The other day on Twitter the New York Times tweeted this headline:
“Historian Says Piece of Papyrus refers to Jesus’ Wife”
This linked to the thusly-named article, which went on to explain itself, is interesting and potentially explosive. Basically, Professor Karen L. King, a historian of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School, has identified a tiny scrap of parchment that purports to have some quotations from Jesus. The pertinent and controversial phrase is “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…’“. This of course immediately brings to mind the unacademic controversy over the publication of the Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown – where “Holy Grail” was transmuted as a word into “Holy Blood”, thus ‘proving’ that Jesus had a wife and the Church has covered up the truth for millennia.
The historicity or otherwise of various legends relating to Jesus of Nazareth is rarely far from the public eye. This was proved in the first lesson of my Fresher New Testament module at university – we were asked what we had read about the historical Jesus. Most people had (fortunately, being theology students!) read the Gospels, but the next most read book on Jesus was the Da Vinci Code. This was/is infuriating to New Testament academics (secular and Christian alike) because it just is not historical. and yet contributes to many popular misconceptions and misunderstandings.
The NYT article rather unfortunately raves that “Even with many questions unsettled, the discovery could reignite the debate over whether Jesus was married, whether Mary Magdalene was his wife and whether he had a female disciple“. This assumes several things, that a quick pause can demonstrate otherwise. First of all, this piece of Papyrus is written in coptic, and is thought to have been written in the 4th century. The New Testament Canon was complete far before this – and these ideas are simply not seen in orthodox Christianity. The NYT article also claims that this archaeological discovery could lead to new ideas in the debate over female leadership.
We can be grateful that Dr. King “repeatedly cautioned that this fragment should not be taken as proof that Jesus, the historical person, was actually married”. The fact that it is, in her words “exciting” is also to be taken with a pinch of salt. The study of the history of early Christianity is a very technical discipline, and once we stray outside established principles (to stay safe, think of the Canonical NT, the Didache, and the Early Church Fathers) there are not very many good reasons to be sure of things that don’t seem to register elsewhere. Frustratingly, and this is not noted in the NYT article, King is a member of “The Jesus Seminar”, a very liberal (unfortunately in the bad sense) group of scholars, notorious for judging the sayings of Jesus using coloured beads, and generally going against the grain of critical evaluation of what is going on in Early Christianity and the New Testament. However, we can be grateful for Dr King’s closing words about the Da Vinci Code, “at least, don’t say this proves Dan Brown was right“.
So what are we to say? Is the historical study of Jesus a doomed discipline in which we can know nothing? Is Early Christianity a maelstrom of chaos from which we cannot learn anything? I’m going to err on the side of no, it isn’t. There are dozens of reputable scholars who can demonstrate using reliable historical methods that Jesus existed, did what the Gospels said he did, and was put to death. The resurrection is where it gets more complex. I’ve written on the evidence for the Resurrection, and I’ve read and reviewed a book written against the Resurrection, Chris Komarnitsky’s “Doubting Jesus’ Resurrection“. This is a vibrant and fascinating area of study, with libraries of comment and evidence for those who would seek the truth about Jesus.
And this brings me to my closing point. And it is this: Jesus does have a wife. But it is not some figure dead to history, or existing solely in the minds of hopeful niche scholars. No, Jesus, as the Son of God, has a wife, or rather, to be precise, a bride. In Paul’s famous teaching on marriage in Ephesians 5, we see that marriage is a picture of something bigger than a human union of man and woman;
“For the husband is the head fo the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Saviour. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her… This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church”
Paul is showing us the value of marriage by telling us what marriage is a picture of. Jesus gave himself up for the church – as husbands should die to self for the benefit of their wife. Jesus has and will have a wife – the church. The wedding supper of the Lamb, spoken of in Revelation, will be a glorious coming together of Church and Christ at the end of all things. For a great book on that, check out one by Simon Ponsonby, “And the Lamb Wins“, or for a book on Jesus and the World he lived in, which sheds more light on the origins of Christianity, try Craig Evans “Jesus and His World“.
Jesus does have a wife. And Jesus did exist. But, as is so often the case, the truth is so much better than unfounded or ill-thought out ideas. Rather than trusting a piece of papyrus whose providence is uncertain, I would rather side with Jesus. It’s a weird image, the bride of Christ being the Church, but it is a powerful one. If you have thought about Jesus before, or watched the Da Vinci Code, or seen the aforementioned news story, is it not worth considering Jesus afresh?