uno itinere non potest perveniri ad tam grande secretum -- Q. Aurelius Symmachus, 384 C.E.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Cycle of Absurdity: Media Hype, Apologetic Backlash Overshadow Another Find From Antiquity

When I heard that Professor Karen L. King had announced a papyrus fragment that makes reference to Jesus' wife, I was at first excited and fascinated. But that was immediately followed by a reflexive foreboding. Having studied antiquity, including early Christianity, for the past decade, I've seen what typically follows such a discovery, and within 24 hours, my concerns were proved right.

The fragment that King announced is the size of a business card and only contains about a dozen lines total. But it appears to distinctly refer to Jesus' wife (as well as his mother). King acknowledges the reference to his "wife" might be one to the Church, but notes that with talk of his mother (by name) and his wife as a "disciple," that seems unlikely.

In virtually every interview, King has stressed that this is not historical evidence that Jesus had a wife. How could it be? It was written down in the fourth century in Egypt, and its composition is from the second century at the earliest, according to those who have dated it. Neither King nor anyone else involved in the fragment's publication has suggested that it means the historical Jesus had a wife.

But you wouldn't know it from perusing the media. The "shocking" claim was plastered everywhere with the question "Did Jesus Have A Wife?" as though that is the central preoccupation of the scholars involved. It wasn't. From King's own paper:

"This is the only extant ancient text which explicitly portrays Jesus as referring to a wife. 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. Nevertheless, if the second century date of composition is correct, the fragment does provide direct evidence that claims about Jesus’s marital status first arose over a century after the death of Jesus in the context of intra-Christian controversies over sexuality, marriage, and discipleship."

King is not suggesting Jesus actually did have a wife. We simply have no evidence on that score. Yet this is how the cycle works: the media gets wind of something with sensational potential (like the Gospel of Judas, which was published a few years back to the same sorts of reception), it plasters headlines with conspiratorial flair worthy of a Dan Brown chapter, and then Christian apologists who wish to defend traditional understanding of Christianity, rather than engage in the actual questions the actual scholars are actually raising based on the new finding, instead attack the scholars themselves.

So it was with little surprise that, sure enough, I found a blog out already today defending Catholic dogma and launching a series of ad hominem attacks against scholars from King to Elaine Pagels to John Domnic Crossan. King "has an agenda," according to this author, who dismisses her careful remarks as "throat-clearing gestures." And, true to form perhaps, Fox News published an AP article tracking down everyone in the world they could to say it was a forgery, despite the fact that it has barely been published and dated yet, even going so far in the article as to question Harvard's ethics in announcing the fragment.

Maybe the fragment will be deemed a forgery. Maybe not. But it's important to remember what King and any other scholar worth her salt is saying about the discovery, and more importantly what they are not saying. They are not talking about "evidence" that Jesus was married. What they are fascinated by, assuming the fragment proves legitimate, is evidence that early Christians claimed Jesus was married.

As much as many Christians today want you to believe that marriage, even Christian marriage, has been an unchanging phenomenon since Adam and Eve (who are never explicitly married themselves), it is historical fact that marriage was a contentious issue in the early church. We have discussions in the New Testament itself that give conflicting views on marriage, from Jesus seemingly encouraging the renouncement of marriage and family (Mt. 19:12, Lk. 14:26) to Paul encouraging celibacy (1 Cor. 7:8) to the later epistles (some written in Paul's name) which to the contrary seem to enforce imperial domestic rules. We have apocryphal texts like the Acts of Thecla and an account of the martyrdom of Perpetua that both seem to pit Christian devotion against marriage and family. And we have a series of church fathers, like Gregory of Nyssa, who encourage virginity over marriage, often with some very disparaging things to say about the institution. One anonymous homily from antiquity goes as far as to call wives prostitutes if they continue to have sex with their own husbands.

So that some early Christians may have claimed Jesus himself was married would shed important light on this debate, and that by itself (again, assuming the fragment is authentic) illustrates just how far another group of Christians would go to combat the virginity-oriented majority. Ironically, such a claim would have been considered heresy then not necessarily because of any settled opinions on Jesus (they weren't settled yet then) but rather because, as we can see, a great many Christians thought virginity was the cherished state and marriage the path to destruction -- decidedly not the assumption many Christians now take to marriage.

Evidence -- even scant evidence -- of what ancient Christians thought about Jesus and marriage is compelling historically, regardless of its complete irrelevance to the study of the historical Jesus. Yet the cycle  of absurdity continues; for many, unfortunately, raising any new questions at all about the history of Christianity is apparently a threatening enterprise.


  1. In addition, the incredible push back from those Christians and organizations will give people who are suspicious of them 'evidence' to believe Jesus had a wife. I was reading something about the find on HuffPo (which I shouldn't read) and at least two commenters said 'of course he was married' and used the Holy Blood, Holy Grail arguments as evidence.

    1. Exactly. Some of the comments on HuffPo are always outrageous. And their outrageousness is surpassed only by the hilarious self-assuredness with which they are made.

  2. As an atheist, I can't help but see part of the apologists' worry as connected to the fact that the actual evidence of Jesus having performed miracles, of having said his most famous lines, etc, isn't much more impressive than this papyrus.

    The differences are in degree (amount of text, closeness in time to the events) than in kind. The four canonical gospels were written about a generation after its events, based on oral accounts, and not by the "real" Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. Just like with this new find, they are better perceived as evidence regarding the beliefs of certain groups of early Christians than as evidence for any given event in Jesus's life.

    From the Catholic Church's perspective, if the papyrus is incorrect about Jesus's marital status, then it must be denounced as a "hoax" rather than an "authentic lie". Otherwise we are forced to entertain the possibility that not everything written down in ancient history about Jesus was, well, true.