Mrs. Jesus: Did Jesus have a wife? Probably not, but it would shake up Christianity if he did
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Jesus said to them, "my wife ..."
• Prof. Karen L. King, who holds the Hollis Chair at Harvard Divinity School, announced to the world on Sept. 18 that she has an ancient manuscript in which Jesus uses the phrase "my wife." Reviving controversies that first emerged with Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code," this announcement quickly produced charges of fraud from the Vatican and will surely heighten the discussion over the purported marital status of the historical Jesus.
The manuscript was supplied by an anonymous donor and is written in Coptic, a form of Demotic or Late Egyptian script written with the Greek alphabet in the 1st century. This particular fragment appears to date from the 4th century, although the sayings may have originated as early as the 2nd century. But Prof. King was adamant in emphasizing that this text does not prove that the historical Jesus was married; the date precludes eyewitness evidence.
The text is similar to many other manuscripts discovered in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945, which are known collectively as "Gnostic" compilations, often referred to as "gospels," as they relate the sayings and teachings of Jesus. While some of the teachings mirror what we find in the canonical gospels, most of them present quite a different portrait of a Jesus who is more concerned with wisdom and esoteric knowledge than miracle stories.
Initially, there was strong support for the authenticity of Prof. King's fragment after it had been tested by experts in ancient documents, in ancient Coptic and in handwriting and paper. However, many scholars, as well as Harvard University, are now voicing skepticism and cautioning that we should wait for a final analysis.
Here is the text from the fragment that has been published so far:
1. "not [to] me. My mother gave to me life ... ;" 2. The disciples said to Jesus, "[ ;
3. deny. Mary is worthy of it [ ; 4. ..." Jesus said to them, "My wife . . [ ;
5. ... she will be able to be my disciple ... [ ; 6. Let wicked people swell up ... [ ;
7. As for me, I dwell with her in order to . [ ; 8. an image [
This fragment recalls two other documents from the Nag Hammadi collection, "The Gospel of Philip" and the "The Gospel of Mary Magdalene," where we find that Mary had a special relationship with Jesus that may have elevated her above the other disciples. An infamous line from the Gospel of Philip tells us that Jesus often "kissed her on the ..." -- followed by a hole in the text. In the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, she relates a revelation from the resurrected Jesus which she shares with the other disciples, who are feeling depressed, frightened and leaderless after the death of Jesus.
Dan Brown took advantage of this literature by parlaying it into a literal, physical relationship -- a marriage -- which certainly helped his plot, but it also supplied everyone with an incorrect view of Gnostic Christianity. For it was the Gnostic Christians who first promoted the idea of Christian celibacy, based upon their view that the human body was inferior, if not outright evil, and should not be reproduced.
"Gnostic" derives from the Greek "gnosis," or "knowledge," which consisted of the knowledge of our true origins as divine pieces of God that were trapped in a physical body. With language originally found in the Prophets of Israel ("God is the bridegroom; Israel is the bride"), "marriage" metaphors continued to be applied by these thinkers in terms of purely spiritual relationships of shared understanding.
Gnostics would never claim that Jesus was physically married, as they believed he technically did not have a physical body but only appeared in human form. On the other hand, it has yet to be determined if Prof. King's fragment is a Gnostic text; there are many writings from ancient Egypt and it remains to be determined where this fragment originated.
What is unique about the Gnostic texts is that they promote Mary Magdalene as one who had a special relationship with Jesus -- a relationship of a spiritual nature. In the canonical gospels, Mary is always with the disciples and is one of the first to see the resurrected Jesus, but she is not elevated because of this.
At the same time, there is nothing in the canonical gospels that addresses the question of Jesus' marital status, which indicates that it was probably not of much importance for the gospel writers. At most, all the gospel writers portray a Jesus who had a positive attitude toward marriage and children.
But the subject does appear to be fundamentally important for modern Christians. For some Protestants, a married Jesus would conform with their ideas of ministry, by which a conventional family life lends credibility to shared experiences. It would be an expression of the "human" side of Jesus.
But for Catholics, most Orthodox believers and other traditional communities, this "human" side of Jesus would not only diminish his "godliness" but also would promote images of Jesus involved in "sins of the flesh" -- concepts considered utterly unacceptable and blasphemous.
This new manuscript does not provide evidence that Jesus was married. We will never be able to answer that question unless we discover a manuscript that is closer in time to Jesus' life on Earth.
The true importance of Prof. King's text is that it demonstrates that early Christianity was not derived from one continuous "apostolic tradition" handed down through the disciples, but consisted of many different interpretations of the life of Jesus, articulated in diverse ways, so that different groups could find meaning in his teachings for their own lives.
If the controversy ever settles down, ultimately a married Jesus would not change any of the "good news" that he preached -- though it certainly would shake up 21st-century Christianity.
First Published September 30, 2012 12:00 am