Of Gnostics and Religion Professors

Of Gnostics and Religion Professors

The Gospel of Jesus Wife papyrus

In September, Harvard Divinity School professor Karen King ignited an international controversy when she claimed to have found a piece of what she claims is a fourth-century papyrus that refers to Jesus’ “wife”.[1] (To be fair, she doesn’t claim that she believes that Jesus was married, only that whomever wrote the scroll believed He was. Of course, most of the media coverage didn’t make the fine distinction and played it up as evidence that orthodox Christianity was wrong and/or hiding the truth.) There’s been plenty of criticism of King and her claim and even the way she went public about it.

However, on Sunday the Boston Globe–which was one of the few media outlets that King and Harvard went to for an exclusive on the papyrus in September– did a profile of King and her background.

What I find interesting in the profile is how King–an Episcopalian raised as a Methodist and now a professor of religion who was one of the founders of the women’s studies department at Harvard–views what many of us consider heretical–or at least heterodox–beliefs in the past and today.

King began to consider how this insight might apply to the Nag Hammadi literature and other ancient Coptic texts discovered since the late 1800s, which included prayers, revelations, and teachings of Jesus that ultimately did not make it into the New Testament canon in later centuries. The “Gospel of Mary of Magdala,” for example, presents Mary Magdalene as Jesus’ favorite disciple and has her relating a strange vision she alone received from him.

All these texts had been lumped together as “heretical” or “Gnostic.” King began to argue that those labels were misnomers. When the texts were written, there was no such thing as orthodox Christianity — or Gnosticism, she argued. There were only tiny communities of a minority faith, scattered across the ancient Mediterranean, each caught up in their own political and cultural realities, and struggling to make sense of Jesus’ teachings and death.

“I started seeing that the lines that were being drawn between orthodox or correct Christianity and heretical Christianity couldn’t be drawn that way,” she said. “I had to step back and start sort of fresh and say, ‘What are the similarities and differences among [ancient] Christians, and how might we account for them, in terms of them belonging to this place?’ ”

King argued that these texts should be seen as part of the story of Christianity, not as distortions of a complete belief system articulated by the Gospels and handed down by the fathers of the early church. She contends that the early history of Christianity needs to be rewritten to include these previously marginalized voices, taking into account how “a limited set of perspectives has shaped what people believe.”

From a liberal Protestant perspective this makes perfect sense. When you reject the authority of the Church, then who’s to say what is authoritative or orthodox? The decisions on canon, for example, are just arbitrary. History is written by the victors and orthodoxy is determined by those who hold hierarchical power. From there, it’s just a matter of deciding what you want to consider is authoritative.

However, from a traditional Catholic Christian perspective, this doesn’t make any sense because, of course, there was an authority in the ancient world that wasn’t just based on powerful sects, but on the office of apostle starting with those directly appointed by Christ and then by their descendants. We believe that the Holy Spirit protects and guides the Church, especially in this case with the understanding of what is inspired by Spirit and what isn’t and thus what is canon and what isn’t. but once Luther and Calvin and the rest threw out the authority of the Church, then the logical consequence is to throw out that which was decided by the Church.

It’s also a case of reading into the past the biases and categories of our present ideologies. The fact that King is a liberal academic–which we know from her background–influences her mindset. This happens across the academic humanities disciplines, so that, for example, literary critics turn Jane Austen into a 20th-century feminist or ancient Gnostics into liberal Protestants. I’ve even seen an anti-Catholic fundamentalist turn Anabaptists, Maniecheans, and Gnostics into orthodox Christians so that he could trace his splinter of Protestantism back to the apostles without having to acknowledge that indeed had split from the Catholic Church.

So when liberal academics like King or Elaine Pagels or the like attach some equal significance to some scrap of payprus that any random person could have jotted down that they do to the Gospel of Mark[2], it shouldn’t surprise us because they’re just being consistent with their overall approach to faith, religion, and the world.

Photo from Harvard Divinity School and Karen King 2012.

  1. “Historian’s finding hints that Jesus was married”, The Boston Globe, September 19, 2012  ↩


  3. It’s like someone in the year 3812 finding a scrap of page from The DaVinci Code and concluding from it that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene.  ↩