Scripture scholars convened in Rome this week are skeptical
— and that is their job, after all — of the small scrap of papyrus that suggests some 4th-century Coptic Christians believed Jesus had a wife.
No, the fragment presented by Harvard Divinity’s Karen King wasn’t a ‘honey-do’ list for the carpenter from Nazareth, translated from the Aramaic.
Still, it did contain such key phrases as these, written in ancient Coptic, perhaps translated from Greek in the 2nd century:
”Jesus said to them, ‘My wife’...”
“she will be able to be my disciple,’’ and
“Mary is worthy of it.”
On Tuesday, King presented the find, brought to her by an owner who hopes to remain anonymous, at an international congress of Coptic studies in the Eternal City. And of course, the inquiry into the authenticity of what King’s tentatively calling “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife,’’ is just beginning.
Already, though, it’s turned out that my favorite quote in a while — “The world is not really crawling with crooked papyrologists” — from Laurie Goodstein’s front-page New York Times story on the discovery, is as debatable as everything else in the highly combustible space where faith and academics meet.
(I still recall the day an infuriated fellow student in my ‘Women in the Bible’ course at Notre Dame stormed out of class after Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza told us about the raw deal handed Mary Magdalene, who has been confused with but was not the sinner who cried at Jesus’s feet, then dried them with her hair and annointed them with oil. “She was a whore!’’ the poor guy shouted, never to
Some of King’s colleagues came across as only slightly less exercised in a story out of Rome on Tuesday: “I would say it’s a forgery,’’ Alin Suciu, a papyrologist at the University of Hamburg, told the AP’s Nicole Winfield. “The script doesn’t look authentic.”
Faux or no, I hadn’t gotten my hopes up, even if it would be great for us lady Christians to know that Jesus’s feminine side had a name.
But my friend David Hunter, a Patristics scholar at the University of Kentucky, lowered my expectations further still, explaining that even if the fragment were authenticated, it would not only tell us nothing about the historical Jesus, but might not even tell us whether 4th-century Coptic Christians literally believed he was married, because there’s so much ambiguity about what the words ‘wife’ and ‘Mary’ mean in such documents.
In the gnostic Gospels in general, said Hunter, who’s working on a book about the history of celibacy, ‘Mary,’ is a stand-in, a symbol of the Christian believer, rather than a flesh-and-blood woman.
In other words, even if the fragment is authenticated, Mrs. Jesus might turn out to be a metaphor? Yup, the highly familiar one in which Jesus is married to his church.
There’s no reason any of this would upend church teaching on priestly celibacy, either, because the tradition isn’t based on the unmarried example of Jesus and his apostles.
(Christians have been arguing about whether it’s better to marry — rather than burn with lust, as St. Paul wrote — or remain free of such entanglements since the beginning. But the practice of clerical celibacy, which was the norm by the 4th century, seems to have grown out of both the popularity of the monastic lifestyle and the practice of ritual purity; priests abstained from sex on days they celebrated Mass, so as liturgies became more frequent, full-time celibacy became more practical. The property concerns so often cited as the “real” motivation for sexual continence came much later, and in the 12th century finally did lead to the formal prohibition on priests marrying and leaving their property to heirs. )
My ‘She the People’ colleagues and I have still enjoyed imagining what a finding that there was a Mrs. Jesus might mean: “Can you imagine the mother-in-law issues?” joked Karen Tumulty, while Annie Groer wondered if the lady of the house ever groused, “How’s about you put some of those carpentry skills to use around here some time?”
But Judy Howard Ellis, author of a fantasy novel based on the Book of Genesis, from the start dismissed the story as “faith mixed with TMZ,’’ involving a potentially impressive artifact, but “just not a deal-breaker for Christian belief. One fragment? Nah. I wish scholars would spend more time studying the wild things Jesus and the Bible say outright instead of what the gnostic writings purport.’’
With or without a bride, Jesus was a straight-up feminist, though, always coming out with radical stuff on an equality that favors “neither man nor woman, gentile nor Jew, slave nor free.’’ Which come to think of it, may have been what scared my former classmate so much.
Melinda Henneberger is a Post political writer and anchors the paper’s ‘She the People’ blog. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.