The headlines, as usual, are sensational: “Shedding new light on Jesus’ marital status?”; “A faded piece of papyrus refers to Jesus’ wife; Historians believe it is authentic; may reignite debate.”
The article that follows, published in today’s Post-Gazette, was written by Laura Goldstein of the New York Times. It concerns a tiny piece of papyrus in the possession of Prof. Karen L. King, an historian of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School.
The papyrus fragment includes a text in Coptic (an Egyptian language written with Greek characters) including the phrase, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife . . .’” A later clause says, “She will be able to be my disciple.” As far as Prof. King and other scholars can determine, the papyrus dates from the 4th century. She guesses that it may have been copied from a 2nd-century text.
Back to the headlines. None of them is actually wrong, although the first is certainly misleading, saved only by the question mark at the end. As the article points out, Prof. 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, reliable Christian literature is silent on the question, she said.” Just so.
What this text tells us is that its writer portrayed Jesus as having a wife. That is interesting as a reflection of the author’s outlook, but does not constitute strong historical evidence that Jesus was actually married. In this regard, the present discovery is much like the “Gospel of Judas” that was brought to public notice in 2010. That document, apparently produced within a 2nd century Christian community influenced by gnosticism, has Jesus commend Judas as his best disciple. For more on that document, on gnosticism, and on how we should regard such finds, see this article that I wrote at the time.
To the headlines again. There can be no disputing that “a faded piece of papyrus refers to Jesus’ wife.” That “historians believe it is authentic” is true as long as we read the article and see that here “authentic” means “actually a 4th century scrap rather than a much more recent forgery.” “Authentic” does not imply, as we saw Prof. King emphasizing, that the document is accurate in seeing Jesus as married.
Finally, the “may reignite debate” headline. This one is undoubtedly accurate—anything will get people arguing again over things we think important enough to argue over. According to Ms. Goldstein, the papyrus could spur debate over whether Jesus was married, whether Mary Magdalene was his wife and whether he had female disciples. She notes that debates on these questions seem “relevant today, when global Christianity is roiling over the place of women in ministry and the boundaries of marriage.”
I think it safe to say that the new find will become an occasion for more discussion on these issues. I don’t believe that it has anything new and substantial to bring to that discussion. What we might say about the questions themselves is perhaps matter for future blog posts!
A final note, for the sake of accuracy. Ms Goldstein says in the article that discussion “is particularly animated in the Roman Catholic Church, where despite calls for change, the Vatican has reiterated the teaching that the priesthood cannot be opened to women and married men because of the model set by Jesus.”
It is a mistake to say that the Catholic Church says that the priesthood cannot be opened to married men. There are married Roman Catholic priests—generally men who were married Anglican or Episcopal priests and who joined the Catholic Church. Celibacy for priests is a matter of discipline in the Catholic Church, not a matter of doctrine. Theoretically, the Church could modify this discipline at any time.
On the other hand, Pope John Paul II wrote in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis in 1994 that, as a matter of doctrine, “the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women.”
© 2012 Andrew K. Bechman