Did Jesus Christ have a wife? This relatively-stale (i.e. Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code”) question has been given new life following Harvard Divinity School professor Karen King’s release of the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife,” a papyrus fragment that is getting international attention. But while media are buzzing about the prospect that the Christian savior was potentially married, there are numerous factors surrounding the story that deserve additional scrutiny, specifically when it comes to what’s not currently known.
TheBlaze interviewed Dr. Darrell L. Bock, senior research professor of New Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary and author of “Who Is Jesus?,” to speak further about this fascinating discovery and to better understand what, exactly, it tells us about Jesus. In addition to speaking with TheBlaze, Bock also highlighted eight points worth considering surrounding the recent find. We spoke with him about these sentiments in detail.
Bock makes the point that the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” is a small text with no context. With not-too-many lines of fragmented text, it’s difficult to discern exactly what’s being said in it. Also, without context, there’s no way to tell if, indeed, Jesus had a wife. Here’s what the translated text looks like, in full:
“‘… not [to] me. My mother gave to me li[fe] …'”
“The disciples said to Jesus, ‘…”
“deny. Mary is worthy of it” (Or: “deny. Mary is n[ot] worthy of it”)
“…’ Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…'”
“… she will be able to be my disciple …”
“Let wicked people swell up …”
“As for me, I dwell with her in order to …”
“forth which …”
Obviously, with little to go on, a definitive story can’t truly be set around what’s currently known about the text. Based on what King has said, the papyrus fragment was likely written in Greek in the second century — but even this is theoretical at the moment.
We’re not even sure where, exactly, the text came from. King reports first learning about it from an email back in 2010. A private collector contacted her and asked for a translation of the papyrus. The individual who discovered it, as we’ve reported, doesn’t want to be identified for fear of being harassed by people who might want to purchase the text.
Harvard University’s release about the discovery covers these items in detail:
The brownish-yellow, tattered fragment belongs to an anonymous private collector who contacted King to help translate and analyze it. The collector provided King with a letter from the early 1980s indicating that Professor Gerhard Fecht from the faculty of Egyptology at the Free University in Berlin believed it to be evidence for a possible marriage of Jesus.
King said that when the owner first contacted her about the papyrus, in 2010, “I didn’t believe it was authentic and told him I wasn’t interested.” But the owner was persistent, so in December 2011, King invited him to bring it to her at Harvard. After examining it, in March 2012 King carried the fragment to New York and, together with [colleague Anne Marie Luijendijk], took it to [Roger Bagnall, director of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World in New York] Bagnall to be authenticated. When Bagnall’s examination of the handwriting, ways that the ink had penetrated and interacted with the papyrus, and other factors, confirmed its likely authenticity, work on the analysis and interpretation of the fragment began in earnest, King said.
While Bock explained that, “we have no way of tracing where it came from,” he also said that it is likely a Gnostic Christian text. This, alone, provides more context worth examining. Religion News Service made the point that this same contention — that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a romantic relationship — is nothing new in Gnostic theology:
Some of the Gnostic gospels — ancient texts unearthed in the 20th century that are not included in the Christian canon — suggest that Jesus had an intimate relationship with Mary Magdalene. The apocryphal Gospel of Philip, for example, says that Jesus kissed Mary, and loved her more than the apostles.
But the Gnostics were often intimate in nonsexual ways. In the Gospel of Philip, for instance, Christians greet each other with kisses to convey the sense that they are a spiritual family, according to scholars.
Bock noted that, due to these elements and uncertainties, the papyrus fragment deserves expert opinion and analysis beyond what it has received thus far. He described the current scenario as “being in the first quarter of a game,” yet seeking comments about the whole game. Since the jury is still out — and will likely be out for quite some time — Bock believes that it’s premature to make any definitive conclusions.
“It needs a larger public vetting by experts,” he said, going on to commend King for opening the discovery up for examination and scrutiny. Because it’s been made public, more eyes will be upon it, working to firm up the story surrounding the text.
All things considered, it’s important to note that the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” tells us absolutely nothing about the historical Jesus. While it’s tempting to begin constructing new ideas about the Christian savior and his character, the fact remains that this is a document, even if it checks out on the historical front, that was written centuries away from the timeframe during which Jesus lived.
“[King has] been very clear that this tells us nothing about the historical Jesus,” Bock continued. “The text is too late and it comes from a too fringe of a group.”
In the news release announcing the find, King did admit that Christianity has long-contended that Jesus was not married. While she conceded this point, she also said that there is “no reliable historical evidence [in existence] to support that claim.” However, one would assume that the absence of text from the time proclaiming that he was married is evidence enough that he wasn’t, in fact, wedded. Still, King’s point is technically valid.
“This new gospel doesn’t prove that Jesus was married, but it tells us that the whole question only came up as part of vociferous debates about sexuality and marriage,” King said. “From the very beginning, Christians disagreed about whether it was better not to marry, but it was over a century after Jesus’s death before they began appealing to Jesus’s marital status to support their positions.”
It’s entirely possible that this text, when placed into its context, was metaphorical in nature. Bock maintains that it is possible that this mention of Jesus’s wife is based on metaphor and not a literal claim.
“In Gnostic Christianity, there was a rite called the bridal chamber in which the church was seen as the bride of Christ,” Bock writes on his blog. “The whole thing could well be metaphorical with a disciple representing the place of the church. If that is the case, then it is not even a claim that Jesus was married in real life to a single person.”
The Atlantic’s Eleanor Barkhorn also notes that there are numerous examples in the Bible in which Jesus mentions a “wife” of sorts, thus reaffirming Bock’s thoughts. Here’s a portion of her analysis (read all of the examples here):
The Bible itself refers to Jesus’ wife, repeatedly. Only that wife is not Mary Magdalene or any other earthly woman. It’s the church.
Christ calls himself a bridegroom throughout the New Testament. When the finger-wagging Pharisees ask Jesus why his disciples don’t fast, he answers:
How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast.In other words, Christ is the groom and his disciples are his friends—and it would be rude of them to abstain from eating while they’re in the presence of the groom.
Later, as Jesus foretells the coming of God’s kingdom, he also refers to himself as a groom: “The kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom.” Again, Christ is the groom and his followers are the groom’s friends—there to celebrate the wedding with him.
“Let’s see if time and some additional reflection can help us understand what we have and do not have in this small fragment,” Bock concluded on his blog, reiterating this same idea in his interview with TheBlaze. Considering the lack of evidence to substantiate any conclusive view at this juncture, this is, so far, the best assessment in how to process King’s findings.