The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife?

discoveries Theology / Biblical Studies

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Suddenly, everyone is linking to news articles about an allegedly shocking new discovery that turns our view of the historic Jesus on its head. The caption under the photo at Stuff reads: “A previously unknown scrap of ancient papyrus written in ancient Egyptian Coptic opens the debate about whether Jesus was married.”

Well actually, no it doesn’t. No new debate is opened, no important new evidence has been discovered. Business is really continuing as usual. But in the view of some, the new discovery will be of much interest, as it contains the words, “Jesus said to them, ‘my wife.”

In a statement released by Harvard University, Professor Karen King says “Christian tradition has long held that Jesus was not married, even though no reliable historical evidence exists to support that claim,” This appears to be a strange reversal of duty. If anyone wishes to claim that there was a woman who was married to Jesus, surely it is they who would need to provide “reliable historical evidence exists to support that claim.” What is more, the fact that all the biographical material written about Jesus, right up to this scrap in the fourth century, do not include references to him having a wife is a significant fact. Given the reverence shown in many parts of the Christian world, even from an early time, to the mother of Jesus, the natural expectation we should have is that if Jesus had been married, his wife would have been singled out as an especially important person. But the reality is that none of the accounts of the life of Jesus that we have even make reference to such a person existing – until this snippet appeared, dating from the fourth century.

King adds: “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.” This is how stories start. The reality is that somebody found a tiny scrap, barely larger than a credit card. We don’t know what piece of writing it was a part of and we have no idea what community produced this piece of writing. But now this fact is overlaid with a tantalising remark: “This new gospel…” Wait – has a new Gospel been discovered? Maybe. We have no real idea what this scrap was once part of. But in no time at all, King has dubbed the work from which the fragment came “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife”!

To her credit, King admits:

This is the only extant ancient text which explicitly portrays Jesus as referring to a wife. It does not, however, provide evidence that the historical Jesus was married, given the late date of the fragment and the probable date of original composition only in the second half of the second century.

But even still, it’s hard to resist juicy innuendo. We are told that this Gospel was written in the context of “a vociferous debate about sexuality and marriage.” It’s important to temper this with the observation that there is just no record of any “debate” about Jesus’ sexuality. None at all. We have a couple of theologians, Clement and Tertullian, claiming that Jesus was not married, and we have little else said on the matter.

The issue of date is, as King grants, sufficient to eliminate this fragment as good evidence of anything. We already know, for example, that incredibly strange and fanciful alternative Gospels were being written in the late second century (think The Gospel of Thomas for example), so a find like this can comfortably be sat alongside other such writings (with the added disadvantage that, given that this is the first time the document has come to light, it obviously did not garner a lot by way of popular support).

But the rather sober and mundane facts of the matter are never going to turn a journalist off the scent of a scandal.

The Huffington Post (no surprises there) called the discovery “shocking,” although who is actually shocked is anyone’s guess. Massaging the notion that Jesus being married is a fairly common suggestion, it throws this wee gem into the mix: “The life of historical Jesus is often a matter of controversy, and this is not the first time it’s been proposed that Jesus was married. Most recently, Dan Brown’s novel “The Da Vinci Code” depicted Jesus as being married to Mary Magdalene.” That may not be the best way to make the claim sound more plausible (but there’s at least a chance the Huff’s writers and editors aren’t aware of that).

A news writer over at Stuff remarks,

Despite the Catholic Church’s insistence that Jesus was not married, the idea resurfaces on a regular basis, notably with the 2003 publication of Dan Brown’s best-seller ‘The Da Vinci Code’, which angered many Christians because it was based on the idea that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and had children.

“Angered” is hardly the word (perhaps the writer is attempting to connect dots to the angry protests over an anti-Islamic film happening as I write this). The film was more of a laughing-stock among early church historians and New Testament scholars. But notice that the idea that Jesus was not married is here presented as the position represented by the Catholic Church. The fact is, quite regardless of church affiliation, Jesus being married is simply not a view taken seriously across the spectrum of New Testament scholars – and churches for that matter. It’s a cute attempt to imply that it’s the Catholic Church in one corner and the rest of us in the other, but such is not reality.

So is there anything shocking here? No. Does this change anything in regard to what the overall body of evidence on the life of Jesus has to show us? Not in the least. Will it get people excited, bloggers blogging about the orthodox Christian cover-up of the real Jesus and the suppression of the truth? No doubt.

Prepare yourself. Suddenly, people are going to read a sensational article about a tiny scrap of parchment and become experts on early church history.

Glenn Peoples

 

PS – If you’re generally interested in the subject of sensationalising early church history, you might enjoy the podcast episode, “Sexing up early church history.

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{ 28 comments… add one }
  • Dan September 19, 2012, 6:43 pm

    Oh dear, the mainstream media is way behind as usual. Just wait until they discover the Apocalypse of Peter or the Shepherd of Hermas.

  • Noel G September 20, 2012, 2:30 am

    Now the same folk who argued vehemently against the authority and validity of scripture are earnestly trying to convince me how amazing it is that Christ had a wife!

  • Nick Peters September 20, 2012, 4:34 am

    Let’s see how this works in the skeptic mind.

    Piece of information taken from the 4th century saying Jesus had a wife.

    Skeptic reply: Obviously a landmark historical discovery that shows a cover-up and this information must be taken seriously!

    Next evidence: Gospels that most all but the fringe of scholars would agree were written within 100 years of the life of the person they describe.

    Skeptic reply: Biased and too late to be used for information.

  • Sus Schmitt September 20, 2012, 7:40 am

    Thank you! Very well written. I’ll direct my friend to your article. Here’s my contribution to the discussion: http://mikeandsus.org/2012/09/the-wife-of-christ-and-the-bride-of-christ/

  • Mariano September 20, 2012, 2:02 pm

    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.

  • Wm Tanksley September 20, 2012, 6:05 pm

    Also note that this article — and the original report — slips in a “date” of “original composition” of second century, in Greek. Frankly, I don’t see how they could possibly derive that; the fragment is in Coptic, and it’s 4th century (assuming it’s not a fraud of some kind). It’s still interesting and early, and like Glenn said the missing context is where the real story is, but the date is nowhere near as interesting as they pretend — I mean, imagine if a Christian were to say that the early manuscript evidence for John PROVED that John was penned in 50AD.

  • Duncan Brown September 20, 2012, 11:23 pm

    It’s a strategy. Don’t worry about logic, or how recent the news item or whether it’s backed up by research or peer review. If you can repeat a falsehood often enough it sows doubt, makes Christians look as if they are divided and confuses the masses who in days to come will remember and repeat something they think they heard that kinda made sense. It’s people using the media/blogosphere to sow red herrings.

    And they quote a (well-publicised) NOVEL to prove their point. Maybe I should quote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to prove mine.

    They also say, “the idea resurfaces on a regular basis” Oh yeah? unquoted, unfounded, sloppy journalism! Who said it, other than the writer?

  • drj September 21, 2012, 4:59 pm

    Oh please guys… this isnt some conspiracy against Christians to make them look bad – good grief.

    It’s the media – its a conspiracy to sell newspapers, generate hits, page views, etc.

  • Glenn September 21, 2012, 7:34 pm

    Whether it makes anyone look bad, drj, is obviously a matter of opinion. But the clearly deliberate innuendo – as seen in the quotes reproduced in this blog post – is that the Christian tradition has willfully suppressed those voices that it didn’t want people to hear, and that it has claimed that Jesus was not married without any real evidence.

    You might think this would not make anyone look bad if it were true. I don’t share that view.

  • Max September 22, 2012, 3:08 pm

    Also worth noting that in Coptic (as in Greek from which it was possibly translated) the word for woman and wife are the same. Whether “my woman” would make sense in this context is a valid question, but the translation “wife” seems to have been leapt on without any discussion as to whether this is the best translation. Just a thought.

  • Glenn September 23, 2012, 11:05 am

  • Stewart Polley September 23, 2012, 11:58 am

    So, I’m just commenting on this so that I can get emails sent to my inbox when you do a new post.

    Enjoy reading.

  • Nick Peters September 23, 2012, 12:12 pm

  • Glenn September 23, 2012, 3:37 pm

    To be perfectly honest, it makes no real difference if this is a forgery or not. If it’s a forgery, then it’s a forgery meant to look like a fourth-century document of very little value. And it’s not a forgery? Well, then it’s simply a fourth-century document of little value.

  • Isaac September 26, 2012, 3:36 am

    The words that are stated in the papyrus is simply, “Jesus said to them, My wife…” The word, them, as mentioned here refers to many people and yet the phrase, My wife, refers to a wife. As the phrase, Jesus said to them My wife, is mentioned in this papyrus, it simply refers to the so-called, Jesus, refers to many people to be his wife. It must be a joke instead of fact. If Jesus would have a wife, it should mention that Jesus said to her instead of them, My wife. As it is simply a joke, why take it so seriously that Jesus could be married.

  • Pulse of Religion December 11, 2012, 10:06 am

    The authority and validity of any works is what ever authority and validity you give it, no matter how good or bad the exegesis or apologia. If it has authority and validity, despite what others think or say, then no one has anything to worry about. But, if you think you can work your way or witness your way or others to “salvation”, you have just disagreed with your own belief. By the way, there are also many other inspired books and writings besides the bible which is really retakes of very old and ancient stories. But, what ever inspiration you may see and inspire to, that inspiration may also be yours. Just be consistent and not kill others for their own beliefs and inspirations. That last sentience goes for Christian, Mormon, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Jew, etc. That is the reason for hypocracy. People see through that hypocracy and it makes you fools. And Yes, Islam is for the most part a peaceful religion or at least no more deadly then the God of the Judeo-Christian Bible. Let peace flow from your convection’s, then the world will change.

  • Nick Peters December 11, 2012, 3:49 pm

    Would you please tell what criteria are used to determine that a work is inspired?

  • Pulse of Religion December 12, 2012, 7:50 am

    I know that you want to split hairs about the word “inspiration”. From an artistic point of view, there are many inspired works. If, the scriptures are just collections of artistic inspired works then they are inspired in this way. It would be easy to do with the New Testament because they already had a collection of the Old Testament books and extras like the book of Enoch.
    The “inspired” writers of the New Testament would have already known what, how, when, where a Lord or Messiah would need to come. To inspirationally fulfill those prophecies by “creating” the characters, creating the witnesses, creating the stories would not be difficult while using actual living people. A self made prophecy fulfilled by fragments, codex’s, scrolls of which none fully agree, could easily be what they are today. Men collected them, men interpreted them, none agree, and thousands of words have multiple meanings. Many translations have versus that do not exist in other translations as well as whole sections of chapters. God can do better if, He is omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence,eternal, immutable, etc. as many believe the God inspired word is. I suppose even Jesus could have written something himself since you can’t use the idea that he was stupid, if you believe he is God. God has not changed. The god’s have not changed. Triune, trinity, 3 in one, monotheism, polytheism it all has existed since ancient times we call them by different names, concepts, exegesis or apologetic’s but it’s still the same. We even have shows called “American Idol”. Man has been inspired since ancient times. If someone wants to change the word to mean God inspired or breathed that is up to them but, it doesn’t relegate the idea that men put it all together and continue to this day. In fact to say it is God Inspired is to make those men god’s.

  • Nick Peters December 12, 2012, 8:00 am

    Part 1

    Pulse: I know that you want to split hairs about the word “inspiration”.

    Reply: Yeah. I know. Silly belief I have. I just like to have people tell me what terms that they use mean. Tell you what. We’ll do it your way. We’ll just use terms and give them no objective meaning and see how that goes!

    Pulse: From an artistic point of view, there are many inspired works. If, the scriptures are just collections of artistic inspired works then they are inspired in this way.

    Reply: This does not tell what inspiration is. In fact, it looks like you’re confusing inspiring with inspired. The two are not the same. There are many Christian writings not in the canon that are inspiring. That does not equal them being inspired.

    Pulse: It would be easy to do with the New Testament because they already had a collection of the Old Testament books and extras like the book of Enoch.

    Reply: Showing it can be done is not the same as showing that it has been done. It would be easier to create a fictional account of a moon landing, therefore the moon landing was faked!

    Pulse: The “inspired” writers of the New Testament would have already known what, how, when, where a Lord or Messiah would need to come.

    Reply: This assumes that they were writing to convince themselves or else just write fiction. Could it be instead that they wrote because they believed a fulfillment had taken place?

    Pulse: To inspirationally fulfill those prophecies by “creating” the characters, creating the witnesses, creating the stories would not be difficult while using actual living people.

    Reply; Except the gospels are not in the genre of fiction but that of Greco-Roman biography. Furthermore, a fictional account would not have the hero dying a shameful death. It is entirely possible that the NT writers could have used the style of a heroic novel, but that does not mean that the accounts would be fictional.

    Pulse: A self made prophecy fulfilled by fragments, codex’s, scrolls of which none fully agree, could easily be what they are today.

    Reply: What are your sources on textual criticism?

    Pulse Men collected them, men interpreted them, none agree, and thousands of words have multiple meanings. Many translations have versus that do not exist in other translations as well as whole sections of chapters.

    Reply: That’s “verses.” Actually, we know what the verses are because the textual reliability of the text is so excellent. Had you really read anything on textual criticism, you would know this.

    Pulse: God can do better if, He is omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence,eternal, immutable, etc. as many believe the God inspired word is.

    Reply: Ah. The classical laziness. If God is who He is, then the history of the text would have been micro-managed entirely. So should a scribe who wrote the long letter been zapped immediately? Should any copy with a misspelled word be automatically consumed in miraculous flames? Do you even know what it would mean if we did not have copies? If we just had one inerrant manuscript, first off, no one would believe it hadn’t been changed. Second, it would be a devastating tool of control.

  • Nick Peters December 12, 2012, 8:02 am

    Part 2

    Pulse: I suppose even Jesus could have written something himself since you can’t use the idea that he was stupid, if you believe he is God. God has not changed. The god’s have not changed.

    Reply: I feel like I’m reading a stream of consciousness thing. Jesus didn’t write. So what? He was a teacher. He would have expected his disciples to do that. Writing was also very expensive in Jesus’s day as would be producing copies. Jesus had limited time and limited resources. Why should He spend those writing?

    Pulse: Triune, trinity, 3 in one, monotheism, polytheism it all has existed since ancient times we call them by different names, concepts, exegesis or apologetic’s but it’s still the same.

    Reply: I take it you don’t know the meaning of half the terms you use. Still, do show the Trinity that always existed outside of the NT.

    Pulse: We even have shows called “American Idol”. Man has been inspired since ancient times. If someone wants to change the word to mean God inspired or breathed that is up to them but, it doesn’t relegate the idea that men put it all together and continue to this day. In fact to say it is God Inspired is to make those men god’s.

    Reply: That last “god’s” does not need to be possessive. All of this and you STILL did not answer what inspiration is and how it is determined.

  • Pulse of Religion December 12, 2012, 8:13 am

    Here is a definition of inspiration: Inspiration (from the Latin inspirare, meaning “to breathe into”) refers to an unconscious burst of creativity in a literary, musical, or other artistic endeavor. The concept has origins in both Hellenism and Hebraism. The Greeks believed that inspiration came from the muses, as well as the gods Apollo and Dionysus. Similarly, in the Ancient Norse religions, inspiration derives from the gods, such as Odin. Inspiration is also a divine matter in Hebrew poetics. In the Book of Amos the prophet speaks of being overwhelmed by God’s voice and compelled to speak. In Christianity, inspiration is a gift of the Holy Spirit.

  • Nick Peters December 12, 2012, 8:19 am

    Any evidence that’s what Christians mean when they say the text is inspired?

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