Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Why the papyrus fragment does not prove Jesus had a wife

The papyrus contains four words, written in Coptic, an ancient language used by Egyptian Christians. These translate into English as: “Jesus said to them ‘my wife’”. The words are written on a fragment about three inches by one and a half inches that was provided by a private collector. Karen King, Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School, was given the fragment to analyze and translate. She reported the news of the discovery to the 10th International Congress of Coptic Studies.[1] The piece of papyrus is now in the hands of a private collector and nothing is known about the circumstances of its discovery.

If authentic, this papyrus appears to provide some interesting insights into cultural mores of the time. However, there are a number of reasons why it does not prove Jesus Christ was married. First, researchers have little or no context for the message on the fragment. Only a few lines of writing are partially able to be translated. Because there is writing on both sides, it appears to have been part of a book or codex, though at this time, none of the remainder of the codex has been made public, if any more even exists. Other writing on this fragment seems to reference an alleged discussion between Jesus and his disciples in which Jesus twice mentions his mother. It is speculated that an original may have been written in Greek, then translated into Coptic for Egyptian Christians. This is of extremely little evidentiary value on which to base any conclusion. We have no idea from where this fragment came or what was written in the rest of the codex.

Second, even if the fragment is authentic, it is dated to the late second century, about 150 years after the death of Jesus. Initial examination by experts seems to indicate the fragment is probably from this time period, based on the appearance, language and grammar, though additional chemical composition of the ink remains to be completed. In the second century and later, many pseudopigraphal “gospels” were written, such as the Gospel of Peter, Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Judas. None of these were written by the named authors and none were written during the lifetimes of the apostles. These are typical of the Gnostic genre that was prevalent during that time period which were inferior to and frequently contradicted the authentic gospel accounts. The authentic gospel narratives (Matthew, Mark, Luke) were written during the middle of the 1st century or late 1st century in the case of John. These four were accepted by members of the church, many of whom had personally seen Jesus or the apostles and could attest to the narratives.

Dr. Simon Gathercole, Senior Lecturer in New Testament Studies at the University of Cambridge and expert on apocryphal gospels, commented on the fragment. He noted that, in relation to other gospel accounts, the language in the fragment most closely resembles some of that found in the Gospel of Thomas, a pseudopigraphal Gnostic writing. Here are a couple of the comparisons.

Thomas 101:3: My true Mother has given me life.
Fragment line 1: My mother has given me [life].

Thomas 114:1: Simon Peter said to them, “Let Mary come out from us, because women are not worthy of life.”
Fragment line 3: Mary is worthy of it. [2]

Third, reliable writings from the first century, which followed very soon after the life of Jesus, provide numerous details of his life, with no mention of a wife. These include the canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) as well as writings of Peter, James and John, who had lived with Jesus. Furthermore, Paul’s 13 letters are well-authenticated to have been written prior to his death by A.D. 64 and these mention nothing of Jesus being married. In fact, Paul specifically mentions wives of the apostles when writing to the Corinthians around A.D. 54:
“Do we not have a right to take along a believing wife, even as the rest of the apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?” (1 Cor. 9:5)
If the apostles, such as Peter (Cephas) were cited as examples of those with wives, would it not have been significantly more impactful to mention the Lord’s wife, if he had one? And, it would seem to be contrary to Jesus’ character to marry when he knew he would be dying and returning to the Father at an early age, leaving behind a young widow.

Fourth, even the scholar who found the artifact cautions that it has not been verified as authentic. When asked if she has doubts regarding the authenticity of the fragment, Karen King told Time magazine: “Oh, yes, absolutely. I think something like this needs to be questioned further. “ [3]

Even liberal New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan, who doubts the resurrection, has no doubts about Jesus being single. Using an avian analogy, he stated: “There is no evidence that Jesus was married (looks like a duck), multiple indications that he was not (walks like a duck), and no early texts suggesting wife or children (quacks like a duck), … so he must be an incognito bridegroom (camel in disguise).” [4]

Finally, regarding the fragment in question, Dr. Karen King wrote:
“It does not, however, provide evidence that the historical Jesus was married, given the late date of the fragment and the probable date of original composition only in the second half of the second century.” [5]

[1] Harvard Divinity School, “Jesus’s wife? Scholar announces existence of anew early Christian gospel from Egypt.” ScienceDaily, 18 Sept 2012. Web. 25 Sep. 2012.
[2] Simon Gathercole, “Did Jesus have a wife?” Tyndale House Residential Centre for Biblical Research, accessed 30 Sept 2012.
[3] Stephan Faris, “An Interview with the Discoverer of ‘Jesus’ Wife’”, Time World, 25 Sept 2012.
[4] Darrell L. Bock, Breaking the DaVinci Code, (Nashville, TN: Nelson Books, 2004), 31-32.
[5] Karen L. King, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…’” A New Coptic Gospel Papyrus, Forthcoming Harvard Theological Review 106:1, January 2013, p. 1.

No comments: