Mrs. Jesus

You’ve probably heard of the papyrus document christened by some “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.” That’s a big title to put on a scrap the size of a credit card, but note that most of the handful of papyrus manuscripts dated to the earliest days of the church aren’t much bigger.

The phrase of interest in the manuscript is, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife.…’”

Was Jesus saying, “Take my wife, please”? We don’t know the context because the scrap has just 33 words on both sides.

The document is written in Coptic and is thought to have come from the fourth century CE, but it appears to be a translation of a Greek document from the second century.

Though the document has declared authentic by some experts, more work remains before the relevant scholars can reach a consensus. One of the most compelling arguments in favor of its authenticity is that very few people would be able to create such an excellent hoax. The hoaxer would have to be a scholar himself.

On the other hand, this isn’t beyond consideration. The provocative 1973 discovery The Secret Gospel of Mark is thought by many to be a hoax created by the very man who first reported the find.

Many Christians have been eager to discount this discovery. Not only might it be a forgery, there are other issues.

  • “Wife” could simply be a metaphor for the church. This would fit with Gnostic thinking of the time. For example, the third-century Gospel of Philip suggests that Jesus and Mary Magdalene weren’t just work mates.
  • Scholars know nothing about where the manuscript came from, which denies them an important source of evidence to consider.
  • This is thought to be a fourth-century copy of a second-century document. Even if this is authentic, there’s a lot of distance between this document and the historical events. Changes can be added by copyists, and no one knows how the story might have evolved over the decades from Jesus to the original document.

The second century was a time when marriage was debated within the church. The apostle Paul discouraged children. He made clear that marriage was second best and that chastity was preferable (1 Cor. 7). Marriage wasn’t even a Christian sacrament until the twelfth century. The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife could be an important data point in our understanding of the changing views of marriage in the early church.

The Christian commentary that I’ve read is antagonistic to the idea of a married Jesus. That shouldn’t be surprising, I suppose. There’s a lot at stake here. The Roman Catholic Church has reiterated its ban on both women and married men as priests, using the life of Jesus as a model. A married Jesus (which, after all, would have been the state of a typical Jewish man during that time) might also add weight to the Adoptionist view of the early Jesus, where Jesus was simply an ordinary man who was adopted by God because of his sinless devotion.

But Jesus being married shouldn’t cause too many problems since his dad was married as well. Like Father, like Son? The solitary Yahweh is a late development, and before the Babylonian exile (586 BCE), Yahweh was often paired with Asherah (or Astarte, Ashtoreth, or Ishtar). This pairing is explicitly seen in extra-biblical evidence, but we do see clues within the Bible. King Josiah reformed Judaism to allow only Yahweh worship, but these reforms document that Asherah worship happened within the Temple (2 Kings 23:4–7).

Here’s what I find odd about Christian pushback against this new evidence. They skillfully point out the weaknesses in the argument, and good for them. Our goal should be to set agendas aside and discover if this document is genuine and, if so, what to make of it. But why can’t they be just as skeptical about the tenuous claim that the gospel of Mark was written by a companion to Peter, who was an eyewitness (I explore that here)? Or be that skeptical about the “Why would they die for a lie?” claim that the apostles’ martyrdom points strongly to the historicity of the gospel story (I explore that here)?

We all have our biases. Maybe the many Christians who play both sides of this question—earnest about evidence they like and skeptical about what they don’t—honestly don’t see the hypocrisy. But then my job is to gently tell the Christian that he’s got something green stuck in his teeth.

Life is not a warmup.
Live, learn, love, life.
— Randy Rumley

Betting on Biblical Prophecy? Chances Are You’ll Lose.
10 Skeptical Principles for Evaluating the Bible
Betting on Biblical Prophecy? Chances Are You’ll Lose.
Debunking 10 Popular Christian Principles for Reading the Bible (3 of 3)
About Bob Seidensticker
  • Richard S. Russell

    This is clearly schism fodder. Every time the members of some denomination find some subject where the truth of the matter cannot possibly be known, they choose up sides, each insisting with equal conviction and no evidence that they, and they alone, have it 100% correct, due to they, and they alone, having been inspired by the Holy Spirit. Then they have half a decade or so of a pissing contest, following which the gang with about 40% of the congregation goes off in a huff so they don’t have to hang out with those narrow-minded bigots, while those left behind say of the apostates and heretics “goodbye and good riddance”. This most famously happened with Martin Luther, but non-trivial examples of it may be found in the Southern Methodist and Southern Baptist denominations, which splintered off from their northern counterparts because of their own insistence that the Bible not only condoned but mandated slavery. (I happen to agree with them.)

    Perhaps the best illustration of how foolish this can get is the Emo Phillips bridge-jumping Baptist joke, which is too long to reproduce here, but you can google it; it’s worth the 2 minutes it takes.

    So, Bob, how’s the prayer experiment going? Any whisperings from Jesus yet? I know you’ve still got something like 5 weeks left to run, but perhaps some early glimmerings or twinklings?

    • Bob Seidensticker

      The example that comes to mind for me was a tiny fundamentalist polygamous LDS sect. They had some doctrinary dispute, so they split–into two tinier sects.

      It’s not just the big boys that have these silly squabbles.

      (The Emo Phillips bit says it all.)

    • Bob Seidensticker

      As for whisperings by the Big Guy, nothing much to report. I’ll have more to say about Week 1 in a post on Monday.

      The most interesting coincidence: I was working at the United Way Day of Caring on Friday and when I returned home, I realized that my “Good without God” wristband was gone. Spooky! (Or maybe the lesson was that I should be more careful taking off my work gloves.)

  • Richard S. Russell

    Oh, hell, it’s too good NOT to make it instantly available. Thank you, Emo:

    = = = = = =

    I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off. So I ran over and said “Stop! Don’t do it!”
    “Why shouldn’t I?” he said.
    I said, “Well, there’s so much to live for!”
    He said, “Like what?”
    I said, “Well…are you religious or atheist?”
    He said, “Religious.”
    I said, “Me too! Are you Christian or Buddhist?”
    He said, “Christian.”
    I said, “Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?”
    He said, “Protestant.”
    I said, “Me too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?”
    He said, “Baptist!”
    I said, “Wow! Me too! Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?”
    He said, “Baptist Church of God!”
    I said, “Me too! Are you Original Baptist Church of God, or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?”
    He said, “Reformed Baptist Church of God!”
    I said, “Me too! Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915?”
    He said, “Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915!”
    I said, “Die, heretic scum!” and pushed him off.

    • Hausdorff

      Makes me laugh every time.

      Thanks :)

  • Peter

    In several places Jesus is called rabbi in the NT. From what I understand to be a rabbi you must be married. Jews, being practical people, determined you can’t give marital advice if you’ve experienced married life. case closed.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      That’s an interesting idea. Can you find some documentation for rabbis being required to be married?

      • Greg G.

        The only book where Jesus is called “Rabbi” is in the Book of John (according to the KJV on The first time he is called that is John 1:38

        Then Jesus turned, and saw them following, and saith unto them, What seek ye? They said unto him, Rabbi, (which is to say, being interpreted, Master,) where dwellest thou?

        so it seems that it only means “Master” rather than any other connotation.

        • Peter

          My version of the KJV has Jesus being called a rabbi in Matthew and Mark.

      • Peter

        Can find anything definite and seems to depend on whether you’re asking an Orthodox, Conservative or Reform Jew.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      I do recall some verse that said that church leaders couldn’t be polygamous (which Christians point to with glee and claim that the Bible rejected polygamy). But I don’t remember anything about a marriage requirement.

      One other factor: I think the rabbinic tradition was a first-century thing, so we must watch out (if that’s true) that we don’t take a later tradition and apply it inappropriately onto the Jesus story.

    • Darren

      I read an interesting piece about this once, I suspect in A. N. Wilson’s “Jesus: A Life”.

      When we first see the adult Jesus, he is at a wedding, and the wedding runs out of wine. The servants of the house seek out Jesus to find out what should be done.

      Why would they do this? If Jesus was just another guest, what would he possibly have to do with provisioning of a wedding feast? This was _before_ he became the travelling miracle show, at best he might have been an up-and-coming radical holy man, so the servants would not have been expecting some type of miraculous loaves-and-fishes trick. So, why bother him with running out of booze at a wedding?

      A plausible theory is that it was his wedding. I have no idea how such things were done in biblical times, but certainly if the servants were asking if they could have more money to go out and buy more wine, it would make the most sense to speak to the man who’s party it was…

      Certainly there are other plausible explanations, perhaps it was Jesus’s cousin’s wedding, but nobody could find the groom ‘cause he was making out with a bridesmaid in the closet…

      • Bob Seidensticker

        Darren: Nice thinking. I hadn’t heard this before.

        Do you listen to the Bible Geek podcast? This is the kind of comment that it might be fun to get his take on. He accepts listener questions. You might want to send it in.

        A single Jewish man during that period would’ve been pretty odd, so having him married makes sense.

  • Greg G.

    Though the document has declared authentic

    What exactly does “authentic” mean here? Would a 7th century fake of a 4th century document be authentic? If it was a 4th century fake of a 2nd century document, is that authentic? If it is a legitimate copy of a fake 2nd century document, is it authentic? If it is a 4th century copy of a translation of a copy of a copy of a 2nd century fictional document, is it authentic? How old would it have to be for it to not be authentic?

    • Bob Seidensticker

      “Authentic” means that it is, indeed, a 4th-century document. Or at least that was my interpretation.

      Before that point, there is indeed much room for hanky panky. Copyists or translators can tweak, change, or add. And before the (supposed) 2nd-century Greek original, we have decades of oral tradition, and who knows what authority that had.

      It’s much like the Bible itself. I write about its long and tortuous path to our hands here.

  • Beth

    “Maybe the many Christians who play both sides of this question—earnest about evidence they like and skeptical about what they don’t—honestly don’t see the hypocrisy. But then my job is to gently tell the Christian that he’s got something green stuck in his teeth.”

    How do you gently tell the Christian? This is a big problem I face in my life. Christians in my family basically plug their ears and hum. “Nananana I can’t hear you!”

    • Bob Seidensticker


      How do you gently tell the Christian?

      It’s one thing to tell them in a polite way; it’s quite another to get them to listen, as you point out!

      Taking a line from Christian apologetics, we need to put a stone in their shoe. That is, give them something that’s just a little burdensome, like a song that won’t get out of your head.

      Christians don’t often deconvert, but it does happen.

      My goal is the step prior to that: getting them to think. Don’t just operate on autopilot; don’t be a Christian simply because you were raised that way.

      That’s what I wrote my book for.