So you must be Mrs Christ…
Big news from the States, with the report that a document has been found which refers to Jesus having a wife. Lots of people are very interested in this story, and unsurprisingly it’s already spawned many jokes, some of which are actually quite funny.
I think it’s important to be clear about the nature of this discovery – it’s difficult to be 100% confident about finds like this, but if this papyrus is genuine (as it appears to be) and the dating is correct, it would be about as old as any extant copy of the gospel texts. That makes it quite an interesting discovery from an academic perspective. Given the lack of clarity over its origins, though, it doesn’t tell us as much as would be ideal.
But this hasn’t become the biggest news story of the last 24 hours out of academic curiosity over ancient texts from the early church – the media storm is entirely due to one thing, and one thing only. Everyone wants to know whether Jesus had a wife. The trouble is, if that’s what you’re interested in, it’s a complete non-story.
The text itself is patchy, as described in the full paper (page 15 gives the full text), and most likely copied from a proto-gospel originally written in the 2nd Century. While the original text may have included a clear, explicit reference by Jesus to his wife, it’s also possible to construct alternative hypotheses that fit the evidence we have. I tend to think that it’s most likely that the original was referring to an actual wife, but it’s not something that could be claimed with complete confidence.
Even if that’s true, and this is a snippet of a heretical gospel that claims Jesus married, what does it tell us? It’s hardly a novel theory, as any fan of bad thrillers would know, but more than that, we already have clear evidence from the church itself that claims of this nature were circulating in the 2nd Century, because Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria were moved to write about them and to emphasise their position that he didn’t marry. This is just telling us what we already know.
There’s possible interest in the specific detail here. While other heretical gospels have strongly hinted at Jesus being married, I think this would be the first specific reference to a wife, and the origin of this text (if known) might tell us something about heretical sects in the early church. But this is like getting excited about finding half a footprint from a murder suspect when a photofit’s been circulating for years.
I’m undecided on the specific claims – I don’t think there’s a very strong case that Jesus had a wife, but the suppression of those claims by people who were too far removed from him to have any evidence to the contrary doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence in the church’s objectivity. I just wish discoveries like this could be appreciated for what they are, rather than what people would like them to be.
Photo by MAMJODH, used under Attribution License