Does New Document Prove That Jesus Had a Wife?

Does this piece of papyrus prove that Jesus had a wife?
Does this piece of papyrus prove that Jesus had a wife? (photo: Register Files)

The New York Times is carrying a story of a scholar who has a piece of papyrus which refers to Jesus having a wife.

She's even dubbed it "The Gospel of Jesus' Wife."

Isn't that "special."

Does this mean that Dan Brown was right all along? That Jesus was married? To Mary Magdalen even?

Are we going to have to deal with all that nonsense again?

Before things get too far out of hand, let's take a look at this issue and what it means . . .


The Basic Facts

According to the NYT:

A historian of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School has identified a scrap of papyrus that she says was written in Coptic in the fourth century and contains a phrase never seen in any piece of Scripture: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife ...’ ”

The faded papyrus fragment is smaller than a business card, with eight lines on one side, in black ink legible under a magnifying glass. Just below the line about Jesus having a wife, the papyrus includes a second provocative clause that purportedly says, “she will be able to be my disciple.”

The finding was made public in Rome on Tuesday at an international meeting of Coptic scholars by Karen L. King, a historian who has published several books about new Gospel discoveries and is the first woman to hold the nation’s oldest endowed chair, the Hollis professor of divinity.

The provenance of the papyrus fragment is a mystery, and its owner has asked to remain anonymous [Source].

Okay, let's stop right there. That leads to the very first question . . .


Is This Thing a Forgery?

If we don't know the provenance (origin, history, method of discovery, chain of custody) of an artifact, that damages its credibility. There are too many frauds on the antiquities market. So that's not a good sign.

What do the experts say?

According to the Times:

Until Tuesday, Dr. King had shown the fragment to only a small circle of experts in papyrology and Coptic linguistics, who concluded that it is most likely not a forgery.

Okay, but they also note later in the article (towards the very end):

Dr. King did not have the ink dated using carbon testing. She said it would require scraping off too much, destroying the relic. She still plans to have the ink tested by spectroscopy, which could roughly determine its age by its chemical composition.

Dr. King submitted her paper to The Harvard Theological Review, which asked three scholars to review it. Two questioned its authenticity, but they had seen only low-resolution photographs of the fragment and were unaware that expert papyrologists had seen the actual item and judged it to be genuine, Dr. King said. One of the two questioned the grammar, translation and interpretation.

That sort of takes the edge off of the "who concluded that it is most likely not a forgery," doesn't it?

Oh, and then there's this:

The owner has offered to donate the papyrus to Harvard if the university buys a “substantial part of his collection,” Dr. King said, which Harvard is considering.

So the anonymous owner has a financial incentive connected with this manuscript? He's willing to donate it if Harvard buys other manuscripts in his collection? "A substantial part" of his collection?

No motive for fraud there.

They have more to say in favor of the authenticity of the fragment. Some of it sounds plausible, but then there's this:

“It’s hard to construct a scenario that is at all plausible in which somebody fakes something like this. The world is not really crawling with crooked papyrologists,” Dr. Bagnall said.


All it takes is one.

Even some of the top people in their fields have faked manuscripts. Just four words: Secret Gospel of Mark.

That doesn't mean a forgery happened in this case, though. More people need to look at this, more tests need to be done, and we'll have to wait and see.

Which leads to the next question . . .


If It's Real, What Does It Tell Us?

According to the Times:

Even with many questions unsettled, the discovery could reignite the debate over whether Jesus was married, whether Mary Magdalene was his wife and whether he had a female disciple. These debates date to the early centuries of Christianity, scholars say.

Um . . . the Gospels record Jesus as having female disciples. It names several of them: Mary Magdalene, "the other Mary," Joanna the wife of Chuza, etc.

And, oh yeah, the Virgin Mary.

Care to try again?

But the discovery is exciting, Dr. King said, because it is the first known statement from antiquity that refers to Jesus speaking of a wife. It provides further evidence that there was an active discussion among early Christians about whether Jesus was celibate or married, and which path his followers should choose.

“This fragment suggests that some early Christians had a tradition that Jesus was married,” Dr. King said. “There was, we already know, a controversy in the second century over whether Jesus was married, caught up with a debate about whether Christians should marry and have sex.”

There certainly was a controversy in the second century about whether Christians should marry. Some of the Gnostics were down on the whole marriage thing. But I can't recall anyone then disputing whether Jesus was married.

More to the point: I can't recall anyone then claiming Jesus was married. And if this fourth-century fragment is the supposed first mention of Jesus having a wife, how would we know that there was a dispute over this issue in the second century? Doesn't this beg the question?

And then there's this . . .


Just How Silent Is the "Silence"?

According to the Times:

She repeatedly cautioned that this fragment should not be taken as proof that Jesus, the historical person, was actually married. The text was probably written centuries after Jesus lived, and all other early, historically reliable Christian literature is silent on the question, she said.

Wait. Right. There.

That's a totally misleading claim.

While it's true that the earlier, more historically reliable material doesn't say "Jesus was not married," that's not to say that it doesn't contain evidence on this point.

There is the whole Church as the Bride of Christ metaphor that is, y'know, prominent in the New Testament. St. Paul has it. The book of Revelation has it. It's kind of unmistakable.

And even without the direct statement "Jesus was not married," that's a very strong indicator that Jesus was not married.

Because it's incredibly difficult to see how this metaphor for the Church could ever have arisen if there was a Mrs. Jesus.

Then there's the fact that Jesus is on record advocating celibacy for those who can accept it (Matt 19).

So we have a founder advocating celibacy and his first-generation followers repeatedly stress the idea that his bride is the Church he founded.

How hard is it to connect the dots, here?

And one more thing . . .


Context, Context, Context

The times says:

The piece is torn into a rough rectangle, so that the document is missing its adjoining text on the left, right, top and bottom — most likely the work of a dealer who divided up a larger piece to maximize his profit, Dr. Bagnall said.

Much of the context, therefore, is missing. But Dr. King was struck by phrases in the fragment like “My mother gave to me life,” and “Mary is worthy of it,” which resemble snippets from the Gospels of Thomas and Mary. Experts believe those were written in the late second century and translated into Coptic. She surmises that this fragment is also copied from a second century Greek text.

The meaning of the words, “my wife,” is beyond question, Dr. King said. “These words can mean nothing else.” The text beyond “my wife” is cut off.

Okay, fine. So the words "my wife" are clear. In light of the discussion we just had re: the Bride of Christ, how much does that tell us?

Not a lot.

From the tiny amount of context we have, we have an apparent mention of the Virgin Mary ("my mother gave to me life"--though without more context we can't prove beyond any conceivable doubt that he wasn't using the term "mother" metaphorically--just as he is likely to be using the term "wife" metaphorically).

We also have "Mary" being said to be worthy of something, but we don't know what. We also don't know which Mary. It could be Mary Magdalen, another Mary, or the Virgin Mary herself. Given the apparent mention of the latter in the same context, the Virgin Mary would be the most logical reference for "Mary" here unless we can get more context.

The "Mary is worthy of it" does sound like a passage in the Gospel of Thomas. As soon as I read the snippets, I realized that they could be understood as a different telling of the mini-story in Thomas 114 (thought by some to have been added later and not part of the original), in which there is a dispute over whether Mary Magdalene is worthy of eternal life.

But my mind also immediately went to Mark 3, with the "Who are my mother and brothers?" passage. I could easily see people a century (or two or three) after that doing a version of that passage in which Jesus comments on the worthiness of his mother and (since he's already on the subject of metaphorical family members--i.e., the ones who do his Father's will--he might be presented as adding a discussion of who his metaphorical wife is as well.

So without more context, we really can't know. This text doesn't prove much of anything.


The Bottom Line

The bottom line is that the newly announced fragment is of doubtful origin, may be fake, and is so devoid of context that it's hard to tell what the passage is even about.

It certainly does not present shocking new revelations that threaten the traditional Christian view of Jesus as celibate.

The fact that the Church was conceived in the first century itself as the Bride of Christ--or even, in Revelation 21:9 as "the wife of the Lamb"--is undeniable evidence that there was no literal Mrs. Jesus. That understanding of the Church could never have arisen.

There's that . . . and the fact that Jesus endorsed celibacy . . . and the "wedding feast of the Lamb" (Rev. 19) depicted at the end of the world . . . and the Christ-as-bridegroom-coming-to-an-eschatological-wedding (Matthew 24) . . . etc.--all of which strongly indicates that Jesus had no earthly wife.

That won't stop people from trying to sensationalize this, though.

What do you think?

P.S. Shame on the New York Times for not even mentioning the single most important piece of evidence regarding the interpretation of "Jesus' wife"--the Bride of Christ metaphor int he New Testament! There's competence in religion reporting for you!


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