It wouldn’t be the first time He was married. The urgency scholars seem to have for Jesus to settle down and start a family might lead you think that most of them are parents in South India. His life and message are incomplete without a wife. For what it’s worth, they think Mary would be just right. That the two of them didn’t get together seems almost too tragic to be true. Their unfinished romance is the sad love song of the scholars.
That brings us to this week. Harvard researcher Karen King unveiled an ancient papyrus fragment with the phrase, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife.’ The text also mentions ‘Mary’. Ariel Sabar, writing for the Smithsonian, says “The fragment’s 33 words, scattered across 14 incomplete lines, leave a good deal to interpretation. But King is expected to argue that “the ‘wife’ Jesus refers to is probably Mary Magdalene, and Jesus appears to be defending her against someone, perhaps one of the male disciples. “She will be able to be my disciple,” Jesus replies. Then, two lines later, he says: “I dwell with her.” The announcement is expected to send shockwaves through the Christian community.
But let’s be very careful. This isn’t about whether Jesus was married to Mary. According to Sabar, “King worried that people would read the headlines and misconstrue her paper as an argument that the historical Jesus was married. But the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” was written too long after Jesus’ death to have any value as biography – a point King underscores in her forthcoming article in the Harvard Theological Review. The New Testament is itself silent about Jesus’ marital status. For King, the best historical evidence that Mary was not Jesus’ wife is that the New Testament refers to her by her hometown, Migdal, a fishing village in Northern Israel, rather than by her relationship to the Messiah.”
King is even cautious about the authenticity of the document. She told Sabar, “Because chemical tests of its ink have not yet been run, the papyrus is also apt to be challenged on the basis of authenticity; King herself emphasizes that her theories about the text’s significance are based on the assumption that the fragment is genuine, a question that has by no means been definitively settled.”
Even if it is proved authentic, the document is a whisper in a whirlwind. It’s late, so it’s far removed from the life of Jesus. It’s fragmented and incomplete, so the blanks could be filled to say anything. It’s ambiguous, so ‘wife’ could be seen as a recognized Christian metaphor. It could simply be the opinion of a community of fourth century mystics. It’s one among thousands of voices that portray a single Jesus. It doesn’t really change anything.
But when it comes to coming controversy, we have a history of jumping the gun. So let’s not demonize the woman for saying something she isn’t saying. Evidently, this isn’t about trying to prove that Jesus was married. It’s about trying to unify the voices of early Christianity. It’s about rejecting the categories of “orthodoxy” and “heresy”.
Karen King is challenging the early church for it’s alleged control of the spread of ideas. According to Sabar, “For King, the text on the papyrus fragment is something else: fresh evidence of the diversity of voices in early Christianity.” She paints the early church in oppressive colors because other Gospels and ideas were rejected for being “heretical,” a word that she does not accept. She told Sabar, “You’re talking to someone who’s trying to integrate a whole set of ‘heretical’ literature into the standard history.” Sabar says, “While some scholars prefer the word ‘Gnostic’ to ‘heretical’, King rejects both” She argues that ‘Gnosticism’ is an artificial construct “invented in the early modern period to aid in defining the boundaries of normative Christianity.”
King is an advocate of the writers and thinkers in the centuries around the early church, speaking in defense of those who were labelled ‘heretical’. She believes that followers of Jesus who accepted the New Testament were unjustly opposed to non-canonical Gospels. She feels that the lines between true believer and heretic were hardened after the conversion of Constantine and the Council of Nicaea. She feels that heretics were dealt with unfairly and that Christianity would not be what it is today, if not for the moral policing and thought-control of the early church. That’s the heart of her polemic.
But rejection is not discrimination. King seems to sympathize with the heretics because they were rejected and assumes that the church had ulterior motives for rejecting them. It’s possible. But isn’t it also possible that the ‘heretics’ were, in fact, ‘heretical’? In other words, they were indeed telling false stories about Jesus. It seems unfair to castigate the church for protecting the truth from false allegations and detractors. It’s what any half-decent scholar would do to protect the integrity of their work, even today.
There was good reason to reject the ‘Gnostic’ Gospels.
They are late: In an article for Christianity Today, Ben Witherington III says, “As any good historian knows, the documents closest to the source of the rise of the movement are likely to reveal most about the origins of a religious group. Documents by eyewitnesses or those in contact with eyewitnesses are our primary sources. These documents happen to be the New Testament itself, plus a few other first century works like the Didache and 1 Clement.” The Gnostic writings are dated in the 2nd and 3rd century – much later than events described – and should be rejected for simple historical reasons, not just religious or theological.
They are autonomous: Unlike the New Testament, the Gnostic writings are not rooted in the Old Testament. In the same article in Christianity Today, New Testament scholar, Pheme Perkins has said: “Gnostic exegetes were only interested in elaborating their mythic and theological speculations concerning the origins of the universe…” The main reason they are rejected as Scripture is because they rejected the earliest Scriptures, the Hebrew Bible.
They are unreliable: The Gospels of Thomas, Philip, Mary, Truth and Acts of John are jumbled sayings pretending to be historical accounts; but without any reference to date, time or place. In that sense, they are in sharp contrast to the structure, style, clarity and content of the Gospels, which read like believable historical narratives, composed with intelligence and purpose. It simply made more sense than the pretenders.
Their message is unhealthy: It’s ironic that the Gnostic gospels are often portrayed as favorable to women. But the Gospel of Thomas-114 says, “Simon Peter said to them: Let Mary go forth from among us, for women are not worthy of the life. Jesus said: Behold, I shall lead her, that I may make her male, in order that she also may become a living spirit like you males. For every woman who makes herself male shall enter into the kingdom of heaven.” There’s nothing liberating in that view of women. It’s very poor compared to the generous view of women in the Bible.
But besides defending the heretic’s right to an audience, Karen King seems deeply concerned about the Catholic belief of a celibate priesthood which is rooted in the idea that Jesus was single. To her, this is one of the most important questions in the discovery. Did the church cover up texts about Jesus’ marriage to Mary to protect the ideal of celibacy? In her own words, “Why is it that only the literature that said he was celibate survived? And all of the texts that showed he had an intimate relationship with Magdalene or is married didn’t survive? Is that 100 percent happenstance? Or is it because of the fact that celibacy becomes the ideal for Christianity?”
But it’s a bit strange to argue that something once existed because it doesn’t exist now. It’s like believing there is life on mars and wondering why the government isn’t telling us about it. It’s possible that they covered it up. But perhaps there wasn’t life on mars, to begin with. As far as celibacy goes, that seems a question for the Catholic church to answer. It’s of little concern to evangelicals who believe that pastors can marry and have children.
But let’s assume the worst. A married Jesus shouldn’t be of much concern to the church. He was fully God and fully man. It would only mean that he shared in our humanity as a married man and still remained sinless – all the more reason to believe He is God, if you ask me. The church doesn’t believe He was single because a married Jesus would be offensive. We believe He was single because there’s no reason think otherwise, and nothing seems to have changed.