Gender in Biblical Studies after the Forgery of The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife

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The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife (GJW) was announced in 2012, but was effectively declared “dead” in June 2016 when it was shown beyond doubt to be a modern forgery. This article, rather than discussing the content or authenticity of GJW, considers the role of gender in scholarly discourse on GJW. While conversation about GJW began as one would expect for a newly announced Gospel fragment, its subtext soon evinced preoccupations with gender in the field of biblical studies. Particularly troubling was the sexist intonation of scholarly discourse, which came to associate GJW and its advocates with “hyperfeminism” and deemed the fragment’s owner’s spouse an “eccentric wife.” This article is an effort to both describe the texture of scholarly discourse as well as identify factors contributing to the sexist discussion that ensued. These problems are representative of pervasive issues that are often ignored in the field of biblical studies.


The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife (GJW) was announced in 2012, but was effectively declared “dead” in June 2016 when it was shown beyond doubt to be a modern forgery. This article, rather than discussing the content or authenticity of GJW, considers the role of gender in scholarly discourse on GJW. While conversation about GJW began as one would expect for a newly announced Gospel fragment, its subtext soon evinced preoccupations with gender in the field of biblical studies. Particularly troubling was the sexist intonation of scholarly discourse, which came to associate GJW and its advocates with “hyperfeminism” and deemed the fragment’s owner’s spouse an “eccentric wife.” This article is an effort to both describe the texture of scholarly discourse as well as identify factors contributing to the sexist discussion that ensued. These problems are representative of pervasive issues that are often ignored in the field of biblical studies.

The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife (GJW) was the subject of scholarly controversy for roughly four years (2012-2016). GJW purported to be the latest in a series of highly publicized “sensational” announcements regarding early Christianity – following the James Ossuary (2002), the Gospel of Judas (2006), the Talpiot Tomb (2007), etc. The brief span of the document’s relevance was marked by special issues of prominent journals and several conference presentations, though GJW is now acknowledged to be a forgery as a matter of consensus.1 Despite the fact that the papyrus has been conclusively shown to be a modern fake, GJW warrants further discussion. This article will suggest that academic discourse on GJW proves revealing about gender issues in biblical studies. These problems pertain not only to gender within texts, but also the reception of gendered texts and gender norms within biblical scholarship. What began as respectful discourse on a new discovery quickly took on contentious subtexts about the role of gender in biblical studies more broadly. Talk of “eccentric wives,” “ugly sisters-in-law,” the dangers of “hyperfeminism,” and evidence of gendered condescension were highly visible in what purported to be academic discussion of a new discovery. From Karen King’s announcement of GJW’s ­discovery until revelation of its forgery, both she and GJW were objects of academic scorn that ranged from barely-concealed sexism to more subtle operations of patriarchy that attempted to delegitimize GJW. Some contended that these instances of sexism were further evidence that biblical studies continues to be a “boy’s club” despite occasional lip-service to feminism.

This article is not an analysis of GJW itself, but instead reflects upon the texture of scholarly discourse concerning GJW.2 The present article is not intended to be a “calling out piece” targeting scholars for personal sexism; rather than focus on the culpability of individual scholars, this article will instead identify salient issues regarding gender in biblical studies that extend beyond intent to systemic problems in the field.3 Not everyone who marginalized GJW is usefully designated “sexist,” nor are all who greeted the announcement of GJW usefully designated “feminist.”4 The interlocutors (like all of us) are socialized in a patriarchal context, which not only informed the values of individual scholars, but also shaped the very parameters of the conversation. Consequently, an effort will be made to avoid limiting focus to one or another subsection of the field (e.g., self-identified evangelicals), and address the field in as broad a manner as possible. This article concerns the ways in which “legitimate” scholarly knowledge – knowledge inextricable from patriarchal norms and discourses – operated in the GJW controversy. The present article thus attempts to ask with precision and render meaningful the question, “How do discussions of GJW reinforce the patriarchal culture of New Testament studies regardless of the scholar’s intent?”

The legitimation of patriarchy is caught up in the role of Jesus as a normatively authoritative figure within New Testament scholarship. Because Jesus is ascribed continuing significance by most New Testament specialists, Noam Chomsky’s characterization of academics as “experts in legitimation” would seem appropriate (Chomsky 1973); expertise on Jesus, the New Testament, and early Christianity entail expertise on very specific sources of authority.5 William Arnal and others have argued that Jesus continues to be a significant figure for contemporary identity-making, with implicit or covert agendas playing an important role in discussions about who Jesus really was or what really happened in early Christianity.6 We will see that conversation was therefore not so much a matter of GJW as a datum within the social history of Christianity, but concerned the normative implications of whether or not Jesus was married.

Discussion about GJW occurred primarily via digital media; the word count of blog posts far exceeds that of print content for GJW. It remains uncommon to rely upon scholars’ blog posts for ascertaining the academic status quaestionis on one or another issue, however. Blogs, while recognized as a helpful means of disseminating provisional thoughts to a wide audience, are largely understood to be a less important form of academic discourse. Against this common perception, James Crossley argues that blogs are a valuable source of data for those interested in academic discourse (Crossley 2008: 20-55; cf. Crossley 2012: 38-67). He notes that blogs are a space for scholars to articulate their opinions in a less guarded manner than in peer-reviewed articles or monographs. If scholars are “experts in legitimation,” the unguarded statements on these blogs might be understood as making explicit the politics that often lie implicit within their more “professional” publications. Sexist dis­cussion in a blog post may thus indicate something about the assumptions undergirding a scholar’s more professional writings, or even the assumptions implicit within widespread methods and theories. For ease of reference, all online material cited in this article has been collected at <>.

This article proceeds in four further sections. The first section provides a condensed overview of the GJW controversy with an eye toward subtexts on gender. If one is already familiar with these events, one may wish to skip this portion. The three following sections are preliminary attempts at making sense of this sequence of events and the issues it raises about New Testament scholarship as an academic field. The first of these sections will address scholarly reactions to the revelation of GJW as a modern forgery, the second will focus upon earlier efforts to discredit GJW, and the last will consider gendered knowledge in the study of early Christianity more broadly. These reflections are emphatically preliminary, as it will be suggested that the issues presented here are interconnected with other concerns requiring further conversation. This article is consequently less thesis-driven than it is exploratory and affective; it is an attempt to name complicated matters in need of redress (or at least consideration), rather than an effort to resolve such problems.

Overview of the GJW Saga

The story of the GJW is fascinating from beginning to end. Harvard Divinity School professor Karen King announced the discovery of a papyrus that recorded a previously-unknown Gospel at the International Congress of Coptic Studies on 18 September, 2012. The Gospel was highly fragmentary, but particularly noteworthy was a reference Jesus made to his “wife” and his insistence on her status as a “disciple.” After assembling a team of scholars and performing technical analyses, King suggested that the fragment was derived from a fourth-century translation of a second-century Greek Gospel that she named “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.” King was clear from the beginning that GJW “does not provide evidence that the historical Jesus was married” (King 2014: 131). King’s refusal to make too much about the historical Jesus from GJW’s depiction of Jesus’s marriage was representative of broader scholarly discussions: very few credentialed scholars suggested that GJW provided information about the historical Jesus’s marital status, despite the media frenzy.

Predictably, controversy ensued among scholars. Biblical studies blogs, a male-dominated realm of discussion, provided the most common platform for scholarly conversation and many participants were prepared to denigrate GJW from the moment of its announcement. Most remarked on its irrelevance for study of the historical Jesus, some questioned the validity of the label “Gospel,” others suggested it was a modern forgery, but very few were interested in what it might tell us about second-century Christianity.7 The conversation was sufficiently critical that even though King was slated to publish the text of GJW with commentary in Harvard Theological Review shortly after the announcement, HTR delayed publication to perform a series of tests in order to determine the Gospel’s authenticity with greater certainty.8 Even with encouraging test results, GJW prompted incredulity among commentators. Many doubters suggested that King’s feminism was overly convenient for GJW’s content; whether it was King seeing what she wanted to see in GJW or that her feminism allowed her to be duped by a forger, the mere presence of feminist discourse warranted suspicion.

In April 2014, Christian Askeland argued in a widely shared blog post that GJW must be a modern forgery because a fragment of the Gospel of John found with GJW was copied from a book published in 1924 (Askeland 2014a). Since GJW was produced by the same scribal hand and used the same ink as this copy of John, Askeland concluded that GJW must have been forged recently as well. All of this was fairly banal scholarly analysis and Askeland’s post was generally accepted as a compelling case for GJW’s forgery. What proved problematic was Askeland’s designation of the forged Gospel of John as “the ugly sister-in-law” of GJW: the “sister” manuscript of Jesus’s Wife was sloppy and thus “ugly.”9 While intended to be humorous, the metaphor drew criticism for its reliance upon sexist tropes. Eva Mroczek wrote:

While explanation tends to ruin humor, this joke was not particularly funny to begin with. But the issue here is not the convoluted attempt at cleverness; rather, it’s the sexist language – the use of an ugly woman as a metaphor for a sloppy, forged, worthless text… . To join a discussion where an “ugly woman” is the dominant metaphor feels uncomfortably familiar. It’s like walking into a frat party where all the men are making jokes about the ugly girl. A woman who wants to be part of the conver­sation has a difficult choice: she can push down her discomfort, distance herself from the “ugly woman,” accept that scrutinizing a woman’s ap­­pearance is normal, and join in. Or she can say something, and wait for the predictable responses: she’s oversensitive, she’s humorless, she’s always “bringing gender in.” (Mroczek 2014)10

Mroczek suggested that Askeland’s phrasing was not simply an instance of poor phrasing, but symptomatic of a sexist culture in biblical studies. Askeland responded by taking issue with Mroczek’s “feminist response” and attributed the forgery of GJW to “hyperfeminist sensibilities.” The incident was hardly isolated, as Caroline Schroeder (Schroeder 2017: 319) notes one particularly condescending dialogue that Leo Depuydt directed at King (Depuydt 2014a; 2014b). Depuydt composed a rejoinder to King’s HTR article in Comic Sans typeface, a font associated with preschools and kindergartens. Depuydt prefaced his rejoinder to King by explaining his font choice: “Bedtime story for the budding little grammarian (and for all those eternally young of spirit). Set in larger font to accommodate the unformed inquisitive mind.” Despite a resurgence of interest in GJW, the question of its authenticity was established as sufficiently doubtful that it did not warrant further analysis.

The question of GJW’s origins surfaced one final time in June 2016, when The Atlantic magazine published an article by Ariel Sabar that proved to be a bombshell of investigative journalism (Sabar 2016a). The owner of GJW was not publicly known until this point, because King honored their request for anonymity. The fragment’s owner was revealed to be a private individual named Walter Fritz. This would not be noteworthy, except that Fritz repeatedly misrepresented both his relationship to GJW and his knowledge of the Coptic language to both King and Sabar. Sabar presented reason to infer that Fritz was not only the owner of GJW, he was likely its forger as well. Fritz had previously enrolled in and dropped out of an Egyptology program that specialized in Coptic, despite his claims of ignorance about the language. At the very least, Sabar observed, “Fritz had the skills and knowledge to forge the Jesus’s-wife papyrus.” What might have led Fritz to forge GJW, assuming that he did so? Sabar met with Fritz and found Fritz’s wife claimed to practice “automatic writing,” which is described as method of channeling the messages of “her higher being and others.” Fritz went so far as to claim that she spoke in an unfamiliar language during these experiences, a language they believed to be Aramaic. Fritz and his wife therefore understood themselves to be in a unique position insofar as she was able to produce the words of God’s messengers – enough to warrant significant suspicion that they might compose a Gospel of their own. Fritz also expressed frustration with the canonical Gospels and believed Coptic and Gnostic Gospels to more reliably recollect the life and teachings of Jesus.

What proved most revelatory was Fritz’s fondness for Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code (2003), a novel that famously suggested Jesus married Mary ­Magdalene and fathered numerous children by her. The characters of Brown’s novel ascertained Jesus’s marriage through analysis of suppressed ancient documents, documents which revealed that the historical Jesus espoused a more positive view of women and sexuality than the Catholic Church had led its adherents to believe. Fritz himself was particularly invested in the link between Christian mysticism and sexual intercourse, as he commented that his wife first spoke “Aramaic” during sexual intercourse. Sabar also discovered that Fritz owned and operated multiple pornographic websites that featured his wife in acts of group sex, proclaiming her “America’s #1 slut wife.” Fritz even mingled “philosophical musings on the teachings of Jesus” midst the website’s reflections on “the perfection of sluthood.” This particular configuration of sacred sexuality recalls a major plot point in The Da Vinci Code: the Priory of Sion, the organization responsible for protecting the secret of Jesus’s marriage (and thus comprising the few people aware of his sexual activity), engaged in a ritual of group sex that allowed members to partake in mystical experiences. The matter of theology and sexuality was further complicated by Fritz’s allegation of molestation by a Catholic priest during his youth.

The distinctive constellation of discourses on the sacrality of sexuality, hidden knowledge, Coptic Christianity, anti-Catholic polemic, The Da Vinci Code, and Jesus’s marriage established beyond doubt that Fritz was GJW’s forger. Mere hours after The Atlantic published Sabar’s article, King determined that evidence now “presses the direction of forgery,” an unavoidable conclusion shared as a matter of consensus (cited in Sabar 2016b).11

“I Knew It Was Fake All Along”

The publication of Ariel Sabar’s article in The Atlantic was met with a variety of responses. Some scholars expected a mea culpa from Karen King or HTR, a few were stunned that a scholar with King’s prestige had been duped, but particularly widespread was a sense of vindication regarding earlier misgivings about GJW. Jim West, for instance, wrote, “The sad state of scholarship in America is such that academics actually need to be told to be skeptical of ‘new discoveries’ that support their idiosyncratic viewpoints. When you have to be told that, you should get out of scholarship and sell used cars” (West 2016). Less inflammatory were posts like that of Robert Mazza, who discussed unprovenanced antiquities and concluded by asking, “Now, my fellow academics, ask yourself once again: would you publish a papyrus without solid, documented provenance for a flashy appearance on the media and one more article out?” (Mazza 2016). Numerous other examples could be cited.

Rather than parsing whether or not these scholars’ suspicions were right all along, it is worth considering how such responses functioned rhetorically vis-à-vis the disciplinary knowledge of New Testament studies. Positioning one’s self as a GJW-skeptic on the basis of an agenda-free method works to contrast with King as a feminist who saw what she wanted to see. These responses thus impute a distinction between the neutrality of historical-critical biblical scholarship and the revisionist feminism attributed to King. That is, King was unable to see the problems with GJW due to her professional and ideological investment in its contents, whereas those more detached – having no particular sympathy for theorizing early Christian gender norms, feminist biblical interpretation, or Coptic Christian apocrypha – were able to assess the matter more “rationally.” Because feminist approaches are placed in counter-position with ostensibly neutral methods, it is clear that gender plays a role in the framing of the debate. Why was feminist scholarship consistently denigrated in conversations about GJW’s forgery? And how does feminist scholarship come to be understood as antithetical to neutral historiography?

To start, knowledge production in New Testament studies is deeply gendered, as is implicit in this distinction between historiographic neutrality and feminist revisionism. Mere observation that some believed Jesus was married is readily characterized as revisionist within this framework; ostensibly neutral academics practice scholarship from a more detached position with little investment in imagining Christianity apart from patriarchal gender norms. This neutral-revisionist binary assumes a prior distinction between masculine neutrality/rationality and feminine ideological advocacy. Legitimate scholars were able to approach the topic with no preconceptions and saw GJW for the fraud that it was, whereas the judgement of feminist scholars was clouded by their revisionist zeal. This characterization is a common caricature, but it is nevertheless indicative of real divisions in the field, pertaining to distinctive truth-regimes placed in an antagonistic relationship: one truth-regime characterizes itself as prioritizing historiographic neutrality and the other truth-regime disavows the pretense of ideological neutrality in its methods, theories, and data preferences, usually under the aegis of social constructionism.12 This latter truth-regime and its knowledge production are associated with postcolonial, racialized, queer, and feminist varieties of scholarship – a set of interests that often, but do not always, intersect. Feminist social constructionism tends to be formulated as criticism of epistemic neutrality, understanding such neutrality to mask the role of power in the production of knowledge. Feminist social constructionist approaches to GJW highlighted contingency of “celibate savior” discourse within Christianity, a discourse that has long served patriarchal interests.13 Social constructionism sometimes goes further than arguments for historical contingency to make normative claims about that which is socially constructed. In the case of GJW, X designates “celibate savior” discourse in Christianity for Ian Hacking’s comments on social constructionism more broadly:

Social construction work is critical of the status quo. Social constructionists about X tend to hold that:

(1) X need not have existed, or need not be at all as it is. X, or X as it is at present, is not determined by the nature of things; it is not inevitable.

Very often, they go further, and urge that:

(2) X is quite bad as it is.

(3) We would be much better off if X were done away with, or at least radically transformed. (Hacking 1999: 6)

Hacking is no doubt correct in that social constructionist analyses often make normative ethical claims, though that would be an overstatement in our case. King and most other advocates for GJW did not advance the second and third points that Hacking mentioned. Hacking’s second and third points are worth noting because King was nevertheless widely understood to make these claims by her detractors. Many critics understood GJW and related discussions as implicitly evaluative in the way Hacking suggests; King and others were alleged to have not merely noted the historical contingency of Christian gender norms, but were purported to be critical of such gender norms as well. To be clear, it is not obvious that King and others did so in their comments on GJW, but the accusation that she and others were attempting to rewrite history for “feminist” purposes indicates that others understood this to be the case. This approach also operates under the dubious assumption that this masculinized truth regime is somehow more disinterested and thus more objective than the feminist one.

If an authentic GJW was understood as evidence that Christian gender norms were historically contingent and thus socially constructed, then many scholars were eager to advocate the opposite when GJW was revealed to be a forgery. If GJW is a fake, then arguments for the contingency Christian gender norms are invalid. In such a case, then not only are patriarchal gender norms redeemed, but the truth-regime that produced and legitimated such norms is vindicated as well.

In this context, one might understand masculine enthusiasm for arguments of GJW’s forgery as a rehabilitation of masculinized knowledge against the “hyperfeminist” theology advanced by King and GJW. Askeland was not alone in positing this distinction between historiographic neutrality and agenda-driven feminist approaches. Christopher Jones less polemically cautioned, “Others have suggested that the forger was aiming to exploit current debates about the role of women in the ministry, and some have even wondered whether feminist scholars, and Karen King in particular, provided the forger with a ‘mark’” (Jones 2015: 377). Jones implied that King’s devotion to feminism makes her more susceptible to fraud than more neutral scholars. This approach unsurprisingly forgets that one of the most vocal and prestigious proponents of GJW’s authenticity was renowned papyrologist Roger Bagnall, who was not subjected to the same attacks or criticism, despite working alongside King and others, and stating that it was “hard to construct a scenario that is at all plausible in which somebody fakes something like [GJW]” (cited in Gibson and McKinley 2015: 85). Joel Baden and Candida Moss articulate the situation well: “Whether or not this was the forger’s goal, in the minds of some, the feminists were asking for it. Hyperfeminist interest in early Christianity, Christian Askeland claimed, was what had led to this whole debacle” (Baden and Moss 2014: 81). That is, some scholars understand feminism to be the cause of the problem itself, revisionists who misguidedly called into question Christian gender norms and were unable to separate fact from fantasy. Claims to have been “right all along” about GJW are as much assertions about the primacy of one truth-regime over another as they are statements regarding historiographic method.

The “Hyperfeminism” of Sluthood

In retrospect, one of the most troubling aspects is that GJW came to be associated with “hyperfeminism” in the first place, since Sabar’s Atlantic article showed GJW to be the product of Fritz’s deep misogyny.14 Specifically, one notices how both GJW and Fritz’s discussion of sexuality nearly eliminate feminine agency. For both Fritz and GJW, women’s agency can only be found in their partnerships with men: Fritz’s sexual mysticism is borne out in GJW by the eponymous marriage of an anonymous woman to Jesus, a woman who is identified only by her marriage to Jesus. More important is how GJW authorizes Fritz’s understanding of sexual transgression: for GJW, transgression is to be found in the mere notion that Jesus was married, whereas for Fritz it lies in finding perfection through the humiliation of “sluthood.” In both cases, female agency is to be found in a sexuality that – however “transgressive” – remains defined by and subordinate to male pleasure.15 The matter can be pushed ­further vis-à-vis the “automatic writing” of Fritz’s wife, who is merely a conduit of expression for a male angel, ostensibly exercising no agency of her own.

One is left wondering how scholars commonly conflated Fritz’s misogyny with feminism. How was a document that seems to authorize the sexual humiliation of women understood to be “hyperfeminist”? What does this indicate about the disciplinary knowledge of early Christian studies? One might start by turning to Peter Gurry, who summarized Sabar’s article thus:

Wow. The most recent issue of The Atlantic has an incredible story uncovering the formerly anonymous owner of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife papyrus. His name is Walter Fritz, a German-born man who now lives in Florida with his, shall we say, eccentric wife. Fritz denies forging the papyrus, but the reporter of the story seems unconvinced. And for good reason. (Gurry 2016)

The gender politics of the summary are striking. Fritz’s wife is singled out for her sexual behavior and theological proclivities with a moralizing intonation; nothing is said of Walter Fritz’s role. The label “eccentric” is also telling in its euphemism; it suggests the failure to behave within gender roles is not only noteworthy, but also potentially indicative of other moral failings. In addition to “hyperfeminism” and an “ugly sister-in-law,” one must now contend with an “eccentric wife.” Pathological femininity is apparently ubiquitous.

The supposed connection between women’s liberation and a married Jesus preceded the announcement of GJW. The Da Vinci Code (Brown 2003) is a particularly famous novel purporting a connection between the two, though other books had done so earlier, including The Last Temptation of Christ (Kazantzakis 1960) and The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (Baigent, Leigh, and Lincoln 1982). By 2006, the trope was sufficiently prevalent that Karen King herself asked with detectable frustration: “Why do we feel the need to re-sexualize Mary [Magdalene]? We’ve gotten rid of the myth of the prostitute. Now there’s this move to see her as wife and mother” (cited in Darman 2006: 51). King is not alone in her confusion about how a married Jesus relates to feminism. Janet Elizabeth Spittler observes the following about the complex relationship between the two.

And so let us return to chapter 58 of The Da Vinci Code, the scene where [Holy Grail expert Leigh] Teabing reveals the big mystery to Sophie – that Mary Magdalene was married to Jesus and had a child – while Professor Langdon condescendingly smiles, nods, and mansplains… . Leaving aside the absurdly sexist construction of the scene, this is the moment where Teabing reveals to Sophie that Jesus had intended that his wife, not Peter, should inherit leadership of the Christian church after his death. Teabing concludes, “Jesus was the original feminist.” Granted, in the novel it is not just that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene that makes him a feminist; it is that he wants her to lead the young church. But that point is, I think, pretty well elided in the popular response to the novel and film, such that in what [Mark] Goodacre calls the “post-Da Vinci Code world” a married Jesus – bizarrely – now equals feminism, and the “feminist agenda” must include a wife for Jesus (Spittler 2017: 364-65; cf. Goodacre 2017).

Given this framework, it is not surprising that Fritz’s misogynist interests, interests he nevertheless represents as liberatory, are articulated via assertion of a married Jesus. Fritz made use of the discursive proximity of these two ideas, evinced in both the influence of the Da Vinci Code as well as his approaching a prominent feminist scholar like King with his forgery.

This point is worth emphasizing. Despite the nearly complete dissolution of feminine agency in GJW, the Da Vinci Code, and Fritz’s thinking, each has been depicted as a feminist threat to patriarchal knowledge. All three were encoded as feminist, despite their production by men and the general absence of an agenda easily identifiable within recent feminist discourse – there is no reason to suppose that Judith Butler, Jasbir Puar, or other prominent gender theorists would care one way or the other about Jesus’s marital status. Given the highly fictitious depiction of New Testament scholarship and its interpretation in the Da Vinci Code, it is strange that many New Testament scholars supposed that its interpretation of feminism was more representative of that academic field. Why were GJW and the Da Vinci Code understood as “liberatory” and thus representative of feminism, given their unintelligibility within such discourse? Spittler observes, “On the one hand, Askeland clearly implies that a feminist scholar would want GJW to be authentic, so much so that his/her judgment might be clouded. The less obvious point, however, is Askeland’s assumption that the inclusion of a wife for Jesus is somehow a logical or obvious choice for a forger attempting to deceive a feminist – as if a married Jesus were exactly what feminists were hoping for” (Spittler 2017: 363 n. 53, emphasis original).16 How might this tie into normative claims that are rooted in the historical Jesus and Christian beginnings? What norms does a single or celibate Jesus authorize, and why must these norms be incompatible with “hyperfeminism”?

Canon and Authority

It is well known that the study of early Christianity is male-dominated. Caroline Schroeder provides ample data that while the number and proportion of women with Ph.D.s across all disciplines has increased since the 1990s, the percentage has actually decreased within biblical studies (Schroeder 2017). The numbers are stark within the specializations of biblical studies as well, but the study of Christian apocrypha approaches gender parity among experts more than the overwhelmingly male specialization of canonical literature. For whatever reasons, feminist and queer knowledges have found a greater space in the study of Christian apocrypha than in canonical literature.

The demographic disparity between experts in canonical and non-canonical literature is likely connected with the gendered production of knowledge within these subfields. That GJW represented a threat to the prevailing masculinized truth-regime was clear from the beginning, in that many sought to minimize or discredit GJW, even as King remained extremely measured in her claims about it. This is particularly evident at the level of GJW’s import for scholarship about early Christianity. Though Karen King occasionally commented that GJW likely had little import for scholars of the historical Jesus, she did not say so to dismiss the papyrus; she said so because she believed that its significance lay elsewhere. In her HTR article, King insisted that the GJW provides data only about debates within early Christianity about female discipleship during the second-century CE. One might contrast the scope of King’s social constructionist and social historical investigation with that of her detractors, whose discussion had tended to foreground the irrelevance of GJW for study of Jesus: because GJW is late, whatever it may tell obscurantist scholars of second-century Christianity, it is nothing worth caring about because of its irrelevance regarding Jesus himself.17 The primary question of importance to this latter group is whether or not the historical Jesus was married. But why is this question the first one that needs to be answered? Canonical scholars ­presume that the answer holds a normative function for their readers, whether academic or lay. For King, GJW is noteworthy in the manner it authorizes and contests gender norms, whereas detractors are interested primarily in reconstructing Christian beginnings, beginnings that serve as a myth of origins that legitimates group norms.18

One thus tends to find (male) scholars of canonical literature among the first to reassure us that the latest non-canonical discovery tells us nothing about the historical Jesus, but is only of interest to historians of the second or third centuries CE. By contrast, experts in non-canonical literature spend little energy discussing the relevance of the latest discovery for Christian beginnings, instead addressing questions more pertinent to their field of study. When scholars declare that the latest non-canonical work tells us nothing about the historical Jesus but is of interest only to historians of later periods, one might ask why “canon” is so appealing to masculine scholars. Furthermore, it is apparent that non-canonical works are a perceived threat to masculine knowledge.

Tony Burke notes the proximity of these discourses – Christian apocrypha and feminism – to broader questions of modern “heresy hunting” among specialists in canonical literature (Burke 2010).19 Implicit within this is the question of the sui generis beginnings of Christianity: a matter of common interest in the study of canonical literature, but rare in discussions of Christian apocrypha. The singular beginning of Christianity often serves explicitly normative functions (whether doctrinal, behavioral, etc.), rooted in an understanding of Christianity as a sui generis phenomenon. Burke observes that it is not uncommon for modern heresy hunters to simply assume that Christian apocrypha operate in a normative fashion for its experts in the way that the canonical New Testament tends to for its specialists. Burke describes Ben Witherington III’s comments on Christian apocrypha:

Confusing scholarly interest in a body of literature with religious belief, [Witherington] is perplexed at why the “new school” scholars wish to study Gnostic texts. “None of them are actually ascetics like the original Gnostics,” he writes, “nor have they withdrawn from the world and anathematized the goodness of things material. Frankly, the Old Gnostics would have repudiated the new ones.” And finally, Witherington may rival [patristic heresiologist] Epiphanius … in his demonization of the new school: “these scholars, though bright and sincere, are not merely wrong; they are misled. They are oblivious to the fact that they are being led down this path by the powers of darkness.” (Burke 2010: 416)

Burke also observes that the rhetoric of heresy hunters is made possible by an unduly broad understanding of the category “Gnosticism”; Burke takes note of scholars that deem all Christian apocrypha “Gnostic,” including those with no hint of such theology (e.g., gnosis, demiurge, aeons), such as the Gospel of Peter or the infancy Gospels. Within this framework, “Gnostic” acts as a shorthand for “early Christian heresy” in a less precise sense. Thus, even though there was nothing in GJW to indicate Gnosticism, the label was soon cast upon it. This leap to Gnosticism is somewhat striking, given the sister fragment from the canonical Gospel of John. The mere intimation of heresy in GJW was sufficient for the designation “Gnostic.”

GJW may have been deemed “Gnostic” due to the way Gnosticism has become a convenient label for ostensibly deviant gender norms in early Christianity. In discussing the Gospel of Thomas 114, the authors of one “heresy hunting” book write:

“Simon Peter said to them, ‘Let Mary leave us, because women are not worthy of life.’ Jesus said, ‘Look, I shall lead her so that I will make her male in order that she may also become a living spirit, resembling you males. For every woman who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.” Here we plainly see the asceticism that found a home in Gnostic circles and an attitude toward women that is hardly compatible with the biblical portrait. (Komoszewski, Sawyer, and Wallace 2006: 162-63; cf. Witherington 2006: 43-45)

The point here is not to dispute their particular interpretation of the Gospel of Thomas or ascertain whether or not the Gospel of Thomas is really Gnostic. Rather, one notes that deviation simultaneously serves to discredit the authority of Gospel of Thomas and its purported gender norms, while also reaffirming the (neutral and canonical) gender norms the authors advance. This link between heresy and deviant gender norms is then transferred to scholars of Christian apocrypha. Witherington, writing of Karen King among others, inquires, “At the end of the day, Gnostic literature is no friend to women in the Christian tradition. Why then have the more radical feminist scholars gravitated toward it, rather than toward the New Testament itself?” (Witherington 2006: 45).20 Witherington, who has little sympathy for “radical feminism,” nevertheless suggests feminist scholars of Christian apocrypha turn to the canonical New Testament for their sympathies, pointing to “Acts 18, with its description of Priscilla, and 1 Cor. 11.” If radical feminist scholars took the time to read the Bible, they might find what they had been looking for. Setting aside the complex issue of New Testament gender politics, Witherington and others assume that feminist scholarship assigns normative value to ancient texts in the same manner as he does the Bible.

Orientalism is also often operative in discussions of Coptic Christian apocrypha. Raymond Schwab once noted that some academics appeal to Orientalist tropes in order “to make the Bible more indisputable [and others] to make it more unbelievable” (cited in Said 2003: 76). The effect in this case is to render Coptic Christian apocrypha and their purported social programs unappealing to modern readers; unless one finds weirdo gender norms appealing, it’s better to stick with the canon. Non-canonical writings are discredited variously, but one recognizes a series of Orientalist tropes indicative that such a discourse is at play: emphases on Gnosticism’s esotericism, syncretism, interest in perverse pleasure, unusual language, mysticism, polytheism, lost knowledge, etc. (Crawford 2011; King 2003; cf. Denzy Lewis and Blount 2014; Williams 1996).21 Coptic Christianity emerges as the producer of exotic and threatening knowledge; this literature is both literarily distant from the canon and geographically distant from the Holy Land.

Discourse on the purported Gnosticism of GJW might be understood in light of these existing connections between Gnosticism and other topics – emotions and ideas already associated with Gnosticism before the announcement of GJW. In that Gnosticism is primarily associated with racialized and gendered bodies, it is little surprise that the knowledge produced by experts on Christian apocrypha as distinct from the knowledge produced by experts on canonical literature is gendered. From here, one might consider the ways in which “canon” itself represents an investment in existing sources of authority and truth-regimes among scholars of early Christianity.

Conclusion: Expertise in Legitimation

This article began by asking how discussions of GJW function to reinforce the patriarchal culture of New Testament studies regardless of the scholar’s intent. There does not seem to be a single, obvious answer to this, but in the present attempt to sketch out some questions in need of further consideration, a few recurrent themes have emerged. While hardly decisive, they may help to proceed with a clearer ignorance.

First, much biblical scholarship obscures the gendered nature of its knowledge production, indicating that biblical studies lags far behind other disciplines in the humanities. Within biblical studies, the pretense of historiographic neutrality remains prominent in the dominant truth-regime, which has the effect of rendering knowledge produced outside this masculinized framework as either pseudo-scholarship or agenda-driven. Work outside this patriarchal framework thus has little impact on the majority of the field, as it is easily dismissed due to its recognizable “eccentricity.” Thus, despite the prevalence of postcolonial, feminist, or queer discussions of the Bible, these varieties of scholarship are rarely treated as serious interlocutors in, say, “prestigious” New Testament commentaries. The masculinized knowledge produced within early Christian studies has a symbiotic relationship with the field’s sexist culture; because “agenda-driven” scholarship is not discussed as the work of serious interlocutors, they are confined to a cycle of ghettoized scholarship. This has the effect of reinscribing the gendered knowledge produced in New Testament studies as neutral, authoritative, and natural.

Second, “feminism” is a contentious term in the field, but this is not merely with respect to the word’s definition. The term instead speaks to a significant fault-line within early Christian studies that encompasses methodology, theory, and ideology – matters also controverted between the major truth-regimes. To identify or be identified as “feminist” locates a scholar on one particular side of this schism, invested in knowledges distinct from the prevailing ideal of neutral and detached historiography. Importantly, “feminism” continues to be marked as ideological within New Testament studies, as opposed to the Eurocentric hetero-patriarchal approaches that are still considered non-ideological modes of inquiry. That is, if one performs an analysis that appears to advance feminist causes (e.g., non-patriarchal gender norms in the early church), the conclusions are assumed to be ideological and thus historically suspect; if one performs an analysis that would seem to support patriarchy (e.g., ignoring gender entirely), the conclusions are more likely to be deemed non-ideological and thus worthy of serious conversation. The pretense of historiographic and hermeneutical neutrality still prevails, a major factor in the continuation of the patriarchal truth-regime.

By way of conclusion, it is worth noting that discourse on GJW merely illustrates larger problems concerning gender in New Testament studies. Much of this article could be repeated mutatis mutandis about the Secret Gospel of Mark, as discussion of its forgery also functioned normatively, often reassuring us that nothing “queer” was going on in early Christianity.22 But more broadly, gendered knowledge pervades the field; Tony Burke’s analysis of heresy hunting gives clear indication of this. If we are to take GJW as illustrative, how might we be better positioned for the next bout between feminist and patriarchal truth-regimes?

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Special issues of New Testament Studies (61.3 [2015]) and Harvard Theological Review (107.2 [2014]) were devoted to GJW, as was a session of the 2015 York University Christian Apocrypha Symposium, collected in (Burke 2017).

“The primary focus should be placed not upon texts per se (that is, upon their content-meanings), but upon textures, gestures, and power – namely the signs, material products, ritual practices and performances, expressivities, orientations, ethics, and politics associated with the phenomenon of the invention and uses of ‘scriptures.’” (Wimbush 2008: 3, emphasis original).

Sara Ahmed’s discussion of the “non-performativity of anti-racism” (Ahmed 2004) might be adapted for questions of sexism. Ahmed argues that condemnations of “the racist” (i.e., the individual, monadic bigot) are often counter-productive in that such censures render invisible systemic forms of racial violence through their myopic focus on an easily-dismissed racist individual. By locating racism “over there,” the accuser is implicitly freed of participation in racist norms.

The meaning of the word “feminism” and its derivatives is contentious. The term is used loosely in this article to designate an academic truth-regime contesting the gendered knowledge implicit in the prevailing data, methods, and theories in the academic field of New Testament studies (i.e., “patriarchy” and “masculinized knowledge”). Investment in patriarchal knowledge does not presume hostility to women’s liberation or feminist issues; for present purposes, a scholar can support, say, women’s ordination or cite women scholars and be invested in patriarchy. These definitions are not an attempt to take a position on what feminism or patriarchy really are, but to give a sense of how some of this paper’s key terms are used.

See also Lincoln 1999: 209 on scholarship as “myth with footnotes.”

See, for example, Arnal 2005; Blanton, Crossley, and Moxnes 2009; Crossley 2008; 2012.

Other than King 2014, I am only aware of one article interested in GJW as data for the study of second-century Christianity: Kim 2015. Blogs were similarly uninterested in any implications for post-biblical Christianity.

A revised version of King’s initial manuscript was eventually published; see King 2014.

Note that while Askeland later removed the word “ugly” from the blog post’s title, it is still present in the URL. More academic versions of this post were published as Askeland 2014b; 2015.

Some comments that were later deleted from other blogs are preserved in Mroczek’s post. Mroczek’s suggestions proved accurate; at least one response to Mroczek’s blog post did exactly as she predicted: West 2014. See additional commentary in DeConick 2014.

It is now widely understood that GJW was composed by reworking phrases from an online edition of the Gospel of Thomas (e.g., Baden and Moss 2014; Bernhard 2015; Bąk 2016).

“Truth regime” was a concept first developed by Michel Foucault (Foucault 2000). This idea has proven influential in the field of history (e.g., Chakrabarty 1992; Young 1990) and much of the humanities and social sciences. Lorna Weir summarizes Foucault’s definition and its characteristics: “‘Each society has its regime of truth, its “general politics” of truth – that is, the types of discourse it accepts and makes function as true.’ Foucault sketched several criteria of truth regimes: techniques that separate true and false statements; how true and false are sanctioned; the status given those who speak that which is recognized as truth” (Weir 2008: 368). The general absence of this concept in mainstream biblical studies – an idea that is of major significance to cognate fields – no doubt contributes to the problems addressed herein. Bruce Lincoln’s thirteenth thesis on the study of religion is pertinent: “When one … fails to distinguish between ‘truths,’ ‘truth-claims,’ and ‘regimes of truth,’ one has ceased to function as historian or scholar” (Lincoln 1996: 10).

See, for example, Martin 2006.

This section does not assume parity between Fritz’s thinking and GJW. It instead discusses the interests that GJW advances, interests that authorize a misogynist understanding of sexuality articulated by Fritz elsewhere; that is to say, GJW seems to be Fritz’s effort at mythmaking. This reasoning draws upon Bruce Lincoln, who writes: “A taxonomy is encoded in mythic form, the narrative packages a specific, contingent system of discrimination in a particularly attractive and memorable form. What is more, it naturalizes and legitimizes it. Myth, then, is not just taxonomy, but ideology in narrative form” (Lincoln 1999: 147).

The point here is not an exegesis of pornography featuring Fritz’s wife, whether and how she exercises agency in films featuring her. Rather, it is an attempt to elucidate the way Fritz himself characterizes that agency in Sabar 2016a. There have been efforts to reclaim the term “slut” away from its misogynist associations (e.g., “slutwalks,” polyamory), but there is no reason to suspect Fritz was participating in those particular feminist discourses. Fritz’s wife is not named here to honor request for her anonymity; it is not intended to erase her agency.

Spittler observes that depictions of Jesus as married have already served interests that would seem antithetical to feminism, most especially legitimating patriarchal polygamy in the nineteenth-century Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-Day Saints. Spittler also observes how the married Jesus is more commonly discussed in proximity to “sex-positive” discourse, though she notes that the sex-positive Jesus is often a sexist and homophobic Jesus.

See, for instance, Roberts 2014; Thompson 2012; West 2012. In contrast, see Le Donne 2013 and 2016, which, rather than arguing that GJW was particularly irrelevant for ascertaining Jesus’s marital status, simply notes the absence of relevant data to make any kind of assessment in the first place. See also Robinson 2015: 380-81.

Cameron and Miller (2004: 1-2) offer a helpful distinction between the sui generis notion of “Christian beginnings” commencing with person of the historical Jesus and the notion of “Christian origins” that identifies the social processes of mythmaking as the starting point – the latter of which seems to be King’s point of interest.

Burke’s article was written before GJW was announced, but has proven prescient. This alone would suggest the problems that he identifies are indicative of deeper issues in biblical studies.

See also Witherington’s comments regarding GJW in Thompson 2012, wherein he speculates on GJW’s gender norms and describes them in a veiled polemic.

One might also consider how Fritz made use of these tropes to render GJW’s authenticity plausible. How did the Orientalism of GJW prime scholars to see it as authentic? One thinks of Edward Said’s insight that “even the scholar who unearths a once-lost manuscript produces the ‘found’ text in a context already prepared for it, for that is the real meaning of finding a new text” (Said 2003: 273).

See the excellent comparison of the two controversies in Martínez 2016.

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