You have probably observed the media fuss over the ancient text – a lost gospel? – that apparently refers to “Jesus’s wife.” The story is a classic illustration of how the media misinterpret religious stories, but the underlying issue is of rather more interest.
Briefly, Harvard Professor Karen King reported the discovery of a Coptic text from around 400AD, and she presented her findings in a scrupulous and responsible way. She argued strongly for the authenticity of the actual document – although some other scholars have been more sceptical. King further suggested that the text was a translation of a late second century work, presumably written in Greek. (The dating of such works tends to float over a longer and vaguer time frame that extends into the mid-third century, but that is not a massive criticism).
At no point did her paper claim that the text was particularly early, that it relied on any independent sources, or (thus) that it had any special authority for rewriting Jesus’s biography. As she says, “It does not … 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 did, however, make the undeniable point that some early Christians believed that Jesus was married, or somehow sexually involved with one or other women disciples. This is not the first ancient text to make such a claim. Usually, the alleged “wife” is Mary Magdalene.
I should add that King’s interviews venture into the “married Jesus” arena. She has asked, for instance “Why is it that only the literature that said he was celibate survived? And all of the texts that showed he had an intimate relationship with Magdalene or is married didn’t survive? Is that 100 percent happenstance?” Well, no, it’s not happenstance, it just reflects the church’s historically informed opinions about which accounts of Jesus were written at an early date and happened to reflect authentic historical traditions, and the Mary Magdalene stories were late and hopelessly derivative. King, though, admirably distinguishes between such informal speculations and the formal work in which she asserts only what she can defend in strictly scholarly terms.
King really has no responsibility whatever for the flawed media reporting of the past week. This includes, for instance, the New York Times report that
the discovery could reignite the debate over whether Jesus was married, whether Mary Magdalene was his wife and whether he had a female disciple. These debates date to the early centuries of Christianity, scholars say. But they are relevant today, when global Christianity is roiling over the place of women in ministry and the boundaries of marriage. The 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.
Dare I ask: why should this recent discovery make any difference whatever to those debates? If new evidence showed that Jesus was married, it might be relevant, but as King herself remarks, in itself it shows no such thing. So why the supposed “implications”?
I do have one point of disagreement with Professor King, or at least a question. She says that “this new text pushes the date at which some Christians were asserting that Jesus was married back to a time contemporaneous with the earliest assertions that he was celibate.” In other words, she notes that only in the late second century did Christians actively and positively assert Jesus’s celibacy, around the supposed time of this text.
But can we not read the canonical four gospels as evidence of Jesus’s unmarried state, if not a religiously-based celibacy? The gospels, clearly, never mention a wife, and if she had existed, it is likely that she would feature in any one of a number of passages. We think for instance of moments where locals say they know this Jesus – they know his mother, his brothers and sisters. They tell him how worried his family is about him – but again, never a wife. Why? Really, there are three plausible reasons:
1.Jesus really was married, but all four gospel writers deliberately and explicitly chose for whatever reason not to mention the wife, to conceal her existence and paint her out of the picture. Some speculate that this amnesia arose from early power struggles in the Christian community, leading to the intentional exclusion of Mary Magdalene.
2.Jesus indeed had been married, but his wife had died before he began his ministry, the era of interest to the evangelists. His marital history was not relevant to them.
3.Jesus was never married.
I have a very difficult time with the first of these explanations, because it is so utterly unsupported, and because sweepingly successful conspiracy theories are so implausible. The wife left not a trace in any of the four gospels, not to mention anywhere else in the New Testament or the Apostolic Fathers? Also, there is ample reason to explain why later writers postulated the Mary Magdalene link, because their theologies so often demanded a kind of spiritual gender balance, and a role for feminine figures to balance male. Jesus had to be given a female counterpart, and Mary was the obvious figure in the gospels to be assigned this role.
On a minor note, it is interesting that the early church placed such heavy weight on blood relationship to Jesus, and venerated the descendants of his brothers. Nobody, though, ever cited a child of Jesus, at least before Dan Brown. It is quite possible that Jesus and a hypothetical wife had no surviving issue, but there is no evidence for the gospel writers having suppressed a whole family. If they had existed, we would have heard about them.
I can say nothing about the second explanation, which remains wholly unknowable.
But the third, an argument for celibacy, is quite possible given what we know about some of the Jewish mystical traditions at this time, and the existence of celibacy among the contemporary Essenes.
I would suggest, then, that the gospels themselves do make the case for a Jesus who was unmarried, if not necessarily celibate, a long time before the appearance of any imagined “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.”