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.

1 comment:

  1. It is not the words in these fragments that so often challenge interpretation as the walls of square brackets. We can gaze at the square brackets for quite some time. But what is behind them? Are we looking at a mighty fortress of gospel truth? Or, if we actually knew what was really behind the square brackets, find rather a ramshackle village of disparate opinions? Or even a madhouse of unconnected wishful thinking? All of those square brackets, and then we have gigantic revelations of ancient meaning between round brackets, e.g. (illegible ink traces). It's hard enough sometimes arriving at the sense of the legible ink traces, never mind the illegible ones. Maybe the square brackets are the edges of icons, but in all of that empty space are we looking at the transfigured one?