Thursday, September 20, 2012

A Brief Word on the So-Called "Gospel of Jesus's Wife"

In case you haven't already heard, there has been quite a hullabaloo the last few days over a new fourth-century Coptic papyri fragment which has come to be known as the "Gospel of Jesus's Wife." The fragment was presented to Harvard Divinity professor Karen King last year by an anonymous German collector, and King has since analyzed the piece and drafted a forthcoming article on its examination that is due out early next year. The papyrus, which suggests that Jesus may have been married (see Line 4 below), contains the following text:

Line 1: "...not [to] me. My mother gave me li[fe]..."
Line 2: The disciples said to Jesus, ...
Line 3: ...deny. Mary is worthy of it...
Line 4: Then Jesus said, "My wife...
Line 5: ...she will be able to be my disciple...
Line 6: Let wicked people swell up...
Line 7: for me, I dwell with her in order to...
Line 8: an image

There are many reasons that traditional churchgoers might balk at the notion of Jesus being involved in a marital relationship. One implication of such a claim is grounded in the knowledge that in first-century Palestine (as well as most elsewhere in the ancient world), the institution of marriage was designed to facilitate the continuation of the family line, and therefore of the whole Jewish people. Marriage was a way of surviving exile by procreation. If Jesus were to be married, many critics say, then it would most likely mean that he had a child, which would be problematically suggesting that Jesus had a continuing family line. What should these people then do with his heirs? Worship them? That's a question fit only for Sir Leigh Teabing, and isn't really one that I care to try to answer. 

However, my hunch is that the problem most people have with Jesus as a married man is that at its core, marriage implies a sharing of power. We typically like to think of Jesus of Nazareth as a lone mysterious figure, traveling the Galilean and Judean landscapes, performing miracles and giving moral teachings while the twelve disciples struggle to keep up with all he is saying and doing. To think that Jesus may have had a wife who shared in some of his most intimate moments of doubt and pain, or indeed in the very development of his moral and cosmological worldview, is for some people quite challenging. Many just don't want to imagine a Jesus who would share his power with another human being.

To be blunt, I don't really care whether Jesus was married. I think it would be fascinating if he did indeed have an intimate human partner—it might make him somehow appear more relatable, in an earthly kind of way  (As Stephen Colbert recently remarked, "Mr. and Mrs. Jesus and Helen Christ. The Christs!"). From what we can glean from the canonical New Testament, however, it appears that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who stressed that the world was soon going to end. While he recognized the created order of marriage (see Mark 10:6-9, Matthew 19:3-6), he taught so much about the imminent breaking-in of the Reign of God (in which there would be no marriage—see Matthew 22:23-33), it seems unlikely that he would marry—his mission regarding the coming reign superseded his obligation to continue his own family line. Indeed, in the four canonical Gospels, it appears that Jesus's idea of family was much more radical—that is, we are all sisters and brothers of Jesus and children of the living Creator God.

The bottom line is that this discovery doesn't change much. It's a fourth-century fragment of an Egyptian papyrus of which we know very little. Without the rest of the manuscript, the most it can possibly tell us is that more than 250 years after Jesus lived, people were beginning to speculate on different aspects of his life and ministry. At this point, we can only watch and wait for King's paper to be published and see how this discovery develops. It may be that there is indeed a second-century Greek text on which this Coptic papyrus is based, hiding out in a jar in a cave somewhere like the Dead Sea Scrolls, or buried in a bundle in the Egyptian desert like the Nag Hammadi Library. It could, ultimately, be proven to be a forgery. Or it may just fizzle its way out of the public eye into archival obscurity, just as the Gospels of Judas, Mary, Philip, and countless other "sensational" gnostic texts have done. 

For more information on the "Gospel of Jesus's Wife," see the following:

• BiblePlaces Blog: "Somebody Once Believed Jesus Had a Wife" (Todd Bolen)
• Evangelical Textual Criticism: "Gospel of Jesus's Wife (Updated)" (Christian Askeland)
• Evangelical Textual Criticism: "Yet Another Question About the So-Called Gospel of Jesus's Wife" (Dirk Jongkind)
• Larry Hurtado's Blog: "'The Gospel of Jesus' Wife'...Maybe...Maybe Not" (Larry Hurtado)
• Larry Hurtado's Blog: "'Jesus' Wife' Fragment: Further Thoughts" (Larry Hurtado) 
• NTBlog: "The Gospel of Jesus' Wife" (Mark Goodacre)
• NTBlog: "The Gospel of Jesus' Wife: The Story Is Moving Fast!" (Mark Goodacre)

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