September 21, 2012

Did Jesus Hear Wedding Bells?

In the Gospel of John Jesus debuted his miraculous abilities at a wedding in Cana. But that is not the wedding that people have been interested in of late. For the last few days people have been interested in the question, 'Was Jesus married?' This question has been brought to us by Harvard Divinity School Prof. Karen King. While far more learned people have already weighted in on this I thought I would toss in my two cents as well*.
If you have missed the story you can find it here. But let me sum up for you what was found. A small fragment of papyrus that possibly dates back to the forth century or later was discovered that suggests Jesus was married. In Prof King's own words, 'The four words that appear on the fragment translate to, “Jesus said to them, my wife.” The words, written in Coptic, a language of ancient Egyptian Christians, are on a papyrus fragment of about one and a half inches by three inches.'

I want to deal with two important questions A) Is this fragment genuine? and B) If the fragment is genuine what does that tell us about Jesus?

Prof. King Displaying The Papyrus Fragment
A) Is this fragment genuine?

The short answer is we don't know. The papyrus is ancient and it does seem to date back to the forth of fifth century which given that it is written in Coptic (the Egyptian language written with Greek letters) that would make sense. Also the teaching contained on this papyrus fits with the known teachings of the Gnostic Christians that lived in Egypt and surrounding area which were typically written in Coptic.

This final test of age has to do with how deeply the ink has penetrated the paper. While it is more complicated then this you can think about it this way, the older the ink the deeper the penetration. If the ink has deeply penetrated the paper the document is old, if it is shallow it must have been written more recently. This is important because over the years a number of very impressive modern forgeries written on ancient paper have been discovered with this method.

There are some early indications that this document may be a forgery. Craig A Evans a renowned New Testament scholar posted this on this Facebook page, 'Some scholars are now questioning the authenticity of the Coptic fragment. Even I can see that the letters look like they are painted on with a brush, that they are often too dark for their age and that every one of the few lines is a bombshell-gem. And now the owner of it wants to sell it for great profit-hum. Frances Watson has written an article suggesting it's a forgery'

Does this papyrus represent a true document from the forth or fifth century written by a group of Gnostic Christians? It still is too early to tell.

That brings us to;

B) If the fragment is genuine what does that tell us about Jesus?

This is where the rubber really meets the road. Let's assume for a moment that in the next few weeks or months a number of tests are done to prove the papyrus' date and content to be authentic. What does that mean for the Christian faith?

In short, not much.

For a very long time we have been well aware of many Gnostic writings. This includes the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas that gained some notoriety a few years back. Most recently the Gnostic Gospel of Judas captured peoples imaginations about what early Christians may have believed. 

These writing like the above papyrus seem to be from the forth or fifth century and represent a small group of  Christians (if you can call them that) who greatly altered the Gospel account of Jesus to bring it into line with Gnostic teachings. This is not new. Nor is it new information that there was the belief among the Gnostics that Jesus was married. Dan Brown's 2003 novel The Da Vinci Code popularized the fragment of the so called Gnostic Gospel of Mary that might suggest Jesus was married. The best that can be said about this recent finding, if it is authentic, is that it conforms to the other Gnostic teachings.

But it is important to understand this for what it is. The Gnostics are not 'early Christians' but they come to the table quite late.

The myth that the Gnostics were a large group that co-existed with what we now call Orthodox Christianity is simply untrue. While there are some forerunners of Gnostic theology in the second century true Gnostic teachings and groups did not form until the third and forth centuries. 

That means at their very core Gnostics are revisionist in nature. They took stories about Jesus, as found in the original four Gospels and reshaped them. The four Gospels we have in our bible represent the earliest and best attempts to record the life and teachings of Jesus.

 Phil Lawler of Catholic Culture  says it well when he says 'If it is real, and if King is reading it correctly, does the papyrus fragment show that Jesus had a wife? No. It shows that someone in the third or fourth century said that Jesus had a wife. The person who allegedly wrote this fragment of a sentence would not have been an eyewitness to the life of Jesus, nor would he have met any eyewitnesses. The eyewitnesses — the Lord’s disciples — testified unanimously that Jesus did not have a wife. It’s difficult to see why this mysterious Coptic correspondent, arriving on the scene a few centuries after the fact, should be taken more seriously.'

These Gospels tell us just as much about the historical Jesus as the movies Bubba Ho Tep and Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter tell us about historical american presidents.