Hamblin & Peterson: Does papyrus prove Jesus was married?

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 13 2015 5:17 p.m. MDT

This fourth century fragment of papyrus contains a line in which Jesus refers to This fourth century fragment of papyrus contains a line in which Jesus refers to "my wife." But with almost no complete sentences, it lacks any and all context. Thus, any conclusions drawn from it are conjectural. (Associated Press)

Harvard professor Karen King's disclosure of a small papyrus document that she calls the "Gospel of Jesus's Wife" has been much in the news over the past few days. It's generated some real excitement. So it may be worthwhile at this point to be clear about what the document does and doesn't say.

First of all, it's very fragmentary, with almost no complete sentences, and it lacks any and all context. Thus, any conclusions drawn from it are conjectural, though we do know enough that such conjectures can be relatively well-informed.

The relevant portion of the text reads, simply, "Jesus said to them, My wife …" In the preceding line, there's a reference to "Mary." (Which "Mary" this might be is unclear.) The following line says "… she will be able to be my disciple," but it's not certain that either "Mary" or "she" is the "wife" of the line in the middle. An indefinite number of intervening words are missing on either side.

The lead-in of a national television news broadcast a few days ago asked the question "Was Jesus married?" and then continued, "A Harvard professor believes that a newly discovered piece of papyrus answers that question."

But that's precisely what King has not been saying. In fact, she's been at pains to deny it. Because, she thinks, the papyrus dates from the latter half of the fourth century — roughly 350 years after the Savior's mortal life — she doesn't regard it as direct evidence for Jesus's having a wife. (To think otherwise would be the approximate equivalent of considering somebody's modern opinion about Shakespeare to be primary historical evidence regarding his biography.)

Many readers of Dan Brown are, no doubt, wondering whether this small text confirms his claim that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married, and that Mary is depicted in Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper." It doesn't. And, by the way, she's definitely not.

But it may well be evidence that at least a few ancient Christians thought that Jesus was married. (The ancient Valentinian Gnostics may possibly have believed that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were wed; this fragment may perhaps be a Gnostic text, and maybe even a specifically Valentinian one. There isn't enough of it, unfortunately, to be able to tell.) And King herself seems to allow that the text on the papyrus fragment may derive from a Greek original that could date back to as early as the latter part of the second century. This would place it within roughly 150 years of Jesus — still quite a distance, but nowhere near as far removed from him.

On the other hand, the papyrus's reference to a "wife" may be metaphorical or allegorical. The third-century Gnostic Gospel of Philip — very likely itself a Valentinian text — which was found in 1945 in a cave near Nag Hammadi, in Egypt, places great importance on rites associated with a "bridal chamber," but this may or may not refer to a real, literal marriage.

If it could somehow be demonstrated that Jesus was married — no historical evidence says that he wasn't; his marital status simply isn't mentioned — the implications would be staggering.

Mainstream Christianity's long history of ambivalence toward sexuality, already under re-examination today, would need to be re-evaluated even further. Monasticism and priestly celibacy would seem rather oddly suited to a faith worshiping a married Christ.

And orthodox Christendom's all-too-common devaluation of women, which at some historical periods has descended deep into cruel misogyny, would be even more difficult to defend if Jesus himself saw fit to take a wife.

But the ramifications would be more far-reaching than that.

Borrowing, consciously or not, from such strands of Hellenistic thought as Neoplatonism, ancient and medieval Christian thinkers tended to equate masculinity with activity, and thus with spirit, while femininity has been identified with receptivity, and thus with matter.

Women, associated with childbearing and domesticity, have tended to be seen as distractions from the more austere and "higher" realm of spiritual things, and sometimes to be almost demonized.

A married Jesus, however, would call into serious question any tendency to denigrate or repudiate the material world — a world that, after all, the God of the Genesis creation story repeatedly pronounced "good."

Such an affirmation of femininity, and, frankly, of biological reality, would starkly contradict historical tendencies in traditional Christianity to disparage the physical body.

But such a demonstration is unlikely. This intriguing papyrus fragment doesn't quite do the job.

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