Christmas comes early with ‘Jesus’ wife’ story

Christmas comes early with ‘Jesus’ wife’ story September 19, 2012

Readers of GetReligion are familiar with that mainstream media holiday tradition of releasing news stories that are supposed to shake the foundations of Christianity. Easters over the last few years have explained to all those gullible believers that Jesus walked on an ice floe (not water), that he wasn’t crucified in the manner in which people think, that Jesus’ father was — of course — a Roman soldier named Pantera and that Jesus didn’t die on the cross so much as pass out after being doped up.

Easter 2006 featured an unrelenting public relations offensive (emphasis on offensive) by the National Geographic Society and its National Geographic magazine that argued that Judas was unfairly maligned by Christians. The story was covered far and wide by all the major media outlets. (A later story showing that the “lost 3rd-century religious text” had been improperly translated? Not covered so much, shockingly.)

Usually we have to wait until Christmas or Easter for this annual rite. But this year those stories are coming early.

So we were treated to front-page headlines yesterday in the New York Times about Jesus’ wife (“A Faded Piece of Papyrus Refers to Jesus’ Wife“), based on a very tiny fragment of what one scholar says is a 4th-century writing about Jesus Christ. If there’s one thing we all know, it’s that mysterious stories about 4th-century Coptic fragments of questionable provenance are probably more authoritative (in the media’s eyes) about Jesus’ life than the extensive writings of his contemporaries. Now, considering how these annual “shake the foundations of Christianity” stories always tend to be about the sensationalizing of scholarship or archeological claims, yesterday’s could have been worse.

After the juicy headlines (“Suggestion of a married Jesus,” “The Inside Story of a Controversial New Text About Jesus,” “Harvard scholar’s discovery suggests Jesus had a wife,” “Did Jesus have a wife? New historical discovery raises old question,” “Was Jesus Married? Ancient Papyrus Mentions His ‘Wife’,” and “Newly revealed Coptic fragment has Jesus making reference to ‘my wife’“) and prominent placement and sexy ledes, we usually get stories conceding that, well, this doesn’t really mean much that we can nail down.

But the point of the stories was put well — and up high in the story — by the New York Times:

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.

The discovery of this lost fragment, if interpreted in just the right way, matches the views of the New York Times editorial page! It’s another early Christmas miracle!

Christmas miracle image via Shutterstock.

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37 responses to “Christmas comes early with ‘Jesus’ wife’ story”

  1. What’s bizarre is, secular journalists regularly tell us that Scripture CAN’T be taken as authoritative because, they tell us, much of it wasn’t written until decades or even (horrors!) a century after Christ’s death.

    But a fragment of a payrus from 300 yars after Christ’s death? THAT must be taken as (ahem) Gospel.

      • And how come a scholar who teaches at Harvard Divinity School does not realize that when Christians talk about Jesus’ Wife they are talking about THE CHURCH. IT’S ON THE BIBLE PEOPLE, READ THE THING AT LEAST ONCE IF YOU ARE GOING TO TEACH AT A PRESTIGIOUS PLACE.

  2. ” If there’s one thing we all know, it’s that mysterious stories about 4th-century Coptic fragments of questionable provenance are probably more authoritative (in the media’s eyes) about Jesus’ life than the extensive writings of his contemporaries.”

    As stated above by astorian, we have no writings of contemporaries from a non-theological point of view. Thus the media is just as willing to accept a 300 a.d. as a 150 a.d. manuscript. And I see no reason myself other than faith and tradition why the other fragments can’t be considered as equally important in scholarship. In this case, I see bias on both sides. The religious because they have already decided what to accept and the MSM because they like to goad the religious.

    • Except even historians without an agenda would tell you those 1st century Gospels are more authoritative than 4th century papyrus texts

  3. we have no writings of contemporaries from a non-theological point of view

    That is because the theological implications of the story of Jesus are the only things that make his story worth writing down. The story of an itinerant rabbi who was hanged by the Romans as a rabble-rouser is hardly riveting. The story of a man who was (and is) God in the flesh, and who rose from the dead, is much more so.

    It’s true that we have no writings about Jesus from a non-theological point of view. But we do have writings from contemporaries. Much of the New Testament (though of course not all) was written by Jesus’ closest companions, who lived and traveled with him for years and knew him well. The Gospel and letters of John and the Gospel of Matthew are by contemporaries (although the Gospel of Matthew is probably a Greek translation and expansion of an Aramaic original by Matthew), and the Gospel of Mark is a record of the recollections of Peter, with Mark acting as his secretary. If those writings by Jesus’ closest associates are “theological,” it is because the experience of knowing Jesus turned their world upside down, and they believed that in knowing Jesus, they knew God. If you know God, then when you write about it, it is theological.

    • “But we do have writings from contemporaries”
      I guess I didn’t make myself clear, although what I said can be interpreted the way you did and is also true.

      What I meant is that, unless you theologically believe the gospel writers and NT letters are by who they say they are, there is still not any writings about Jesus from contemporaries. The best we have is copies of copies with claims of who wrote them. Since non-theological scholars see it that way, there is no difference between a manuscript written in 90 or 150 a.d. and one written in 300 a.d., as neither is an authenticated autograph of a person from the actual time of Jesus.

      • Actually most scholars, theological or not, see a BIG difference in the accuracy of a manuscript written either 90 or 300 years after a historical event, particularly when those much of their detail is supported by other writers (friendly or not) and by archeological finds. Keep in mind that whole schools of thought have risen or fallen based on re-dating certain manuscripts by a mere 100 years. Unfortunately you don’t get that from the press, who like to trot out the most outlandish theories based on the slightest scrap of evidence supported by the most publicity-savvy academic they can find.

  4. I like this paragraph in the NY Times piece, which was buried even further down than the gratuitous mention of Catholic policies on ordination and marriage:

    “She [the scholar with the shocking revelation] repeatedly cautioned that this fragment should not be taken as proof that Jesus, the historical person, was actually married. The text was probably written centuries after Jesus lived, and all other early, historically reliable Christian literature is silent on the question, she said.”

    Of course, if that paragraph were any higher up, the provocative headlines would be nonsensical. They’re still nonsensical, it’s just that you have to read down in order to know that. And if you (as the media surely have quantitative data to prove most people do) stop reading after the first couple of paragraphs, you never get that far, and never realize that the provocative headlines are, in fact, nonsense.

    But as soon as I saw the headline, Mollie, my thought was exactly yours: “What? Is it Christmas already? But the stores have barely put out the Halloween stuff!”

    As far as that gratuitous dig at the Catholic Church goes, there are married Catholic priests, and it is the norm for the Eastern Church but celibacy in the Western, and Jesus’ own celibacy is not the linchpin in the discipline. Nor is it the basis of the male-only priesthood. Of course, again, the truth of these issues makes the article nonsensical, and the dig at the Church somewhat bigoted.

  5. I found the NYT article fascinating. While it may contradict what many here believe, it did not proclaim the fragment to represent the Truth with a capital T but rather to be representative (possibly) of one of several early Christian traditions. It also gave readers a window into how biblical scholars operate and what tools are at their disposal. For instance, one tool, radiocarbon dating, was ruled to be too destructive, so another, spectroscopy, will be used instead. Experts all over the world were consulted as to the fragment’s authenticity. This fragment represents a major find in the world of biblical studies; decent reporting is the right thing to do.

    I would’ve liked to see a brief history of the field of biblical scholarship included, with particular emphasis on the early players and *their* goals, but that’s outside the scope of the article.

    • I, too, found the information contained in the article fascinating, even if the way that information was framed is less than objective. I only wish I read Coptic myself. The letters appear to be the Greek alphabet but not the language. At least I can’t make out any recognizable Greek words. I would like to see, for instance, if it’s the word for “bride” or the word for “wife.” It could make a big difference. To that end, a complete translation would have been helpful, and I often wonder why they’re omitted in stories like this.

      • Actually the NYT piece has a line by line translation next to the image. I have a very difficult time making out the letters. I would like way more on the background of how they see what they see.

  6. “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.”

    …never mind that there ARE married priests in the Catholic Church (primarily the Eastern Rite, but also in the Western Rite via the pastoral provision). Sheesh. You’d think that a religion writer could get basic facts straight.

  7. At least the occasional MSM ditherfest over a papyrus describing a bunion on the left big toe of Jesus reflects the continued role that Jesus and Christianity play in our world. Would it be prefereable if some big, credible new disclosure about Jesus were found and the MSM ignored it?

    • You’re right of course. But that does not excuse shoddy or biased or agenda-based reporting on the subject. On the other hand, the MSM seems to ignore similar “revelations” about Mohammed. Does that reflect the lack of influence of Islam in the world?

  8. Is there a full translation of all the words on the fragment? It would be interesting to see, rather than just lifting half a sentence out and splashing headlines about.

    Dr. King is doing herself no favours with bigging this up as “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” – doubtless it will make for a great title for her next book, but as proper scholarship? Somewhat lacking.

    • Here is a link to her draft paper.

      The unnamed author of the Fox version (which appears to be an AP wire story) should get a gold star for talking to the right people and using the right word, which is of course “gnostic”. The context even then is a little scanty, but they get to the correct point: that this isn’t a biographical fragment to be set against the canonical gospels. That point King tries to make as well, but it’s obvious that a lot of the reporters didn’t want to hear it.

      The Smithsonian story seems to be pretty good, actually, but you have to read all of it. It is particularly good at giving a sense of the academic climate around these gnostic texts. It’s also by my estimate about as long as the other linked articles put together.

  9. My beef about it is this: the headline-sucking choice of name for the papyrus fragment. Many extremely valuable and interesting ancient papyrus fragments have been discovered down the years which greatly extend our knowledge of (among a host of other topics) the textual tradition of the New Testament. I cite at random the Chester Beatty Papyrus, Papyrus Bodmer, the Rylands Papyrus. You get the picture.

    But here we have “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife Papyrus”. Professor King (who named it) explains on the first page of her draft article (to be published in “The Harvard Theological Review” some time next year):- “For purposes of reference, the fragment is referred to as The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife (GosJesWife)”.

    A footnote appended at this point rather undercuts the validity of the name:-
    “The use of the term “gospel” here regards the probable genre of the work to which this fragment belonged (see below, ‘Genre’) and makes absolutely no claim to canonical status nor to the historical accuracy of the content as such. This invented reference in no way means to imply that this was the title in antiquity, or 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 references the fragment’s most distinctive claim (that Jesus was married), and serves therefore as a kind of short-hand reference to the fragment.”

    The forward reference to “Genre” directs us to this further qualification (on p.20 of the draft article):-
    “With a fragment this small, it is impossible to claim too firm a conclusion regarding the question of genre. The evidence, however, points toward classification as a gospel, possibly a post-resurrection dialogue gospel”

    So now we know.

    • Bain,
      Your comment speaks to the need for journalists to explain technical terms to their readership. The word Gospel, for instance, when used by biblical scholars, seems to have a meaning different from that used by most Christians. Likewise, the system of nomenclature, foreign to the average reader.

    • Is it too over the top of me to say “The stupid – it burns!”? The heck with it, if a Harvard scholar can create out of thin air a whole “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” based on a seven-sentence fragment, I can get away with a pop-culture reference in a comment.

      This is too much like eating your cake and having it; large-font title declaring that the topic of discussion is “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” and then, in the very bottom of the page, under a cut, the small-print disclaimer that “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.”

      Well, sheesh, if you don’t mean to imply that “Jesus’ wife” is even a “significant topic of discussion”, you’re not doing a very good job of it, Dottoressa. I love how we get the explanation that there is a dialogue going on where “The disciples discuss whether Mary is worthy, and Jesus states that “she can be my disciple.”

      And the evidence for this? Translation as supplied by Dr. King:

      2] The disciples said to Jesus, “.[

      Oh, well, I’m convinced by that! And even more convinced by the translation of line 3:

      3] deny. Mary is worthy of it (Or alternatively: Mary is n[ot] worthy of it).

      You couldn’t ask for anything clearer than that!

      It’s looking like possibly – if genuine – yet another Gnostic version. And it’s just as plausible to argue, from the seven lines we have, that Jesus could have been speaking to the disciples about His bride, the Church. After all, in Revelation, when the angel shows John the Bride of the Lamb, it is the holy city Jerusalem descending out of the heavens. Revelation has “The Spirit and the Bride say ‘Come!’ ” and if an accepted canonical book can have a personification of a non-organic entity speaking, I see no difficulty in Jesus speaking of Jerusalem/Israel/the Church as His bride/spouse/wife to the apostles, particularly as He addresses Jerusalem directly in the lament “How I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chickens under her wings, and you would not!”, not to mention that there are many instances in the Old Testament where Israel is addressed as an unfaithful wife by God.

  10. The Atlantic published an astonishing article on their front page suggesting that the text probably just went on to refer to the church as his wife, since the metaphor of the bride and bridegroom are used throughout the new testament to refer to the church’s relationship to Christ.

    A writer at a mainstream publication has that kind of facility with biblical texts and metaphors? Wow.

  11. I found an interesting text piece on the ABC website where King spoke of looking for the first references alleging that Jesus was NOT married. There seems to be no mention of his marital status whatsoever until approximately the era of this fragment, which she dates to the second half of the second century.

    I have often found it strange that there is no reference in the Christian New Testament given how prevalent (mandatory, really) early marriage was, especially for someone of a Davidic lineage. If he were unmarried I would have expected comment about either Jesus or Joseph for not having arranged a marriage, especially when charges of being a glutton and drunkard or vague aspersions of his lineage do make an appearance. No mention of this in any of the press accounts though.

    • I like how Mollie titled her post on this subject. Sensationalism makes this news story tantalizing since even nonChristians in America perk their ears up when they hear the name of Jesus.

      With the exception of a few articles, I’ve been a little troubled at how collumnists overgeneralize the origins of the Harvard papyrus. Many of them seem to say that Christians had the discussion early on about whether Jesus was married. NO, that’s factually untrue. Christians didn’t have this discussion per se. Early Christians defended the truth of Jesus’ person and work against the Valentinians and other Gnostic sects who tried to fill in the blanks with their own speculation.

      That’s why, lately, I’ve been making a theological and editorial distinction between proclamation and speculation. Even in the news media context as well as in doing theology, proclamation is seeing a story within the context of its circumstances, events, and personages and then reporting it. In doing theology, it’s letting the text of Scripture interpret itself. Isogogic considerations can enhance our background for teaching or reporting theological issues. Yet, this is a ministerial, not magisterial, use of reason.

      I agree with the respondent earlier that often theologically “wife” or “bride” of Christ refers to the Church. Yet, how often we see those who wish they could unwrap their latest “Christmas surprise” for us twist terms to play with their meanings in headlines. And, most readers of new stories don’t think of “Church” when they read “wife” in a headline.

      May God’s grace be with us as we seek to be faithful and accurate in discussing religious news. Kyrie eleiison!

  12. The comment by Francisco above is certainly the most cogent one here. Any Christian scholar should know that the Church collectively is referred to as “the bride of Christ”! If the scrap of papyrus is, in fact, valid then this is certainly the most likely explanation of the reference to a “wife”.

  13. A couple of months ago I visited the papyrology department at the University of Michigan to see the Chester Beatty papyrus. Before we saw P46 we saw many other documents. One of them was a spell written in desmotic, dated to about 400 AD. In the spell they invoked the name of Jesus along with a bunch of Egyptian gods. It was a fascinating little papyrus. But, in the end, all it proved is that someone thought that if it was good to call on the name of one god, then it was even better to call on many gods. It does not prove that Christians in the 4th or 5th century were syncretistic.

    The same is true with this document. We know that there were many, many documents people wrote which were against what the bible plainly speaks. We know this both from within the bible and from the writings of the ante and post-nicene fathers. This document proves that there was at least one person who believed that Jesus was married. But that’s all it proves.

  14. With Christmas decorations going up sooner and sooner in stores, is anybody surprised that the newsies would start putting out the Jesus conspiracy stories?

    I read theses articles and I wonder, does the collective memory of major news outlets go beyond last week?

  15. I wonder how archaeologists & theologians 1,000 years from now will characterize Chick tracts. //

  16. This NBC story posted on has lots of cites from a wide variety of experts.|utmccn=(referral)|utmcmd=referral|utmcct=/id/48258290&__utmv=14933801.|8=Earned%20By=msnbc%7Ccover=1^12=Landing%20Content=Mixed=1^^30=Visit%20Type%20to%20Content=Earned%20to%20Mixed=1&__utmk=182499750

  17. I just can’t stand it when a news outlet uses the term disciple when they really mean apostle. Jesus had lots of female disciples, but 12 male apostles. I’m his disciple, any Christian woman is his disciple, but, as a Catholic, my bishop is his apostle. couldn’t the writer of the NYT get that right? I mean… they’ve got a dictionary somewhere, right?

  18. Why bother to waste a single word about this “discovery”? Why is this website has at least 3 articles on this subject? Do you people have no other idea to write about? Do you have to pick up Satan’s crumb and chew on it? Do you not realize that by writing even a single sentence on it you validate this nonsense?