slab of polished granite engraved with three parallel blocks of text: one in Egyptian hieroglyphs; one in Greek; and one in demotic, a precursor to Coptic. The slab would become known as the Rosetta Stone. The French scholar Jean-François Champollion used its side-by-side translations to crack the code of hieroglyphics, opening the writings of the ancient Egyptians to the modern world. The savants published their extraordinary finds in a set of twenty-three volumes, Description de l’Égypte, that effectively established the field of Egyptology and lofted Europe into the throes of “Egyptomania.”

Egypt was soon awash with Western merchants, diplomats, spies and adventurers, along with a cavalcade of antiquities hunters and dealers, who discovered what the French scholar Hélène Cuvigny called “an archaeological El Dorado.” The lust for exotica from a grand civilization was so unquenchable that deals were struck in which neither buyer nor seller knew exactly what was trading hands. Warnings about price gouging and forgery were sounded as early as the 1830s. Occasionally, though, a buyer got very lucky.

*

On a January day in 1896, a German scholar named Carl Reinhardt strolled into an antiquities shop in Cairo. A dealer took out a codex, or book, of Coptic papyri and claimed that a fellah, a peasant, had found it wrapped in feathers and stuffed in a wall niche in the city of Akhmim, three hundred miles south of Cairo. Neither the dealer nor Reinhardt could decipher its contents, but Reinhardt paid the man and carried the codex back to Berlin, depositing it in the city’s illustrious Egyptian Museum. By the summer, a young German Coptologist named Carl Schmidt had sat down to try to make sense of it. Schmidt called the handwriting “of uncommon refinement” and dated its style to the fifth century A.D. But it wasn’t until he reached the end pages—where ancient scribes left titles—that he saw the breathtaking words:

The Gospel
according to
Mary

If looks didn’t deceive, it was the first known gospel written in the name of a woman.

In a central scene, the risen Jesus tells the disciples to go out and “preach the good news.” Yet when Jesus departs, the disciples weep, fearful of coming to the same gruesome end as the Savior. “If they did not spare him,” they ask, “how will they spare us?”

A woman named Mary, who appears to be Mary Magdalene, stands up to fire their courage. “Do not weep and be distressed nor let your hearts be irresolute,” she says. “For his grace will be with you all and will shelter you.”

“Sister,” the apostle Peter replies, “we know that the Savior loved you more than all other women. Tell us the words of the Savior that you remember, the things you know that we don’t because we haven’t heard them.”

“I will teach you about what is hidden from you,” Mary says, then gently mocks the men’s cowardice. She says that when she found Jesus in a vision, he answered, “How wonderful you are for not wavering at seeing me!”

But Jesus’s revelation to her—about the soul’s ascent, past dark powers, to a place of silence—arouses suspicion in Peter’s brother, Andrew, who complains that he doubts Mary’s “strange ideas.”

Peter, for his part, throws a jealous fit over Jesus’s preference for Mary. “Did he, then, speak with a woman in private without our knowing about it?” he asks. “Are we to turn around and listen to her? Did he choose her over us?”

“My brother, Peter, what are you imagining?” Mary asks, weeping. “Do you think that I have thought up these things by myself in my heart or that I am telling lies about the Savior?”

The disciple Levi puts an end to the quarrel, calling Peter temperamental and telling the others to be ashamed. He reminds the men that only the Savior decides who can announce the good news. “For if the Savior made her worthy,” Levi says of Mary, “who are you then for your part to reject her? Assuredly the Savior’s knowledge of her is completely reliable. That is why he loved her more than us.” The gospel ends with the chastened disciples going out into the world to preach.

It was a striking reversal of expectation. In the tradition familiar to modern believers, Peter is “the rock” upon which Jesus founds the Church, and Mary Magdalene, a reformed prostitute. Here, Peter is a hothead, and Mary, the rock, the only person steady enough to succeed Jesus as counselor to the disciples. To doubt her, as Levi suggests, was to doubt the Savior himself.

*

Until the day in 1896 when Reinhardt acquired the codex, almost everything scholars knew about texts like the Gospel of Mary came from the fulminations of second-century heresy hunters. Epiphanius, a bishop from Cyprus, called his diatribe The Medicine Chest, comparing Gnostic interpretations of Jesus’s teachings to a sickness on the Christian body. The Gnostics were “deluded people” who “forge nonsensical books,” having “grown from [their teachers] like fruit from a dunghill,” he wrote. These “despicable, erring” believers “assault us like a swarm of insects, infecting us with diseases, smelly eruptions, and sores.”

Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyon, took a different tack, accusing the Gnostics of preening narcissism. “They proclaim themselves as being ‘perfect,’ so that no one can be compared to them,” he writes in Against Heresies. “They assert that they themselves know more than all others, and . . . are free in every respect to act as they please, having no one to fear in anything.” Among other outrages, Irenaeus said, the Gnostics “boast that they possess more Gospels than there really are.” Gnosticism’s favor among women was a particular irritant; its teachers, Irenaeus wrote, “deceived many silly women, and defiled them.”

Through this fog of venom, it was hard for modern scholars to get a true picture of the Gnostic texts. It was as if, say, every copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses had been destroyed and all a prospective reader could go on—to see if it was any good—were the reviews of critics who hated it. The one certainty was that these second-century bishops succeeded in elevating their model of Christianity to orthodoxy while demoting their rivals’ to heresy. The Roman Catholic Church eventually sainted Epiphanius and Irenaeus, honoring them as “Church Fathers.” The Gnostic gospels they raged against, meanwhile, vanished from places of worship. If anyone in antiquity recorded the means of destruction— whether it was by burning, burial or neglect—their accounts don’t survive.

The discovery of the Gospel of Mary—along with three other lost texts tucked in the same codex—was a breakthrough of incalculable proportions. Silenced groups of early Christians were at last speaking in their own words, their voices creaky from long burial but muzzled no more. “We are thus for the first time,” wrote Carl Schmidt’s colleague Adolf von Harnack, “able to check the Gnostic system, as the Church Fathers presented it, against the original.”

Karen King was fresh out of graduate school in the mid-1980s when senior scholars asked her to introduce the Gospel of Mary in a new edition of The Nag Hammadi Library in English. The book was the definitive collection of the most important set of Gnostic gospels. (The cliffs near Nag Hammadi, Egypt, were the site, in 1945, of the largest single discovery.) In a previous edition of the book, a pair of distinguished male scholars had between them eked out just two paragraphs. King’s introduction, her first published words on the Gospel of Mary, spanned two pages. It was clear, even then, that she saw prior interpretations as severely wanting. The Gospel of Mary, she argued, was nothing less than a “head-on” attack on “orthodox positions that deny the validity of esoteric revelation and reject the authority of women to teach.”

As King saw it, debates over women’s spiritual authority were as contentious in the ancient world as they were in her own time. The Catholic catechism barred women’s ordination because “the Lord Jesus chose men to form the college of the twelve apostles, and the apostles did the same when they chose collaborators to succeed them.” The New Testament was even more proscriptive. “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet,” the apostle Paul decrees in his First Epistle to Timothy. Paul says that women will be saved by childbearing, so long as they maintain “self-control.” If women have questions, he writes in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, “let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.”

The Gospel of Mary told a decidedly different story, and King would spend years mining its fragmentary pages for clues to its origins and meaning. She presented her findings in a breakthrough 2003 book, The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle. The Gospel of Mary, she argued,

presents a radical interpretation of Jesus’ teachings as a path to inner spiritual knowledge; it rejects his suffering and death as the path to eternal life; it exposes the erroneous view that Mary of Magdala was a prostitute for what it is—a piece of theological fiction; it presents the most straightforward and convincing argument in any early Christian writing for the legitimacy of women’s leadership; it offers a sharp critique of illegitimate power and a utopian vision of spiritual perfection; it challenges our rather romantic views about the harmony and unanimity of the first Christians; and it asks us to rethink the basis for church authority. All written in the name of a woman.

The Gospel of Mary, in other words, challenged almost everything modern Christians took for granted about their faith, from the meaning of Jesus’s death to the basis of the Church’s legitimacy. It was no accident that the longest chapter in King’s book bore the magisterial title “The History of Christianity.” As a young scholar in the 1980s, King had seen the Gospel of Mary through a pinhole, as a critique of the leadership of Peter and Andrew. The longer she sat with its pages, however, the more they opened up to her. She saw them now as the other side of a rancorous debate over gender in the early church—a fight that took place before men monopolized control, a fight that might well have gone the other way. King argued that Mary was a contemporary of some of the twenty-seven books that would make the New Testament, and not—as most scholars believed—a late second-century reaction to them. It was a daringly original argument. No one had interpreted Mary this way, King wrote, “until now.”

*

King’s trailblazing instincts traced in part to her childhood amid the soaring mountains of southwest Montana. She’d grown up riding horses and trailing cattle in a valley ringed by abandoned gold and silver mines with names like Smuggler, Paymaster and Lucky Strike. The road through Sheridan—a no-stoplight, seven-hundred-person town an hour’s drive south of Butte—is still known as the Vigilante Trail, after the citizens’ committee that brought frontier justice to the masked highwaymen who terrorized prospectors during Montana’s 19th-century gold rush.

“She was someone who loved to go up in the Rockies on a horse and camp for days,” recalled Robert Berchman, a graduate school classmate at Brown University. “The idea of striking out on your own and achieving your goals—whether it was trekking through grizzly country for three days and coming out alive—that was part of Karen’s character.” Asked who the “grizzlies” were in his metaphor, Berchman said, “Anyone sitting in the audience who was listening to your paper and was going to come after you.”

“I was raised to think that emotions were irrational,” Karen King once said. Montana had “a very cowboy ethic,” and part of it was, “Show no vulnerability.”

*

The best-known private collectors of biblical manuscripts were early 20th-century business tycoons: Alfred Chester Beatty was a mining magnate known as the King of Copper; Charles Lang Freer, a railroad baron; J. Pierpont Morgan, a Wall Street financier. They had the riches to compete with a syndicate of European universities and museums, known as “the papyrus cartel,” for the most exhilarating finds. The hunt for ancient copies of the Bible reaped American-style publicity, with colorful details that evoked the era’s stereotypes about the exotic East. “Words of Christ, Lost 1,300 Years,” declared a banner headline in a 1908 issue of a Chicago newspaper. “Charles L. Freer Tells the Story of His Great Find in Egypt’s Sands: How a Moslem Arab Who Made the Wonderful Find Let Him into the Secret and How the Purchase Was Completed After Secret Conferences and Tedious Negotiations—Manuscript Is More Valuable than the One Held Sacred in British Museum.”

The twenty-first century produced a new breed of collector: wealthy evangelical Christians. Robert Van Kampen, a multimillionaire investment banker, and Steve Green, the billionaire president of the Hobby Lobby craft store chain, stockpiled large caches of Christian manuscripts in hopes of proving the Bible’s God-given inerrancy across the ages.

As best as King could tell, her email correspondent belonged to neither camp. “A complete stranger,” King said of him in August 2012, when I began reporting a story on the papyrus for Smithsonian. (The magazine, published by the Smithsonian Institution, had learned of her discovery a few weeks before her announcement in Rome.) I had hoped to interview the collector for my article or to at least learn more about his background. But King couldn’t oblige. The man, she said, did not want to be identified.

Her colleagues were naturally curious about the fragment’s origins, but King was by no means the first scholar to defer to a private collector’s wishes. Though the world of manuscript collecting had its publicity seekers, it also had its more reclusive habitués—hobbyists with smaller budgets, more idiosyncratic tastes and no interest in press. There was no single “type” among these amateur collectors, according to the Christian manuscript scholar Brent Nongbri, but at least a few were people, often with some academic training, who savored the idea of owning “a little bit of the past.”

A challenge for historians of antiquity wasn’t just how few ancient manuscripts survived but how little remained of those that did.

Where this man lived, what he did for a living, his nationality— King wasn’t free to say. But she had no reason to suspect he was hiding anything. In her very first email to him, she had asked about the papyrus’s provenance, or ownership history. Knowing where an antiquity came from—and whose hands it had passed through—helped scholars determine whether it was legally obtained and genuinely ancient. The man responded within a few hours: he had purchased his papyri from a German American man in the 1990s; the German American, in turn, had acquired them in communist East Germany in the 1960s. Where the papyri were before the 1960s the collector didn’t seem to know. But few papyri, even those in museums, could be traced with any certainty to the patch of desert where some fellah first plucked them from the sand. And the stories of discovery that Egyptian antiquities dealers retailed to Western buyers in the early 20th century? Scholars are now of a mind that most were tall tales, hatched by dealers to deter customers from bypassing middlemen and going straight to the source. What mattered in the eyes of the law and academic ethics was that antiquities were in Western hands before new international restrictions in the 1970s on the export of cultural artifacts from their lands of origin. To judge by the collector’s paperwork, the papyri were in Germany no later than the early 1960s, which put King well in the clear.

*

A challenge for historians of antiquity wasn’t just how few ancient manuscripts survived but how little remained of those that did. Papyrus was a brittle medium, made from the flattened, sun-dried stalks of a flowering sedge native to the Nile. For a codex to stay intact for hundreds of years, even in a climate as arid as Egypt’s, would be extraordinary. Oxygen, insects and the ravages of time visited slow but inexorable destruction. Most papyri in collections today were so decrepit that they looked less like the pages of a book than like continents on a map, with rugged coastlines, odd peninsulas and plunging straits. Scholars needed to draw on deep wells of learning to propose restorations of missing text. The itch to get creative—not just by filling gaps, but by “correcting” the surrounding text in ways that make a manuscript more exciting—can grow so strong that the late American papyrologist Herbert Youtie coined a dictum. Known as Lex Youtie, Latin for “Youtie’s Rule,” it advises, “Iuxta lacunam ne mutaveris,” or, roughly, “Next to a hole, thou shalt not edit.”

The papyri that called to King were often Christianity’s most damaged and cryptic—the ones whose holes, or lacunae, posed the knottiest tests of intellect and erudition. For her doctoral dissertation at Brown, she deciphered a Nag Hammadi text called Allogenes, or “The Stranger.” It survived in a single Coptic manuscript so mangled that many scholars saw it as too fragmentary to properly interpret. King wrested from its incomplete pages a universal story of a soul’s alienation and redemption. The protagonist, an anonymous figure called the Stranger, “represents every person who is not at home in the world,” King wrote.

Its twist—about Mary Magdalene as Jesus’s wife and disciple—redeemed the wrongly maligned Magdalene twice over; challenged Church teachings on priestly celibacy and women’s leadership; and filled one of the biggest holes in gospel accounts of Jesus’s life.

The full text of the Gospel of Mary was no less elusive. Ten of its nineteen pages—including the first six and middle four—were missing. The surviving nine were strewn with archipelagoes of lacunae. But enough remained for King to summon what she called a “Christianity lost for almost fifteen hundred years.” When someone at a public lecture asked whether she thought of herself as a “treasure hunter”—an Indiana Jones who scoured the outback for talismans—King demurred. “The metaphor that probably comes closer,” she said, is “puzzle figure-outer, a solver of mysteries.”

*

The gapped English translation in the collector’s July 2010 email to King was itself a kind of riddle:

me not. For my mother she gave to me the
( ) The disciples said to Jesus this ( )
( ) abdicate, Mary be worthy of you (not)
( ) Jesus said this to them: My wife (and)
( ) she can become a disciple to me and
No man who is wicked, is he? SIC!
I exist within her, because ( )
( ) a ( )

The “SIC!” signaled that someone had found an error in the sixth line, but whether the fault lay in the translation or in the original Coptic was unclear. If the rest of the translation was accurate, however, the collector’s hunch looked right: the papyrus appeared to concern a dispute between Jesus and the disciples over someone named “Mary.”

But which Mary? The name belonged to nearly a quarter of the Jewish women in Palestine between 330 B.C. and A.D. 200, according to the Israeli historian Tal Ilan. In the New Testament gospels, the ratio was more lopsided still: six of the sixteen named women were Marys, and at least two of them, Jesus’s mother and Mary Magdalene, were close to Jesus. To narrow the field, one needed texts showing fights over a Mary, and these occurred in just one place: the Gnostic gospels. No fewer than three Gnostic texts depicted conflicts over a woman by that name, and in each case that woman was Mary Magdalene. Among them, only the Gospel of Mary portrayed an all-out row over Magdalene, but Jesus isn’t present for it. Not in the surviving pages. Could the quarrel at the end have had a prologue? Could the collector’s papyrus be a piece of it? King had long believed that Mary’s lost pages would one day surface, and for a simple reason: the codex that Carl Reinhardt purchased in Cairo a century earlier was in reasonably good shape. One theory was that its missing pages had simply decomposed over the preceding 1,500 years. But another struck King as more likely: modern antiquities dealers, she believed, had probably sold the pages piecemeal, in a misguided effort to maximize profits. “These missing leaves of the Gospel of Mary probably still are extant,” King told a Northern California audience in October 2003, during a four-hour seminar on the gospel, one of several she led for the public in those years.

“Maybe they’re sitting in somebody’s drawer somewhere,” she said, nodding at the audience. “And they may not even know what they have.”

*

How could the collector have missed the translation’s most striking line? Why had his first email pointed to “an argument about Mary,” rather than the showstopping “Jesus said this to them: My wife”? It didn’t matter. The fragment distilled all the themes King found most compelling in the Gospel of Mary, then went them one better. Its twist—about Mary Magdalene as Jesus’s wife and disciple—redeemed the wrongly maligned Magdalene twice over; challenged Church teachings on priestly celibacy and women’s leadership; and filled one of the biggest holes in gospel accounts of Jesus’s life. It was the missing link between texts King had spent decades writing and talking about. She made up her mind before so much as translating the fragment herself: Coptic Papyrus 02-11 was a modern forgery.

But something soon changed. A year after deciding the fragment was a fake, King travelled to Rome to announce the discovery of what she called a long-lost scripture. In a room overlooking the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, she told an audience of elite scholars that she had already given the scrap of papyrus a name.

“I dubbed it—just simply for reference purposes—‘The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.’”

__________________________________

Ariel Sabar, Veritas

From Veritas by Ariel Sabar. Used with the permission of Doubleday Books. Copyright © 2020 by Ariel Sabar.

Ariel Sabar
Ariel Sabar
Ariel Sabar is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Harper's Magazine, The Washington Post, and many other publications. He is the author of My Father's Paradise: A Son's Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award.





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