Thursday, September 20, 2012

Did Jesus Have a Wife? -- The Coptic Gospel Papyrus

Several papers have recently broken the story of the discovery of a 4th century fragment of a Coptic Papyrus codex that raises the possibility that Jesus was married. For the New York Times piece, see

Karen L. King, a professor of Early Church History at Harvard Divinity School has studied the papyrus and published a draft article on it (the final version was to be published in the Harvard Theological [HTR] Review 106/1 [2013], but Harvard has postponed it):

Some of the significant points from King's article are:
  • that the fragment is too early to prove or disprove that Jesus was or was not married
  • it does attest to the dispute which began in the second century
  • the provenance of the fragment is unknown, and it is owned by a private (anonymous) collector
  • the fragment has been in private hands since at least 1982, when a professor Fecht (Berlin) is supposed to have remarked "is the only example of a text in which Jesus uses direct speech in reference to a wife" (das einzige Beispiel für einen Text ist, in dem Jesus die direkte Rede in Bezug auf eine Ehefrau benutzt).
  • by her own admission, King is "is neither a papyrologist nor a Coptic linguist," thus had to seek assistance for the translation from Roger Bagnall and AnneMarie Luijendijk of Princeton, who judged that the fragment is authentic and, based on paleography, dates ca. to the fourth century.
  • Three reviewers for HTR have differed on the authenticity of the fragment.
  • Although waiting for further testing (e.g. ink), King's review of the disputes led to the conclusion for authenticity.
  • In her summary, King states: "What can be said securely is that our fragment contains the first known statement that explicitly claims Jesus had wife. It consists of a dialogue between Jesus and his disciples." She also reiterates that the late date of the fragment precludes it as evidence for the question of Jesus' marital status.
  • Translation:
1 ] “not [to] me. My mother gave to me li[fe…”
2 ] The disciples said to Jesus, “.[
3 ] deny. Mary is worthy of it      [or, Mary is n[ot] worthy of it]
4 ]……” Jesus said to them, “My wife . .[ [
5 ]… she will be able to be my disciple . . [
6 ] Let wicked people swell up … [
7] As for me, I dwell with her in order to . [
8] an image [
1 ] my moth[er
2 ] three [
3 ] … [
4 ] forth which … [
5 ] (illegible ink traces)
6 ] (illegible ink traces)

My Responses
  • King should be commended in that, thus far, she has generally operated with due caution and even-handedness.
  • Although line 4 of the fragment does appear to indicate that Jesus attests to having a wife, the line is fragmentary: while somewhat unlikely the possibility remains that the lacunae before and after what remains in line 4 might qualify or undermine the putative attestation.
  • As with other sensational finds (e.g., the Tel Dan stele, James ossuary), one must be very cautious about drawing conclusions about this fragment. Perhaps the greatest concern is its unknown provenance, which limits what one can say definitively about it.
  • King herself is duly cautious and excludes the possibility that the papyrus is probative for the issue of Jesus' marital status.
  • There is disagreement between scholars over the authenticity of the fragment.
  • Very few scholars to date have had access to the papyrus (although King states her willingness to make it available).
  • Establishing the date of such artifacts on paleographical grounds is not easy--even for distinguished epigraphers (e.g., André Lemaire on the James ossuary).
  • Generally, the significance of such material is debated for years by scholars before a consensus arises.
  • The first several centuries after Jesus produced many texts about him (as King notes) which were not regarded as canonical (e.g., the Gospel of Thomas).
What if Jesus did have a wife?
If it were ultimately demonstrated that Jesus did have a wife, then he would have lived the "default" mode of existence for a Second Temple period Jew. That is, the cultural expectation was for a man to take a wife. The NT spends little time addressing spouses, but at least some of the disciples--including Peter--were evidently married (1 Cor 9:5). Presumably Jesus would have enjoyed sexual relations with his wife, which, again would have been the norm and which would not undermine texts such as Heb 4:15 nor any Christian doctrine. If children had been produced by such union, then we would have pause for ontological thought; but at this point we are well into the realm of speculation.

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