What Do We Really Know About Jesus?

This past September, Harvard University professor Karen King unveiled a newly discovered Gospel fragment that she entitled “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.” This wisp of a papyrus has stirred up a hornet’s nest and raised anew questions about what we can know about the historical Jesus of Nazareth, and about whether there are other Gospels outside the New Testament that can contribute valuable information. Few questions could be more timely, here in the season that celebrates Jesus’ birth.

The fragment is just a scrap—the size of a credit card—written in Coptic, the language of ancient Egypt. It contains only eight broken lines of writing, but in one of these Jesus speaks of “my wife.” Conspiracy theorists immediately leaped on the news as if it were a revelation from on high and claimed that it vindicates the views of Jesus’ matrimonial state set forth by that inestimable authority, Dan Brown, in The Da Vinci Code. Conservative Christians cried “foul” and insisted that such an insignificant piece of papyrus proves nothing. King and her colleagues have taken the middle ground and argued that since the fragment is to be dated to the fourth Christian century, some 300 years after Jesus and any of his relatives passed from the scene, it can tell us what later Christians believed about Jesus, but not what actually happened during his life.

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