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A wife for Jesus?

September 20, 2012

Front of papyrus fragment, Karen L. King, 2012

Did Jesus have a wife? Does it matter?

In the last two days I’ve seen about 50 Facebook status updates from friends and groups I follow, each with their own take on the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” papyrus that Harvard Professor Karen L. King recently announced. (Nerdy grammatical excursus: King has titled the papyrus with Jesus’s, but I follow Strunk and White and prefer Jesus’.)

The Harvard Divinity School press release is here. It begins,

Four words on a previously unknown papyrus fragment provide the first evidence that some early Christians believed Jesus had been married, Harvard Professor Karen King told the 10th International Congress of Coptic Studies today.

The papyrus has been dated to the 4th century and is written in Coptic, the alphabet of which has overlap with the Greek alphabet. King has postulated, in fact, that the Coptic in this little fragment may have translated a Greek original.

The key quote from the papyrus is translated, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife….’” It then gets cut off. Go here for a full translation, as well as helpful Q&A with Professor King.

It seems to me there are two primary questions on folks’ minds right now. First, is this thing real or a fake? Second, did Jesus have a wife, or could he have?

In pursuit of these questions, I spoke with two Professors of Biblical Studies at Gordon College, a top Christian liberal arts school, located just north of Boston. Was Jesus married?

“Is there anything in the Gospels that would give us a hint he was married? I don’t think so,” noted Professor Marvin R. Wilson. “If he was married, how come he says to his beloved disciple at the cross, ‘Take my mother,’ not ‘Take my wife’?”

The significant woman in Jesus’ life, for whom he is looking out in his final hours, is his mother Mary, not a wife.

All the same, Wilson said, “It’s a good question. One who had no marriage would certainly have been the exception. We have an exception in Jeremiah, but that was a divinely commanded celibacy.”

Wilson noted, however, that the assertion that Jesus had a wife is still an argument from silence. “Certainly he had a wonderful ministry with women. We know the 4th century was a time of theological clarification (Council of Nicea) as well as turbulence. This Coptic text may have represented a small sect of aberrant Christians that had broken away from the larger–yet still emerging–traditional community.”

Is there much at stake in the question of whether or not Jesus had a wife?

“Certainly I don’t think any key issues of the Christian faith are at stake here. If Jesus had a self-imposed celibacy because of the work he was called to accomplish, that would make him unusual, but not unique.”

Professor Steven Hunt noted, “There’s so much we don’t know about it yet. It’s apparently a very small fragment.”

Regarding the authenticity of the papyrus, he added, “I’m perfectly willing to go with [Professor King] and say that it’s an authentic fragment of some document that’s now lost, but it’s probably speaking more to the nature of debates in the 3rd and 4th century about sex and marriage… it’s almost certainly not giving us accurate information about the historical Jesus.”

More interesting than the fragment itself, Hunt noted, is the question, “Would Christians be troubled to find out Jesus was married? The fact that many would, may really be quite suggestive, especially if their reaction was rooted in a negative attitude toward bodily existence in general and sexuality in particular.

“So, while there’s no good historical evidence that he was [married], from my perspective,” Hunt said, “it’s not really theologically problematic to suggest that he could have been. Since the Bible affirms the essential goodness of marriage and sexuality, what would be the problem with that?”

8 Comments leave one →
  1. September 21, 2012 9:27 am

    Great article. I studied under Dr. Wilson in the 90′s and can think of no other teacher that I am more fond of or respect in a higher light. He is a hero to me. I also appreciate Prof Hunt’s contributions. I would like to respond to Prof. Hunt’s closing question with a question. The bible certainly points to the “essential goodness of marriage and sexuality” but what do you do with the reality that Jesus was fully God and fully man in light of his potential earthly offspring if he were married? Would they be 1/4 God? And then what about their offspring? Do we in essence, if we travel down this path, have to speculate a race of potential “supermen”? In my humble opinion, to answer this question fairly we either need to deny to divinity of Jesus to some point or we need to reconsider his divinity to the point where we lose the essence of the incarnation. I truly am open to discussion on this, I am chewing on this myself over the past two days.

    • September 21, 2012 1:40 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Chris! I was able to point your comment out to Prof. Hunt, and his reply is this:

      “The question about or problem related to possible children is not lost on me. But I don’t think we need to be or should be thinking about genetic issues here–such thinking is anachronistic to the first century as well theologically problematic. Are we really saying that Jesus’ deity was contained or written in his DNA? I don’t think we want to go down that road at all. More to the point, IF Jesus had children (which he most certainly did not!), the one who created all there is could have ensured that his offspring were completely normal, fully human. Again, the point I was trying to make is simply that many of those who would react negatively to the idea of ‘Jesus’ wife’ may be doing so only because they think of embodiment and/or human sexuality in a negative light. And that’s been a problem in the church for a very long time indeed. Hence the production of the papyrus that got us talking about this in the first place!”

      • September 22, 2012 8:44 am

        Thanks for your response, I truly appreciate the time and thought that went into it. Means a lot, great food for thought. A couple of comments to clarify my thinking. I do not state these for arguments sake, but for the fact that this is on the open web and I want to try to represent my thoughts for all those who will potentially read this in the years to come.

        Preface: This is a fun conversation to have, but one that I take with a grain of salt. You are 100% correct, Jesus didn’t have any kids, so every word we utter back and forth is simply for learning sake and honestly, because it is interesting to hypothesize. Thanks for giving me the time and space to enjoy some head scratching fun!

        I do not attempt to even pretend to have a full understanding of the DNA of Jesus. I do know that he was conceived of the Holy Spirit (Matt 1:18-24). The rest is a mystery (as if that isn’t a mystery). For me to try to represent that I have a full understanding of the beauty and power with which God planned and executed the Incarnation would be unrealistic. Honestly, I don’t even fully comprehend the Eucharist. Does the genetic makeup of the bread and wine change? I have many wonderful brothers and sisters in Christ who believe so and would stake their lives on it. It is a mystery, one that I am happy to live with. Apart from this conversation, where the DNA is paramount, we can apply 1st century Hebrew block logic and comfortably allow the genetics to be special and normal at exactly the same time. That is the paradox of our faith. All that said, if you could prove that the Holy Spirit was your great, great, great, great, great grandfather on your mother’s side (even if God made your ancestor completely “normal”), I truly think that humanity would declare you a “superhuman.” I also wonder if it would help with college financial aid? Hmmmm….

        If we want to make this a discussion about being uncomfortable about sexuality we have to discuss 1st century marriage. Contraception as we know it today was not a luxury in 20 AD. Hebrew people married and expected to have children. Culturally it was celebrated and treasured. For us to be comfortable with Jesus taking a wife, then we need to be comfortable with him marrying without the hope of ever having a family and in context this just doesn’t make sense. And as I learned from Dr. Wilson at Gordon, if it doesn’t make sense in context of the rest of the Word of God, it is probably wrong.

        Thanks again! I love both of you guys! Thanks for serving our Lord! And go Gordon!

  2. Laurie Truschel permalink
    September 21, 2012 10:37 am

    Awesome, Wally, glad you wrote about this!!

    Laurie Truschel

  3. Anna permalink
    September 21, 2012 10:39 am

    Jesus calls the church his bride, his use of the word wife could refer to the church.

  4. Ben Wright permalink
    September 21, 2012 11:03 am

    Great post!!

  5. September 21, 2012 1:40 pm

    Thanks for your comments, Laurie, Anna, and Ben! Anna–I saw something in the Atlantic (I think it was) that was along those same lines….

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  1. Scholarly skepticism toward “Jesus’s Wife” fragment | Words on the Word

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