By Andrew V. Ste. Marie
News agencies and Internet bloggers pounced on the news of a new “gospel” unveiled at a conference in Rome recently. The fragment, dubbed the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife,” allegedly mentions Jesus as being married.
Finding spurious gospels is not new. Along with the four canonical Gospels giving accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry, pseudo-Christian groups in the first centuries of the church (most notably the Gnostics) produced their own “holy writings,” including The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Philip, The Acts of Peter, etc. Of course, the books were not actually written by the people they were named for.
This new “gospel” is not a complete work at all – rather it is a tiny scrap of papyrus with eight partial lines of text on one side and a few words on the other. What is so exciting about it? Lines 3-5 read, “deny. Mary is [?not] worthy of it…Jesus said to them, ‘my wife…she will be able to be my disciple.” Several secular news agencies are taking this as “evidence” that Jesus Christ was married and hyping the fragment intensely. Although it is simply a scrap, it was given the name “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.”
In the midst of the excitement, it is good to keep the following points in mind:
1. There is essentially no context at all for the statement about the “wife”. We have no idea what the Jesus character in the text was saying. What if the original (complete) text said, “My wife is the church, whom I shall take to Heaven to be where I am.” It is a possibility!
2. The dating of the fragment is quite uncertain, but the scholar who announced it has tentatively dated the text (not the fragment) to the second century A.D. The fragment itself she believes to be from the fourth century. Obviously, the canonical gospels, which were written in the first century by people who knew Jesus personally or (as in the case of Mark and Luke) knew those who knew Jesus, are more reliable than this undated, unattributed scrap even from a secular viewpoint.
3. Very few scholars are willing at this point to vouch for the authenticity of the text. Many are strongly suspicious that it is a modern forgery; some are absolutely convinced that it is. Even Prof. Karen King, who unveiled the fragment, admitted to having doubts about its authenticity. Some have questioned why the scrap is a perfect rectangle. Might someone have found it as part of a larger text and cut out the small piece – perhaps because the broader context gave information about what the “wife” comment meant which made it sound less sensational?
4. Even if the scrap is genuinely ancient (mid-2nd century, as Prof. King suggested) and is suggesting that Jesus was married (in a literal sense), that does not mean that the real Jesus actually was married. It only means that one author who wrote this document may have believed that Jesus was married. (For all we know, the author may have been disputing such an idea or simply making some scribblings for his own amusement.) Prof. King wrote that the text “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.”
Need this new scrap shake anyone’s faith in what the Biblical Gospels say about Jesus’ life? No. Its late date and lack of context make it essentially worthless even from a secular viewpoint in telling us anything about Jesus’ life. Those who have experienced the power of Jesus in their lives personally need not let any evidence shake them away from their own experiential knowledge of the truth of the Bible.
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek”
Holy Bible, Authorized Version
There is an enormous amount of discussion of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife online. Here are a few main references:
1. Henry B. Smith, Jr., “Brief Reflections on the So-Called ‘Jesus Wife’ Fragment,” http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2012/09/24/Brief-Reflections-on-the-So-Called-Jesus-Wife-Fragment.aspx (Accessed September 27, 2012)
2. Tim Chaffey, “Was Jesus Married?,” http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/2012/09/21/feedback-was-jesus-married (Accessed September 27, 2012)
3. Karen L. King & AnneMarie Luijendijk, “ ‘Jesus said to them, “My wife…”’ A New Coptic Gospel Papyrus,” draft of paper submitted to Harvard Theological Review, http://www.hds.harvard.edu/sites/hds.harvard.edu/files/attachments/faculty-research/research-projects/the-gospel-of-jesuss-wife/29865/King_JesusSaidToThem_draft_0920.pdf
4. Lillian Kwon, “ ‘Gospel of Jesus’ Wife’ Historian Admits to Having Doubts About Authenticity,” http://www.christianpost.com/news/gospel-of-jesus-wife-historian-admits-to-having-doubts-about-authenticity-82229/ (Accessed September 27, 2012)