“Oh no,” I thought, “here we go again.” News of a long lost textual fragment which many will think could undermine traditional Christian faith is breaking, the latest in a long line of interesting discoveries sensationalized by the media into something supposedly subversive of traditional Christian faith. Whether the frenzy concerned the claims of The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross, the Secret Gospel of Mark, St. James’ supposed ossuary, or the Gospel of Judas, when the smoke cleared, traditional Christianity was left standing.
On Tuesday in Rome at the International Congress of Coptic Studies, Karen King of Harvard presented an ancient fragment in which Jesus appears to refer to his wife. The fragment is written in Sahidic Coptic, dates as early as the late second century and as late as the fourth century, and likely comes from southern Egypt. In an article forthcoming in the Harvard Theological Review, King translates the recto as follows:
1 ] “not [to] me. My mother gave to me li[fe…”
2 ] The disciples said to Jesus, “.[
3 ] deny. Mary is worthy of it
4 ]……” Jesus said to them, “My wife . .[
5 ]… she will be able to be my disciple . . [
6 ] Let wicked people swell up … [
7 ] As for me, I dwell with her in order to . [
8 ] an image [
The fragment thus has the potential to launch a feeding frenzy; it’s certainly chum for conspiracy sharks. So far, however, I haven’t observed the insanity I expected. This, I suspect, is due in large part to Dr. King, who is to be commended for conducting herself with academic sobriety and urging it upon others. In her article she writes:
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.
She has also cautioned journalists against seeing much significance here for the historical Jesus. The New York Times reports:
[King] repeatedly cautioned that this fragment should not be taken as proof that Jesus, the historical person, was actually married. The text was probably written centuries after Jesus lived, and all other early, historically reliable Christian literature is silent on the question [ . . . ] Dr. King said she would push the owner to come forward, in part to avoid stoking conspiracy theories. The notion that Jesus had a wife was the central conceit of the best seller and movie “The Da Vinci Code.” But Dr. King said she wants nothing to do with the code or its author: “At least, don’t say this proves Dan Brown was right.”
The long and the short of the matter is this: The fragment tells us nothing about Jesus himself, but may tell us a little about how some heterodox Christians were interpreting Jesus. While it will not revolutionize our understanding of Jesus or undermine traditional faith, it does present an opportunity to discuss crucial issues of faith and scholarship.
First, reputable scholars of whatever persuasion, whether orthodox Christian believers of some stripe or agnostic or atheist believe the canonical Gospels, and particularly the synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke and their putative sources, are the best resources for investigating the historical Jesus. Responding to Dan Brown’s best-selling flight of fancy some years ago, Bart Ehrman, the former fundamentalist Christian-cum-happy pagan agnostic Biblical scholar, offered up a stone-cold glass of sober:
The oldest and best sources we have for knowing about the life of Jesus . . . are the four Gospels of the New Testament, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. This is not simply the view of Christian historians who have a high opinion of the New Testament and its historical worth; it is the view of all serious historians of antiquity of every kind, from committed evangelical Christians to hard-core atheists. This view is not, in other words, a biased perspective of only a few naďve wishful thinkers; it is the conclusion that has been reached by every one of the hundreds (thousands, even) of scholars who work on the problem of establishing what really happened in the life of the historical Jesus, scholars who (unlike Teabing and his inventor, Dan Brown) have learned Greek and Hebrew, the languages of the Bible, along with other related languages such as Latin, Syriac, and Coptic, scholars who read the ancient sources in the ancient languages and know them inside and out. We may wish there were other, more reliable sources, but ultimately it is the sources found within the canon that provide us with the most, and best, information.
Second, many who study later non-canonical texts like The Gospel of Thomas speak not of “Christianity” but “Christianities,” claiming that “orthodoxy” and “heterodoxy” are later post-Constantinian concepts anachronistically retrojected into earlier periods when radical diversity reigned. We see this in the New York Times piece:
It provides further evidence that there was an active discussion among early Christians about whether Jesus was celibate or married, and which path his followers should choose. “This fragment suggests that some early Christians had a tradition that Jesus was married,” she said. “There was, we already know, a controversy in the second century over whether Jesus was married, caught up with a debate about whether Christians should marry and have sex.”
This assumes, of course, that any group, sect, or heresy out there merits the name Christian. Ultimately, however, we must ask: Is everyone who claims the name Christian an authentic Christian? The answer to that question depends on a prior question of interest both to historians and believers: Did Jesus intend for there to be one Church maintaining his teachings as one coherent body of truth? If so, as Pope St. Clement (ca. a.d. 70-100) and St. Irenaeus (ca. a.d. 180) and many other early Christians affirmed, then it’s not quite accurate to suggest that there was some raging debate about Jesus’ marital status within the Christian church. There may have been among certain heterodox sects.
Third, while marriage is a vital aspect of the image of God in Genesis 1, which Jesus affirms in Matthew 19, the New Testament and early Christian tradition regard Jesus as a single celibate, and that does have theological and ecclesial ramifications. His celibacy becomes the warrant and model for priestly, religious, and lay celibacy (many married Christians in the early and medieval periods gave up conjugal relations). But there is something more profound than that easy exemplarism: Above all, Scripture and Tradition affirm that the Church is the bride of Christ who surrenders sexuality (Catholics believe) so that he might pour out all his divine love upon his Church in a covenant relationship reconsummated ever again in every celebration of the holy sacrifice of the Mass. In an age that reduces love to eros and finds virgins strange when it finds them at all, many desire a sexually active Jesus. Thus the celibate Jesus present in the Eucharist becomes a sign of contradiction, wooing us in eternal fidelity to know the highest love of all.
Leroy Huizenga is Director of the Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota. His personal website is LeroyHuizenga.com. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
Karen L. King, “‘Jesus said to them, “My wife…”’: A New Coptic Gospel Papyrus”
Mark Goodacre, The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife
New York Times, “A Faded Piece of Papyrus Refers to Jesus’ Wife”
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