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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Gospel of Jesus' Wife

Prof. Karen L. King recently unveiled the translation of a fragment of Coptic papyrus at the Tenth International Congress of Coptic Studies in Rome. This is the papyrus:



 According to Prof. King, this is what it says:

This has obviously gotten a lot of media attention. Ever since Dan Brown's novel, The Da Vinci Code, people have been fascinated by this old question. Did Jesus have a wife?

However, Prof. King says that this papyrus does nothing to prove or disprove the idea that Jesus was married. When asked if this proves that Jesus had a wife, she said,
"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."
She says that the fragment only proves that early Christians discussed it and held the belief that he was married.  Now, I'm no Harvard Professor, but I would have to disagree. This isn't a fragment showing what Christians discussed or talked about. This is a fragment showing what Jesus actually allegedly said.  If the fragment is accurate, then it isn't proof that Christians discussed Jesus' marriage. It's proof that Jesus discussed his own marriage.

So the question then is whether or not the fragment accurately depicts a conversation between Jesus and disciples, or if it's just more early Christian apocrypha. That is, whether or not this conversation ever actually happened.

One of the main issues with the fragments reliability is pointed out by Darrell L. Bock, senior research professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. He says that  it represents "a very small minority in a much later period than original Christianity ... It is a fourth century text in a fringe gnostic group that is not representative of the larger groups that are [part of] Christianity."

In other words, the people writing this account were a group that had already split off from "original Christianity" and who do not necessarily represent their views. Does this automatically mean that their account is false? No, but it should at least give us pause. Bock also said that "this is one text among a mountain of texts that say Jesus was single. If the papyrus is authentic, it would be the first text to suggest that Jesus had a wife". We would have to start finding a lot more scrolls that describe him as being married before we started to seriously consider the possibility.

A quick side note about that last claim, that this is one text among a mountain of others that say he was single.  Daniel Peterson, a professor of Middle Eastern Studies at BYU said of all these contradicting texts
"Well, honestly, I can't think of a single one that does ... The fact is his marital status is never discussed ... The earliest historical documents about Jesus simply don't say one way or another," Peterson said. "You can't prove that he was, but you can't prove that he wasn't."
So was Jesus married? Possibly, but if we are ever going to find the answer to that question, it won't be from this fragment.


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