Jesus has a bride, but did he have a wife?
Maybe you saw the buzz in the news about a papyrus fragment from the 4th century, written in the Coptic…
Maybe you saw the buzz in the news about a papyrus fragment from the 4th century, written in the Coptic language. It includes a few phrases that include a line, “Jesus said to them, My wife…’” This has led some to wonder if this is Jesus referring to his own wife – and if so, it would be the first known statement saying that Jesus was married. So this has created a lot of excitement.
- Some Catholics are anxious to back up the “Jesus was not married” position because they are pretty invested in the whole celibate priesthood thing, which rides on the notion of Jesus being not married. They could be threatened by this fragment.
- Some Dan Brown “DaVinci Code” fans are excited, because that whole fiasco peddles the notion of Jesus being married. They love a good conspiracy theory, or anything that suggests a corrupt church has dirty secrets they have been trying to cover up for years. They are excited about this fragment.
- Some closet Gnostic-minded Christians are uncomfortable with the notion that Jesus would be married, because they prefer to emphasize his holy Divinity at the expense of his earthy humanity. Being married sounds so, well, human. Eeew. They are offended by this fragment.
- Some Christians get nervous whenever they hear about “new scholarly discoveries” because they want to believe that anything and everything we need to know about anything and everything is already completely revealed in the biblical texts we already have. They are afraid of this fragment.
- Some sponge-like folk are awestruck by announcements like this, because they figure if it’s in print, it MUST be true. They are easily influenced by whatever lone voices capture their attention. They are swayed by this fragment.
- Some Christians are worried, wringing their hands that this discovery will shake the foundations of the church and rattle their faith to the core. They are either sad or confused or unsure what to think about this fragment.
- Some folks couldn’t give a flying fig about any of this, because they figure who cares about whether a guy who probably didn’t exist was married or not? It’s all just stuff we’ll never know about stuff that doesn’t matter. They are indifferent about this fragment.
So, now what? First of all folks, we don’t need to be afraid of real evidence. Finding old papyrus fragments is fascinating and I love the investigation that results from looking at manuscript evidence. Of course there always plenty of shabby scholars of the tabloid variety who seem more interested in fantastical claims and cheap notoriety than real scholarship. They routinely make it look like some “new” discovery reveals some earth shattering evidence when in fact it really doesn’t. But we mustn’t let that make us overly wary of good scholarship or the discovery and learning that takes place when genuine textual scholars study ancient manuscripts.
The Bible I hope you read from this morning is the fruit of careful textual study, as scholars have faithfully pored over thousands of scraps and fragments, coming to consensus on the absolute best texts.
This consensus of what are the oldest and most reliable texts is, in the end, the reason we can’t put too much stock in something like the papyrus in question — a sole fragment coming from as late as the 4th Century in the Coptic language. It doesn’t mean it’s absolutely false; it just means that there’s good reason many scholars believe this one is a fake. (For a good article on why this looks a lot like a modern author creating a forgery, check out http://bit.ly/TcSEZf ). At the least we have to acknowledge that this “new discovery” has the large burden of standing alone, against the huge preponderance of evidence that points in another direction regarding the conclusion of Jesus’ marital status.
So we’re not afraid of where good evidence might lead us. But we’re smart enough not to go there if the evidence doesn’t require it.
I spoke with a seminary prof who is a friend of mine, from Emmanuel Christian Seminary. Dr. Rollin Ramsaran is a New Testament scholar himself, who pointed out something important.
He reminded me that in addition to the canonical gospels – the Biblical record of Jesus’ life which we have today — we have mountains of manuscript evidence about Jesus’ life which is much, much earlier than this fragment. What we find in that vast treasure house of evidence is exactly nothing about the notion of Jesus being married.
Given this silence, it seems likely that this sentence points to a later tradition (remember this is a few hundred years after the time of Jesus) that centered on speculating questions like “what if” Jesus did have a wife? This would be similar to other writings we call “apocryphal” gospels that were written to imagine what Jesus was like when he was a child. “What if” we tried to think of how Jesus played with his friends – what might it look like? There are stories that came along later, after the gospels we have in our Bible, about Jesus building birds from mud and then making them come alive, or healing friends, doing tricks in the neighborhood and the like. It could easily be that similar imaginings could have arisen around the question, “what if Jesus were married?” and that this fragment represents that.
But in the end, it would seem extremely unlikely that Jesus having a wife would be something that would be so well suppressed for a couple hundred years prior to this manuscript, and for the 2000 years after it. It would mean none of the eyewitness accounts or earliest traditions about Jesus thought to ever mention it even once, and in fact, found some reason and ability to successfully suppress it … until the 4th century when one piece of papyrus recorded it, but which has remained in complete obscurity for 17 centuries.
I appreciate Dr. Ramsaran’s conclusion: “So if Jesus was married, it wouldn’t be the end of the world or the faith –but it seems historically very unlikely to me based on the evidence.”
Well said, thanks Doc.
Call me out of my mind, but I really think the main point is not about whether Jesus had a wife. I think we can trust the gospels we have, which don’t mention it. What we do know is that Jesus has a Bride – his people, a Church, full of forgiven sinners and blood-washed souls. And Jesus really, really loves his Bride. So much that he gave his life for her, and opened the door so that EVERYONE could be part of it. A fragment is NOT news. That Jesus gave up his life for us – THAT is news! This is the amazing, hidden, too-often-yet-to-be-discovered truth that we should be calling press conferences for. Because if it’s true – it radically changes everything.