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Juan Chapa, Professor of the School of Theology at the University of Navarra

The "wife" of Jesus

Tue, 25 Sep 2012 08:07:00 +0000 Published in

The papyrus fragment that mentions Jesus saying "my wife" has so few lines that it does not admit certain interpretation and, in any case, it does not test anything about historical facts, as the same discoverer warns.

Between 17 and 22 September last, the X International congress of programs of study Copts was held in Rome. Among the more than two hundred papers and communications only one was reported to the press: the presentation of a new papyrus fragment of evangelical character in which Jesus speaks of "my wife". The author of the new finding is Harvard University professor Karen L. King, renowned for her programs of study in the history of ancient Christianity. Although she does not have training strictly papyrological, King has relied on the financial aid of experts in the subject for the edition of this fragment. The text provisional of the forthcoming publication is available on the web.

The fragment came into the hands of Professor King through a private collector who has wished to remain anonymous. It is of very small dimensions (4 cm high by 8 cm wide) and is written in Coptic. It contains the remains of eight lines on one side and six very damaged and barely legible lines on the other. As none of the margins are preserved, we do not know how much text has been lost between lines. The dating proposal by King according to paleographic criteria is the end of the fourth century. He also points out that the photograph of the papyrus raised certain doubts of authenticity in some experts who had the opportunity to see it. Others, on the other hand, were in favor of it. Pending some technical programs of study to be done, the Harvard professor admits that the question of authenticity "is not absolutely settled beyond doubt."

The author of finding herself states that the papyrus does not constitute a test on the life of the historical Jesus.

A Gnostic text of a non-historical nature

What has aroused the interest of the media are the words of the fourth line of the best preserved side of the papyrus. There we read: "Jesus said to them: My wife...". In previous lines the text contains the following phrases: "my mother gave me life ... the disciples said to Jesus ... Mary is worthy [or unworthy, for the reading is not clear] of it...". After the reference letter to the "wife of Jesus", and again very fragmentarily, one reads "... she will be able to be my disciple ... let the wicked swell ... as far as I am concerned, I dwell/exist with her for ...". On the reverse, it reads only "my mother", "three" and "hereafter".

Given the fragmentary nature of the text, it is very difficult to know what is the context of these phrases and who are the specific characters with whom Jesus speaks. Almost all the expressions of the papyrus find parallels in Gnostic works such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Philip. These writings, mostly preserved in manuscripts of the 4th century, although they were probably written in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, were called "gospels" by their authors or older readers. However, they do not belong to the genre of the four canonical gospels. They are rather Gnostic catechetical writings -each one of them according to the different Gnostic current in which it originates-, in which the resurrected Jesus transmits to his disciples a set of diverse teachings.

In the controversies of the second century, both the defenders and the detractors of marriage started from the fact that Jesus was celibate.

King relies primarily on these three works to interpret the papyrus. After careful study, the most important thing the Harvard professor can say with certainty is that this fragment consists of a dialogue of Jesus with his disciples, in which Jesus speaks of his mother and his wife - one of whom is named Mary - whose worthiness for discipleship is in dispute. He also points out that the text is the "first known and explicit reference letter that Jesus had a wife" (a nuanced statement, because the papyrus only puts the words "my wife" in Jesus' mouth, and we do not know if he is referring to a specific woman or if he is speaking allegorically).

King also presents some possibilities of reading, which are debatable and depend on the interpretation of the specific passages that are offered as parallels. In any case, she expressly states that, even if the text of this papyrus were a translation of a work written in Greek in the second century -as she supposes-, it does not constitute a test about the life of the historical Jesus or that, in particular, Jesus had been married. In any case, the American professor is inclined to see the fragment in the context of the disputes about the value and dignity of marriage and celibacy that took place mainly throughout the second century, and continued for several centuries, and as a test that "there were Christians of that time who believed that Jesus was married" (a claim, however, not proven or necessarily deducible from the text).

It is very unlikely that a Gnostic text would present Jesus as married, since for the most part the Gnostics undervalued marriage.

Too good to be true?

It is inevitable to think that in this new finding there may be something suspicious. In Internet forums there is no lack of voices of those who point out that the three people who are cited as knowing the papyrus before falling into the hands of its current anonymous owner are already dead. Others openly declare that the text of the papyrus is based on the Coptic -and not Greek- version of the Gospel of Thomas and that, therefore, it is most probably modern. And then there are those who find it "curious" that a new text suddenly appears that puts the words "my wife" in Jesus' mouth, precisely when, since The Da Vinci Code, this topic has been fluttering in the air. "Too good to be true," says Richard Bauckham, a well-known English professor of New Testament, although he admits that very unlikely coincidences sometimes occur.

In all this, one thing is certain. Jesus did not marry. This is deduced from the canonical Gospels and this is how the tradition of the Church has always understood it. The oldest text in this regard is by Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150-215), which the author of the papyrus edition also quotation. In Stromata III 6,49, Clement complains of some who claim that marriage is fornication and the work of the devil on the grounds that the Lord did not marry. What Clement reproaches them for is precisely that they do not know why the Lord did not marry. Tertullian (ca. 160-230) also affirms that Jesus was celibate.

Therefore, regardless of the question of authenticity and assuming that the papyrus is from the fourth century, it is very unlikely that a Gnostic text presented Jesus with a carnal wife (Mary Magdalene, for example). The second century controversies over the value and dignity of marriage show precisely that Jesus was celibate. Both supporters and opponents of marriage started from that fact. Hence it does not fit historically that there were Gnostic groups (that on the other hand in their great majority undervalued or despised the sexual relations) that had as model of the dignity of the marriage to a Jesus married with Mary Magdalene or with any other woman. And therefore, neither is there sufficient basis to say that some Christians believed that he was. The fragmentary nature of the text does not allow us to affirm this. In the absence of other evidence, the "woman of Jesus" of this Coptic text today will remain an allegory or an entelechy, but not a reality of flesh and blood.