Five big questions about the 'Jesus' wife' discovery

By Daniel Burke and David Gibson
Posted Sep 21, 2012

[Ecumenical News International] In a surprise announcement that seemed scripted by the novelist Dan Brown, a Harvard professor revealed an ancient scrap of papyrus on Sept. 18 that purports to refer to Jesus’ wife.

The so-called “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” presents a dialogue between Jesus and his disciples, said Karen King, a well-respected historian of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School, Religion News Service reports.

The fourth-century fragment says, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …,'” according to King. The rest of the sentence is cut off. The fragment also says “she will be able to be my disciple,” according to King. The discovery that some ancient Christians thought Jesus had a wife could shake up centuries-old Christian traditions, King suggested.

But even King acknowledged that questions remain about the receipt-sized scrap, which contains just 33 words and incomplete sentences. Here are five of the biggest questions.

1. Where did the papyrus come from?
We don’t know. King says that “nothing is known about the circumstances of its discovery,” an admission that has raised red flags for other scholars.

King speculates that the fragment may have been tossed in an ancient garbage heap by someone who objected to the idea of Jesus being married. Christians fiercely debated celibacy and marriage in the first centuries after Christ’s death.

The papyrus now belongs to an anonymous collector who asked King to analyze it. King says three scholars have determined that the fragment is not a forgery, but that further tests will be conducted on the ink. The scholar also says that she will press the fragment’s anonymous owner to come forward.

2. Does it prove that Jesus was married?
No. King says the fragment is a fourth-century translation of a second-century Greek text. It’s not quite old enough to prove that Jesus was married, King says — only that early Christians discussed it. “The earliest and most historically reliable evidence is entirely silent about Jesus’s marital status,” King says.

King also acknowledged that Jesus might have been speaking figuratively when he referred to “my wife.” After all, the fragment is just 33 words long, with incomplete sentences and very little context.

3. What do other ancient texts say about Jesus being married?
The Bible, of course, says nothing about Jesus marrying, though New Testament writers occasionally used the metaphor of the church and God’s people as the “bride of Christ.”

Some of the Gnostic gospels — ancient texts unearthed in the 20th century that are not included in the Christian canon — suggest that Jesus had an intimate relationship with Mary Magdalene. The apocryphal Gospel of Philip, for example, says that Jesus kissed Mary, and loved her more than the apostles.

But the Gnostics were often intimate in nonsexual ways. In the Gospel of Philip, for instance, Christians greet each other with kisses to convey the sense that they are a spiritual family, according to scholars.

4. Will this change contemporary Christianity?
King said her discovery could cause believers to rethink their assumptions about early Christian debates over marriage, celibacy and family. Those early arguments led to contemporary practices like the Roman Catholic Church’s all-male, mostly unmarried priesthood.

Perhaps King is correct — nearly everything is open for debate in Christianity these days. After all, Christians are still arguing over homosexuality, the role of women in ministry and whether priests should marry.

But how many overhyped archaeological discoveries have proven less than world-changing under careful examination?

Remember the Gospel of Judas? He didn’t betray Jesus! Or did he? “The Gospel of Judas was so packed with opaque Gnostic metaphor that scholars are still debating whether it portrays Judas as a hero or a villain,” said Gary Manning, an associate professor of New Testament studies at Biola University in La Mirada, California.

The so-called James ossuary then? As Roland Meynet, a biblical scholar at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, said Wednesday, “that made a lot of noise on newspapers, but was then revealed as a fraud.”

Even if the new papyrus “were proved true, it would mean that there is a new apocryphal text from that time, as there are many,” Meynet said. “It won’t reopen the debate and, anyway, we must wait for verification and be very cautious until we know the origin of the fragment.”

5. How will the Vatican respond?
If the Vatican’s new communications team is as good as they say it is, Rome will stay silent.

The Vatican and its media-savvy friends in Opus Dei said all they needed or wanted to say about Jesus’ marital status during the whole “Da Vinci Code” saga a few years ago. They will likely let scholarly surrogates debate this one, while the hierarchy sits on the sidelines.

The Vatican insists that there’s nothing new to debate about the gender and celibacy requirements for its priesthood. It’s unlikely that a business card-sized scrap of papyrus of dubious origin is going to change that.

Or perhaps Pope Benedict XVI, himself a renowned scholar, will indirectly enter the fray over the fragment. He just finished his third and final installment on the historical Jesus. It will be published around Christmas, and will likely be as well received as the previous two, and sell as strongly.

(Alessandro Speciale contributed to this report from Rome.)


Comments (16)

  1. John Speller says:

    I think it is a very interesting discovery. Assuming that the papyrus is genuine it seems to be a fourth-century fragment of a probably late second century lost gospel, probably Gnostic in origin. Perhaps one day someone will find more of it. It could be that its author thought Jesus had been married, or it could be that he was using the phrase metaphorically. Historically speaking, it says nothing of Jesus’ actual marital status. As Barbara Harris once said, in the ancient world marriage was a contract between two men — the groom and the father of the bride. As such it was a major instrument for the subjugation of women, and I am doubtful for this reason that Jesus would have bought into it by being married himself. I do think, however, that he had women apostles, such as Mary Magdalen and Joanna, mentioned in the New Testament.

  2. Hamish Henderson says:

    I’m curious about no. 5. Why does what the Vatican think/say about it matter? If the Vatican says “yes” does it mean the document is authentic?

    1. Andy Hook says:

      The Vatican as it represents Roman Catholicism is very influential. Whether Christians around the world like it or not, what the pope says does affect non-Roman Christians. Were the Vatican to agree with the text (which would be silly) and then it was proven the text was a forgery then the Vatican would either have to back-step quickly or somehow attempt to defend its authenticity, both of which would embarrass the Vatican. It’s a smart move for the Vatican to stay silent.

  3. The Rev. Teresa T. Bowden says:

    I have a soul-felt feeling that Jesus was married and to Mary Magdalene. I am not a scholar. My thinking is that, not only were several of the apostles married, and Jewish culture preferred men the age of Jesus to be married, it is very possible that Jesus was married. I realize the Bible does not mention this part of the life of Jesus. I think that the New Testament writers did not believe it was an important item to mention as it was a normal part of the culture. I believe that several details were probaly omitted for the same reason.

    1. Robert Smith says:

      Personally, I see little reason to be swayed one way or another by a 4th century text, especially one that’s incomplete. How do we even know it’s referring to Jesus of Nazareth? And if it is, why should I place my faith in it, rather than the church fathers of the 1st and 2nd century none of whom mentioned Jesus being married? The Episcopal Church claims to be founded on the true and accurate transmittion of the Apostolic church. I find it a little disturbing, even as a Roman Catholic, to hear an ordained cleric stating, that they have “soul-felt feeling” that Jesus was married. If you claim to follow the faith of the apostles how can you add or detract from what they said? The earliest Church fathers taught that Christ was celibate, so isn’t that what the Episcopal Church believes? Could it be that the Epsicopal Church is essentially lying when they say every Sunday that they believe in the Apostolic Church? Wouldn’t it be more honest to do what the ELCA does and just get rid of the Nicene Creed all together? I am not trying to be accusatory, rather I am encouraging an honesty. I just don’t see how you can believe in the Apostolic faith and yet deviate from such a core teaching of those apostles, or perhaps the apostles of the apostles? To an outsider it looks a lot like the clerics of the Episcopal Church pick and choose what they want to believe and don’t really care about the ancient teaching of the Church. Perhaps this allows a greater freedom of discernment in the Holy Spirit, I don’t know. It just seems silly to claim an apostolic faith and then claim something as radical as Jesus being married.

  4. The Rev. John M. Kettlewell says:

    This whole matter has been exhaustively discussed in relation to Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. The very questionable research on which he bases his implication that Jesus was married to Mary Magdelene, suggests that their descendents are represented in those connected to the House of Lorraine in France. This sillines actually implies that I am a descendent of our Lord, having Lorraine antecedents. I don’t think my DNA, etc. would substantiate that–but who knows? (I really don’t think so!!) The Rev. John M. Kettlewell, Rector, St. Stephen’s Church, Schuylerville, New York.

  5. Julian Malakar says:

    All these are wild speculation and some special interest groups try to change Christian’s believe by inducing confusion out of a single card size piece of paper with two words “my wife”. These special groups not weighing with biblical evidences that build up the Bible, draws conclusion that they found evidence that Jesus Christ was married. It is like the story of “Elephant and the blind men.” The Christian faith is not built in a day by a single piece of paper with mere two words. Jesus Christ is Son of God, who is alpha and omega and saves everybody’s souls who believe Him and repent.

  6. Professor Emmanuel Kalenzi Twesigye says:

    Professor Karen King’s fragment discovery of a non-canonical gospel that refers to Jesus speaking of his wife will not change the nature of Christianity and its diverse traditions. For many early Church Christians Jesus was a Jewish Rabbi and a moral reform teacher. His radical moral teachings, such as the moral and religious imperatives for unconditional love (Agape) and free forgiveness of offenses as opposed to Mose’s teaching of “Lex talionis” or “tooth for a tooth and an eye for an eye . . . hand for a hand and foot for a foot . . . .” were central to his moral and religious reformation of Judaism. These new teachings led to protest and rejection by the conservative leaders of the mainline (Jewish) religious establishment of his time. His private personal life as a Jewish man of his time seems to have been culturally acceptable and traditional enough not cause any questions or moral or religious concern. It was traditional for most Jewish males to get married. This cultural practice included both Rabbis and Priests. Marriage was not considered as a source of moral pollution to exclude the married from positions of religious leadership. For instance, Moses was married and allegedly Prophet Hosea married a prostitute as a religious symbolism for God and his covenant people, who worshipped other gods! If Jesus and Mary were married, it would not suprise us. It would enhance his stature as a man of his time and and his teachings on morality would be taken more seriously because they would also be rooted in his own experience. He elevated the status of women and children. Prophets Moses and Muhammad were married and their married experiences enhanced their ministry. It would be the same with Jesus and his followers. A married priesthood would also be the model for Christianity as opposed to a forced celibate one, which has also proved to be unpractical and in some cased dysfunctional.
    Professor Emmanuel K. Twesigye, OWU, Delaware, OH, USA

  7. The Rev. Fabio Sotelo says:

    I do agree that that what some people refer to “state of life” (married, single), does not affect the teaching of Jesus. I have had in my formation many teachers, great teachers, smart, committed, honest, and truthful ones. I have never asked them, and that has not been my concern if they were married or single. Also, let us remember that Jesus indeed was truly human, and his culture gives to us a lot of information about him. FS

  8. Joseph F Foster says:

    Even if it should turn out that Jesus of Nazareth was married, it need not have much effect on the Latin, i.e. Western Branch, of the Roman Catholic Church’ general administrative practice of a celibate clergy. As I understand it, this is an administrative policy and not a theological one. Many of the secular clergy in the Byzantine and other Eastern Rite Churches in full Communion with the Bishop of Rome / Occidental Patriarch are married.

  9. The Rev. John T. Farrell says:

    Who would possibly care what our (not so very) friends in the Roman ecclesial community think about anything?

    1. John Kirk says:

      It’s an atavistic reaction, Rev. Farrell. Deep down, even the most rebellious child wants a respected and revered father’s approval, even as he outwardly scorns it (From a member of the ecclesial community to which you refer).

  10. P.A.Getchell says:

    Students of the first century and early Christianity often point out that it was “expected” that a Jewish rabbi would be married. Some say, “it was virtually required and a Rabbi not married would have been somehow morally suspect?!” New Testament personalities, disciples, enemies, and friends usually called Jesus, “Rabbi”. It could even be surprising if He were not married?!

  11. Michael Graebner says:

    On point #2-what 2nd century Greek papyrus is being referred to? The parallels between the late Coptic version of the Gospel of Thomas and the Greek Oxyrynchus fragments are well known. This fragment does not fit into that category. A vague reference to an unsubstantiated 2nd century Greek fragment seems more an attempt validate this Coptic text’s antiquity, than a clear statement of fact. Not every 4th century Coptic fragment of uncertain origin has an earlier Greek original.

  12. Jim Stockton says:

    With increasingly fewer exceptions, and with those exceptions having increasing difficulty credibly defending their discrimination, most Christians don’t regard Jesus’ sex as determinative for clergy. I’m wondering how it is that people would conclude that Jesus’ marital status is rightly regarded as any more prescriptive for clergy, much less for laity. I’m wondering also why people would attach such significance to a document as though its words alone would be authoritative. Even the scriptures themselves are subject to reasoned scrutiny and translations of scripture to informed challenge; and rightly so. If one wishes to consider the issue of Jesus’ marital status, one should do so. But one would do well, I think, to avoid referring to this fragment as informative on the topic. Prof. King has moved too quickly and claimed too much. Its authenticity and the accuracy of the published translation remain suspect. Even if somehow proven at last to be a genuine fourth century Coptic text, it is purely speculative to assume that it would have an earlier corollary in the second century Church. Even granting this non-scholarly leap, student of the early Church and of the Koine texts of the New Testament are aware that a plethora of texts and fragments thereof exists that make claims equally challenging, if not more so, in comparison to one claimed for this fragment. They can make for interesting reading and provocative of fruitful thought. But when it comes to any question of clerical celibacy, there are many arguments against it, thanks be to God, that are more persuasive and far more intellectually credible than simply trying ‘to do what Jesus did’ based on the incomplete and suspect text of a small fragment of papyrus. I hope people don’t infer more about this thing than is due.

  13. Fr. Charles W. V. Daily says:

    Where the proverbial “rubber meets the road” is do you live out your life on the Gospels rather than on secular values? Married or not is not a key question or issue in the faith of core christianity. The Roman Catholic history had married clergy…so celibacy is an administrative tool for deployment and dedication to the task without the obligations of being a spouse and parent. If you can recruit and retain spiritual leadership it works very well as seen by their use of that discipline. The RC’s never said that there was anything fundamentally wrong with marriage and the fact that it is a sacrament is proof of that.

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