By Juan Cole
This post originally ran on Juan Cole’s Web page.
A Coptic fragmentary manuscript page that dates back to a few hundred years after Jesus’ death (and the text of which may go back to the second century) has been found by radiocarbon and ink testing to be authentic. That is, it is not, as some scholars claimed when it was first announced by Harvard scholar Karen King, a modern forgery.
Of course, that it is ancient does not require that it be correct.
But if it were correct, how might it change Christian sensibilities? For a holy figure to have a wife does not make the tradition more feminist, after all. The Jewish patriarchs and prophets were married, but Orthodox and Haredi Judaism are highly patriarchal. Likewise Islam, where the Prophet Muhammad (like Abraham and David) had several wives.
On the other hand, the text itself seems to be a pro-woman polemic defending the idea that women can be disciples of Christ even if married (Jesus is depicted as saying his wife is a disciple).
If Christian tradition were broadened to include these perspectives, it might help it escape the misogyny of some authors. For instance, the entire pyramidal structure erected by Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:3 might be difficult to maintain: “But I want you to understand that the head [kephale] of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” But if Christ had a wife, the relationships wouldn’t be hierarchical like that. The man-wife dyad would obtain both at the level of Jesus and at the level of the believers. And if Paul thought he could keep women quiet in church, he had another think coming, especially if Mrs. Jesus could have had anything to say about it.
It seems to me that much of the evangelical (and evangelical-Catholic) wing of the current Republican Party has 1 Corinthians 11:3 in mind when they think about social structure. God and Jesus are most proximate to men, and women come later in the hierarchy. Thus, “godly” men (as they conceive themselves) get to tell women what they can do with their bodies, whether they must bear their rapist’s child, whether they have access to birth control from government health insurance programs as men have access to viagra. But if there was a Mrs. Jesus, that flow chart breaks down.
I’m hoping he did have a wife and that she was Mary Magdalene (Jesus married to a once fallen woman would underline the possibilities of redemption and work against the Rush Limbaugh brand of attempted slut-shaming).
Personally, I think an enormous amount of material on early Judaism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism and Islam is buried under the sands of the Middle East. Unlike in India, where white ants probably long ago ate up the early Buddhist manuscripts, paypyrus and clay tablets can survive a long time in the dry desert. And, I think over time that material will surface and will pose challenges to contemporary fundamentalisms.
I wrote in 2012 when the discovery was announced:
The Harvard Magazine gives a full account of the deciphering by Professor Karen L. King of a fragmentary Coptic fragment on papyrus from the otherwise lost “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.” It was likely translated into Coptic in upper Egypt from a Greek text of the mid-second century, and is part of a corpus of Gnostic writings that survive in Coptic, the ancient language of the Christians of Egypt (which is written in an alphabet, but descends from the ancient Pharaonic language written in hieroglyphics).
All the fragment proves is that Christians a little over a century after the death of Jesus of Nazareth were arguing about whether he had been married. Texts just as old as this newly-surfaced fragment assert that he was celibate. The letters of Paul, the earliest texts about Jesus, and the canonical Gospels, are silent about whether he was married.
[pdf] Professor King, Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard, has posted her paper, presented in Rome at the Association for Coptic Studies conference, on the web.
I don’t agree with those who say that the discovery is unimportant because it is inconclusive. Admittedly, the text is late, and the Gnostic corpus in Coptic makes a lot of unlikely assertions, so it doesn’t prove anything. But the very fact that such an early Christian community believed that Jesus was married is significant. It means that there was an oral tradition to that effect, which may have gone back to the historical Jesus. It means that the second generation of Christians found the assertion entirely plausible.
Jews of Jesus’ time were typically ever-married if they weren’t members of ascetic sectarian groups. So one would expect him to have married. Moreover, the narratives about him were formed in the context of Jewish sacred history.
The mythical figure Adam, of course, was said to married (otherwise the myth couldn’t have accounted for our existence). Adam’s married state is actually relevant, since some early Christians saw Jesus as a second Adam, so that it would be natural for the sake of parallelism to hold that he had had an Eve.
Abraham famously had three wives.
Moses was not only married, but his non-Jewish wife, Zipporah, saved him from being attacked by God by abruptly circumcising their son. The idea of the Messiah as a ‘second Moses’ also shows up in early Christianity, and, again, it could have been part of this belief that Jesus had his own Zipporah. (The “Gospel of the Wife of Jesus” seems to envisage her becoming his disciple and so spiritual helper).
David had at the very least seven wives. Many of his unions were for the purpose of binding the clan of his wife to him politically. Jesus is alleged to the descendant of David through one of these marriages.
Given his antecedents in Judaic sacred narrative, it actually would be strange if Jesus had not been married or believed to be so.
It could be argued that the strain of early Christianity that argued for Jesus’ celibacy ended up being privileged by the Roman Catholic church when it began demanding celibacy of its priests. The idea of Jesus as married will be hardest on the Roman Catholic branch of Christianity, if it comes to be taken seriously.
This discussion reinforces the ways in which the Prophet Muhammad can be seen as not very different from his predecessors in Judaism and Christianity (the Qur’an sees him as in the same line of prophets). Like David, he became the ruler of a city-state, and conducted many marriages for essentially political purposes, ensuring the loyalty to him of his new in-laws. There is a theme in anti-Muslim polemics that depicts the Prophet Muhammad as lascivious because of his marriages. But it is hard to see how he differs from Abraham and David in that regard. As for the allegation that Muhammad married A’isha as a child, the marriage age for girls in the Talmud is 12, and if Jesus was married he could well have married a girl of that age. (The biblical king Ahaz married at 10, if one takes the 2 Kings seriously.) Projecting back our late marriage ages of today (and in some states early marriage was allowed until fairly recently) and accusing ancient figures of being pedophiles is just a narrow-minded anachronism. ”
AFP reports on the radiocarbon testing results:
Scroll that mentions Jesus’s wife is ancient: scientists (via AFP)
A ancient piece of papyrus that contains a mention of Jesus’ wife is not a forgery, according to a scientific analysis of the controversial text, US researchers said Thursday. The fragment is believed to have come from Egypt and contains writing in…