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?”