Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Somebody Once Believed Jesus Had a Wife

The problem with today’s headline story is not the discovery of an ancient document that suggests that someone once believed that Jesus had a wife. There were many false and unbiblical teachings in ancient times, just as there are today. The problem is the media can very easily make a minor story into something sensational that appears to threaten historic Christianity.

The lead paragraph of the USA Today article says it this way:

A papyrus fragment from the fourth century contains a phrase in which Jesus refers to "My wife," which a U.S. scholar says is the first evidence supporting the belief among early Christians that he was married.

That’s the version that most will read. Contrast that with first paragraph of the academic paper on which the story is based (bold font mine):

Published here for the first time is a fragment of a fourth-century CE codex in Coptic containing a dialogue between Jesus and his disciples in which Jesus speaks of “my wife.” This is the only extant ancient text which explicitly portrays Jesus as referring to a wife. It does not, however, provide evidence that the historical Jesus was married, given the late date of the fragment and the probable date of original composition only in the second half of the second century. Nevertheless, if the second century date of composition is correct, the fragment does provide direct evidence that claims about Jesus’s marital status first arose over a century after the death of Jesus in the context of intra-Christian controversies over sexuality, marriage, and discipleship. Just as Clement of Alexandria (d. ca 215 C.E.) described some Christians who insisted Jesus was not married, this fragment suggests that other Christians of that period were claiming that he was married.

A few observations:

1. We have known for a very long time that some people around the year 200 argued that Jesus had a wife.

2. A newly discovered but poorly preserved fragment may suggest that some people around the year 200 argued that Jesus had a wife.

3. Ancient texts that showed that some people believed that Jesus had a wife were non-existent until the discovery of this fragment.

4. There were many “Christian” groups in the first few centuries that had bizarre beliefs that contradicted Scripture.

5. The early church was in wide agreement that Jesus did not have a wife.

6. No first-century document ever mentions or hints at the possibility that Jesus had a wife.

7. Jesus understood his identity and his atoning death from the beginning of his earthly ministry, and he knew that marriage was not part of his mission.

Karen L. King, the author of the academic paper, gives a good introduction to the discovery on this video produced by Harvard Divinity School.

As I learn of good articles on the subject, I will add them below.

Darrell Bock: Quick Thoughts on the New Jesus Wife Text

Michael Heiser: Ancient Coptic Fragment Has Jesus Alluding to His Wife

Mark D. Roberts: Was Jesus Married? A Careful Look at the Real Evidence.

James Davila: A Coptic gospel that mentions Jesus’ wife?

Associated Press: Harvard Claim of Jesus’ Wife Papyrus Scrutinized

*Simon Gathercole: Did Jesus have a wife?

Michael Kruger: Apocryphal Gospels and the Mainstream Media

Luke Chandler: Ancient papyrus: Was Jesus Married? Don’t overlook this perspective…

David Bivin: Was Jesus a Confirmed Bachelor?

Thomas L. McDonald: The Gnostic Noise Machine and the “Wife” of Jesus

Preston Sprinkle: Did Jesus Have a Wife?

*Mark Goodacre: The Gospel of Jesus' Wife: The Story is Moving Fast!

Francis Watson: The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife: How a fake Gospel-Fragment was composed

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13 Comments:

  • Todd, I have a quick question. I thought I heard her say between 0:45 and 0:50 that the manuscript is evidence that people between 150 and 200 AD thought Jesus had a wife, but that the manuscript itself is dated to the fourth century, i.e., the 300s. How could it be evidence for the second century if it comes from the fourth, or am I missing something? Thanks.

    By Blogger Mike Caba, at Tue Sep 18, 10:07:00 PM  

  • Mike - she believes that her fragment is a 4th-century copy of a document originally written in the late 2nd century.

    By Blogger Todd Bolen, at Tue Sep 18, 10:39:00 PM  

  • Thanks for this, Todd. Very helpful overview.

    By Blogger Wayne Stiles, at Wed Sep 19, 07:27:00 AM  

  • I have to compliment the author for a well written report and for her insistence that whatever the text says that it add no historical information on Jesus’ actual marital status.

    That said, she also goes on to make some huge assumptions on a very fragmentary text. She tries to show that “Mary” must be Mary Magdalene, not May of Nazareth or Bethany. She assumes that Jesus must be the one talking in that line and that “my wife” must refer to Mary. She assumes the text from the second century. All are possible, but other possibilities are just as likely. I can hardly wait for the TV special.

    By Blogger Al Sandalow, at Wed Sep 19, 10:04:00 AM  

  • Thanks Todd.

    By Blogger Mike Caba, at Wed Sep 19, 10:46:00 AM  

  • Thanks! I've sent others here already to help them! Great, brief, clarity for those seeking to figure this out.

    By Blogger ~ Marty Alan Michelson, at Wed Sep 19, 11:48:00 AM  

  • Appreciate your post on this. It's good to get some clear thinking on the subject so quickly!

    By Blogger Unknown, at Wed Sep 19, 02:34:00 PM  

  • Incidentally, I don't know why it listed me as unknown. :) --Judi King

    By Blogger Unknown, at Wed Sep 19, 02:35:00 PM  

  • Good job of coverage ! The place of origin being Egypt and the date seem to point to gnostic origins. Good timing, don't want this to become another "Jesus' family tomb".

    By Blogger Tom Brennan, at Wed Sep 19, 03:01:00 PM  

  • I think my favorite commentary on this thing is here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/godandthemachine/2012/09/the-gnostic-noise-machine-and-the-wife-of-jesus/

    By Blogger The Deuce, at Fri Sep 21, 05:04:00 AM  

  • Todd - great job and thanks for the link back to JP.

    Yes, Al, she makes quite a few assumptions, but people do that. For instance, in Todd's short blog he included his own assumption "and he knew that marriage was not part of his mission."

    We are all guilty of attempting to relay truth while subjecting our audience to our own assumptions.

    By Blogger Brian Becker, at Fri Sep 21, 07:45:00 AM  

  • Where is the rest of the sentence? It stated that 'Jesus said, My wife'. That is not a complete sentence. could he have been referring to the Church? The scriptures call the church His bride in several places.

    By Blogger Sharmin, at Fri Sep 21, 03:14:00 PM  

  • Why the controversy over the date of the papyrus. None of the four canonical gospels were written during the time of Jesus ( Yeshua). Most date from 50-100 AD and were only pieces and scraps. So MAN made them into what he wanted to say for the new religion according to his beliefs. IE the last added verses of Mark.
    The winner of the war, Religion, dictates what is acceptable, else why did the early church expend so much time trying to obliterate the other books written about the same time, all on the new religion.Why did Saul (Paul) destroy so many libraries because they failed to fit his theory of Christ. Man fails mankind by enforcing his/her views on the religion of their choice thereby polluting and diluting the meaning of the original word

    By Blogger Neville Smith, at Fri May 10, 11:49:00 AM  

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