Beliefs

Five big questions about the ‘Jesus’ wife’ discovery

(RNS) In a surprise announcement that seemed scripted by the novelist Dan Brown, a Harvard professor revealed an ancient scrap of papyrus on Tuesday (Sept. 18) that purports to refer to Jesus' wife.

The fragment of papyrus that offers fresh evidence that some early Christians believed Jesus was married.

The fragment of papyrus that offers fresh evidence that some early Christians believed Jesus was married.

The so-called “Gospel of Jesus' Wife” presents a dialogue between Jesus and his disciples, said Karen King, a respected historian of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School. 

The fourth-century fragment says, “Jesus said to them, 'My wife …,'” according to King. The rest of the sentence is cut off. The fragment also says “she will be able to be my disciple,” according to King. 

The discovery that some ancient Christians thought Jesus had a wife could shake up centuries-old Christian traditions, King suggested.

Karen L. King, the Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard University holds a previously unknown ancient papyrus fragment from Egypt that has four words written in Coptic that provide the first unequivocal evidence that within 150 years of his death, some followers of Jesus, believed him to have been married.

Karen L. King, the Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard University holds a previously unknown ancient papyrus fragment from Egypt that has four words written in Coptic that provide the first unequivocal evidence that within 150 years of his death, some followers of Jesus, believed him to have been married.

But even King acknowledged that questions remain about the receipt-sized scrap, which contains just 33 words and incomplete sentences. Here are five of the biggest questions. 

1. Where did the papyrus come from?

We don’t know. King says that “nothing is known about the circumstances of its discovery,” an admission that has raised red flags for other scholars.

King speculates that the fragment might have been tossed in an ancient garbage heap by someone who objected to the idea of Jesus being married. Christians fiercely debated celibacy and marriage in the first centuries after Christ’s death.

The papyrus now belongs to an anonymous collector who asked King to analyze it. King says three scholars have determined that the fragment is not a forgery, but that further tests will be conducted on the ink. The scholar also says that she will press the fragment’s anonymous owner to come forward.

2. Does it prove that Jesus was married?

No. King says the fragment is a fourth-century translation of a second-century Greek text. It’s not quite old enough to prove that Jesus was married, King says — only that early Christians discussed it. 

“The earliest and most historically reliable evidence is entirely silent about Jesus’s marital status,” King says.

King also acknowledged that Jesus might have been speaking figuratively when he referred to “my wife.” After all, the fragment is just 33 words long, with incomplete sentences and very little context.

3. What do other ancient texts say about Jesus being married?

The Bible, of course, says nothing about Jesus marrying, though New Testament writers figuratively refer to the church and God’s people as the “bride of Christ.”

An oil on canvas portrait of St. Mary Magdalene.

An oil on canvas portrait of St. Mary Magdalene.

Some of the Gnostic gospels — ancient texts unearthed in the 20th century that are not included in the Christian canon — suggest that Jesus had an intimate relationship with Mary Magdalene. The apocryphal Gospel of Philip, for example, says that Jesus kissed Mary, and loved her more than the apostles.

But the Gnostics were often intimate in nonsexual ways. In the Gospel of Philip, for instance, Christians greet each other with kisses to convey the sense that they are a spiritual family, according to scholars.

4. Will this change contemporary Christianity?

King said her discovery could cause believers to rethink their assumptions about early Christian debates over marriage, celibacy and family. Those early arguments led to contemporary practices like the Roman Catholic Church’s all-male, mostly unmarried priesthood.

Perhaps King is correct — nearly everything is open for debate in Christianity these days. After all, Christians are still arguing over homosexuality, the role of women in ministry and whether priests should marry.

But how many overhyped archaeological discoveries have proven less than world-changing under careful examination?

Remember the Gospel of Judas? He didn’t betray Jesus! Or did he? “The Gospel of Judas was so packed with opaque Gnostic metaphor that scholars are still debating whether it portrays Judas as a hero or a villain,” said Gary Manning, an associate professor of New Testament studies at Biola University in La Mirada, Calif.

The so-called James ossuary then? As Roland Meynet, a biblical scholar at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, said Wednesday, “that made a lot of noise on newspapers, but was then revealed as a fraud.”

Even if the new papyrus were proved true, it would only add to a growing pile of ancient but apocryphal texts, Meynet said. “It won't reopen the debate and, anyway, we must wait for verification and be very cautious until we know the origin of the fragment.”

5. How will the Vatican respond?

If the Vatican’s new communications team is as good as they say it is, Rome will stay silent.

The Vatican and its media-savvy friends in Opus Dei said all they needed or wanted to say about Jesus' marital status during the whole “Da Vinci Code” saga a few years ago. They will likely let scholarly surrogates debate this one, while the hierarchy sits on the sidelines.

The Vatican insists that there's nothing new to debate about the gender and celibacy requirements for its priesthood. It's unlikely that a business card-sized scrap of papyrus of dubious origin is going to change that.

Or perhaps Pope Benedict XVI, himself a renowned scholar, will indirectly enter the fray over the fragment. He just finished his third and final installment on the historical Jesus. It will be published around Christmas, and will likely be as well received as the previous two, and sell as strongly.

(Alessandro Speciale contributed to this report from Rome.)

 

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Daniel Burke and David Gibson

11 Comments

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  • For the New Testament there are circa 24,000 manuscripts (about 7,000 in Greek and the rest in other languages). For the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” there is ONE. But do not concern yourself with that as that ONE is thought to successfully discredit the 24,000.

    Also, why is it that for New Testaments the demand is that we must have the earliest possible ones. However, for anything that appears to contradict it (“Gospel of Judas,” etc.) one, two, three, four centuries from Jesus’ time is perfectly acceptable, the later the better.

    We are dealing with a substandard double standard.

  • I also believe that Jesus was married. The wedding where he changed water into wine was his wedding to Mrthia. His brother-in-law was Lazerius. That is wy Marthia was so angry with Jesus when he came home after Lazerus died.

  • Obviously this is a Gnostic Document. Jesus tells us that we can know a tree from the fruit it produces. A defrocked nun acquires a Coptic Papyrus from an anonymous person. Oh, how I long for the days of the Dead Sea Scrolls. These documents also would “shake the foundation” of Christianity. P.S. The Gnostic Papyri found in Nag Hammadi, Egypt where also written in Coptic, a language descended from the Pharaohs. The foundation of Christianity is Jesus. We can only “move” him with our love and obedience.

  • Why haven’t any “biblical scholars” or journalists pointed out that the early Christians saw the Church as being the Bride of Christ (see the Pauline Letters)? Reread this “fragment” in light of that understanding…Even giving the papyrus the benefit of the doubt in spite of all evidence against it, it still doesn’t mean he had a particular person as his wife.

    Show me where his reference to “My wife” doesn’t mean the Church?

    “She will be able to be my disciple,” actually makes more sense if we understand that the Christ who spoke in Parables and symbolism was talking about the Church’s ability to follow him, rather than that of one flesh-and-blood individual.

  • Artaban7, check out the answer to question 3:

    “The Bible, of course, says nothing about Jesus marrying, though New Testament writers occasionally used the metaphor of the church and God’s people as the `bride of Christ.’”

  • The French have a wonderful saying “the more things change the more they stay the same”. None of this marriage idea is new nor frankly relevant. The Romans don’t believe becuase it does not support in their minds the notion of an all male cultic priesthood. The radical feminist do believe it becuase it does not support such a priesthood and has other implications.The Gnostics are and were as about as credible as Mitt Romney and changed almost as much as he does. You want a gay Jesus they have one for you, you want a married Jesus they got that for you too, and if you want a “yin yang” messiah that is both they even have that for you and just to complete the “consumer Jesus brand” they also have a magician Jesus that changes rocks into birds! Nothing has changed becuase of the typical hype and spin of this story and it is frankly disappointing but not unexpected for so called responsible new sites to try and create a fact out of a presupposition.

  • Sadly this discover only proves the weakness of human intelligence. I think I’ll write The Gospel According to Bob and bury it where it is most likely to be discovered in 1000 years. Surely by then it’s age will provide the necessary credibility to fool the world.

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