Reality check on Jesus and his ‘wife’
by Merv Stevens | on
Four words on a previously unknown papyrus fragment appear to provide the first evidence that some early Christians believed Jesus had been married. This video from Harvard Divinity School discusses the find.
A fourth-century fragment of papyrus that quotes Jesus telling his disciples about “my wife” has set off a buzz among scriptural scholars — but this is no “Da Vinci Code” come true. Rather, the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” is just the latest discovery to suggest how the early Christian church took shape.
Fans of the Dan Brown thriller are already familiar with the theory that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a husband-and-wife relationship. The basis for such speculation lies in Gnostic gospels that came out in the second, third and fourth centuries, but were left out of the standardized scriptures — texts such as the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Mary and the recently reconstructed Gospel of Judas.
The marriage debate
Karen L. King, the Harvard Divinity School professor who received the fragment from an anonymous owner, emphasized that the discovery does not serve as evidence that Jesus was married. Rather, it suggests that there was a debate within the early Christian church on the status of women, and that Jesus’ relationship with women figured into the discussion. Revisiting that debate may be unsettling to some believers, but to scriptural scholars, it just comes with the territory.
“Christian tradition has long held that Jesus was not married, even though no reliable historical evidence exists to support that claim,” King said in a news release from Harvard Divinity School. “This new gospel doesn’t prove that Jesus was married, but it tells us that the whole question only came up as part of vociferous debates about sexuality and marriage. From the very beginning, Christians disagreed about whether it was better not to marry, but it was over a century after Jesus’ death before they began appealing to Jesus’ marital status to support their positions.”
Ben Witherington, a New Testament scholar at the Asbury Theological Seminary, noted that the latest find fits King’s perspective on scriptural scholarship. “She does have a dog in this hunt,” he told me. “She’s an advocate for the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Judas, telling us of early Christian experiences of various kinds, particularly of the Gnostic kind.”
The fragment that King calls the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife could well contribute to the study of Gnosticism in the second or fourth century, but Witherington said it’s not a game-changer for our view of the first-century Jesus. ”While this fragment is interesting, if you are interested in the historical Jesus, this is much ado about not very much,” Witherington said via email.
Bart Ehrman, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, voiced similar caution. However, if the document proves authentic, it would represent an important advance in scriptural scholarship, he said.
“It’s certainly not reliable for saying anything about the historical Jesus,” Ehrman told me. “But what it is important for is that this would be the first time we have any Christian authority or Christian group indicating that, in their opinion, Jesus was married.” Like King, Ehrman suggested that such claims might have figured into early Christian debates over the comparative merits of marriage vs. celibacy.
Monks and ‘sister-wives’
Witherington said the text could be open to alternate interpretations. “In view of the largely ascetic character of Gnosticism, it is likely that we are dealing with the ‘sister-wife’ phenomenon, and the reference is to a strictly spiritual relationship, which is close but does not involve sexual intimacy,” Witherington said.
During a follow-up phone call, he explained that “during the rise of the monastic movement, you had quite a lot of monk-type folks and evangelists who traveled in the company of a sister-wife.” The fellow travelers looked after each other, but celibacy was part of the deal, he said.
“The other question about this is … were these ‘fractured fairy tales’ that helped monks in the desert while away the time, or were they serious religious texts?” Witherington said.
Gnostic works proliferated in Egypt’s Christian monasteries until Athanasius of Alexandria drew up what became the “official” list of books in the New Testament and condemned the rest in the year 367. Scholars believe that the best-known collection of Gnostic texts, the Nag Hammadi library, was bundled up and buried in the desert as a result.
The debate over the papyrus fragment’s authenticity and the meaning of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife is likely to play out for a long time among scriptural scholars — and among “Da Vinci Code” fans as well. For now, here are links to background material and the initial blog reactions:
- The news release from Harvard Divinity School points to a Web page about the papyrus and to the manuscript that King has prepared for publication in January’s issue of Harvard Theological Review.
- James Tabor, a scriptural scholar at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and the co-author of controversial books about Jesus and his family, notes King’s research — and says Witherington and other scholars should “reconsider the question” surrounding Jesus’ marital status.
- Michael Heiser, a scholar specializing in biblical languages, says on his PaleoBabble blog that he tends to agree with the view that church leaders have “manipulated the testimony of Mary Magdalene” — but he warns against reading too much into the discovery.
- Jim West, a biblical scholar at the Quartz Hill School of Theology and pastor of Petros Baptist Church in Tennessee, says on the Zwinglius Redivivus blog that “without more context, both historically and archaeologically, the snippet is valueless.”
- James McGrath, a New Testament scholar at Butler University in Indianapolis, also voices caution on the Exploring Our Matrix blog but adds that there’s no reason why people should find the idea that Jesus was married “inherently unbelievable.”
For what it’s worth, here are all the translated bits from the papyrus:
“‘… not [to] me. My mother gave to me li[fe] …’”
“The disciples said to Jesus, ‘…”
“deny. Mary is worthy of it” (Or: “deny. Mary is n[ot] worthy of it”)
“…’ Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…’”
“… she will be able to be my disciple …”
“Let wicked people swell up …”
“As for me, I dwell with her in order to …”
“forth which …”
Learn how we’ve helped thousands of “average” people
finally make money online
(with a brand new “no selling” approach)