Monday, September 24, 2012

"The Gospel of Jesus' Wife": Some Delayed Reflections


The papyrus fragment dubbed "The Gospel of Jesus' Wife" (image @www.newsday.com)


By now I am sure most Americans with access to the Internet are aware of last week’s announcement by Harvard Professor Karen King that she had identified a papyrus fragment, written in Coptic and tentatively dated to the 4th century, that speaks of Jesus’ “wife” (for the best treatment of the backstory of the announcement, see this article in the Smithsonian Magazine; for photographic images of the papyrus fragment, transcriptions, and a provisional translation from Dr. King, see here).

The part of the fragment that has garnered the most attention is the fragmentary lines 4 and 5, which read thus (in King’s translation):
] Jesus said to them, “My wife … [
] She will be able to be a disciple to me, and [
The Smithsonian article claims that this discovery is “apt to send jolts through the world of biblical scholarship—and beyond.”  Peter Mucha of the Philadelphia Inquirer articulates why he thinks line 4 is viewed by many as controversial: “Traditional Christian teaching is that Jesus was celibate and a divine being who left no physical remains, because three days after the crucifixion he ascended bodily into heaven.”  Likewise, Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times calls line 5 “provocative” in its assertion that a woman could be elevated to the status of a “disciple.”  My first reaction to such hype is to think that journalists should simply steer clear of biblical historical scholarly discussions in view of their obvious unfamiliarity with it.  Yes, Jesus has historically been viewed as celibate, but does “historic Christian teaching” — let alone the Bible —teach that Jesus was/is a “divine being” simpliciter so as to deny the possibility that he could have been married if he had so chosen?  And Goodstein’s belief that the notion of a female “disciple” would be shocking flies in the face of explicit New Testament evidence that there were, in fact, women disciples during the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry (e.g., Luke 8), and that there was at least one woman prominent enough in the earliest church to be called (in an extended sense) an “apostle” (i.e., Junia, Rom 16:7).

Moreover, I would like to ask what scholar of the New Testament or the history of early Christianity would be shocked to hear that the belief that Jesus had been married could have been held and articulated in the 4th century?  Indeed, the 2nd century Gnostic text Gospel of Thomas has Jesus provocatively lying on a (dining) couch with Salome.  The 2nd/3rd century Gnostic text Gospel of Philip possibly portrays Jesus as kissing Mary of Magdala (the manuscript discovered at Nag Hammadi in 1945 is damaged at the relevant point) and describes her as Jesus’ koinōnos, “companion.”

Not only is the notion of a married Jesus not surprising, let alone unique, it begs the question as to whether or not such a decontextualized claim, found on a single late, fragmentary papyrus with an unknown provenance, has any claim to be taken seriously as history.  Indeed, even Dr. King took pains to make clear that the text cannot be made to offer proof that the actual, historical Jesus of Nazareth was married (see here).  Furthermore, as Cambridge University’s Dirk Jongkind, citing Roger Bagnall, has pointed out, the clearly cut upper edge of the fragment, along with the facts that the text both begins and ends in the middle of sentences and the words, “My wife” are left hanging and unexplained, bear the unmistakable mark of being caused by the hand of a modern antiquities dealer who divided up a larger papyrus so as to maximize profit by having more pieces to sell.  And the lack of context for the reference to “my wife” could also be less than accidental:
We all have our own favourite examples of the enticing brochures advertising our perfect holiday homes, which fortuitously manage to miss the oil refinery on the horizon, the overhead power lines, or the motorway at the back of the property. Here we have a fragment which has been deliberately altered, 'most likely' by a modern dealer seeking to maximize profit, who gets rid of 'something'. And this 'something' might well be in the same league as the oil refinery – it might be a spoiler that affected the value of this fragment negatively. The fragment may have been torn in the shape it is now in order to coax the reader into a certain interpretation. 
Indeed, the difficulty of basing anything on such a fragmentary text is demonstrated with typical hilarity by comedian and de facto political commentator Jon Stewart on last Thursday’s edition of The Daily Show (see the video clip here).

There is, furthermore, the question of authenticity, which is by no means settled.  The first thing that struck me when reading the fragment was the similarity to two “sayings” of Jesus found in the Gospel of Thomas (especially sayings 101, 114).  My suspicions have been strengthened by the work of Durham University’s Francis Watson, who has demonstrated that “line 1 of GJW reproduces not only the precise words from GTh 101 underlined above but also the line-division of the extant Coptic manuscript.”  His conclusion seems inexorable:
The author or compiler of GJW is evidently dependent on the one extant manuscript of the Coptic GTh, the line-division of which he or she slavishly follows at this point. An obvious explanation is that the author has used a modern printed edition of the Coptic text, where the original line-divisions are preserved.
The text, in other words, at most demonstrates that the belief that Jesus had been married was still alive in certain quarters of deviant “Christianity” that had produced the Gospel of Thomas back in the 2nd century.  Notice that I am unabashedly labeling “Gnostic” Christianity as a Johnny-come-lately, substandard form of Christianity that flowered in the second century, and whose difference from the portrait of Jesus found in the four canonical Gospels is an index of its secondary character.  This is a perspective clearly at odds with that of Professor King, who has made her name by virtue of research into such later “Gospels” as the Gospel of Mary of Magdala and the Gospel of Judas (with the like-minded Elaine Pagels).  Indeed, King even resists calling “Gnosticism” by its name, claiming that such nomenclature is simply due to the imperialism of the victorious “orthodox” Christians who emerged triumphant in the second century.

To me, the “discovery” of this fragment is really much ado about nothing.  But it, like the fictional scenario popularized in Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code, has clearly caught the fancy of the public who appear all too willing to accept the plausibility, despite the mass of historical evidence to the contrary, of the portraits of Jesus found therein.  Indeed, ever since Lessing’s posthumous publication of Reimarus’s Wolfenbüttel Fragments in 1774-78, the so-called “Quest for the Historical Jesus,” in all its various stages, has largely been, in reality, a quest for an alternative Jesus to the one found in the Bible and in historic Christian theology.  For whatever reason — the simple desire to strip Jesus of the divinity ascribed to him by the church, (in this case) the desire to empower women sexually in view of a supposed negative view of the worth of the female body in the ancient church (the view of April DeConick in her book, Holy Misogyny) — the alternative visions of Jesus and Christianity found in these (much) later texts have found a willing audience to consider their claims. (an aside: why Pagels, King, and other women are amenable to the Gospel of Thomas is somewhat mystifying to me in view of its own view of women. Indeed, in GT 114, one of the very texts reflected in the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, it explicitly expresses a misogynistic statement that would never be found in the canonical texts they so dislike: “See, I shall lead her, so that I will make her male, that she too might become a living spirit, resembling you males.”). 

In fact, however, the claim of such later Gnostic texts to historical trustworthiness —or even to be considered as worthy to be placed alongside the canonical texts —has been shown time and again to be baseless (see, for example, Philip Jenkins’ Hidden Gospels, Craig Evans’ Fabricating Jesus, and Darrell Bock’s The Missing Gospels).  The credulity of so many today regarding them is the result of the demise of modernistic positivism and its replacement with an unreflective postmodernism.  But history, no matter how messy, still must be done, and thinking people, while acknowledging the postmodern critique, will ever concern themselves (humbly) with plausibilities and probabilities.  And in the case of the alternative Christologies so fashionable today, one must say that they have indeed been weighed and found wanting, dashed upon the cruel rocks of history.  With regard to Jesus’ marital status, I believe there is nothing fatal to the notion that he could have been married.  But there is no good evidence that he was, and the silence of the New Testament in this regard speaks volumes, particularly in light of the absence in it of both misogyny and the metaphysical dualism characteristic of the Greek philosophy that later had a detrimental effect on the worldview of Christians in the Roman Empire.

For further discussion, besides the posts by Watson and Jongkind, mentioned above, see also the following posts by Dan Wallace, Simon Gathercole, and Philip Jenkins.



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