ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
What to make of a scrap of Scripture from the fourth century, an ancient papyrus fragment in the Coptic language of Egypt in which it is evidently written: Jesus said to them, my wife - the fragment breaks off there, but later it says - she will be able to be my disciple? This is what a Harvard professor of religion - Karen King - found when she studied the piece of papyrus, which she says was bought several years ago by a collector who wants to remain anonymous.
Does it suggest a previously unknown Gospel, or does it suggest that early Christians, at least in Egypt, believed that Jesus was married? We're going to ask another prominent scholar of early Christianity, who's been a co-author of a work together with Professor King, Professor Elaine Pagels of Princeton. Welcome to the program.
ELAINE PAGELS: Thank you. It's good to be here.
SIEGEL: And first, assuming the authenticity of this papyrus, how much does that content change our understanding of the early Christian view of Jesus and his marital status?
PAGELS: Well, it's always fascinating to find even a scrap of new evidence about the early Christian movement, and what it reminds us is that actually, we have now a huge body of information, over 50 texts, that come from early followers of Jesus and the Christian movement in the first couple of centuries - many secret Gospels. And we have a great deal of information we never knew before all of this is published in the last few decades. This, however, is a tiny scrap, and, you know, we don't know what it was part of. What is part of a Gospel? It's easy to overplay that.
SIEGEL: We should say that Professor King has been at pains to say that it does not provide evidence that Jesus was married right there.
PAGELS: It doesn't. What it does suggest is that apparently, there were stories going around that he may have been, or it may also suggest that Jesus is using a symbolic language as he is in other Gospels that we know of from the second century, like the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Philip. Now, the Gospel of Thomas has Jesus speak about my mother, the Holy Spirit. And so he's not talking about Mary of Nazareth. He's talking about it symbolically, right? And the Gospel of Philip speaks of Mary Magdalene as his close companion but also suggests that she represents divine wisdom or the Holy Spirit, which all have feminine gender in Hebrew and also Syriac and Greek.
SIEGEL: So in this case, my wife, as in Judaism, the Sabbath is very often a bride, it's a metaphor.
PAGELS: It very well could be. Paul, for example, in the year 50 talked about the church as the bride of Christ. So we don't know. The Gospel of Philip does speak of her that way.
SIEGEL: How canonized was early Christian thought that is - could there have been outlying congregations of Christians who held very unusual beliefs as late as the fourth century?
PAGELS: We actually think that's the case because it's amazing, you know, when you think about it that the early Christian movement thrived for over 300 - practically 400 years before there was any canon of the New Testament, and many people were using different sources. You know, they were - we know that many used the Gospel of Matthew. We know that lots used the Gospel of John. We know that the Gospel of Thomas was just as widely read as the Gospel of Matthew. And one of those - of course, Matthew is in the New Testament, and the other one isn't.
So, yes, it seems like there was a great diversity, and it was to curb that diversity that that Constantine and the bishops who worked with him created a canon of what they said was the authorized books and called the rest heretical books.
SIEGEL: Let's take the papyrus fragment at its most - at its potentially most sensational, which was that it was believed that Jesus was married and that there was a female disciple. Wouldn't that suggest that the suppression of that thread of Christianity was done pretty early that it doesn't show up more in Christian writing?
PAGELS: Well, interestingly, as you put it, I mean, if you look at the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip and other ancient Christian writings. which have recently been discovered that is recently within the last 50 years, they already make that suggestion that Jesus had a woman disciple. Her name was Mary Magdalene that she was a major disciple and very close to Jesus. That's where Dan Brown took off and landed into fictional territory, turning her into the wife and - of Jesus and the mother of his child. None of that is suggested here. But that he had women disciples is definitely part of tradition that was rejected.
SIEGEL: Well, Professor Pagels, thank you very much for talking with us.
PAGELS: Thank you.
SIEGEL: Elaine Pagels, professor of religion at Princeton University, talking about the news out of Harvard of a scrap of papyrus in which Jesus alludes to his wife.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.