What if Jesus had a wife?
This is the question that Christianity confronts today after a fragment of papyrus has been presented at a conference of scholars in Rome. The ancient Coptic document includes the phrase "Jesus said to them, my wife" using a term that undoubtedly references a woman who was his spouse and not some metaphorical partner.
Harvard scholar Karen L. King, who announced the discovery of the papyrus at the International Congress of Coptic Studies, believes it is from the latter half of the Second Century. The fragment was authenticated by experts in New York and Jerusalem, but it awaits chemical testing to confirm its age more definitively.
As professor King points out, the passage doesn't prove that Jesus was married. However it casts doubt on the traditional belief that he never had a wife. "Christian tradition has long held that Jesus was not married, even though no reliable historical evidence exists to support that claim," King said today. "This new gospel doesn't prove that Jesus was married, but it tells us that the whole question only came up as part of vociferous debates about sexuality and marriage. From the very beginning, Christians disagreed about whether it was better not to marry, but it was over a century after Jesus's death before they began appealing to Jesus' marital status to support their positions."
The implications of professor King's discovery are profound. If Jesus was married, the main spiritual argument for male-only clergy and the celibacy of Roman Catholic priests falls into question. (Priests wouldn't need to abandon sex in order to imitate him.) But more importantly, if Jesus was a family man, then the claim to special status made by Catholic clergy, who regard themselves as supernaturally closer to God, loses much of its power.
Beyond internal Catholic Church politics, a married Jesus invites a reconsideration of orthodox teachings about gender and sex. If Jesus had a wife, then there is nothing extra Christian about male privilege, nothing spiritually dangerous about the sexuality of women, and no reason for anyone to deny himself or herself a sexual identity. In fact, one could argue that in their obsessive self denial -- of sexual pleasure, intimate relationships, and family - celibates reject the fullness of Jesus' example.
The papyrus in question is owned by a private party who first contacted King in 2010. At the time, recalled King, "I didn't believe it was authentic and told him I wasn't interested." But after the owner persisted, King invited him to bring the document to Harvard. Upon close examination, she was convinced it was an authentic ancient text. King took the fragment to New York where she was joined by Professor Anne Marie Luijendijk, of Princeton University. Together they showed it to Roger Bagnall, director of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. Bagnall, a renowned expert in papyrology and the cultures of ancient Egypt and Greece, confirmed its authenticity.
The three scholars trace the papyrus to ancient Egyptian Christians because it is written in the language used by them. Luijendijk suggested that, "a fragment this damaged probably came from an ancient garbage heap, like all of the earliest scraps of the New Testament." She said that since writing appears both sides of the papyrus, it obviously belonged to an ancient book, called a codex, not a scroll.
King and Luijendijk have named the text the Gospel of Jesus's Wife. They believe it is a translation of an even older version, probably written in Greek. It is framed as a dialogue between Jesus and his disciples. Early Christians, who often turned away from their families to follow Jesus, sometimes regarded themselves as a kind of family, with God the Father, his son Jesus, and members as brothers and sisters. Twice in the fragment Jesus speaks of his mother and once of his wife--one of whom is identified as "Mary." The disciples discuss whether Mary is worthy, and Jesus states that "she can be my disciple."
If the fragment dates from before the year 200, it would have been written in the middle of an intense historical debate over marriage for Christians. A century earlier, noted King, Timothy had warned that people who forbid marriage are following the "doctrines of demons." Then, around the year 200, Clement of Alexandria declared that believers should emulate Jesus by not marrying. A decade or two later, said King, Tertullian of Carthage said that Jesus was "entirely unmarried." Tertullian did not condemn marriage, but he denounced divorce and remarriage for widows and widowers.
For Richard Sipe, one of the most widely recognized experts on celibacy, the fragment points to time when the church "had no real organization. It was like Alcoholics Anonymous, a spiritual community where no one was above anyone else." It was only after Christianity became organized and bureaucratic that Jesus was framed as a nonsexual person, added Sipe, who is a former monk. By depriving priests of wives and children the early church secured any property that might be inherited by descendants. This property interest was of great concern to celibacy's early advocates, added Sipe. In scripture, he added, "Jesus was eloquently silent about sex."
Sipe, who has written several books on sexuality and the clergy, predicted that the Gospel of Jesus's Wife will be dismissed by church authorities even as it renews a long running debate over early Christianity and the canon that guides believers today. "The hierarchy will laugh at it," he said, "But then they they'll have to study it." If the fragment is further authenticated it will contribute to "a current reformation of the church that has to has to do with sexuality." Evidence of Jesus as a sexual being "could have been denied deny in the First Century but it cannot be today," he said. "We know too much about human nature now to simply dismiss it."