The Gnostic Noise Machine and the “Wife” of Jesus UPDATED

I was going to let the whole “Jesus had a wife” thing pass by in silence, since the discovery of a minor fragmentary unprovenanced 4th century papyrus of a probable Gnostic text is about as relevant to actual Christianity as an episode of Scooby Doo.

If it turns out to be authentic (big if) it may very, very slightly and incompletely expand our knowledge of some of the fringe backwaters that burbled up and rapidly drained away in the early centuries of Christianity. Honestly, though, it doesn’t even really add much to our store of knowledge about Gnosticism (one of the earlier Christian heresies) that we didn’t already know.

I assumed it would just fade away as another academic sham perpetrated by the Gnostic noise machine, first set in motion by the disgraceful work of Elaine Pagels in her popular book The Gnostic Gospels (1979) and rolling on ever since. (Pagels most famously claimed that the spurious Gospel of Thomas predated the Gospel of John and that St. Paul was the source of the Gnostic traditions. Thanks for contributing that to our efforts to misunderstand early Christianity, Dr. Pagels. We have some lovely parting gifts for you on your way out.) The names affixed to the story–the New York Times, Laurie Goodstein, and Karen L. King–assured me that this was a minor bit of attention-seeking that would soon collapse under its own pretensions. Silly me.

First, a little bit on the players in the story. The Times has notoriously horrible religion coverage. Goodstein is the least competent major religion reporter I’ve ever read. She was last seen marveling about how the unrecorded and thus unbroadcast Stephen Colbert and Cardinal Dolan forum at Fordham for 3,000 students “might have been the most successful Roman Catholic youth evangelization event since Pope John Paul II last appeared at World Youth Day.”

Next up in our dramatis personae is Karen L. King, who, Ms. Goodstein breathlessly informs us, is “is the first woman to hold the nation’s oldest endowed chair, the Hollis professor of divinity,” because academic credentials taketh away the sins of the world, particularly “first woman” credentials. (That’s an actual quote from the Gnostic Gospel of Fred. Prove it isn’t.)

Perhaps more important is the fact that she was a member of the Jesus Seminar, an absurd body of self-styled revisionists who “voted” on the authenticity of scripture passages and, most notoriously, decided that the Gospel of John was a sham. Their members produced wonderful theories, like explaining that the empty tomb of Christ is easily explained by wild dogs eating his body, or that Jesus didn’t exist at all. They are to actual near-eastern religious studies what Lady Gaga is to quality music: minimal talent married to stunning self-promotion skills. There is so much superb work done in NT studies that you need to pick and choose, and an easy way to trim down your reading pile is to ignore any writer whose biography includes the words “Jesus Seminar.” You’ll save yourself endless headaches and radically limit your exposure to stupidity.

King’s specialty is women’s roles in the early Church, and her focus has been on Gnostic texts. The Christian Gnostics are indeed a fruitful area of study, since they represent certain currents of thought in Greek philosophy mixed with a radical warping of Christ’s message, misunderstanding or outright hatred of Judaism, misogyny, contempt for the body, and general all-around nuttiness. The Gnostics got the whole neoplatonic thing all wrong, and it wasn’t until St. Augustine that someone got it right. Nonetheless, Gnostic studies are fascinating and the texts–mostly collected in the Nag Hammadi Library–are often striking.

King has an agenda. Let’s be very clear about that. She makes some throat-clearing gestures in the Goodstein article towards downplaying the outrageous claims being made for “Jesus’s wife” fragment, but she’s positively panting to prove it to be true. To get an idea of what she thinks Gnostic texts prove, here’s a little taste from her book, The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle (note that even her title is a lie):

Yet these scant pages provide an intriguing glimpse into a kind of Christianity lost for almost fifteen hundred years. This astonishingly brief narrative presents a radical interpretation of Jesus’ teachings as a path to inner spiritual knowledge; it rejects his suffering and death as the path to eternal life; it exposes the erroneous view that Mary of Magdala was a prostitute for what it is-a piece of theological fiction; it presents the most straightforward and convincing argument in any early Christian writing for the legitimacy of women’s leadership; it offers a sharp critique of illegitimate power and a utopian vision of spiritual perfection; it challenges our rather romantic views about the harmony and unanimity of the first Christians; and it asks us to rethink the basis for church authority. All written in the name of a woman.

One trick both King and Pagels use (and the two collaborated on a book on–wait for it–The Gospel of Judas) is to try to date their preferred texts earlier and canonical texts later. This is the case with King’s work on the Gospel of Mary, which she dates to early Christianity, but which certainly dates to no earlier than the late 2nd century. (One of the oldest copies was found at our old friend the Oxyrhynchus dump, and is probably 3rd century.)

We can see some of this dating-game being played out in the New York Times article on the fragment being given the absurd name The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife. (Book, documentary, and speaking tour by Professor King to follow.) The earliest date King is willing to assign to the fragment is 4th century, which of course makes it a very late piece of text of minimal use to understanding anything about early Christianity. This date is not based on testing: too much of the document would need to be destroyed for carbon dating and, for some odd reason, it hasn’t been subject to spectrometry. However, 2 of the 3 experts asked to review it for The Harvard Theological Review doubt its authenticity. So, even the 4th century date might be bunk, but let’s just accept that date as solid.

Later in the article, however, King links the text to the Gospel of Thomas, possibly written in the late 2nd century, and presto-chango! The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife becomes a 2nd century text! How? Beats me. I don’t have an endowed chair at Harvard, so I can’t tell you how a minor textual parallel magically knocks a couple hundred years off the date of a document. It might just mean someone in the 4th century read Thomas.

But I do know that “4th century” text about Jesus’s wife = no headlines, while “early Christian” text about Jesus’s wife = book contracts, and possible collaboration with James Cameron.

So what, exactly, is this document? I’ll let Ms. Goodstein spell it out for you:

A historian of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School has identified a scrap of papyrus that she says was written in Coptic in the fourth century and contains a phrase never seen in any piece of Scripture: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …’ ”

The faded papyrus fragment is smaller than a business card, with eight lines on one side, in black ink legible under a magnifying glass. Just below the line about Jesus having a wife, the papyrus includes a second provocative clause that purportedly says, “she will be able to be my disciple.”

There is nothing even a tiny bit shocking in that sliver of text, for reasons that should be thumpingly obvious to anyone with a passing familiarity with the New Testament, the church, or Christian history. Why is that?

  1. Christ did have a wife. More like a bride. We still talk about her today. Actually, we still are her today: the church. See also John 3:29, Matthew 25:1-13, Mark 2:19, Luke 5:34, Revelation 21:9, & c, & c. Spousal imagery is central to the early church’s understanding of herself. Early homilies on the Song of Songs drove this point home again and again. Bridal imagery is not just incidental to Christianity, it’s integral.
  2. Women disciples. Guess what? Yeah, you already figured it out. We know about them too. The Virgin Mary, the other Marys, Martha, Joanna, Susanna, and others…. What’s that? You mean a feminist revisionist scholar of an early Christian heresy is trying to blur the distinction between disciples and apostles? Say it isn’t so!

Let’s move on to some other claims:

But the discovery is exciting, Dr. King said, because it is the first known statement from antiquity that refers to Jesus speaking of a wife. It provides further evidence that there was an active discussion among early Christians about whether Jesus was celibate or married, and which path his followers should choose.

“This fragment suggests that some early Christians had a tradition that Jesus was married,” Dr. King said. “There was, we already know, a controversy in the second century over whether Jesus was married, caught up with a debate about whether Christians should marry and have sex.”

The claim that there was “active discussion” within the early Church of Jesus being married is simply false. If this is “further evidence” of that discussion, what’s the unambiguous “primary” evidence we already have? The subject wasn’t even up for debate. The man who urged his followers to become “eunuchs for the kingdom” certainly wasn’t going to marry, and no one in the early Church claimed he did.

The article goes on to say that “historically reliable Christian literature [a mysterious phrase, that] is silent on the question.” Again, that’s false. As we’ve seen, it is not silent on the role of Christ as bridegroom. In fact, it talks about it quite a lot. Indeed, a huge swath of early Christian text about Christ-as-bridegroom is turned into gibberish by the idea that he has a flesh and blood wife.

Now, there was plenty of debate about whether Christians should marry, but that’s a whole ‘nother subject, and that’s not what she’s claiming.

We are also told that the fragment contains the line “Mary is worthy of it.” Worthy of what? We’re supposed to think she’s worthy of something modern feminists would want her to be worthy of: apostleship, priesthood, marriage, a thriving career followed by 1.5 children in her late 30s, a Lexus, etc.

Let’s go back to that pesky old Gospel of Thomas (you know: the one that’s more authentic than the Gospel of John) to see what this idea of Mary being “worthy” could possibly mean:

Simon Peter said to Him, “Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of Life.”

Jesus said, “I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Hoo-kay: awkward. Nice of “Gnostic Pretend Jesus” to say Mary was worthy of life, but she’d be better if she would just grow herself some wedding tackle. Wait a minute, if Mary was his wife, and he wanted her to be a man, then … oh please, just make the stupid stop.

King “repeatedly cautions” that the fragment does not constitute historical proof, while subtly implying it does just that. Why is this even a little bit important? Goodstein makes it obvious for the NYT readers who were getting a little logy by this point in the article:

Even with many questions unsettled, 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.

Is everything becoming clear now? A tiny, late fragment of a woefully incomplete text with some parallels to known text (Thomas) is hardly worth an article in Biblical Archaeology Review. But fashion it into a cudgel to beat the church with (a favorite practice of the New York Times) and you have blaring headlines. Look, I almost made early non-canonical texts (primarily OT pseudepigrapha) the focus of my studies, so I would never, ever deny the need to look at every scrap we can get from the years 200BC to 200AD. They fill in vital details about the world in which Christianity took root and flowered. However, they will never–they can never–change the revealed truths of the faith. They are merely footnotes.

But let’s not allow that to get in the way of the latest “really real Jesus” the revisionists keeping trying to sell. Forget all that continuous witness and testimony guff. This tiny scrap of justifiably forgotten junk is the real truth, not all those texts copied again and again for hundreds of years. If it has no relation to historical testimony or textual consistency, then it must be the truth. The exception is the rule.

This is what certain Gnostic scholars do: they manipulate tiny shreds of evidence and milk an ignorant mainstream media in order to whip up imaginary controversies. The latest talk about “Jesus’s wife” is just another discordant note in a loud and grating noise machine that’s been playing the same tune for over 30 years.

UPDATE: Marcel LeJeune and Jimmy Akin also take a whack at this pinata, with far less snark.

UPDATE 2: Here is King’s own FAQ and transcription of the fragment. As she did in the NY Times article, she (correctly) denies that this says anything about the historical Jesus, but goes on to make several spurious points about what it might say and its actual dating. The identification of it as “probably written in Greek in the second half of the second century” is unfounded. I’ll readily grant the 4th century date even in the absence of spectography, since the linguistic and papyrology evidence appears to be strong, and nothing argues against an apocryphal Coptic text.

But King isn’t satisfied to have a late document, and needs to make it Something Important:

This gospel fragment provides a reason to reconsider what we thought we knew by asking what role claims about Jesus’s marital status played historically in early Christian controversies over marriage, celibacy, and family. The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife makes it possible to say with certainty that some early Christians believed that Jesus was married. This conclusion potentially has significant implications for the history of ancient Christian attitudes toward marriage, sexuality, and reproduction.

Nonsense (or, rather, gnonsense), for the reasons already outlined above.

Then there’s this bit of disingenuous balderdash:

The use of the term “gospel” here makes absolutely no claim to canonical status or to the historical accuracy of the content as such. This invented reference in no way means to imply that “Jesus’s wife” is the “author” of this work, is a major character in it, or is even a significant topic of discussion—none of that can be known from such a tiny fragment. Rather, the title refers to the fragment’s most distinctive claim (that Jesus was married), and serves therefore as a kind of short-hand reference to the fragment.

Line she left off: “And my publisher said I’d sell an extra 10,000 copies of my book with that title.”

The entire text:

Others continue to raise serious objections:

Wolf-Peter Funk, a noted Coptic linguist, said there was no way to evaluate the significance of the fragment because it has no context. It’s a partial text and tiny, measuring 4 centimeters by 8 centimeters (1.5 inches by 3 inches), about the size of a small cellphone.

There are thousands of scraps of papyrus where you find crazy things,” said Funk, co-director of a project editing the Nag Hammadi Coptic library at Laval University in Quebec. “It can be anything.”

He, too, doubted the authenticity, saying the form of the fragment was “suspicious.”

Also:

“There’s something about this fragment in its appearance and also in the grammar of the Coptic that strikes me as being not completely convincing somehow,” he said in an interview on the sidelines of the conference.

Another participant at the congress, Alin Suciu, a papyrologist at the University of Hamburg, was more blunt.

I would say it’s a forgery. The script doesn’t look authentic” when compared to other samples of Coptic papyrus script dated to the 4th century, he said.

Heck, I’m not even going that far. Papyrology is way outside of my area of expertise (theology). I’m saying even granting its authenticity it is, at most, a curio.

UPDATE 3: Brian Green directed me towards PaleoJudaica, which has been running some interesting and useful updates with links. There are a hundred angles for approaching this story, and the ability of the internet to allow people to share ideas and expertise means that the claims are subjected to more light than was ever the case in the past. Different disciplines can converge to render judgement from a dazzling variety of perspectives. My area, as stated, is Catholic theology, so obviously I’m working within an extremely well-defined discipline. But I just love seeing so many people bring their own wisdom to bear, particularly when it converges with my own, more casual interests (pseudepigrapha, archaeology, early Christian history). I’m actually glad this story happened, because it’s exposing me to bloggers who are adding to my understanding.

And let’s not forget that King’s track record as a translator is rotten. And the provenance is very dodgy. Was its acquisition a violation of the UNESCO guidelines on antiquities trafficking? Remember: Hany Sadak, director general of the Coptic Museum in Cairo, knew nothing about the fragment until the announcement.

JUST A NOTE: Since I’m a philo-Semite and raving Zionist, the likelihood of my approving anti-Semitic comments is zero, so save your time and mine.

FINAL UPDATE: It’s over. Comments are closed.

RELATED:

Some thoughts on the Gospel of Thomas.

Expert claims “Jesus’s Wife” fragment is probably a modern forgery.

More evidence that “Jesus’s Wife” fragment is a modern forgery.

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Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.


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