Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Did Jesus have a wife?

The Gospel of Jesus's Wife fragment
A newly discovered papyrus quotes Jesus as referring to his own wife. The line is translated from Sahidic Coptic as: "Jesus said to them, 'My wife ...'" Dr. Karen King, professor of divinity at Harvard Divinity School, calls the papyrus "The Gospel of Jesus's Wife." This is the earliest statement (4th century) referring to Jesus having a wife that is known to exist. Dr. King says that it proves that there was an "active discussion among early Christians about whether Jesus was celibate or married." The papyrologists and Coptic linguists to whom she has shown the manuscript are all convinced that it is genuine and not a forgery. The papyrus is only 4 by 8 centimeters, smaller than a business card. According to the article in the New York Times, King cautioned that this was not proof that Jesus was married.

I have already been asked by students for my thoughts on this. First, I don't know Sahidic Coptic and probably never will. Second, I'm not a papyrologist. However, if the translation is accurate (and I have no reason to doubt it) and the dating is accurate (and dating these papyri can be controversial, but again, I have no reason to doubt it), then I still have some questions.

1) Why call a 4 by 8 centimeter fragment "The Gospel of Jesus's Wife"? The fragment is probably part of a larger manuscript that might have virtually nothing to do with this one line. The title of the fragment suggests that there is a whole narrative built around Jesus' wife.
2) Can this one tiny fragment bear the weight of the claim that there was an "active discussion" about Jesus' marital status? One fragment in the 4th century does not equal an "active discussion."
3) All we have so far is Jesus saying "My wife" but no verb and no object. Some might say that the most likely assumption was that Jesus (in the fragment) was referring to a literal wife. I ask this: could the Jesus figure in the fragment have been referring to a "spiritual" wife? Is it even possible that the Jesus figure in that fragment said, "My wife is the church and I am her groom"? Maybe something like that could be possible. When two words of a sentence are present, is that enough to make such wide sweeping claims. For example, what if we found a fragment that said: "Jesus said, 'I am a liar ...' People would then bring up the issue of whether Jesus sinned or not and say this was a widespread debate. However, maybe the sentence would finish with "I am a liar if I tell you I was not sent by the Father." These two words are not enough.
4) Finally, there were lots of heresies by the fourth century: Sabellianism (aka, modalism; ca. 3rd century), Docetism (rejected in 4th century), Apollinarianism (4th century), and Arianism (late 3rd century). Just because someone believed something in the fourth century, doesn't make it historically true about Jesus. Dr. King states this herself.

This fragment should not concern anyone in the Christian faith. It might make big headlines, but a 4th century fragment is no reason to allow your faith in God and His Holy Word to be shaken. The picture we have of Jesus in the four Gospels is reliable and accurate.

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