How prestigious evangelical scholars helped debunk the Jesus wife myth

Journalists hoped that the Jesus-wife story offered by feminist Karen King could be used to bash traditional Christianity, but it was later exposed as a forgery. A recent article by New Testament scholar Peter Williams has an after action report on the affair, and he explains why it was shot down so quickly.  (H/T Tweet from J. Warner Wallace)


Peter Williams of Tyndale House, Cambridge, follows through on a recent claim about Christ

On September 18, the news broke of a small fragment of papyrus purporting to record words of Jesus. It contained the striking phrase, ‘Jesus said to them, “My wife …”‘ and then the text breaks off at the right hand margin.

The scholar making the announcement decided that this credit-card-sized scrap was a ‘gospel’ and gave it the bold title ‘The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife’. The announcement was made simultaneously at an academic conference in Rome and through pre-arranged media channels by Karen King, Professor at Harvard Divinity School and holder of the oldest endowed chair in the USA. Dr. King said she was not at liberty to identify the owner and that the papyrus was of unknown geographical origin, but had spent time recently in Germany.

King claimed that the papyrus was from the fourth century, but that its content came from the second century. She was careful to state that this had nothing to do with the Jesus of history. Naturally, the media went into a frenzy and began to link it with debates about the ordination of women (BBC), or claimed it was ‘one of the most significant discoveries of all time’ (Smithsonian Channel, subsequently deleted), while Yahoo News led with the headline ‘Jesus had a wife, newly discovered gospel suggests’. The blogosphere and social media were wild with excitement, though some of the most sceptical realised that they were not at liberty to believe in the marriage of Jesus when they doubted his existence.

In my previous post about this, I talked about how Karen King is affiliated with the radical extremist liberal atheist Jesus Seminar group, how reputable scholars immediately found problems with the discovery, and how the mainstream media pushes these sensational discoveries because they have an agenda to discredit Christianity, and Judeo-Christian values. But this time I want to say something different, based on what Peter Williams says here:

[I]t’s noteworthy that British and British-educated scholars like Watson, Bernhard, and Goodacre mentioned above, along with evangelicals Simon Gathercole and Christian Askeland, played a significant role in exposing the problems with the manuscript and claims about it on blogs and in the media. Andrew Brown of The Guardian was commendably quick to notice and publish the doubts being raised.

It is worth reflecting on the progress here. Evangelicals now make up a significant proportion of those with the technical expertise to tackle a subject like this, and some of them had an intellectual firepower on the subject considerably exceeding that of the Harvard professor. I was contacted by Christians in touch with the media and was able to refer them to Simon Gathercole, a leading evangelical expert on apocryphal gospels. The rapid and informed response by Christians probably went a considerable way to deflating the story.

It is now well known by many who are not believers that there is a vigorous conspiracy-theory industry propagandising against the Christian faith. If Christians are seen as standing on history while others follow spin, even what seems like adverse publicity will ultimately end up glorifying God’s name.

I think that we have to understand as Christians that some Christians are more effective than others, because of their knowledge and skills. Instead of sort of going through life willy-nilly (doing whatever feels good, or whatever attracts more people to our church, or whatever makes more people accept us), and making excuses about why we are justified in not studying anything hard, maybe we need to focus more on what actually works. We need to ask ourselves “what actually works in order to honor God and defend his reputation?” and “what kind of knowledge is useful in a debate about the facts and evidence for and against Christianity?”

Belly-dancing for Jesus and poetry-writing for Jesus and worship-leading for Jesus are not as good for Jesus as astrophysics for Jesus or New Testament scholarship for Jesus or philosophy of religion for Jesus or even hedge fund management for Jesus (a job which can pay for many willing students to complete their Ph.Ds). That’s the way the world really works. The sooner we start making our decisions about what to study based the needs and feelings of God instead of the needs and feelings of man, the better off we will be. We need to be careful about spiritualizing our desire to be happy and calling our emotional hedonism “God’s mysterious will”. We have to do hard things, because doing hard things puts us in a position to be effective and influential when it counts.

We have to study things that don’t make us feel happy so that God will feel happy. God’s happiness doesn’t depend on whether we’re happy. Feeling happy is not how we serve God. Feeling happy is not as good for God as debunking lies about him with the authority that comes from studying the issues and knowing the evidence. God is happy when more people people acknowledge his existence, his actual character and his good actions in history. We need to choose to study things that can contribute to those goals. I think we just need to stop projecting our emotions and feelings onto God, and stop thinking that the point of life is for us to have happy feelings of well-being and health and peer-approval. That’s not Christianity, that’s just narcissism.

9 thoughts on “How prestigious evangelical scholars helped debunk the Jesus wife myth”

  1. I think you’re a little off here, WK. I appreciate the work these scholars have done, but not everyone could have done it and not everyone cares. In fact, most of the people I know in life, Christian and non-Christian alike, have never heard this story or have forgotten about it. But what they haven’t forgotten is how someone treated them, or that their prayers have gone unanswered, or what Hollywood is cramming down their throats.

    Whatever sphere we’re in, whether academic or blue collar or artistic or whatever, how we interact with people and how we live our lives and what we say has more direct impact on them than the latest archeological find and its brief stint in the news cycle.

    Being in different professional spheres allows Christians to have influence on the people in those spheres. If there were no Christian musicians, how could Christians influence other musicians, or people who enjoy music? There have been times when listening to a good Christian song has really helped me.

    Pure scientific/rational living is not all there is to the Christian life. I believe that Jesus does want us to be happy. He wants us to find our happiness IN HIM rather than our own selfish desires. But He does offer us an abundant life, and He does give each of us different gifts and different callings.

    The good work of scholars, working in their calling, benefits the rational defense of the faith. My good work as a filmmaker, working in my calling, benefits the culture. Both are necessary.


    1. The problem that was brought up in the article is a real one; there is absolutely not shortage of Christian musicians (I play keyboard at my church in fact). There are no shortage of Christians in all sorts of “media” positions. Most of the Christians I know tend to believe that the ideal Christian job is working in a church, “leading worship”. But there is nothing worshipful about being totally ignorant to Christianity, Christian Philosophy, or Christian History.

      These same people who are obsessed with “feeling God’s presence” or making a scene emotionally online or in person in church tend to not be able to defend their faith in the slightest. They can’t tell me when the Bible was put together as we know it today. They can’t name any of the disciples of the disciples. They refuse to talk about politics (because, they say, Christians should avoid divisive topics). They refuse to talk about morality (same reason). They can’t even identify their own theological stances.

      So long as this perverse and very modern ignorance continues, I would always advocate that Christians get into fields that require the strong use of the mind. I still don’t know exactly when, in the last century, Christians rejected intellectual endeavors, but I’m sick and tired of it. We have enough musicians, writers, etc. We need thinkers, and we need them desperately. We need scientists, philosophers, historians, mathematicians, programmers, etc. We need to stop believing that God requires the bare minimum from us intellectually and stop equating spirituality with emotionalism.


        1. @WK: Thank your or your kind words! This has long been a topic on my mind and I’ve really enjoyed your posts about it. I know lots of “hip”, “postmodern” “Christians” who mock WLC and others for making claims about objective reality but gush over new “Christian music” or some fiction writer who “redefines” something historical. The more Christians who do the task of thinking, the less influence these “Christians” will have. I use quotes, since their activities line up precisely with anti-Christian movements, so I am really not sure if they actually accept Christianity or simply seek to destroy it from the inside out.


      1. I apologize if I came across as anti-intellectual. Admittedly, I was reacting to WK’s bit at the end, not the article. I absolutely agree that there is a problem in the church. I am an artistic type, but I still try to read as much as I can about the rational arguments and defenses for Christianity and bring them into my conversations with people.

        I just read WK’s comment at the end as saying that Christians should abandon anything that isn’t a full-time scientific/rational pursuit. I apologize if I misinterpreted that, WK.


        1. I may have taken an extreme reading of what you wrote, so I apologize if that is not what you meant in response to the OP. I’m not really a pure artistic type, but I do tend that way sometimes, so I understand the value firsthand. I just think we are over-saturated at the moment with those who would really make much better thinkers, if only they decided to think.


  2. I enjoy art; I enjoy intelligent Christianity. It is unfortunate that we seem to be at opposites, sometimes. I am reminded of Jesus’ words in John 4 that one day, we will worship Him “in spirit [Spirit] AND in truth [Truth].” While these two things seem to be opposites (and can be inferred even in the above verse), I suggest that there be BALANCE with both elements.

    There are times where intellect has saved me from going over the edge, and there are times where I have needed to “feel good” about my relationship with the Lord. In fact, my “reduction verse” (where nothing else matters to the point of where I can only comprehend but one thread of my relationship to the Lord) is also found in the Gospel of John, Chapter 6, where Peter says to Jesus, “Lord, to Whom shall we go? You have [the] words of eternal life.” Therein lies both Truth and Spirit: Truth, in that THERE IS NO OTHER PLACE TO TURN, other than in the Lord, and His Son; Spirit, in that unless the Holy Spirit calls us, we will not come to Him.

    This is way oversimplified, but perhaps it helps tie in some of the loose ends of the excellent conversation I’ve seen so far.

    Peace to all!

    Eric in MN


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