‘Jesus wife’ papyrus: Christians have nothing to fear, but something to learn

Karen L. King AP This Sept. 5, 2012 photo released by Harvard University shows a fourth century fragment of papyrus … Continued

Karen L. King

AP

This Sept. 5, 2012 photo released by Harvard University shows a fourth century fragment of papyrus that divinity professor Karen L. King says is the only existing ancient text that quotes Jesus explicitly referring to having a wife. King, an expert in the history of Christianity, says the text contains a dialogue in which Jesus refers to “my wife,” whom he identified as Mary.

Trying to do ancient history is like assembling an enormous jigsaw puzzle—but we only have a small percentage of the pieces, these are mostly middle pieces, and there is no box lid to provide a model of the completed puzzle. Every once in a while, a new piece comes along with such a clear, vivid picture that we are able to reorient the puzzle and gain a new perspective on the whole.

This is not one of those moments.

The newly published Coptic papyrus does not fundamentally change what we historians of early Christianity are doing. So let’s not overestimate it.

But let’s not underestimate it either. When trying to complete the puzzle of early Christian history, every new piece is a godsend. The international guild of papyrologists, of which I am a part, hones its linguistic skills and sifts through bins and bins of cartonnage (small scraps of reused papyrus) in order to prepare for moments such as these. The Coptic papyrus is especially welcome because it’s a connector piece in our puzzle: its content shares enough similarities with existing pieces that we know roughly where on the table to put it. But it also offers a new detail: “Jesus said to them, ‘my wife…’”

AP

In this Sept. 5, 2012 photo released by Harvard University, divinity professor Karen L. King holds a fourth century fragment of papyrus that she says is the only existing ancient text that quotes Jesus explicitly referring to having a wife.

Professor Karen King, who will be publishing the papyrus, has been abundantly clear that this text does not mean Jesus was married; rather, it tells us a bit about some Christians in the second or third century who either thought Jesus was married or used the symbol of Jesus’ wife for some other meaning. Her forthcoming article speaks well and clearly to its intended audience of historians.

I would like to offer a complementary viewpoint: Christians have nothing to fear from this text, but always something to learn.

Some contemporary Christians have been outright dismissive of non-canonical texts from early Christianity, as if their very existence is dangerous or even diabolical. Many early Christian leaders from the beginning, though, did not maintain such a strong canonical boundary. Even Athanasius of Alexandria, the fourth-century bishop and champion of orthodoxy, encouraged Christians to engage with a wide range of scriptures, including those from outside the emerging New Testament.

In the present day, Pope Benedict XVI—no wild-eyed liberal—quotes favorably from the non-canonical Didache and the Gospel of Thomas, a collection of sayings preserved most thoroughly in Coptic, in his books about Jesus. At last year’s Easter Vigil service in St. Peter’s Basilica, the pope even included in his homily a non-canonical saying of Jesus, which is preserved in the Gospel of Thomas.

Some of the most dismissive opinions toward non-canonical literature come from traditional, conservative Catholics. This is deeply ironic: an exalted view of the Virgin Mary and a profound veneration for her perpetual virginity are features found in the early non-canonical traditions. Most key Marian stories and dogmas are not found in the Bible, but in other early traditions. For example, the Infancy Gospel of James, likely a second-century text, is the primary textual repository of Mary’s biography and the doctrine about her perpetual virginity.

In short, Christians should approach new discoveries not in fear, but with a spirit of inquiry. When we do, we find that this new Coptic papyrus provides corroborating evidence, however miniscule, about what were some “live debates” in the second-fourth centuries. For instance, the new text is concerned with the worthiness of a woman to be a disciple. This is something historians have already seen in the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Thomas. The popularity of Mary Magdalene as the apostola apostolorum (“apostle to the apostles”) is well known from late antiquity. In addition, with the rise of asceticism in the third and fourth centuries of Christianity, especially in Egypt where monasticism began, many women sought a spiritual discipleship of sexual renunciation as a means of liberating themselves from submissive roles.

As for the headline-grabbing statement about Jesus’ “wife,” historians also can situate this alongside preexisting evidence. The Gospel of Philip, another non-canonical text probably from the second or third century, famously presents Mary Magdalene as the “partner” or “companion” of Jesus. Yet some scholars would argue that the Gospel of Philip overall disavows carnal marriage and instead endorses a kind of celibate, spiritual marriage between believers (as brides) and Christ (as groom). Such nuptial imagery is rooted in the canonical New Testament texts, in which salvation is imagined as a wedding feast. The Gospel of Philip expands on this imagery and describes Christian conversion and initiation as a sacramental marriage in a “bridal chamber.” Many other mainstream texts offered variations on that theme.

It is likely that, whatever words completed the sentence about Jesus’ “wife,” the new fragment came from a text that engaged some of the central questions of its day for Christians: Were sex and procreation blessings God wished for everyone? Or was some spiritual value to be sought in renunciation and celibacy? If Jesus spoke in figurative language of weddings, brides, and grooms, what and whom specifically was he talking about? The transmitter of this ancient text was likely trying to understand these legitimate questions, along with how Jesus’ singleness (or not) was to be understood as a model of Christian holiness.

Christians need not fear such timeless questions. We keep learning and striving to understand the issues that generated our past—even when its pieces are puzzling.

Michael Peppard is assistant professor of theology at Fordham University, where he teaches Bible, early Christianity, and ancient languages (including Coptic). His book, “The Son of God in the Roman World: Divine Sonship in Its Social and Political Context,” is available in paperback.

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  • clascoutx

    …coin(E)=koineion(Gk)=brothel, tavern=Commons/common.
    …koinobios(Gk)=convent.
    …koinolektros(Gk)=common bed/lecho(sp)=consort.
    …koinos(Gk)=common/public.
    …koinoonos(Gk)=companion, fellow, partner.
    …koinoploos(Gk)=shipmates.
    …koinoonia(Gk)=communion, social intercourse.
    …no wife there, but there are more robust translations of the Bible, e.g.,
    the Greek Version.

  • jfitzmorris2

    Thid is a marvelous article that places the gnostic gospels in a proepr prospect. The media tens to sensationlzie these texts for obvious reasons and the traditionalists react without reflexivedly. peppard puts light of solid critical scholarship on the situation and hope that it has an effect

  • Rubovitch

    Jesus Christ was just a man. A simple carpenter. It is only logical he would take a wife.

  • SimonTemplar

    “…it tells us a bit about some Christians in the second or third century who either thought Jesus was married or used the symbol of Jesus’ wife for some other meaning.” Michael Peppard

    I think you are jumping the gun a bit. First off, we don’t yet know if the document is authentic. Odd that she presents here exegesis on the document, and so many promote it, before anyone even knows whether it is authentic or fake.

    Peppard also over states the case that this document represents the beliefs of Christians when it could be just another example of Gnostics rewriting history.

  • SimonTemplar

    As I said, the document is not even confirmed as authentic. And you call this “solid critical scholarship”?

  • Robert Lyles

    I want to know what the Hebrew manuscrips say! I no longer believe in mans religion and its constant mistakes! I am tired of not getting the truth. Lets face it without it nobody will get to Heaven. so show me where ittalks about such things in the Hebrew text, maby even the TORAH Amen !

  • itsthedax

    Or…Emperor Constantine was concluding a civil war, and didn’t wanted to preclude any more civil unrest, so he had the new testament cobbled together to be consistant with the cults of Mithras and Sol Invictus. By doing this, he prevented the use of religion as a pretext for another rebellion.

    The moral: This fragment of papyrus is unimportant. Religious texts are not history books, or science books. They’re not about facts. They’ve always been about politics.

  • Secular1

    SimaonTemplar, so what is your speculation that fragment of document represents, insofar as it’s authenticity. There is only attribute that is of any concern to us regarding it’s authenticity is concerned is it’s age. The rest of whatever it represents is of no real material value. It’s as though a new fragment of a manuscript of Dumas reveals that Edmond was actually part of the conspiracy. Do we learn anything from it? Nothing profound, except – ” ah! shucks I wonder how would Dumas had developed the story forward”?

    Next coming to your dig at gnostics, how do you support your claim that gnostics were re-writing history. They hardly had the opportunity to have gained the upper hand and tried to rewrite what was already an accepted tradition. It was more of teh other way round. To victor go the spoils of history , in addition to the spoils.

  • SimonTemplar

    I dont understand what you are saying but I’ll try to answer as best I can. Paul’s writings are actually the earliest form of written Christian theology and there is plenty of evidence that he wrote during the first century. Paul argued against the earliest forms of Gnosticism. The Gnostics have no authority to rewrite Christian theology, as they have done, and expect that we should consider if valid. It is not more valid than Joseph Smith or Charles Taze Russel reformulating Christian Theology. If someone wants to believe in Gnosticism or Mormonism or the Watchtower, they have every right to do so. But they should not expect the Church to rubber endorse their position and they should in fact expect us to state (like Paul) why we disagree.

  • XVIIHailSkins

    If we were to discover some new information about the personal life of say Socrates or Confucius, do you think an entire section of the Washington Post’s website would be devoted to the dissemination of this new knowledge? Do you think journalists and comment section warriors would engage in debates over how this information should affect our reading of either philosopher? Of course not, because arguments over meaningless trivialities are essential to the character of religion. It is just another mechanism by which the people in power keep the masses distracted from issues that truly affect the public interest. If you take the question of Jesus’ marital status seriously, then you probably won’t be wondering about who finances presidential campaigns, why we have the highest documented incarceration rate in world history, why less than half of Americans vote, etc.

  • SODDI

    If christians had nothing to fear and hate and were able to open themselves to learning new things, they wouldn’t be christians anymore.

  • backspace1

    Con-damnation?
    Since when is a strike-t-order questioned?
    i’m just an artoficial lifeform.

    Let us not debate the need for a christian teachings? for i am the most uneducated when it comes to placing the kingdom and the people before you, hence watch your back?
    and in what bracket sha;ll the need for reform be applied, out to pasture or in terra cotta-form?
    interesting the self education of a delusional mind.

    i don’t mind looking dumb, humble and
    abysmal-in performance i might say?

  • DRJJJ

    Should Christians protest violently over this worldwide-na, love God and love others! Note: all general and specific revelation regarding Jesus is contained in the inspired word of God/the Bible and written by the Holy spirit-not progressive professors FYI!

  • DRJJJ

    There’s room for one more!

  • DRJJJ

    Time Magazine interview with Einstein in his 50s:

    To what extent are you influenced by Christianity? “As a child I received
    instruction both in the Bible and in the Talmud. I am a Jew, but I am enthralled
    by the luminous figure of the Nazarene.”
    Do you accept the historical existence of Jesus? “Unquestionably! No one can
    read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life!”

  • DRJJJ

    Jesus was a man-thank you for acknowlegding him-and the savior of the world-as the 500 that saw him assend would tell ya!! Eye witness testimony can put a man to death today!

  • cybervigilante

    Why is there even an argument about this. Jesus was publicly called a “rabbi” and according to the Jewish law of the time a rabbi had to be married. The only reason for mystification on this issue is the centuries of priestly celibacy of the Catholic Church, which is an Institutional rule not enjoined by the canonical New Testament. The church hierarchy, since they enforced celibacy for reasons of power and discipline, didn’t want it known that the founder and greatest priest of their religion was married.

  • cybervigilante

    Claiming Jesus was celibate also assisted the church in their historical denigration of women.

  • yeshu2004

    Christianity first appeared in Egypt in 42 AD in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, a city founded by Alexander. Jesus’ disciple Mark preached in Alexandria and many became Christians. If Jesus had a wife, Mark, a contemporary and disciple of Jesus, would have told the new converts, the Coptic Christians. Alexandria was a well developed, cultured city with a huge library. Rome was ruled at that time by Claudius, with a strong Christian population in Rome. There was also a theological school in Alexandria, the Catechetical School, the oldest school in the world. Founded around 190 AD by the scholar Pantanaus the school of Alexandria became an important institution of religious learning, where students were taught by scholars such as Athenagoras, Clement, Didymus, and Origen, the father of theology and who was also active in the field of commentary and comparative Biblical studies. The theological institutions of Egypt and the great Christian scholars who lived in Egypt long before this fake papyrus fragment was found, do not say anywhere that Jesus had a wife. In these circumstances, Karen’s thesis that the early Christians believed that Jesus had a wife is a fallacious fabrication. Karen claims that this papyrus was written 400 years after the resurrection of Jesus. Who owned it all these 1612 years? Why the Coptic Church in Cairo was not aware of it? How could Karen fix the age of the papyrus to 400 years without subjecting it to carbon dating? Probably it would have been produced quite recently by using a crumpled papyrus. So there is something fishy, something shady and something malefic in the entire episode. It is evident from all accounts that the faded papyrus fragment is fabricated, manipulated and concocted with a sinister motive. If such a fake papyrus about Mohammed had been exhibited, the fate of the Dutch film maker Theo Van Gogh would have happened to the sponsor.

    Dan Brown also scandalized Jesus in his book, The Da vinci Code. Dan Brown told a lie that t

  • IntellectOne

    There was never any doubt about both Fakes, the “Divinity” professor ,Karen L. King, and the fourth century fragment of papyrus, with such a Scandals statement. The question? why didn’t she ‘Authenticate’ it before putting this garbage out to the public? Because, her whole intent was to put doubts into peoples minds about the Person, Jesus Christ. What a low-level professor. Ten to one, she is an Obama supporter.

  • cprdcnats

    Sowing confusion upon traditional Christian teaching through a coordinated, corrupt media campaign sounds more like the work of the devil than any honest attempt at scholarship.

  • cprdcnats

    The teaching that Jesus did not have a wife stretches back to a time in the Catholic Church where priest celibacy wasn’t even required. That became a church discipline – not doctrine – within the Roman rite in the 11th century. Although certainly celibacy was practiced by many including Paul and, of course, Jesus as well as present even among Jews (Jeremiah, Essenes). The timeline doesn’t work well for your conspiracy theory.

  • Bluefish2012

    Given the use of bridal imagery in the Bible, why wouldn’t it be just as likely, if the passage is genuine, that Jesus said something along the lines of Mt. 12:50—“For whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, and sister, and mother?” He might have said, “My wife….is all of mankind.”