Here we go again: So was Jesus married or what?

JANET ASKS:

What is your opinion on the historicity of the ancient text mentioning Jesus’ wife? What are the implications for the Christian faith?

THE GUY ANSWERS:

To decide what to make of this text, which has one word that apparently says Jesus was married, it’s all-important to know when it was written. So the wits at www.christianitytoday.com take the prize for funniest religious pun of the month, if not the year, with their headline:

“How to Date Jesus’ Wife”

The quick journalistic summary for Janet is that experts think the text is either a modern fraud, even possibly a joke, or if genuine gives a glimpse of some unknown cult 6 centuries or more after the fact. So it gives us no reliable information about the actual Jesus. But the hubbub reveals both modern scholars’ revisionist itch and the hunger of many people to learn more about history’s single most intriguing personality. If solid proof that Jesus took a wife were ever to turn up someday, yes, that would presumably scramble concepts of his divinity, especially if we also learn that the Son of God had a son or a daughter. However, such finds seem unlikely in the extreme.

The background in more detail:

In 2003, the goofy “Da Vinci Code” novel toyed with the old tales about Jesus marrying Mary Magdalene. The Mrs. Jesus chatter seemed to shift from fiction to fact in 2012 when Karen L. King of Harvard Divinity School told a confab at the Vatican about this scrap of papyrus, a bit smaller than a credit card, with writing in Egypt’s Coptic language. King figured it came from a lost document she grandly titled “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife’ (or “GJW”), much to the distress of scholars like Larry Hurtado at Scotland’s University of Edinburgh. King originally thought the fragment was “ancient,” probably from the 4th Century A.D., and carried on a belief she said could reach back to the 2d Century.

The 33 words that survived included this partial line: “… Jesus said to them, my wife …”

King properly cautioned that this didn’t mean the real 1st Century Jesus of Nazareth was married, just that centuries later some group thought he was. As the furor died down, 10 experts went to work studying GJW. Their conclusions are reported in the current Harvard Theological Review. Skipping technicalities, here are the basics:

Date: Radioactive carbon dating puts the papyrus between A.D. 659 and 859, with a mean date of 741, far beyond King’s original hunch. It is not “ancient,” which generally signifies times before the fall of Rome in A.D. 476. (Since GJW mentions Jesus, it’s amusing that the first radiocarbon test dated it “Before Christ,” apparently because the sample studied was too small for accuracy.) Experts who maintain that this is all a hoax (see below) propose that a modern forger simply obtained an old piece of blank papyrus to write on.

Ink: Because of that possibility, the dating of the ink is crucial. Unfortunately, radiocarbon testing to help settle things hasn’t occurred because that would destroy the fragment. Only the chemistry and structure of the ink were examined.

Contents: The Coptic word “chime” may mean “woman” instead of “wife.” In either case, Leo Depuydt of Brown University and Francis Watson of Britain’s Durham University dissent from the Harvard team and call this a modern-day fake. They say grammatical mistakes show the author couldn’t have known the Coptic language. Their theory is that the forger patched together phrases lifted from the Gospel of Thomas, another old Coptic text that became available in 1956. Notably, GJW replicates a mistake in a Thomas version posted online. (Thomas itself mentions no “wife” and is notoriously scornful toward females.) With the new testing, Depuydt remains absolutely convinced “the document is a forgery, and not a very good one at that.”

Provenance: A text’s historical background is key in judging authenticity, but we know little. King declines to identify GJW’s owner but says he bought it with a batch of documents in the late 1990s from H.U. Laukamp of Berlin, who died 13 years ago. Laukamp in turn reportedly acquired the manuscript in the 1960s in (then) Communist East Germany. The preceding 12 centuries are a blank.

Handwriting: A paleographer (specialist in ancient writing styles) could neither absolutely prove nor falsify authenticity.
The earliest and best source on Jesus, as always, is the lst Century New Testament, which says nothing about a marriage. Those who speculate about the odds of a wife argue — correctly — that Jewish men were expected to marry. But they often ignore the religious exceptions, including John the Baptist, followers of the Essene sect, and certain scholarly rabbis. Presumably Jesus was referring to himself in Matthew 19:12 (“some men have given up marriage because of the kingdom of heaven,” New Century Version). There’s a confusing 3d Century Coptic text known as the Gospel of Philip that perhaps hints Jesus had a female partner, but not a wife in the usual sense because this sect’s male-female pairs were celibate.

GJW may tell us nothing about Jesus, but it reveals much about our hyper-sexualized culture, and about liberal hopes that early heretics can raise modern-day problems for the Christian tradition. As Smithsonian magazine observed, Episcopalian King’s career “has been a kind of sustained critique of what she calls the ‘master story’ of Christianity” and its “myth of origins.”

Harvard’s Web site about the Jesus text. And here are some reactions to the new reports.

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About Richard Ostling

Richard N. Ostling, a religion writer for the Associated Press, was formerly senior correspondent for Time magazine, where he wrote twenty-three cover stories and was the religion writer for many years. He has also covered religion for the CBS Radio Network and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS-TV.

  • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

    Easter Season, Christmas Season brings out all those in the academic world seeking to puff up their resumes and those in the media out to make a buck or a name for themselves. Or is it just coincidence that these “discoveries” regularly surface and get BIG play at Easter Season, Christmas Season.

    • Nils

      It’s always the same old heresies, just a different century (or millennium!).

  • http://www.BrianJones.com/ Brian Jones

    Richard, outstanding response. Puts into perspective why those in our culture become obsessed over titillating pieces of academic leftovers.

  • Chas S. Clifton

    It looks like some readers blew right past this sentence: “King properly cautioned that this didn’t mean the real 1st Century Jesus of Nazareth was married, just that centuries later some group thought he was.”

    So maybe it is not about people trying to tear down orthodox Christianity now—maybe it was about the struggle to define orthodoxy centuries ago, which is also interesting. But some folks are threatened even by historical questions.

  • Charles Wingate

    It ought to be pointed out in this that the group which believes it to be a modern forgery (created by cribbing phrases from the Gospel of Thomas) is unmoved by the dating results, because they believe that a modern forger would use a genuinely old papyrus as a base. One of their number has a response in the HTR issue.


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