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Jesus and Mary Magdalene:

A New Gospel Fragment Discovered

 

By Jonathan Sheen

 

The Liverpool Observer

 

19 April 2005

 

In what may eventually prove to be a serious challenge to traditional Christian ideas of the life of Jesus, scholars at Oxford University announced Tuesday the discovery of a previously unknown Gospel fragment among a collection of ancient Egyptian papyri.  The single papyrus sheet was found among the collection known as the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, a horde of ancient texts uncovered in Egypt in the last century.  The fragment contains dialogue between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, and the words spoken suggest something that can only come as a shock to mainstream Christians: that Jesus and Mary were husband and wife.

 

"A revelation of this kind, at this time, is beyond ironic," said Lisa Heist, project director at the Oxford Paleographic Center.  "It is uncanny."

 

Heist pointed to the great irony in the discovery's timing.

 

"There's recently been so much discussion in the popular culture of the possibility of Jesus having been married," she said.  "Of course it's because of The Da Vinci Code.  And now suddenly this text shows up.  It's really an amazing coincidence."

 

Heist refers to the international bestselling novel by Dan Brown in which part of the plot depends on the idea that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were actually married.  In the novel the characters discover a millennia-old conspiracy by the Catholic Church to cover-up the marriage.  The Vatican has denied the novel's claims as absurd and has even appointed a cardinal to address the book's many purported inaccuracies.

 

Now this already heated argument between the Vatican and fans of The Da Vinci Code finds new kindling in the work of classical scholars.   At issue are the contents of a single sheet of ancient papyrus.

 

"Of course as scholars of the ancient world our interests in the papyri are mainly academic," Heist said.  "Even so, it will be interesting to see how this particular find plays out in the religious and public domains."

 

The Gospel fragment in question has been in the Oxford papyrus collection for decades.  Until last month, however, it remained illegible.  The breakthrough which first allowed the text to be read came thanks to the innovative use of an infrared technology developed for satellite imaging.  Starting in 2004, specialists at Oxford have applied this new photographic technique to the task of illuminating texts on the ancient and often badly faded Oxyrhynchus Papyri.  The results, according to scholars, are nothing less than astounding.  In the case of many of the papyri found in Egypt, although the sheet itself survives, the traces of writing on it are no longer visible to the naked eye.  Under infrared light, however, things change dramatically.

 

"It's like finding the Holy Grail," said Alex Pelling of the new technology.   Pelling, Regius Professor of Ancient History at Oxford, predicts great strides forward in our understanding of the ancient world. 

 

"Because of this infrared technology, we will be able to increase our library of ancient literature by ten or twenty percent," he says.  "We've already discovered previously unknown texts by Archilochos, Sophocles and Lucian.  And now we've uncovered a new Gospel fragment."

 

Scholars describe how under the photographic technique lines of text almost "jump out" at them from what were previously blackened, tattered sheets.

 

"It's like shining a special light on invisible ink," Pelling says.  "One minute you see nothing.  The next minute you can actually read it aloud."

 

The Gospel fragment, known officially as Oxyrhynchus papyrus 3814, appears to record a discussion between Jesus and his onetime disciple Mary Magdalene, now become his wife.

 

Mary Magdalene is known from the biblical Gospels as a woman follower of Jesus and as the first person to see him resurrected from the dead.  Traditionally she was also said to be a former prostitute from whom Jesus drove out seven devils.  Modern scholarship has shown, however, that the tradition of Mary having been a prostitute is based on later church legends and not on any biblical text.

 

Michael Rorty, professor of New Testament Studies at the Bristol Theological Seminary, has a facsimile of the newly discovered Gospel fragment, and he is in no doubt as to its importance.

 

"It is unprecedented," he said.  "On the one hand it's indisputably ancient, on the other it's unlike anything else we've seen."

 

According to Rorty, the text presents what appears to be a record of part of the honeymoon taken by Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

 

"They are traveling by ship from island to island in the Aegean Sea," he said.  "The trip seems to be something like the ancient equivalent of our pleasure cruises.  Few details are given, but at each stop Mary is recorded as complaining about the food.  To her complaints, Jesus each time replies with the same words: 'Hold your peace, woman.  The time has not yet come.'  Finally the tension comes to a head when they reach Paros."

 

Rorty provides a tentative translation of this section of the text:

 

"I expected more from you," she said.  "This is not worthy of me.  It is not worthy of us."

     "Worthy of you?" he replied, stepping over to the balustrade and looking out over the moonlight dancing on the Aegean.  "If it weren't for me..."  But he didn't finish the sentence.

     "It's true you saved me," she said.  "But still.  These places we stay in.  And this food.  This was to be our honeymoon."

     "I suppose you think I'm not good enough for you then," he answered, turning back to her. 

     There was a bitterness in his tone she'd never heard before.  She saw the anger flash in his dark eyes as it did when he spoke of the Pharisees.

     "Just a carpenter's son from Galilee," he went on.  "Not quite worthy of Mary of Magdala.  I suppose you'd rather be with those seven devils I drove from you."

      "Yes, sometimes," she said, taking up the challenge.  "Sometimes I miss the devils.  At least they had a sense of humor.  At least they wouldn't mix their honeymoon with business.  At least with the devils I'd--"

     "You can go straight back to them!" he said, cutting her short.  "I have come to do my Father's work, and those who are not willing...." [here the text breaks]      

 

     "This kind of narrative," Rorty says, "is unprecedented in ancient literature.  Here we have an almost modern style brought to bear on this dialogue, one that shows a psychological depth in the characters we are not used to in ancient writing.  We can see the struggle between Jesus and his divine mission, on the one hand, and Mary Magdalene and her expectations from a young husband on the other."

 

Melanie Dowell, professor of Biblical Studies at Kent Theological Seminary, sees in the text an affirmation of Jesus' humanity. 

 

"The Church has always insisted that Jesus was both God and man," she said.  "He was in fact all God and all man.  This newly discovered Gospel fragment only demonstrates this in a new way.  Part of Jesus' complete humanity was his relationship with this woman, Mary."

 

The argument in Paros is not all the document contains.

 

"The next legible section of the text is fragmentary," Rorty says.  "It shows Mary and Jesus in an unidentifiable location, together on a boat with a fisherman.  Mary says something about Gaul, to which Jesus' reply is illegible.  Jesus then instructs the fisherman to toss the net into the sea, and the net is pulled up full of fish.  Each of the fish has a gold coin in its mouth.  Mary says that if it's so easy for Jesus to produce gold, then a honeymoon in Gaul should not have been beyond their means.  The next section of text is illegible, but finally it is recorded that Jesus gave 'the only remaining coin' to the fisherman."

 

Rorty continues: "The question of course arises as to what happened to the other gold coins from all the other fish.  Given the estimated length of the text that is illegible, it is my theory that Jesus threw them back into the sea, gold and all.  Of course we can't be sure here, but this may have been done as a form of protest against Mary's repeated talk about how a honeymoon in Gaul would have been better.  It seems Mary didn't like their honeymoon in the Aegean." 

 

Professor Heist of the Oxford Paleographic Center says that a scholarly version of the original text of this new Gospel fragment, along with an English translation, will be made available to scholars and the general public as soon as possible.  Professor Dowell agrees that the text is certain to lead to much debate and discussion.

 

"We have only begun to apply this new technology to reading the papyri," Professor Pelling says.  "Who knows what else remains to be read?"

 

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