03 December 2012

Did Jesus have a wife?

by Dr Philip Church

A couple of months ago the news broke that in a previously unpublished papyrus fragment dated perhaps to the fourth century, but maybe a copy of a text from two centuries earlier, words apparently from the mouth of Jesus refer to someone as “my wife ...” The previous line refers to someone called “Mary.” The research was carried out and the text published by Professor Karen L. King of Harvard University, and is available on the internet – apologies for the long URL - (http://www.hds.harvard.edu/sites/hds.harvard.edu/files/attachments/faculty-research/research-projects/the-gospel-of-jesuss-wife/29865/King_JesusSaidToThem_draft_0920.pdf).

The secular media was ecstatic, and indeed in the UK the Daily Mail put it like this, “If genuine, the document casts doubt on a centuries old official representation of Magdalene as a repentant whore and overturns the Christian ideal of sexual abstinence.” Then, underneath a picture of the fragment it included the caption “Explosive: The ancient papyrus that apparently proves that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene” (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2205673/Jesus-Wife-papyrus-Proof-Jesus-married-declared-forgery-unconvincing-experts.html). Of course this is nothing new. Scholars have known for some time that certain Gnostic sects had speculated about the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. And of Dan Brown made it more specific in The Da Vinci Code!

The fragment in question is a piece of papyrus about the size of a credit card. It contains the remnants of eight lines on the front, and the much shorter remnants of five lines on the back. Professor King called it The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife. As anyone who works with ancient texts, especially fragmentary ones such as this, knows, certainty in interpretation often eludes the interpreter. Indeed as Peter Williams, Warden of Tyndale House notes, “it might more appropriately be named The Fragment about Jesus’s Relations, since there’s no evidence that it was a “gospel” and the text mentions at least two family members” (http://www.tyndale.cam.ac.uk/ReJesusWife?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Did+Jesus+Have+a+Wife&utm_content=Did+Jesus+Have+a+Wife+CID_7bb6cae6df6082e08b017f9c0f0abc71&utm_source=CampaignMonitor&utm_term=here). This title sounds slightly less “explosive” does it not?

One of the Harvard websites discussing the fragment contains some questions and answers, the first of which is “Does the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife prove that Jesus was married?” wisely, Professor King (presumably) responds in the negative, and then adds, “Nor is there any reliable historical evidence to support the claim that he was not married, even though Christian tradition has long held that position” (http://www.hds.harvard.edu/faculty-research/research-projects/the-gospel-of-jesuss-wife).

For me this raises the question of the reliability of the four canonical Gospels. Now, while it is true that the Gospels are silent on Jesus’ matrimonial status, it seems hardly credible to suggest that the silence does not say something. Sometimes silences speak volumes. Mary Magdalene, who appears more in the Gospels that any other woman apart from the mother of Jesus, is the favourite candidate for his wife. She appears twelve times in all, and in all four Gospels. She is one of the four women at the cross of Jesus, with his mother, his mother’s sister and Mary the wife of Clopas (John 19:25). And while three others are described in terms of their relationships, she is described simply as Mary Magdalene.

In the same scene the disciple whom Jesus loved, the eyewitness who wrote the Gospel, was also standing there. Jesus committed the care of his (widowed) mother to him, but he utters not a word about his soon-to-be widowed wife! Indeed, he seems to have ignored her completely. Would the one who quoted Gen 2:24 (‘for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh,” Matt 19:5) have said nothing about ongoing care for his wife at the same time as he said something about ongoing care for his mother?

It is fashionable in some quarters to cast doubt on the NT documents, written as indeed they were, by followers of Jesus who were in no sense impartial observers. The same scholars seem also to prefer to trust documents written several generations later. Sometimes the documents are fragmentary, and sometimes their authenticity is in doubt.

On another level, it would make no difference at all to my faith if Jesus had been married, and even married to Mary Magdalene, for as another unknown first century follower of Jesus wrote, “Let marriage be held in honor by all” (Heb 13:4). It just seems to me that the evidence of the NT points to his being unmarried. I would rather trust this than some fragmentary text of doubtful authenticity.

Scholarship has moved quite fast on this fragment. Within about a week of the news breaking I discovered a paper by Francis Watson of Durham University. After a close examination of the fragment, Watson concludes “[t]he text has been constructed out of small pieces – words or phrases – culled mostly from the Coptic Gospel of Thomas (GTh), sayings 101 and 114, and set in new contexts. This is most probably the compositional procedure of a modern author who is not a native speaker of Coptic” (http://markgoodacre.org/Watson.pdf). Watson’s arguments seem cogent to me. But, of course, we should not expect to see anything of this in the mainstream media. It is not quite as explosive as suggesting a wife for Jesus.

And most recently, according to New Testament scholar Craig Evans, the Harvard Theological Review has declined to publish Professor King’s article. Whether or not this decision arose from a formal peer review is unclear. But certainly, the fragment has been examined by numerous scholars, many of whom conclude that it is a recent forgery. According to Evans, the decision not to publish is “very wise” (http://nearemmaus.com/2012/09/25/update-on-the-gospel-of-jesus-wife-from-craig-a-evans).

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