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Early Christian Papyrus Fragment and what it (doesn’t) mean for you

So yesterday, I stumbled upon/(was bombarded by) the news that an early Christian script, probably from the fourth century, had been discovered that indicated Jesus was married.

My first thought was “…and?” For whatever reason this gathered a lot of attention from the media. Now, the fourth century is quite early, but we have more complete documents fro the second and third centuries that make no mention of Jesus’ wife. It seems that this is the earliest instance of a writer saying that Jesus Christ was married, but it dates to the same time when writings emerged saying that Jesus definitely was not married. Here are a few thoughts.

1) No one is saying this does mean Jesus was married. In fact this type of language (of Jesus having a wife, possibly Mary Magdalene) is fairly common of the Gnostic writers whom we know were active during this time. Gnosticism is a group of people who, for time, claimed to be Christian, but were actually a rather odd group of Neo-Platonists whose theology had more in common with pre-existent paganism mixed with Plato than Christianity whose roots were in the monotheism of Judaism. So in that respect, it shouldn’t be that surprising to find this coptic (indicating it was from the part of Egypt where the Gnostics seem to have been most active) fragment.

2) If Jesus was, in fact, married (which I don’t think seems to be likely), what difference would that make? The only possible difference, it seems, would be that Roman Catholic priests would not be required to be celibate. That’s it. There is no indication that this would change anything else about anything. This means, incidentally, that as far as Protestant (and some Eastern Orthodox) churches are concerned, nothing would be different. Marriage is neither dirty nor sinful for Christians (in fact it’s a really good thing) What’s the big deal?
I will say, the end of the CNN article (linked above) seemed to summarize it best when quoting scholar Tom Reese: “This is a nice academic footnote, but beyond that, it is not going to be all that important.”

What do you think? Is this earth shattering? Did I miss something?

Update:

Well, since this has come out a number of other sources have covered (including the NY Times, which ran it on some of its front pages yesterday). As one of the commentors below noted (Beth), some scholars, including Darrell Bock, suggest this might be metaphorical language for the Church, a notion even King (the lead researcher on this fragment) suggests might be possible.
The text does not specifically link Mary Magdalene as Jesus’ wife, though on Mary (likely Jesus’ mother) is mentioned in the legible text. So this is possible.

However, the detailed research done by Tyndale House seems to indicate this is almost certainly a Gnostic document. The fact that it originated in Egypt and was written in Coptic** (not the standard Hellenistic Greek) and dates from the 300s are all indicators of Gnostic origin. The fact that the fragment, in the sections that are legible, seem to reflect the same language as other well-known Gnostic manuscripts, as the researchers at Tyndale House have noted, make it likely that it is Gnostic. If it is Gnostic, then it is also likely that it would be claiming a marital relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, since that is a favourite claim of certain branches of Gnosticism.

For the record, while I acknowledge that Jesus’ did state the Church was his bride, and while I also believe he was not married, I do not think that the first claim (nor claims about his divinity) are made in any way problematic were it to actually be the case that he was married. Maybe that makes me odd, but I don’t think it should. One is an eternal relationship, the other would be merely an earthly one. It would not be until the resurrection, which being an eschatological event would be without the former marital relationships on earth, that he calls the Church his bride. Still, I understand that this might be a hard pill for others to swallow. Regardless, I don’t think that Jesus was actually married (such a revelation now would be incredibly odd considering the complete lack of mention of it beforehand), nor do I think it even can be demonstrated that he was. So that may simply be a moot point. Thanks for the dialogue below, keep it up.

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9 thoughts on “Early Christian Papyrus Fragment and what it (doesn’t) mean for you

  1. I saw that article in Zite. My feelings were the same as yours … so what? Have a great day. God bless! 🙂

  2. David Taylor Jr. on said:

    While I agree that this fragment means nothing, I have to disagree that the point of whether or not Jesus was married is not of concern. Christ already has a bride, the church, therefore he could not take on another bride. You would also have the problem of a Holy God marrying an unholy sinner. There are many problems with this.

    • With regard to God marrying an unholy sinner, the fact that the Church is called the bride means that problem is the same still. There is a sense in which one could argue that with respect to a marital relationship that might be a non-sinful relationship regardless of who is involved (a rather high view of marriage). While the Church as the bride might be a more significant problem, the fact that Jesus distinguishes earthly marital relationships from the lack of such relationships in the fullness of the Kingdom of God (which was present in some form in Jesus at his resurrection) may get around that issue. Still, I recognize that might be a problem for some. In the end, I don’t think Jesus was married and I doubt it is even possible to make a convincing argument anymore that he was. There’s just too much history in between.

  3. I have heard numerous commentators suggest that this writing is merely referring to Christ’s bride the church & the fact that she (collectively) is a disciple of Christ. Is there any reason that this wouldn’t work?

    • David Taylor Jr. on said:

      If that were the case, then it would be fine and accurate. However, I read an article that specifically states the fragment says Mary (assuming Magdalene) and that is a problem.

    • You’re right. In fact that seems to be the suggestion made by Darrell Bock, a formidable New Testament scholar who has quite a bit of respect in the academic community. Still, I think that the work done by Tyndale House (see my update above) indicates that such a reading is unlikely. Instead, it’s probably a Gnostic text considering the clear parallels it has to other Gnostic writings.

  4. This seems to be something that comes up every now and then and is taken as some form of conspiracy by the church. I have to agree with you that it really doesn’t seem to be very important whether he was married or not. He was human as well as divine and apparently largely unaware of his own identity for most of his adult life. Surely what really matters is his role as the son of god and the teachings that he left us with as his legacy.

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