The recent unveiling of the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” has been interesting, less because of the Gospel itself and more because of the reaction to it. The Gospel, fragmentary as it is, tells us very little about 2nd century Christianity that we didn’t know before. The Gospel of Philip, with its famous line that Jesus “loved [Mary Magdalene] more than all the disciples, and used to kiss her often on her mouth,” already shows that some early Christians pictured a close, intimate relationship between Jesus and Mary.
And that’s as far as we’ll go. So far, none of the scholars I’ve read are willing to suggest that this new fragment tells us anything about the historical Jesus. Most historians I’ve read don’t even seem to be interested in the question; they’re more eager to flesh out our knowledge of 2nd century Christianity.
There were debates in the second century about the role of women, the status of marriage and the nature of human sexuality, and Mary Magdalene became one of the characters used in these debates. On one side we have things like the Gospel of Philip and the new fragment, and on another side we have statements like this out from the Gospel of Thomas:
Simon Peter says to them: “Let Mary go out from our midst, for women are not worthy of life!” Jesus says: “See, I will draw her so as to make her male so that she also may become a living spirit like you males. For every woman who has become male will enter the Kingdom of heaven.”
Not surprisingly, Albert Mohler is one who seems threatened. Mohler said in a tweet, “The real agenda behind “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.” It is the rejection of normative biblical Christianity.”
In our own backyard, Thomas McDonald of God and the Machine sees the same sort of conspiracy, and he knows who to blame:
…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.) […]
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.
True? True how? McDonald quotes King talking about early Christianity, but that’s a long way from talking about the historical Jesus.
I think the touchiness of some of the conservative commentators in regards to this is striking. We haven’t learned anything new about Jesus, but maybe we’ve learned something about modern Christians.