If you’ve been following or perusing news websites at all this week, you’ve most likely read or at least seen one of the many articles published in response to Dr. Karen King, of Harvard Divinity’s announcement regarding a new Coptic fragment containing a quote attributed to Jesus referring to “his wife.” (1) This discovery was released in the New York Times and further reported by CNN, NBC, BBC, and many others news agencies. This of course launched quite a response from scholars, bloggers, and everyone with an opinion (for reliable insights on this discovery check out Marc Goodacre’s blog). While I believe Dr. King and most of the articles covering the story were responsible, my facebook newsfeed showed some (what I call) overreactions to the discovery and I wanted to share a few thoughts.
I want to ask and address one main question, and it’s three components, “What is the Significance of this specific discovery, or what do we learn from this fragment?” In order to answer this main question, we will focus on three components that will lead us to a reasonable conclusion at present. A. Does this say anything about the Historical Jesus? B. Regardless of the search for the Historical Jesus, what else could this document tell us? C. As some are suggesting ( see summary in 2), does this influence the view of role of women within the church, or lead us to new stunning discoveries that Jesus may have had female disciples? For the sake of discussion, I will assume the fragment’s authenticity (see skeptical article).
A In order to put things in perspective, we must look at the date of the text The fragment is roughly dated to the 4th Century (300s) and written in Coptic. Dr. King believes that it was initially written in Greek and may have been written as early as the late 2nd Century. So, this means that this fragment is from a book or scroll that was at best written 50-70+ years after the Gospels in the Bible were written and (if we give a 150 CE date), 120 years after Jesus’ time on earth. So, it is highly unlikely that this fragment would tell us anything about the Historical Jesus or his disciples. Dr. King, rightly emphasizes that point. This is a fairly uncontroversial position, as both scholars who trust the New Testament as the Word of God (Ben Witherington, see NBC article above), and those who believe we cannot ascertain any accurate picture of the historical Jesus out of the New Testament (see April Deconick ) , believe that this document does not shed any new light on Jesus’ life or status from 4BCE-34CE.
B So, what does this tell us? If anything, it is evidence that a group of Christians possibly believed that Jesus was married. Is this the only text that hints at this possibility? No, but it is one of the few. The most popular and most significant is the Gospel of Philip, where Mary of Magdala is referred to as his companion that He kisses on the mouth (a scholar, Dr. Deconick, who specializes in the Gnostic Gospels, indicates that Valentinian Christians held a view of a married Jesus. While she personally believes Jesus was married, she admits that the new fragment, as well as any gospel we have cannot lead us to that conclusion or vice versa on purely historical grounds). The Gospel of Philip, nor our fragment can get us closer to understanding the historical Jesus. Yet, Philip and the new fragment can provide insight into communities that existed within the late Second and early Third Centuries. If one assumes that the reference to “my wife” was literal and does not involve any theological or mystical metaphors, it can indicate that Jesus’ marital status was a topic of discussion and theological debate. However, we need to proceed with caution and not read too much into the text or the author/community it came from. The author is unknown, the place or origin is unknown, and we do not know what community or group produced it. While it may seem easy to place it in the collection found at the Nag Hammadi library in the early 20th Century, we cannot responsibly make that assumption with the data in hand.
Also, what exactly does the text say?
As per the article from the Christian Post, the text reads
• “not [to] me. My mother gave to me li[fe…”
• “The disciples said to Jesus,”
• “deny. Mary is worthy of it”
• “… Jesus said to them, ‘My wife … “
• “… she will be able to be my disciple …”
• “Let wicked people swell up …”
• “As for me, I dwell with her in order to”
• “an image”