BCC has smart friends! We’re happy to have some expert commentary from guest Taylor Petrey.
Taylor G. Petrey is an assistant professor of Religion at Kalamazoo College and director of the Women, Gender, and Sexuality program. He received his ThD from Harvard Divinity School in 2010 in New Testament and Early Christianity and is a fellow at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship.
On Tuesday, September 18, 2012 at 1:00 PM major media outlets announced the publication and translation of a small fragment of a Coptic manuscript, provocatively titled by its translator “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.” The manuscript represents the only ancient text in which Jesus refers to his “wife” in the first person. In major media outlets the find is made relevant to the context of Catholic celibacy requirements for clergy, but the text is sure to be of interest to Latter-day Saints, some of whom have long theorized that Jesus may have been married.
In this text, Jesus is engaged in a dialogue with his disciples, apparently about women, family, and discipleship. The text is likely a post-resurrection dialogue, though this cannot be said conclusively. The text makes mention of Jesus’s mother, his wife, someone named Mary, and the idea that, perhaps Jesus’s wife, may be his disciple. See the New York Times article for a high-quality, zoomable view of the manuscript and translation of each line. Another high quality image is available at the Harvard Divinity School website. These few lines have resonance to other passages in the Gospel of Mary and Gospel of Thomas, and quite possibly represents another version of the debate about Mary Magdalene’s status as a disciple.
This exciting manuscript is presented by Dr. Karen L. King, Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School, a specialist in Coptic Christian texts. (Full disclosure: Dr. King is my Doktormutter.) She discusses the find and the significance of the text in his brief video. It was presented to her by a currently anonymous collector. The collector reports that the fragmentary text was bought as part of a larger collection of ancient manuscripts. It came with a note from some (now deceased) German scholars stating that the fragment includes a first person statement by Jesus speaking about “my wife…” and the collector sought Dr. King’s verification on this point first in 2010, though she did not obtain the document until December 2011.
Dr. King has rightly cautioned that this text does not shed any light on the historical Jesus, namely, what the first-century Jewish teacher from the Galilee actually said or did. Rather, it is evidence of an early Christian interest in representing Jesus as married. The existence of the text reveals that early Christians, beginning in the second century, disputed whether Jesus was celibate or married. They looked to Jesus’s own practices to settle the issue of Christian attitudes toward marriage and sexual intercourse. In fact, early Christians never really asked the question about Jesus’s marriage and sex life until the second century, in the context of disputes about the value of the family vs. sexual renunciation in early Christian communities. Even after the discovery of this manuscript, there remains no definitive evidence about the historical Jesus’s marital status either way, though the lack of any mention of a wife among the male and female disciples of Jesus in the gospels and Pauline texts is notable. Some gospel and Pauline traditions make reference to the wives of some of the other early disciples, including Peter.
LDS traditions about Jesus being married do not derive from any of the canonical sources. As far as I am aware, the first mentions of the teaching about Jesus being married date to the early Utah period, connect Jesus to polygamous practices (specifically citing Mary and Martha), and hypothesize that the wedding at Cana was Jesus’s own wedding. These creative readings of the Bible were meant to authorize Mormonism’s own marriage practices, and were the logical extension of the doctrines of celestial marriage and sealing as a prerequisite to exaltation. Not all LDS traditions have required that Jesus was married and sealed in mortality, suggesting that he may have been married in the afterlife because of the special conditions of his mission in mortality would have prevented it. Officially, the Church has stated that there is no official teaching on the matter.
The LDS tradition that Jesus may have been married is certainly not unique in Christianity. In more modern history, pro-marriage parts of the Protestant Reformation that rejected Catholic teachings on celibacy have flirted with the idea that Jesus was married. In medieval tradition, the idea that Jesus was not only married but had descendants was a part of some dynastic legends. Twentieth and twenty-first century stories, like those in Holy Blood, Holy Grail, and of course Dan Brown’s massively successful novel, The DaVinci Code follow in this long tradition. The LDS hypothesis that Jesus was married may be situated in this long-standing counter-claim to normative Christianity. Both the claim and the counter-claim are made to justify particular practices or statuses by appealing to Jesus as the source of their authority. The claims tell us little about the historical Jesus himself, but reveal a great deal about how different groups in history have appealed to Jesus’s authority on this issue. What this new text reveals is just how long this debate within Christianity has been going on.
The text is just eight fragmentary lines on one side of a papyrus sheet smaller than a business card, with a few fragmentary words on the reverse. No single line is complete, but the words are almost all clearly written and preserved. It was probably originally part of a codex and has been torn from a page, perhaps by a manuscript dealer in order to have more pieces to sell, and has no margins on either side. How much of each line is missing is unknown.
From initial reports, Dr. King obtained the manuscript from the current owner and began a process of verification with papyrological, epigraphical, and linguistic experts. The text contains many features that would be extremely difficult to fake. According to these initial examinations of the manuscript, its writing, and its language, these scholars have provisionally authenticated the text as a fourth-century text, perhaps representing a copy of an original text as early as the second century. (Full disclosure: two of the three consulted scholars mentioned by name are AnneMarie Luijendijk and Ariel Shisha-Halevy, who were my Coptic teachers many years ago.) Many Coptic texts are translations of Greek originals, and there is no reason to rule out that this text too is derived from an original Greek composition. Carbon dating of the ink would be too destructive to the small text, but some chemical analysis is currently underway and the results will be included in the final publication of Dr. King’s forthcoming article in the January edition of the Harvard Theological Review.
Major questions remain about this text, including its provenance, more accurate dating, and further scholarly reflection on the meaning of the lines on issues of kinship, gender, and sexuality in early Christian communities. No doubt a continued discussion of its authenticity will be undertaken by experts, and any definitive scholarly conclusions about the text should wait for such further analysis. Nevertheless, the strong possibility that this text is authentic represents a significant contribution to our understanding of second to fourth century Christianity.