“The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” tells us far more about ourselves than about Jesus

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By now you will have seen something about “the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife”. Here’s how the smh reported it,

A previously unknown scrap of ancient papyrus written in ancient Egyptian Coptic includes the words “Jesus said to them, my wife,” – a discovery likely to renew a fierce debate in the Christian world over whether Jesus was married. The existence of the fourth-century fragment – not much bigger than a business card – was revealed at a conference in Rome on Tuesday by Karen King, Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “Christian tradition has long held that Jesus was not married, even though no reliable historical evidence exists to support that claim,” King said in a statement released by Harvard. “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.” 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. King said the fragment, unveiled at the Tenth International Congress of Coptic Studies, provided the first evidence that some early Christians believed Jesus had been married.

and here’s a news report…

The announcement from Harvard is here. So what’s going on with this? Well, not much. If you read the full paper by King [pdf] you’ll get a very clear sense of what this does not tell us,

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.

Even the “probable date of original composition” is likely to be a little later than that. What you basically have here is the equivalent of, at the most generous, somebody writing a piece today about George Washington disclosing that he was gay. Or may have been gay. Such a piece would, of course, say far more about us than about Washington.

Not surprisingly, there’s been a lot of response to the find. Al Mohler helpfully notes,

 The little piece of ancient papyrus with its fragmentary lines of text is now, in the hands of the media, transformed into proof that Jesus had a wife, and that she was most likely Mary Magdalene. Professor King will bear personal responsibility for most of this over-reaching. She has called the fragment nothing less than “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” — a title The Boston Globe rightly deemed “provocative.” That same paper reported that Professor King decided to publicize her findings before additional tests could verify the fragment’s authenticity because she “feared word could leak out about its existence in a way that sensationalized its meaning.” Seriously? King was so concerned about avoiding sensationalism that she titled the fragment “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife?”

This is sensationalism masquerading as scholarship. One British newspaper notes that the claims about a married Jesus seem more worthy of fans of Dan Brown’s fictional work, The Da Vinci Code, than “real-life Harvard professors.” If the fragment is authenticated, the existence of this little document will be of interest to historians of the era, but it is insanity to make the claims now running through the media.

Indeed, a long long bow is being drawn here. Darrell Bock observes further,

 The lines in question have next to no context. In the next line after the mention of the wife is a remark about a disciple. This brings a spiritual dimension immediately into the discussion. The idea of her being worthy does the same. Gnostic texts defend women as worthy of being disciples in which Mary Magdalene is often the example. The late Gospel of Mary Magdalene does this as does Thomas saying 114. The latter does it in a somewhat strange way by saying Jesus will make Mary male in order that she can qualify for the kingdom! All of this in those other texts takes the few lines we have in the fragment. It shows how discussions of real people can also be about spiritual realities, where the person represents a group.

Holladay says the Jesus wife fragment is about real people. On that we all agree. The question his response does not treat is in what role are these real people placed? My point is that the disciple noted could simply be seen as a representative of what the church is, a wife or bride of Christ. Without any more context there is no way to tell.

But let’s assume the text does say Jesus had a wife. What does that show? Nothing about the real Jesus, as all who have responded to this text have said. It is too late and probably belongs to too fringe a group to reflect the real Jesus.

If, indeed, it is even authentic (via Lionel Windsor).

 Most of its individual phrases are taken directly from the Coptic version of the Gospel of Thomas – the best-known and most complete of the ancient gospel texts that have come to light over the past century or so. The author has used a kind of “collage” technique to assemble the items selected from Thomas into a new composition. While this seems an unlikely way for an ancient author to compose a text, it’s what might be expected of a modern forger with limited facility in the Coptic language.

Of course, noone is accusing King of faking it. But if it is fake then we are not at all surprised that King would seize upon it anyway. It’s right up her street.

Back to Mohler,

Professor King claims that these few words and phrases should be understood as presenting a different story of Jesus, a different gospel. She then argues that the words should be read as claiming that Jesus was married, that Mary Magdalene was likely his wife. She argues further that, while this document provides evidence of Jesus’ marital status, the phrases do not necessarily mean he was married. More than anything else, she argues against the claim that Christianity is a unified body of commonly-held truths.

The thread that ties all these texts and arguments together is the 1945 discovery of some 52 ancient texts near the town of Nag Hammadi in Egypt. These texts are known to scholars as Gnostic literature. The texts present heretical narratives and claims about Jesus and his message, and they have been a treasure trove for those seeking to replace orthodox Christianity with something different.

Several ambitions drive this effort. Feminists have sought to use the Nag Hammadi texts to argue that women have been sidelined by the orthodox tradition, and that these Gnostic texts prove that women were central to the leadership of the early church, perhaps even superior to the men. Others have used the Nag Hammadi texts to argue that Christianity was diverse movement marked by few doctrinal concerns until it was hijacked by political and ecclesiastical leaders, who constructed theological orthodoxy as a way of establishing churchly power in the Roman Empire and then stifling dissent. Still others argue that Christianity’s moral prohibitions concerning sexuality, and especially homosexuality, were part of this forced orthodoxy which, they argue, was not the essence of true Christianity. More than anything else, many have used the Nag Hammadi texts as leverage for their argument that Christianity was originally a way of spirituality centered in the teachings of a merely human Christ — not a message of salvation through faith in a divine Jesus who saves sinners through the atonement he accomplished in his death and resurrection.

Lionel also has some helpful remarks,

Despite such flimsy evidence, why do so many people want Jesus to be married?

Maybe it’s because many of us are deeply suspicious of the organised, institutional “church”, so we’re predisposed to believe anyone who casts doubt on the writings of the New Testament and the Christian message, without properly checking it out.

Maybe it’s because we assume sex makes us human. Sexuality and sexual relationships are so often seen today as keys to our self-definition and our identity. If Jesus were married, he’d be a powerful pin-up boy for the quest to put sexual expression at the core of our own humanness.

We so want Jesus to affirm our own desires and priorities but He remains elusive. At least in that respect. But He is, at the same time, perfectly attainable in the words of the canonical gospels. When we stop searching for the Jesus who affirms our desires and accept the real Jesus we find a far more wonderful figure. One who subverts so many of our assumptions of what life and humanity are all about.

Rich Mullins put it well,

and you ought to also look at this:

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This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Kate

    Love the cartoon.

  2. Michael Snow

    Excellent point about the spirit of our times.

    Whether this ‘fragment’ is fraud or simply lends itself to false teaching, it is heresy. Where are the theologians?

    And how many of us miss an opportunity like this, when Jesus is in the news, to share the true Jesus with those being misled by the media?

    1. David Ould

      thanks Michael. Yes, I think you’re right – it’s all opportunities to point people to Jesus and how we can know the truth about him.

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