The Gospel of Primordial Androgyny

The international press is buzzing with news of a purporte

d ancient Coptic fragment in which Jesus speaks of “my wife.” Professor Karen L. King of Harvard University announced the existence of a tiny piece of papyrus on September 18, 2012, at the 10th International Congress of Coptic Studies, held at the Vatican’s Institutum Patristicum Augustinianum in Rome. Sensationalistic headlines immediately filled the front pages of press organs like Reuters and the BBC. Initially, coverage left out the fact that most of the scholars in attendance at the Congress, major authorities, were either skeptical or outright dismissive of the fragment’s authenticity. (For more on this, see Daniel B. Wallace, “Reality Check”.)

Misogyny and negative beliefs about sexuality and marriage undoubtedly afflict many Christian theologians, and defensive polemics are marring some of the responses of certain respected New Testament scholars active in the blogosphere. But the real grounds for suspicion of the new fragment have to do with questions concerning Coptic syntax, ink, orthography, and especially the publicly undisclosed provenance of the fragment. Is this Harvard fragment a modern, twentieth-century forgery, or a genuine artifact of ancient Egypt? Only carbon-14 testing—and no amount of polemics—will be able to settle that question. In the meantime, however, there is room to critically assess some of the other claims made about the content of the fragment.

To her credit, Professor King has been clear that the fragment in question does not constitute historical evidence that Jesus was married. However, reports continue to insist that it is our first evidence that some early Christians believed that Jesus had been married; that’s the assumption I want to take issue with. First, scholars have long known of an early reference to a wife of Jesus, which can be found in a document whose authenticity cannot be called into question: the Heiland, a fully orthodox gospel harmony, apparently commissioned by the Munster bishop Liudger, composed ca. 840 CE, in the Werden monastery, near Essen in present-day Germany.

The Heiland explicitly calls Mary Magdalene “the wife” in the context of her meeting with Jesus after his resurrection: “And straightway she came closer, the wife (uuib), with good will, and recognized her savior himself. In her love (minnia) she could not refrain, but with her hands she longed to hold him, the woman (fehmia) to touch the World-Lord.” (lines 5929-5932) These lines parallel the Gospel of John 20:15-17. Admittedly, the Old Saxon uuib, like the modern German Weib or Frau, can mean both “woman” and “wife,” but so can the Sahidic Coptic hime, which can also mean “woman” and “wife,” or the ancient Greek term gyne.

That Professor King takes “my wife” as conclusive evidence that the text reflects an ancient belief that Jesus was married is, in my judgment, unwarranted. While the Heiland refers to Mary Magdalene as “the wife,” obviously meaning Jesus’ wife, the Harvard papyrus contains but a sentence fragment that ends with the words “my wife,” in Sahidic Coptic, ta-hime. The phrase is grammatically clear in Coptic, since “my” in the Harvard text obviously implies that the woman specified is a spouse. But the words “my wife” are by no means unambiguous semantically or theologically. Indeed, those theological and semantic vagaries can lead in other, fascinating directions, far beyond the simple male-female reading of marriage in this case.

In the ancient Syro-Palestinian Gospel of the Hebrews, Jesus speaks of “my mother, the holy spirit.” This conception of the holy spirit as a feminine entity is based in part on the fact that in Hebrew and Aramaic the words for “spirit,” ruh and ruha, are grammatically feminine. Already in pre-Christian Jewish sources, such as the Book of Wisdom 1:6-7, there is a certain degree of synonymous overlap between the holy spirit and the Tanakh’s Lady Wisdom (see Proverbs 8), a feminine supernal entity who was present with God, assisting in the work of creation (see Sirach 24 and Wisdom 7 for later Jewish hymns to Lady Wisdom based on Proverbs 8’s depiction).

The notion of a personified feminine divine Wisdom frequently appears in Jewish literature (Proverbs 8, Sirach 24, Wisdom 7, Baruch 3-4), often in the role of an erotic lover or wife. So it is a distinct possibility that Jesus could be referring to Lady Wisdom or to the holy spirit as his wife, rather than to any human woman. Later Jewish kabbalistic texts depict the feminine divine Shekhinah, who coincides with Lady Wisdom and the holy spirit, as both the spiritual mother and spiritual wife of male kabbalists. If the Harvard fragment is not a modern forgery, then its reference to “my wife” might give us an early anticipation of the later-attested Jewish mystical idea of the spiritually erotic Shekhinah as supernal spouse of kabbalists. Although we can’t verify any of this from current evidence, it’s an intriguing possibility.

The Harvard fragment might also possibly reflect a belief that held Mary Magdalene to be an earthly instantiation of celestial Lady Wisdom, a belief that can be seen in the Gospel of Thomas, as I argue in a monograph currently under review by T&T Clark. It is simply impossible to know this one way or the other, given the fragmentary nature of the Harvard document or its author’s (or forger’s) intentions. But the text of the fragment does parallel various passages of the Nag Hammadi Gospel of Thomas in interesting ways, specifically sayings 101 and 114.

The Harvard fragment’s “my mother gave me life” is virtually the same statement we find in Thomas saying 101, “but my true mother gave me life.” Jesus seems to be making an allusion to the holy spirit as his mother, just as we find in the Gospel of the Hebrews. The saying teaches that those who do not hate their father and mother as Jesus does, and who do not love their father and mother as Jesus does, will not be able to become his disciple. Since in the Harvard fragment this statement is soon followed by the declaration that Mary Magdalene will be able to become Jesus’ disciple, this raises the possibility that the newly unveiled Coptic papyrus, if authentic, could presuppose the idea that any woman, and not Mary Magdalene exclusively, who performs God’s will and thus becomes Jesus’ disciple, can be called Jesus’ spiritual wife.

In this scenario, the Harvard text’s “my wife” could be a semantically collective singular, just like Thomas 99’s “my mother,” as in “these are my brothers and my mother.” The Harvard fragment’s “my wife” seems to be followed by “and,” which is curious. But if the fragment is based on Thomas, it may have taken Thomas 99’s “and my mother,” and substituted “my mother” with “my wife.” Then the fragment’s author would have placed “and” after, rather than before, the possessive pronoun and noun, leaving us with “my wife and.” One could theoretically fill out the fragment as follows: “my wife and my mother are my disciples.” That is to say, whoever does God’s will is Jesus’ spiritual wife, mother, and brothers.

Perhaps a more complete text could have read, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife and my mother the holy spirit,’” which would then be somehow cognate to the Gospel of the Hebrews’ “My mother, the holy spirit.” Since such allegorical or spiritualising interpretations are at least possible, it seems premature for Professor King to jump to the conclusion that the Harvard fragment constitutes clear evidence for early-Christian belief that Jesus was married in the usual sense. To be fair, King admits the possibility of marriage in an allegorical sense, but she does not find it probable.

The Gospel of Thomas can also take us beyond allegorical, spiritual marriage, to something more complicated and mystical. Saying 114 gives us a possible understanding of Jesus as a New Adam and Mary Magdalene as a New Eve, who together constitute the eschatological androgyne, a sort of re-instantiation of the primal androgyny of Genesis. The Lesser and Greater Questions of Mary (Magdalene), secret books referred to disparagingly by the church father Epiphanius (Pan. 26.8.2-3), reference this idea memorably. They record that the resurrected Jesus meets Mary, and out of Jesus’ side emerges a woman: “Jesus granted to Mary a revelation, took her aside to the mountain, and prayed, and from his side he brought forth a woman with whom he began to unite, and taking his efflux he demonstrated that ‘we must do this so that we may live.’ When Mary fell to the ground shocked, he lifted her up again and said to her once more: ‘Why did you doubt, O you of little faith?’” The importance for present purposes of this exotic sexual narrative is that it portrays Jesus as the Adamic androgyne of Genesis, a primordial human created in the divine “image” and “likeness,” which is simultaneously male and female, according to Genesis 1:26-27, and who is therefore bi-sexual or androgynous.

Intriguingly, the Harvard fragment’s eighth line, which follows material similar to Thomas 114, contains the Coptic word for “image,” hikon, a loanword from Greek eikon. Thomas 114 also contains the word eine, which in Coptic translations of Genesis 1:26-27 bears the meaning, “likeness.” Thomas sayings 83-84 contain both terms of the same Genesis verses, namely, “image” and “likeness.” Again, if it is not a forgery, the Harvard text’s “image” in line eight might offer supportive evidence for the argument that the traditions underlying Thomas 114 deal with the primordial androgyne.

Finally, a word on the tradition of a celibate Jesus, which was, incidentally, transferred from Christian belief into Islam. I would like to note that Jesus’ discussion of celibacy in Matthew 19:12 is set within a larger context that deals with the question of divorce and intentional, religiously motivated separation from spouses, which may entail temporary as well as permanent arrangements. Professor King claims that the earliest evidence for the belief that Jesus had been a celibate was from church father Clement of Alexandria, but it was actually Paul in 1 Corinthians 7. This text, too, treats the question of celibacy within the context of a discussion of divorce. This opens up the possibility, which of course cannot be confirmed by the present state of evidence, that Jesus may have once been married, and later either divorced or separated from his wife in order to pursue a prophetic mission.

This explanation could possibly reconcile the apparent divergence between the traditions concerning Jesus’ marriage as expressed in Dr. King’s reading of the Harvard fragment and in the Heiland; and the tradition of celibacy, as insisted upon by early ecclesiastical authors and implied in Matthew 19 and 1 Corinthians 7. Both positions could be correct, yet each may be applicable for only limited periods of time during Jesus’ life.

As I have already emphasized, all of this must remain pure speculation, given the dearth of available evidence. However, I hope I have shown through those speculations that it is impossible on the basis of extant evidence to say for sure whether or not the historical Jesus may have been married, or even whether early Christians believed that he was. The range of possible interpretations based on existing texts—allegory, spiritual collective, androgynous primordial union—are so much more interesting anyway.

Dr. Zinner’s work on the Harvard fragment is necessarily a work in progress. For more complete thoughts, please visit his website.

Dr. Samuel Zinner, associate member of the international scholarly consortium Metaxu Research is a multidisciplinary scholar who specializes in Holocaust and genocide studies, linguistics, philosophy, literature, and comparative mysticisms. He is a contributor to German Scholars and Ethnic Cleansing, an American Library Association “Choice Outstanding Academic Book of the Year Award” in 2005; and author of The Gospel of Thomas in the Light of Early Jewish, Christian and Islamic Esoteric Trajectories. Zinner divides his time between Casablanca, Morocco and Italy.