Mr. and Mrs. Jesus Christ? Yeah, not so fast…

Mr. and Mrs. Jesus Christ? Yeah, not so fast… September 20, 2012

James Martin wrote a great summary article on the recent study and publication of a text fragment dating somewhere are 350 CE in which it the writer assumes that Jesus of Nazareth was married. Martin, a Jesuit priest, reminds us of the reasons that Christians believe Jesus was not married from the Christian scriptures themselves. This is a 3 minute read that will summarize the whole event well:

AT an academic conference in Rome on Tuesday, Karen L. King, a church historian at Harvard Divinity School, presented a finding that, according to some reports, threatened to overturn what we know about Jesus, as well as the tradition of priestly celibacy. She identified a small fragment of fourth-century papyrus that includes the words, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…’ ” Another clause appears to say, “she will be able to be my disciple.” Some experts have concluded that the manuscript, written in Coptic, is authentic.

But does this mean that Jesus was married? Probably not. And will this fascinating new discovery make this Jesuit priest want to rush out and get married? No.

It is more likely that Jesus was celibate. Remember that Dr. King’s papyrus dates from the fourth century — roughly 350 years after Jesus’s life and death. The four familiar Gospels, on the other hand, were written much closer to the time of Jesus, only a few decades away from the events in question. They have a greater claim to accuracy — even if the new manuscript is, as has been surmised, a copy of an earlier, second-century text. The Gospel of Mark, for example, was written around A.D. 70, only about 40 years after the crucifixion.

And what do the Gospels say? For one thing, the Gospel of Mark describes Jesus, who had settled in the town of Capernaum, on the Sea of Galilee, as receiving a surprise visit from his family, who had come from his hometown, Nazareth. “A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, ‘Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.’ ” Why no mention of a wife?

The Gospel of Matthew, written only 15 or 20 years after Mark, recounts how the people of Nazareth were shocked by Jesus’ preaching. “Is not this the carpenter’s son?” they asked about their former neighbor. “Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us?” At this time, Jesus is presumably around 30 years old. Again, in this long catalog of his relatives, why no mention of a wife?

And why, with so many women present at the crucifixion (various Gospels include Jesus’ mother, Mary Magdalene, another woman named Mary, Salome and “the women who followed him from Galilee”), is Jesus’ wife omitted?

The silence in the Gospels about a wife (and children) in this context most likely indicates that Jesus did not have a wife and children during his public ministry, or in his past life in Nazareth.

What about the most popular candidate for the role: Mary Magdalene? Could she have been Jesus’ wife, as supposed by Dan Brown’s novel “The Da Vinci Code”? (By the way, I’m not equating Dr. King’s careful scholarship with the novels of Mr. Brown, though the conclusions some might draw are similar.) Mr. Brown’s hypothesis fails by another criterion: Mary would have been referred to, like every other married woman in the Gospels, by her husband’s name. She would have been identified not as “Mary Magdalene” but almost certainly as “Mary, the wife of Jesus.”

What does the Coptic papyrus fragment tell us? Simply that an Egyptian – and we do not know who, it could have been their version of Fred Phelps for all we know – over three hundred years after Jesus was born wrote some stuff about Jesus having a wife. The fragment does not even provide proof that this was a debated subject among Coptic Christians at that time. It would require other textual fragments to make that assertion stick.

Nevertheless, Martin does point out that eve if Jesus was married, it doesn’t change anything Christians believe about who he was and what change was brought about for the world in and through Jesus.

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