On September 18, 2012, a group of international scholars gathered in a building across from the Vatican for an obscure academic conference on Egypt’s earliest Christians. The weeklong program looked much like those of years past, with highly specialized lectures on Egyptian linguistics, monastery libraries and the wills of abbots. But at 7:00 that evening, the conference lost any semblance of the ordinary. A senior Harvard University professor rose to the lectern to make an astonishing announcement, one that a select group of journalists was at that very moment transmitting across the globe: she had discovered an ancient scrap of papyrus with the power to convulse the Roman Catholic Church.
The professor, a fifty-eight-year-old historian named Karen King, was a well-known and deeply respected figure in the field of biblical studies. Harvard had recently promoted her to its Hollis Professorship of Divinity, the oldest endowed chair in America and one of the most prestigious posts in the study of Christianity. She was familiar to the public, too, as a best-selling author and TV commentator on the first centuries of the faith.
But the events of September 2012 would put her in a brighter—and crueler—spotlight than any she had known before. In a room over-looking the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, King told the audience of elite scholars that she had already given her discovery a name.
“I dubbed it—just simply for reference purposes—‘The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.’ ”
Nine months earlier, a middle-aged Florida man settled into a window seat in the first row of a midday Delta Air Lines flight to Boston’s Logan International Airport. In his luggage were four tattered scraps of papyrus, one of them small enough to fit in the palm of his hand.
When he arrived at Harvard Divinity School, Karen King gave him a tour of its Gothic grounds. A highlight, for the man, was a row of windows on the top floor of the theological library. The stained glass depicted a goblet-bearing woman, Cupid aiming an arrow, and a half-naked Jesus beneath riven skies—a peculiar patchwork of symbols from heraldry, classical myth and Christianity. He asked King’s permission to take photographs of inscriptions that loped across the tarot-like panels. “She didn’t quite know what it meant,” he thought. But he had a flair for language puzzles, and he took the liberty of reading some of it to her. The medieval German blackletter, an extravagant script, could confound the eye; but the words themselves were banal, just the names of the windows’ prosperous donors—husbands and wives, now long departed, from some towns near the Swiss-German border. He also answered her questions on a technical point of Middle Egyptian grammar.
He liked the feeling of knowing things she didn’t.
“I tremendously enjoyed my meeting with her,” the man would reflect later. “I feel that over the years we’ve almost become friends.” ACT 1
Do not be ignorant of me.
For I am the first and the last.
I am the honored one and the scorned one.
I am the whore and the holy one.
I am the wife and the virgin.
. . . I am control and the uncontrollable.
I am the union and the dissolution.
—The Thunder, Perfect MindSOLICITATIONS
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 Cop- tic,” 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.
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.
Copyright © 2021 by Ariel Sabar. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.