Jesus’ Wife: What is the significance of this new Egyptian Fragment?

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 [3]) , 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”

Unfortunately, this does not tell us much. As mentioned briefly above, it may fit into Valentinian thought with a huge dose of Gnostic influence. However, we cannot asset that solely from the text itself. We cannot, as far as I can recognize, gather gnostic spirituality from this either. Some have suggested that “my wife” refers to the church ( see overview in 4), since the church is often referred to as Jesus’ bride (I don’t hold much stock in that viewpoint, but the lack of data we have cannot eliminate that theory however unlikely or likely it is). It also cannot tell us if Jesus’ bride is Mary of Magdala, Jesus’ “companion” in the Gospel of Philip.
C. Finally, I wanted to look at the last question regarding the discovery’s significant. Does this fragment add anything new to the status of women among Jesus and his disciples. Does it suggest that Jesus had female disciples? Regarding the historical Jesus, this passage does not really give us much regarding his followers in 30 CE. It may indicate that the discussion was more lively regarding the role of women in the late second sentury, but it adds nothing new. I don’t believe that this passage suggests that Jesus had female disciples, but it doesn’t have to, The Gospel of Luke already implies it.
 Jesus had disciples that were not part of “the Twelve.” While it would be controversial to say that Mary was part of the twelve, it is not at all that daring to say that she was a disciple (conservative Christian scholars affirm this ie. Bauckham). In Richard Bauckham’s book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, he suggests that the internal evidence in the Gospel of Luke points not only toward female discipleship, but by use of inclusio, the possibility that Mary was a key witness and major source in the composition of that gospel (See my earlier post on this topic). Again, this is a conservative-leaning Christian scholar, not a progressive-liberal Christian thinker.
In conclusion, what does this new Fragment tell us? Probably nothing about the historical Jesus, not much (or nothing new) about his inclusion and selection of disciples, and it cannot tell us much about the specific community it came from. However, it can give us insight and confidence that there was a group out there (possibly the Valentinian Christians) that believed Jesus had a wife.  Unfortunately by using this fragment alone, we cannot honestly go much further without spinning into conjecture. The group may have been addressing theological and social topics such as Christian Sexuality, whether it was better to be single vs married , etc (1). It is still too difficult to gain specifics like that solely on the data we have without reconstructing too much on our own. Regardless, it is an exciting discovery even if it is not as sensational as some would like to believe. Now it’s time to wait for the peer review process.
1. Goodstein, Laurie. “Historian Says Piece of Papyrus Refers to Jesus’ Wife.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 19 Sept. 2012. Web. 20 Sept. 2012. <http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/19/us/historian-says-piece-of-papyrus-refers-to-jesus-wife.html?pagewanted=all&gt;.
2. Cooper, Kate. “‘Wife of Jesus’ Reference in Coptic 4th Century Script.” BBC News. BBC, 19 Sept. 2012. Web. 20 Sept. 2012. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-19645273&gt;
3.Deconick, April. “The Forbidden Gospels.” : Did Jesus Have a Wife? N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Sept. 2012. http://forbiddengospels.blogspot.com/2012/09/did-jesus-have-wife.html.  (She does not explicitly state that the use of the fragment does not shed light on the Historical Jesus, but her final paragraph explaining the use of the New Testament implies it. {Dr. Deconick, if you happen upon this site and I have interpreted you incorrectly, please let me know}
4. Boyle, Alan. “Reality Check on Jesus and His ‘wife'” Cosmic Log. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Sept. 2012. <http://cosmiclog.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/09/18/13945001-reality-check-on-jesus-and-his-wife?lite
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About mkholmes25

Amateur theologian, musician, sports fan, etc. View all posts by mkholmes25

8 responses to “Jesus’ Wife: What is the significance of this new Egyptian Fragment?

  • 1wanderingtruthseeker

    I do believe that Jesus was married and to show a little of what I’m trying to say. Jesus had more than Mary Magdala in his group. Who said being married was a sin? The Popes of the day decided that men should be celibate, not Jesus. The three things that a Jewish father did for his son…teach the Torah..teach him a trade and find a wife for his son. Why would anyone think that Joseph didn’t do his job? Paul, who never met Jesus, was anti-female. Read the bible and you will see that Jesus was not anti-female.

    • mkholmes25

      Thank you for your comment! While I do not find it entirely persuasive, there is an argument from a more sociological standpoint that would suggest Jesus had a wife, one of the scholars I referenced above believes that he did. I still think we need to proceed with caution when applying traditions of a foreign and ancient culture. I find it odd that neither John, nor the Synoptics mention anything of the sort. It seems like he would have the disciples look after not only his mother, but his wife if he had one. I don’t buy the early cover up thoeries. It wouldn’t make sense to hide his wife in the gospels in an attempt to diminish women, when the women are the ones who first learn and spread the message of the resurrection. I mean, in all. It is hard to make a historical argument conclusively for the wife, or against the wife. People will continue to say yes and no.

      I would give Paul another chance, some of the verses you’re probably thinking of are a bit more complex. There are quite a few authors that would disagree with the anti-female sentiment. Anyways, if you have the time, check out this short video http://www.patheos.com/blogs/bibleandculture/2012/09/15/n-t-wright-on-women-in-ministry-and-the-nt/

      • Rev. Craig Hunnel

        A bit of dramatic theatre (said with a British accent) when it comes to mentioning the aspect of Jesus Marital Status…
        He didn’t have to be married
        There’s no clear indication that he was married,
        It’s John not Mary in Davinci’s painting
        And there are no secret pentagrams and Knights Templar guarding the true identity and secrets of the Holy Grail
        We are so quick to let Hollywood and fictitious writers sway our view of true understanding and faith!

      • mkholmes25

        that’s the product of a Biblically and historically illiterate society.

      • Rev. Hunnel

        That is the comment of a sensible individual who isnt fabricating the truth nor being presumptious enough to call this a conspiracy theory, with little or no proven data to exact such a claim.
        Thank you

  • jesuswedding

    From a mystical point of view Jesus was married. He was married to God in the way that Catholic nuns today are married to Jesus. Jesus’ Wedding did happen at the Wedding at Cana.

    As to whether Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, well he did marry her. Just as any minister marries every woman to her husband and every husband to his wife.

    The answer to both questions is, “Yes.” Jesus was married. (To God)
    Jesus did marry Mary Magdalene. (He was the officiant who married Mary to God.)

  • Rev. Craig Hunnel

    Well
    I find the timing on this very convenient, considering the situations surrounding the Egyptian climate and peoples viewpoint of Egypt, with all the fighting, violence and attacks on Americans
    Several years ago, there was the discovery of the fragment that was disclosed as valid and authentic related to James. At the conclusion many who were convinced tht it too was legitimate in its current setting, only to be rejected later, and, calling into the question arena the reliability of Carbon dating!!
    So, I am less inclined to see this as a valid piece. Second I would want to know from whom was this piece discovered and who released it to public ?
    Both those of Jewish And Egyptian descent cannot be held as reliable entities since that is a conflict of interests
    Rudolf Bultmann may be more right than ever before. We are forced to disregard knowledge and understanding when we are pressed to it , and live by the desire of conscious faith in what we hold sacred and true !!
    Sincerely,
    Craig Hunnel, Pastor, B/A. MDiv, DMin
    LifePointe Ministries

  • Rev. Craig Hunnel

    Validity leads to certainty
    Without it is pure speculation

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