Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Jesus Had a Wife and Other Myths

A fragment of a Coptic (Egyptian Christian) manuscript has a sentence about Jesus saying "my wife." The story made top headlines today. And already headline writers are exaggerating its significance.

The fragment’s date? Between mid-second-century and fourth century.

The fragment’s context: It has none. It's a 1.5 by 3-inch text with writing on both sides.

What gets buried in the news: The scholar who brought forth the announcement wrote in her Harvard Theological Review article set for release in January that “this fragment, this new piece of papyrus evidence, does not prove that (Jesus) was married, nor does it prove that he was not married. The earliest reliable historical tradition is completely silent on that. So we're in the same position we were before it was found. We don't know if he was married or not.”

The Bible does not mention Jesus’ marital status; his singleness is an argument from silence. We read of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus’ siblings, but nothing of a wife. We read of women following him all over Galilee and Palestine, but nothing of a wife. Some Gnostic texts make such a claim, and people have often romanticized his relationship with Mary Magdalene. But nothing in the biblical text suggests such a relationship—an idea that Dan Brown sensationalized in The Da Vinci Code. 

The Huffington Post quoted DTS’s Dr. Darrell Bock, on the subject: “One could say the text is silent on Jesus’ marital status is because there was nothing to say… ” They add, “Bock agreed with the notion that the text fragment shared similarities with those gospels, called the Gnostic Gospels, which were the writings of an early outlier sect of Christians. He said the text could be referring to a 'gnostic rite of marriage that is a picture of the church and Jesus, not a real wife…. It’s a small text with very little context. We don’t know what’s wrapped around it to know what it’s saying…. The whole text needs vetting. [The scholar involved is] doing the right thing to release it and let scholars take a look at… It’s a little bit like trying to analyze the game in the first quarter… It’s a historical curiosity but doesn’t really tell us who Jesus was. It’s one small speck of a text in a mountain of texts of about Jesus.'”

The Smithsonian Channel plans to air a special about the fragment on September 30.


Sandi said...

This addition from Dr. Daniel B. Wallace:

Regarding the “Jesus’ Wife” Sahidic Coptic fragment: Even Professor King did not suggest that it means that Jesus had a wife (and she is not known for her
conservative views!). What I'm interested in about the fragment are two things: first, what sub-Christian group would see Jesus as married? Second, the fact that this fragment is written only on the recto AND is from the fourth century (the date, however, is very difficult to determine for Coptic MSS, but in this case since it’s Sahidic Coptic that argues for a fairly early date) suggests that it was produced by a not-so-orthodox group. By the fourth century AD virtually every truly Christian group wrote on codices in which both sides of the papyrus leaf were used. We know that Christians were the first to popularize the codex form of the book and that by AD 500 the rest of the Greco-Roman world had virtually adopted it. To be sure, some early subchristian documents are written on a codex, but my hunch is that they were the exception and were produced to imitate orthodox Christian writings. There are two other features in orthodox writings as well: nomina sacra and letter-abbreviations for numbers. This fragment does have a nomen sacrum (fourth line, in the middle: IC with a supralinear line is the abbreviation for 'Jesus'), but by this date many sub-Christian groups were using nomina sacra.

As King suggests, it probably reflects a second- century tradition and was thus most likely a translation from a Greek document. We must keep in mind that there is a world of difference between first-century, apostolic Christianity and the various spin-offs that took place after that (and sometimes even during it!).

Anonymous said...

thanks for sharing.