Trying to do ancient history is like assembling an enormous jigsaw puzzle—but we only have a small percentage of the pieces, these are mostly middle pieces, and there is no box lid to provide a model of the completed puzzle. Every once in a while, a new piece comes along with such a clear, vivid picture that we are able to reorient the puzzle and gain a new perspective on the whole.
This is not one of those moments.
The newly published Coptic papyrus does not fundamentally change what we historians of early Christianity are doing. So let’s not overestimate it.
But let’s not underestimate it either. When trying to complete the puzzle of early Christian history, every new piece is a godsend. The international guild of papyrologists, of which I am a part, hones its linguistic skills and sifts through bins and bins of cartonnage (small scraps of reused papyrus) in order to prepare for moments such as these. The Coptic papyrus is especially welcome because it’s a connector piece in our puzzle: its content shares enough similarities with existing pieces that we know roughly where on the table to put it. But it also offers a new detail: “Jesus said to them, ‘my wife…’”
Professor Karen King, who will be publishing the papyrus, has been abundantly clear that this text does not mean Jesus was married; rather, it tells us a bit about some Christians in the second or third century who either thought Jesus was married or used the symbol of Jesus’ wife for some other meaning. Her forthcoming article speaks well and clearly to its intended audience of historians.
I would like to offer a complementary viewpoint: Christians have nothing to fear from this text, but always something to learn.
Some contemporary Christians have been outright dismissive of non-canonical texts from early Christianity, as if their very existence is dangerous or even diabolical. Many early Christian leaders from the beginning, though, did not maintain such a strong canonical boundary. Even Athanasius of Alexandria, the fourth-century bishop and champion of orthodoxy, encouraged Christians to engage with a wide range of scriptures, including those from outside the emerging New Testament.
In the present day, Pope Benedict XVI—no wild-eyed liberal—quotes favorably from the non-canonical Didache and the Gospel of Thomas, a collection of sayings preserved most thoroughly in Coptic, in his books about Jesus. At last year’s Easter Vigil service in St. Peter’s Basilica, the pope even included in his homily a non-canonical saying of Jesus, which is preserved in the Gospel of Thomas.
Some of the most dismissive opinions toward non-canonical literature come from traditional, conservative Catholics. This is deeply ironic: an exalted view of the Virgin Mary and a profound veneration for her perpetual virginity are features found in the early non-canonical traditions. Most key Marian stories and dogmas are not found in the Bible, but in other early traditions. For example, the Infancy Gospel of James, likely a second-century text, is the primary textual repository of Mary’s biography and the doctrine about her perpetual virginity.
In short, Christians should approach new discoveries not in fear, but with a spirit of inquiry. When we do, we find that this new Coptic papyrus provides corroborating evidence, however miniscule, about what were some “live debates” in the second-fourth centuries. For instance, the new text is concerned with the worthiness of a woman to be a disciple. This is something historians have already seen in the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Thomas. The popularity of Mary Magdalene as the apostola apostolorum (“apostle to the apostles”) is well known from late antiquity. In addition, with the rise of asceticism in the third and fourth centuries of Christianity, especially in Egypt where monasticism began, many women sought a spiritual discipleship of sexual renunciation as a means of liberating themselves from submissive roles.
As for the headline-grabbing statement about Jesus’ “wife,” historians also can situate this alongside preexisting evidence. The Gospel of Philip, another non-canonical text probably from the second or third century, famously presents Mary Magdalene as the “partner” or “companion” of Jesus. Yet some scholars would argue that the Gospel of Philip overall disavows carnal marriage and instead endorses a kind of celibate, spiritual marriage between believers (as brides) and Christ (as groom). Such nuptial imagery is rooted in the canonical New Testament texts, in which salvation is imagined as a wedding feast. The Gospel of Philip expands on this imagery and describes Christian conversion and initiation as a sacramental marriage in a “bridal chamber.” Many other mainstream texts offered variations on that theme.
It is likely that, whatever words completed the sentence about Jesus’ “wife,” the new fragment came from a text that engaged some of the central questions of its day for Christians: Were sex and procreation blessings God wished for everyone? Or was some spiritual value to be sought in renunciation and celibacy? If Jesus spoke in figurative language of weddings, brides, and grooms, what and whom specifically was he talking about? The transmitter of this ancient text was likely trying to understand these legitimate questions, along with how Jesus’ singleness (or not) was to be understood as a model of Christian holiness.
Christians need not fear such timeless questions. We keep learning and striving to understand the issues that generated our past—even when its pieces are puzzling.
Michael Peppard is assistant professor of theology at Fordham University, where he teaches Bible, early Christianity, and ancient languages (including Coptic). His book, “The Son of God in the Roman World: Divine Sonship in Its Social and Political Context,” is available in paperback.