Proof that Jesus Was Married?

Jesus’ Wife manuscript with Professor King

The “Jesus’ Wife” manuscript was presented to the world in 2012 by Harvard professor Karen King. The Boston Herald reports here about the update on this ancient manuscript. For full information on the scrap of papyrus go here.  Recent research suggests that the manuscript is not a modern forgery, but it dates from the eighth century rather than the fourth as originally supposed. Critics say that it is just a commentary or a copy of the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas. Supporters say it may be a late copy of an unknown text dating to as early as the late second century. Some critics still believe it is a trashy modern forgery. Others say tests prove it to be from the early medieval period.

From the Globe’s report:

Critics have dismissed the fragment as a ham-handed pastiche of bits of the Gospel of Thomas, a noncanonical gospel, mashed together by someone with an elementary grasp of Coptic. One scholar found that the fragment seemed to contain a typo found in an online edition of the Gospel of Thomas, a discovery that some academics said offered powerful evidence of a forgery.

Leo Depuydt, an Egyptologist at Brown University who offers a rebuttal to King’s thesis in the new edition of the Harvard Theological Review, said none of the test results alter his view that the document is a fraud, a modern-day cut-and-paste job with several glaring grammatical blunders that a native speaker of Coptic would never commit.

He believes the forger may have “wanted to put his or her own spin on modern theological issues,” such as the role of women and celibacy in Christianity.

“Nothing is going to change my mind,” he said in an interview this week. “As a forgery, it is bad to the point of being farcical or fobbish. . . . I don’t buy the argument that this is sophisticated. I think it could be done in an afternoon by an undergraduate student.”

The text of the manuscript is translated as:

1 ] “not [to] me. My mother gave to me li[fe...” 2 ] .” The disciples said to Jesus, “.[
3 ] deny. Mary is (not?) worthy of it [
4 ]…” Jesus said to them, “My wife . .[
5 ]… she is able to be my disciple . . [
6 ] . Let wicked people swell up … [
7] . As for me, I am with her1 in order to .

You can see therefore, that scholars are working on a very tiny piece of a vast jigsaw puzzle. This scrap of writing from eighth century Egypt mentioning Jesus could mean just about anything. It has to be compared to other manuscripts to see if it is a portion copied from another work. If it can be shown that it is part of a more ancient document, then the dating could be taken back beyond the early medieval period. In addition to this careful scholarship, one has to try to figure out what the whole text and context might contain. It has to be fit into the huge amount of early Christian literature that we have from the first millennium of the church. If it is no earlier than the eighth century then it is not really very ancient at all. Finding how it fits into all the other literature from the first eight hundred years or so of Christian life will give the scholars plenty of busy work.

Then we have to figure out what it might mean. Professor King is not saying that this is evidence that Jesus was married. She believes it is part of a discussion about the role of women in the early church. She might be biased because one of her theological focusses is gender studies. On the other hand, it may well be part of a broader discussion of the role of women in the church.

However, clever folks on both sides could piece together any sort of saying of Jesus from the scrap we have here. The headline grabbing text seems to read, “Jesus said to them, “My wife…” Is Jesus referring to his wife? Theoretically it could be, but in the absence of any other evidence that Jesus was married, and going against the early text and 2000 years of tradition that he was not married this is unlikely. What might the rest of the text say? Perhaps Jesus was quoting another text about marriage thus, “My wife is flesh of my flesh and bone of my bones said Adam…” or “My wife is also my sister and my mother in the Lord.” Who knows?

While it is interesting to follow the scholarship and the debate about this ancient manuscript, what also interests me is the way the secular press have handled it. First of all they have called it “the Jesus Wife Manuscript”. No doubt the headlines will blaze about how Jesus was married and we now have ancient proof for it. This will then become the popular scream. “Of course priests should marry. Jesus was married!!!” Another detail was in the Boston Globe story. The papyrus was carbon tested by one laboratory at 700 BC. So carbon testing can come up with a result that is clearly about a thousand years off? Funny that when it comes to the Shroud of Turin suddenly the carbon testing must be considered watertight scientific proof.

Putting all that on one side we have to assess the significance of this find. How much weight do we give an obscure fragment of a text from the eighth century? The size of the manuscript and the amount of text we have about sums it up: not much. We know that the Gnostic gospels which date mostly from the fourth century contained all sorts of odd and unorthodox stuff about Jesus, Mary and the disciples. The further away in time you get from Jesus the less likely you are to have accurate information about him. Happily the scholars involved are not making outrageous claims, and the Harvard website about the manuscript says they do not pretend that this manuscript gives us any new information about the historical Jesus. (Of course most of the theologians at Harvard probably think you can’t know anything about the historical Jesus anyway–but that’s another matter)

I’m no expert but it seems to me the most we can say about this scrap of information is that in the eighth century in Egypt some people who were probably Christians were interested in the relationship between Jesus and his mother and whether married women could be disciples of the Lord. What more we can get from it as other pieces of the jigsaw come together will be interesting to see.