Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Why did Jesus rise?

It seems particularly appropriate to be asking the question of why Jesus Christ rose from the dead while we are still celebrating Easter. But, of course, the liturgical season of Easter is simply a reminder of what we celebrate each Sunday of the year when we come together to meet our Risen Lord.

The resurrection, like the cross, is one of the great and central mysteries of Christian faith; indeed they are part of the one, saving reality. We can, however, draw out several themes, in the knowledge that no words can exhaust its meaning.

In the first place, the resurrection represents Gods re-creation of the world. God's first words in the making of the world are: Let there be light, the first words spoken in the Bible, the first words of creation (Gen 1:3). On Easter Day, the first word of God's new creation is Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh (Jn 1:14), the one who is the Light of the world, bringing light from darkness (Jn 8:12).
The resurrection indicates, in other words, Gods transformation of creation. Just as God made the world by his creative word, so God will re-make it through the same Word. The resurrection is the first indication of Gods re-creation for all who have faith in Christ (2 Cor 5:17). Sunday, the first day of the week, is the first day of God's new creation.

Secondly, the resurrection points not just to spiritual realities but also to earthly ones. It shows the importance of the body and material reality. Christians do not believe in a vague, disembodied spirituality. We believe that Jesus was materially raised from the dead: not revived as a resuscitated corpse but, more radically, raised to a new life in a transformed body, a 'spiritual body', no longer subject to the limitations of space and time (1 Cor 15:42-49).

The women disciples who come to the tomb on Easter morning find it empty. They encounter not a dead body, as they expected, but astonishingly an empty tomb and a living Lord whom they can see, hear and touch (Matt 28:9; Jn 20:16-17). They bear witness to the reality and tangibility of the resurrection.

In affirming the body, the resurrection also affirms the whole of creation. In his rising from the dead, Christ is the 'first-born of all creation' (Col 1:15). Sometimes people assume that Christians have no time for the body or material reality, no time for social or environmental issues. We are only supposed to be concerned with saving souls. But the resurrection challenges that view. Matter matters to God, who created it and will re-create it.

The resurrection implies, therefore, that issues of health, ecology, political structures and community welfare, are all as much a part of the hope of the gospel as individual spirituality. That is the promise of the resurrection, the promise of transformation of all that God has made, all that makes created life possible and meaningful.

Thirdly, the resurrection spells Gods triumph over death and all the forces of sin, evil and violence within and around us. In nature, death has the last word on our lives, and the lives of those we love: the great and final No on us and all created things. But the resurrection transforms the natural order. It shows that death is not the last word after all. God has the last word, and Gods word is a triumphant Yes to us and to creation in the face of sin, suffering and death (Rom 8:19-23).

Because of the resurrection, death now becomes a penultimate reality, a second-last but not final reality. It remains difficult and painful for us and those we love, and we experience a natural sense of fear, loss and grief. But there is no room for despair now that Christ is risen from the dead. Our hope is in Gods joyful and unexpected Yes in the resurrection, in and beyond all sin, all evil, all death.
Just as God has the first word on our lives, by bringing us into being, so Gods word will be the last on our lives - not death but God; not No but Yes. This triumph means that we live in hope: hope in God and the Yes of God, which is spoken to us in Jesus Christ and his rising from the dead.

The resurrection, moreover, is not only the promise of God's future. It also makes all the difference to our present. The resurrection is not an airy-fairy dream for the end of the world. It is as much about living in that hope in the here-and-now (Jn 11:25-27), knowing that God will remain faithful to us and to creation, in life and in death. It is about living by faith in God now: a covenant God whose word and promise in Jesus Christ are true.

The resurrection, therefore, calls us first and foremost to the transforming worship of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Worship is the primary vocation of the Church. Along with Mary Magdalene and the 'other Mary', we fall at the feet of our risen, conquering Saviour (Matt 28:9), who has 'trampled down death by death'. Love and worship of God - this God, the God of resurrection and new life - come before everything else.

The resurrection also means that we are commissioned in the Church to proclaim the message of the resurrection in word and deed. It is a call to mission and to action, proclaiming the message of forgiveness and renewal, and working for God's new world in self-giving love of others, in cherishing the earth, in struggling for justice, kindness, reconciliation, peace.

Jesus rose from the dead to transform us, so that we can live out our baptism by dying and rising with Christ (Rom 6:4). This transformation begins with our worship each Sunday, the commemoration of Easter Day in word and sacrament, the day on which we acclaim Jesus as our 'Lord and God' (Jn 20:28-29). Each day of the week thereafter we are called to proclaim, and participate in, God's re-creation of the world in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, in joyful faith, hope and love. 

Why did Jesus die?

To ask the question of why Jesus died is one of the most difficult yet decisive questions we could ever ask. It is a question that the Church throughout its history has asked, and answered in a variety of ways.

Jesus’ death is grounded in creation, the works of God’s hands —  a creation that is good yet somehow distorted and alienated by sin. The cross implies also the incarnation: God’s entering into creation and becoming one of us in Jesus of Nazareth. In this event, the New Testament attests to Jesus’ unique identity as divine and human, the Son of God manifest in our flesh and blood (Jn 1:14; Heb 2:14). If he is fully human he must die, for that is what it means to be mortal.

But why did Jesus die the way he did: crucified by the Romans in an excruciating and humiliating death? Why did the Son of God die in this way, the one who shared in God’s own being?

For the New Testament writers, Jesus’ death is not a disaster, despite appearances to the contrary. Along with his incarnation, life and ministry, and resurrection, Jesus’ death is God’s plan for salvation: definitive for human beings and for creation. The whole Jesus event, for the New Testament, stands at the centre of history, including the cross. Our salvation, and that of the world, is achieved in it and through it.

There are a number of ways to explain the death of Jesus, though no explanation will ever exhaust its mystery. In any account, God is intimately involved in the cross, not as an outsider or distant spectator, but as a direct participant, fully present to Jesus in all he undergoes, even (paradoxically) his experience of abandonment. In a very real sense, in describing Jesus’ mortal suffering, we are describing the experience of God. In the truest and deepest sense, what happened on the cross involved the whole Trinity.

In the first place, Jesus’ death is God’s profound and radical identification with sin and suffering. This is hinted at in Mark’s Gospel by Jesus’ baptism — why otherwise would Jesus need a ‘baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ (Mk 1:4)? On the cross, Jesus (and for this read ‘God’) enters into the dark waters of our desolation, torment, sin, suffering and death (Mk 15:34). It is our depths into which Jesus descends, bringing with him — because of who he is — the redeeming light and life of God.

In this act of love, the greatest act of love the world has ever known, God enters the place of lovelessness and abandonment, sin and shame, suffering and violence. God has identified with us, has been there, has suffered, has endured the torment of our sin, our shame, our pain. The cross shows the extraordinary depths of God’s love for us and for creation (Jn 3:16-17), a love that is profoundly transforming.

In the second place, the New Testament affirms again and again that through the cross our sins, and those of the whole world, are forgiven (Matt 26:28; Lk 23:24; Acts 10:43; Eph 1:7; Col 1:14; 1 Jn 2:2). On a personal level, it means that through the cross, our failures and inadequacies, our acts of cruelty and destruction (including our self-destruction), are forgiven through the merciful love and grace of God revealed in Jesus.

In the Old Testament, one of the functions of the temple was to atone for sin through animal sacrifices (Lev 5:6-10). On the Day of Atonement, animals were sacrificed for the sins of the people, and the scapegoat was sent into the wilderness bearing those sins (Lev 16:10). For the New Testament writers, these practices point to Jesus, the ultimate and one-and-only sacrifice for sins, whose blood atones for the sins of the world, and is available for all who repent and turn to God (Jn 1:29; Heb 9:22). The cross is the supreme act of atonement, making us one with God in our alienation and sinfulness, setting all things in right relationship to God, and therefore to one another and to creation (Rom 3:21-26; 5:6-10).

In this sense, Jesus’ death on the cross effects a ‘cleansing’ from sin (1 Jn 1:7-9). This is a paradoxical image: blood having the power to cleanse and make clean.  It means that forgiveness removes our guilt and shame: the sense that what we have done wrong — how we have harmed another — has polluted us. In Jesus’ cleansing death, our guilt and shame are washed away. It is as if God, to change the image, has fallen on the bomb and absorbed the explosion into himself. God has taken on the stain of sin and, in doing so, removed it in the one act of forgiveness on the cross.

In the third place, the death of Jesus is a moment of glory and victory, overcoming ‘the ruler of this world’ (Jn 16:11; 13:31-32). In Jesus’ death, the end of sin and evil is spelled out in an event that in human terms is shameful and degrading but is, in fact, a glorious event revealing God’s true nature. The cross is the ladder on which the triumphant Son returns to the Father, drawing ‘all people’ to himself (Jn 12:32). It is an act of glory because it shows the transforming radiance of God’s love. In this terrible event of the cross, ironically, both Father and Son are glorified, revealing definitively God who is (1 Jn 4:16). At a cosmic level, the cross signifies God’s final overcoming of evil.

To sum up: the cross in the New Testament represents the transforming power of God’s love for us and for creation. It signifies the radical entry of God into our suffering and desolation, cleansing us from sin and liberating us from evil.

As one of the Good Friday prayers says: ‘We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your death you have redeemed the world.’

Friday, 8 February 2013

An Atoning God?

I spent two days with the (Anglican) Doctrine Commission last week, pondering the question of the atonement with a group of theologians who represent the breadth of Anglicanism in this country. It was a stimulating time and we discussed the matter in a spirit of charity and respect, even where we differed considerably in our interpretation of the meaning and mechanics of Christ's atoning sacrifice.

Since then, the ideas we explored have been going round and round in my head and, with it, a level of confusion. I'm not unhappy to be in some sort of confusion - I'd certainly resist being talked out of it - because I know we're in the realm of mystery where not everything is clear to the blurred human mind. And I'm a bit afraid of ruthless clarity.

One of the fundamental issues we discussed was whether sin and wrongdoing are punished for restorative or retributive reasons: to transform the wrong-doer or to punish the offender. These are not, of course, either/ors, as most people who believe in the need for punishment also recognise the greater need for restoration. But it has significant consequences for how we understand Christ's death.

Those who believe the death of Jesus is 'propitiating' argue that God has taken the punishment for sin on himself, so that no further retribution is needed. They do not believe, incidentally, that an angry Father punishes unjustly an innocent Son. Thus the debt for our sins has been paid, the punishment taken on our behalf and in our place. We now have a new legal status that enables us, though guilty, to stand as innocent before our divine Judge.

On the other hand, those who believe the death of Jesus is 'expiating' and not 'propitiating' argue that no punishment is required in the miracle of God's compassionate and forgiving love, but that Jesus' death removes sin - root and branch - and cleanses us from its guilt and stain. Forgiveness now becomes the new world order: not vengeance or retribution but forgiving, atoning, restorative love.

Both sides argue their case from biblical texts and from careful study of individual biblical terms.

I find myself, for the most part, in the latter camp. Yet I see the logic of the propitiatory view and I'm aware that many of our forebears believed it - at least to some extent. Karl Barth speaks of 'the Judge judged in our place', and that conveys an image to me of God throwing himself on a hand-grenade about to explode and taking the explosion into himself. That makes some sense to me theologically. Perhaps, for me, the image of God's wrath is a way of speaking of God's emphatic No to all injustice, all destruction, all oppression, all wrong. It also conveys to me a sense that the fearful consequences of wrong-doing are graciously and gratuitously borne by God.

For me, there are a number of different images of the atonement in the Scriptures and each of them contributes something to our understanding of the whole: none captures the entire event with its full significance. I'm happy to examine each and allow each to speak, taking seriously what it has to offer. I suspect it's dangerous to gallop off with one image in one direction, while ignoring or downplaying the rest. The 'penal substitution' view, to my mind, tends to do that. It creates a trajectory and pursues it, even remorsely, wherever the logic takes it. Calvin, of course, had a tendency to do that with his lawyer's mind. And I confess it makes me uneasy. He ends up believing that Christ died only for the elect and not for the massa damnata, left off the divine Teacher's class list before they even entered the school.

The view, too, of a God who will condemn people to Hell for all eternity is another one that, frankly, fills me with repugnance. Once again, it seems to take a biblical image - that of Gehanna, the rubbish tip - and push and push it into a full-blown theory of everlasting torment. But I don't believe that any part of creation - human, animal, plant, planet or angel - exists without the sustaining grace and providence of God. Just as creation is not a clock that God has wound up at the beginning of creation, so neither is the soul. It is not self-subsisting, for it exists, subsists, only in God. Everything in creation is dependent utterly on the life-giving Spirit of God, whether spiritual or material.

If that is true, it means that the souls of those who have died (incidentally, I use 'soul' in a non-Platonic sense) continue only because of the life-giving presence of God. Why would God keep them 'alive', as it were, only to torture them for all eternity for their earthly sins? Or, if Hell really means separation from God (as C.S. Lewis and others have argued), why would God maintain such souls in being only to keep them from him once they've crossed the impassible line of death?

For me, judgement means ultimately how each of us responds when we see the face of Christ. Will it reveal all beauty and goodness to us, or will it be hateful and unbearable: something from which we avert our gaze? That is much more the essence of judgement than whether or not we're card-carrying Christians in our lives or not. I want everyone to know Christ, to know God, but there are people, in my view, who may one day realise that they have known God all along and that the face of Christ is strangely and wonderfully familiar to them. There are also 'Christians' who may abhor that face and turn away in fear and disgust.

In the end, I believe in a God who forgives, who restores, who atones, who bears the burden and consequences of all sin on the cross. I believe in a God who gives freedom of choice. I believe in the New Jerusalem which remains always open: at whose gates the Spirit and the Bride perpetually stand, calling 'Come' to all on the outside.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Relating to Jesus

Is Jesus My Personal Lord and Saviour? I've been thinking a good deal lately about this question: what it means to be a Christian and to be in some kind of relationship with its founder, whom we believe rose from the dead and is ever-present through the Spirit. This reflection has come as a result of several distinct and disparate conversations with friends and colleagues, mostly of an Anglican bent.

This is hardly a new thought, but we in the Anglican Church are not actually united in our opinion of what the connection to Jesus Christ means for our lives. On the one hand are those who insist that a personal relationship with Jesus - 'my personal Lord and Saviour' - lies at the heart of Christian discipleship and ministry. Candidates in our diocese are often asked about that relationship with Jesus. On the other hand are those who find such language a little strange and even off-putting. They understand the Christ-connection rather differently, perhaps in a more sacramental or ecclesial way.

It's too tempting, of course, to identify the former expression with evangelical Anglicans and the latter with catholic Anglicans. But that would be simplistic and therefore distorting of something that is more complex in terms of both theology and spirituality.

 I must confess that, having been through selection processes in two denominations, I've never once been asked directly about my personal relationship with Jesus. I think, if I had, I might have been somewhat at a loss. I had a Puritan upbringing, grounded in Reformed faith, which didn't have a lot of pietism about it. The first time I heard Billy Graham in one of his campaigns (on tv) I felt a bit embarrassed by the explicitness of his language. 'Arminianism' was what the true Calvinist called it: the manipulation of people's emotions to make them come forward and express publicly and all-too-personally their faith.

As a consequence of this upbringing, I would have found the question puzzling. What does it mean to have a 'personal relationship' with Jesus? And I might have found it intrusive, perhaps embarrassing, like asking about my sex life or my innermost feelings.

Some time ago I was talking to a (Roman) Catholic friend of mine, who has a good grasp of theology, and he said he found the whole notion of a 'personal relationship with Jesus' troublesome. He said he thought the language irrelevant: that, for him, he was in Christ and that that was what mattered to him. 

Other catholics I know (small 'c' or large) speak of meeting Christ rather in the sacraments, especially the eucharist, or in other Christians. But others of the same persuasion do want to emphasise the personal aspects of a direct relationship with Christ - for the Jesuits, for example, following Jesus and meditating on the Gospel stories lies at the core of their spirituality.

 For myself, I'm happier to be undogmatic about the whole thing. Theologically, in any case, I'd rather speak about the blessed Trinity. I'm also much more comfortable with the notion that it's not my relationship with Christ that matters, but Christ's with me - and, actually, Christ's with us, with the church, with the whole of creation. I don't and can't make Christ my personal Lord and Saviour. He already is the Lord; he already is the Saviour of the world, whether I know it, or half-know it, or long for it, or not know it at all.

 For me, too, the eucharist is central, because that's where the Word becomes flesh, in bread and wine, and where I'm embraced by the Son's epiphany and his self-giving death. Whether I fully appreciate that each time I come to the Lord's Table is another question entirely - sometimes I believe it, sometimes doubt, sometimes don't care: but that too is secondary. It's the sheer, bare, flesh-ness of the divine self-revelation that stands, for me, however I may or may not respond to it.

 I'm glad of that. There are days when I sit in the presence of the Trinity with nothing or everything on my mind. Do I have a personal relationship with this God? Well, I guess I do, but not so you'd always know it; not always palpable, personal, prayerful. Sometimes the sheer silence is enough for me, and all I'm given.

 I believe that God's relationship with the church, with creation, is personal, intimate, transforming. But it's vaster and deeper and more mysterious for me than what is implied in the phrase 'a personal relationship with Jesus'. It's trinitarian and sacramental, thus embracing all the world and all reality, known and unknown.

And I'm happy to creep within those borders, day by day - sometimes barely inside the gates, sometimes radiantly at the centre. Just being there is enough: to stand in the glow of that divinely human fire, whether close or distant. It's God's faithfulness, God's personhood, God's grace, God's mystery, that matters to me in the end: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Not how I might respond in my all-too-earthly variance.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Celebration ... and still a way to go

I attended a very fine Eucharist today at St Paul’s Cathedral, celebrating twenty years of women’s ordination to the priesthood in this diocese.

The liturgy was strongly led by Bp Barbara, and a great sermon was preached by Colleen O’Reilly, interweaving the Johannine text (Mary Magdalene’s meeting with the risen Christ in the Easter garden) with the story of women’s ordination.  Colleen reminded us too that the authentic descriptor for a priest was not ‘woman’ but ‘faithful’.

There was lovely cantoring by Muriel Porter, and a choir sensitively and ably led by Elizabeth-Anne Nixon. For women clergy, the Service included a re-affirmation of our commitment to our ministry and a blessing by Archbishop Keith Rayner.

Afterwards, as we all huddled on the steps — more than fifty of us — to have our photo taken, there was a sense of euphoria and joy. If this is not irreverent, I was reminded of Jesus’ saying in Luke 10:23-24: ‘Blessed are the eyes that see what you see!  For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.’

A great celebration indeed, and heartening for all who attended: that was exclusively and rightly the focus of today’s event.

But the war is not yet won. We still have a way to go and today was an oasis, a deeply-felt thanksgiving to God, as we pick up our packs and prepare to journey on.

There are still dioceses in this country that will not ordain women as priests. What we take for granted in the Melbourne diocese, they don’t yet have.  There are countries overseas which, though coming breath-takingly close, are still not consecrating women as bishops — though we in Australia will soon have four women bishops, including Bishop-Elect Alison.  There are still husbands who demand obedient and submissive wives in their homes and cloak their need for power in wooden exegesis and threadbare theology.

And also for us here in our diocese, there are still those who would discourage women from responding to their call — who would push us back to a time more than twenty years ago, when men led and women followed.

There are even choirs in this country, in this diocese —well, yes, in this Cathedral, as a matter of fact — who will not, by definition, permit women and girls to join them.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Unity & Women Bishops

Unity and Women Bishops

It’s great to know that so many people are concerned with the unity of the church, and that John 17 is again being quoted freely as the source of our commitment to unity (even though the prayer is about glory and only in a secondary sense about unity).

Having being brought up in a Presbyterian tradition which happily engaged (and engages) in schism over matters that are not to do with the substance of the faith, I am fully committed to upholding that unity which is one of Christ’s great gifts, as well as tasks, for the church’s life.

But I can’t so easily dull the pain of the CofE’s most recent decision with the thought that we/they have maintained unity, even at great cost.

The issue of women bishops may seem, to some, a matter of secondary import in comparison to the church’s mission in the world. But it does not seem so to me. The church’s primary task (if a lapse into Presbyterianism is permitted) is not mission at all, but rather ‘to glorify God and enjoy him for ever’ (cf John 17).  Let’s put that alongside Ireneus’ famous statement, ‘The glory of God is humanity fully alive’ (gloria dei vivens homo). I find it hard to believe that a church with a seriously flawed anthropology is fulfilling its primary purpose of glorifying God.

Women are not ‘fully alive’ when their created and baptismal identity in Jesus Christ is denied. This is not fundamentally a question of human rights and social justice. It’s much more elemental. It concerns basic Christian anthropology.

 It’s all very well for those opposing the consecration of bishops to tell women we’re ‘equal but different’. That reads like patronising rhetoric. What it is saying in effect is: ‘Yes, you women are equal to us but you don’t have the requisite gifts for servant-leadership in the church because God has created you without that gift. The capacity for authority which is a fundamental part of being human doesn’t apply to you. You are not as like God as we men are.’ In other words, we are not equal at all in the sight of God, nor in the ministry of Christ.

And yet, baptism does draw us into Christ, women and men alike: into his saving, sacrificial death, making us one, calling us into his servant ministry. We are all of us clothed in Christ, the Servant of all. We are called to be his servants, servants of one another, servants to the world — servants in leading and in following.

(As a matter of fact, women are quite good at serving. We’ve had years of experience. Does it or does it not qualify us for servant-leadership in the church? Or is it that, the moment the word ‘authority’ creeps in, suddenly servanthood is reserved only for men?)

How is God glorified in an anthropology that in effect denies the validity of women’s baptism, our relationship to Christ, our capacity to be self-giving for his sake and that of the gospel?

I have little comprehension of why Catholic Anglicans, who have accepted the ordination of women as priests, can oppose their consecration as bishops. The consistency of a Catholic Anglican position should be that women are eligible for all three or for none. Why cavil at the last of the three?

As for the conservative Evangelical position, I have some (though limited) understanding of where they’re coming from in terms of certain passages in the New Testament that seem to deny women headship. Here the real issue is the dominance of the husband in the home and, by extension, the church.

Once again, we never hear exactly why women can’t hold leadership in home and church, and yet can do so elsewhere. The position is surely inconsistent. Some of these same men have wives who display leadership in the secular arena, yet that somehow is not problematical. The sheer inconsistency is mind-blowing. It’s based on an uncritical reading of Scripture that refuses to interpret Scripture by Scripture, but runs away with a fistful of text to support a power-agenda.

So, back to the question of unity. The Revd Dr Kevin Giles, in a letter in the latest issue of The Melbourne Anglican, points out that a number of clerics in the USA strongly supported slavery in the South on the basis of certain biblical texts (the same texts, in fact, that oppose women’s leadership). Opposed to them were a number of Evangelicals who read the Bible very differently, with a deeper understanding of the message of the gospel and its transforming imperative.

In what sense would we have been able to maintain unity with the pro-slavery party in the church during that period? Would we have commended unity in quite the same way?

In other words, does the upholding of unity mean we forsake our principles, our core theological beliefs, our conviction of the shape of the gospel?

I can’t support a unity that compels me to accept a distorted theology on fundamentals such as Christian anthropology. That doesn’t mean I have no sense of unity with those who hold a different view. Being with them at the eucharistic table is what I can do; serving them in love is (I hope) what I would do. What I can’t do is accept their interpretation of women’s place in the church — women who are re-made, along with men, in the image of Christ in baptism.

I don’t believe a commitment to unity demands that of me or of anyone else who supports the gracious calling of God and the place of women in the episcopate.

Dorothy A. Lee
24th November 2012

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Did Jesus have a Wife?

Did Jesus Have a Wife?

A papyrus fragment has recently been discovered which contains reference to Jesus' wife. The fragment is in Coptic and is very small (8x4 cm) and very damaged, but the following is an English translation provided by Prof Karen King of Harvard:

1 ] “not [to] me. My mother gave to me li[fe…” 
2 ] The disciples said to Jesus, “.[ 
3 ] deny. Mary is worthy of it[ 
4 ]……” Jesus said to them, “My wife . .[ 
5 ]… she will be able to be my disciple . . [ 
6 ] Let wicked people swell up … [ 
7] As for me, I dwell with her in order to . [ 
8] an image [

1 ] my moth[er 
2 ] three [ 
3 ] … [ 
4 ] forth which … [ 
5 ] (illegible ink traces)

As you might imagine, speculation in the press has gone wild, claiming that this fragment from 'The Gospel of Jesus' Wife' (as Prof King, rather problematically, names it) is direct evidence that Jesus was married - and, most likely, to Mary Magdalene.

However, there are serious difficulties with this conclusion. In the first place, it is still not certain that the papyrus fragment is genuine. Nothing is known of its discovery or even its current owner who, apparently, wishes to remain anonymous. 

Secondly, if it is genuine, the dating is later than the canonical Gospels (which were all written in  the first century AD). King dates the papyrus fragment to the fourth century, although she speculates that it might be a translation of a Greek Gospel from the second century AD. Even the earlier date would place this fragment among other apocryphal Gospels of the second century, which give little, if any, access to the historical Jesus, as King herself points out.

Later tradition from the late second to early third centuries (Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian), believed that Jesus was celibate, a view that has persisted in church tradition. The canonical Gospels, however, are completely silent on the issue of whether or not Jesus was married: they say nothing to support or deny this view. 

Thirdly, the fragment itself is so full of gaps that it is difficult to be certain of its meaning. It is not clear whether the 'Mary' referred to is Jesus' mother or Mary Magdalene. Magdalene herself was not confused with the sinful woman of Luke 7:36-50 until later (Gregory the Great in the sixth century), but was seen simply as a disciple of Jesus and a primary witness to the resurrection. The discussion in the papyrus fragment, apparently between Jesus and his disciples, centres around the worthiness of this Mary. Second century Gospels do speak of a close relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, but it is never quite clear whether this language is literal (explicitly sexual) or metaphorical (discipleship) - or both.

What is possible, as King argues, is that the papyrus fragment is part of an ongoing Christian debate on the significance of marriage vs celibacy from the second century onwards. It may be that, in fourth century Egypt, where celibacy was gaining such ground, this fragment offers an alternative view, based on a tradition, among some Christians, that  Jesus himself was married. 

There is little to conclude. The papyrus is too late and too fragmented to say anything about Jesus' own life. What it can offer is an insight into early Christian debate, suggesting that, whereas the majority believed Jesus was unmarried, a minority of Christians may have believed otherwise. 

What the papyrus cannot do, however, is offer support for the view that Jesus was married. It would not, of course, be a problem for Christians if Jesus had been married. What is a problem is speculation beyond the dignified silence of the canonical texts that quickly turns into probability then fact (Dan Brown is a grim warning here!). For the four evangelists, the issue of whether or not Jesus was married was irrelevant to their purpose.