"Jesus said to them, 'My wife...'"
Michael Peppard September 18, 2012 - 11:22pm
Nothing calls to mind my latent fantasies of an Indiana Jones lifestyle more than a new fragmentary Coptic papyrus about Jesus' "wife." I will confess that, as a reader/teacher of Coptic and a papyrologist, this was a pretty awesome afternoon. I was giddy like a child. Please, can someone need me on a plane to Cairo immediately? I have the hat already. And I can get the whip on the way to the airport.[caption id="attachment_20817" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Karen L. King"][/caption]The phone didn't ring, so I settled in to assess the new papyrus. After scrutinizing the wonderfully high-resolution photograph offered in Laurie Goodstein's New York Times piece, I would like first to commend Karen King of Harvard for the ways in which she has presented this fragment to the world. Nowhere in her quotations or the manuscript of her forthcoming article does she engage in the kind of grandstanding that would be so tempting in her situation. Does this fragment prove that Jesus was married? In King's sober evaluation:
No, this fragment does not provide evidence that Jesus was married. The comparatively late date of this Coptic papyrus (a fourth century CE copy of a gospel probably written in Greek in the second half of the second century) argues against its value as evidence for the life of the historical Jesus. Nor is there any reliable historical evidence to support the claim that he was not married, even though Christian tradition has long held that position. The oldest and most reliable evidence is entirely silent about Jesus's marital status. The first claims that Jesus was not married are attested only in the late second century CE, so if the Gospel of Jesus's Wife was also composed in the second century CE, it does provide evidence, however, that the whole question about Jesus's marital status arose as part of the debates about sexuality and marriage that took place among early Christians at that time. From the very beginning, Christians disagreed about whether it was better to marry or to be celibate, but it was over a century after Jesus's death before they began using Jesus's marital status to support their different positions. Christian tradition preserved only those voices that claimed Jesus never married, but now the Gospel of Jesus's Wife shows that some Christians claimed Jesus was married, probably already in the late second century.
Next I would like to clarify, for readers unfamiliar with the scholars cited, that a consensus analysis by Karen King (Harvard), Roger Bagnall (NYU), and AnneMarie Luijendijk (Princeton) is not likely to be incorrect. (For example, many papyrologists would say that Roger Bagnall is the most well-respected papyrologist in the world, like a living library of the collected wisdom of the field.) With the added weight of linguist Ariel Shisha-Halevy (Hebrew Univ.), the initial assessments of the fragment are on very solid ground.Regarding the content of the fragment and how it might be situated in historical, literary, and theological context, King's forthcoming article is characteristically astute and balanced. The text deals with the "worthiness" of women to be "disciples," an issue which arises in other noncanonical literature of the 2nd-3rd centuries (e.g., Gospel of Mary and Gospel of Thomas). (A minor quibble with King's transcription on this point is that I do not see traces of a letter after the alpha that ends line 3, which is offered as a possible nu, thus rendering the sentence possibly negated. It's possible that the top layer of fibers have worn off there at the edge, which could only be judged by examining the papyrus in person.) In addition to the question of women's worthiness, the question of Jesus' origin with his mother is also already a subject of the Gospel of Thomas (logion 101), which may be a variation on the topic with which this fragment begins.
The new content, though, for scholars of early Christianity is the undeniable "my wife." The primary text to discuss wife / husband and bride / bridegroom similarly in the period under consideration is the fragmentary and tantalizing Gospel of Philip, a text usually affiliated with the Valentinian school of thought that developed out of Gnosticism. Imagery of Christ as Bridegroom is present in the New Testament, of course, but the Gospel of Philip significantly develops the theme. The symbol of the "bridal chamber" as a sacramental ritual or, more likely in my opinion, a synecdoche for the aggregate rituals of initiation (anointing, baptism, professions of fidelity, eucharistic feast) is best attested in the Gospel of Philip.One point on which I would like to hear King speak further is the issue of whether "wife" in this context is more likely to an unconsummated, spiritual marriage, such as those championed by ascetic literature from the same time period (especially Thomasine literature: Gospel of Thomas and Acts of Thomas). If the best kinds of "wife" and "husband" in these possibly related texts were those living celibately, then is it more likely that this new fragment uses "wife" in a spiritual sense?That would not diminish the interest of the fragment, since then the likely conclusion would be that Jesus was presented as living in a celibate, spiritual marriage with his "wife" as an "image" of the heavenly union of the Savior and Sophia (so Hans-Martin Schenke in his commentary on the Gospel of Philip, Das Philippus-Evangelium, 1997). Perhaps the "image" (eikon) mentioned in the last line of the fragment suggests such a reading.On the other hand, the fragment's initial defense of Jesus' mother, who gave him life, may be referring to his physical mother and not some spiritual, antemortal mother, and in that case, the fragment might be a flesh-and-body-affirming rejoinder to the ascetic and body-rejecting tendencies of many strains of early Christianity (e.g., Gospel of Thomas 101).What a day! More if and when we have it.