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Issue No. 38 24 Sep - 30 Sep 2012
Did Jesus have a Wife? By Quek Tze-Ming

Papyrus fragmentLast week, Professor Karen King of Harvard University announced the discovery of an ancient manuscript in which Jesus apparently speaks of "my wife." Professor King called the fragment The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, and has published a good photograph and detailed scholarly analysis of the fragment together with the press release. Almost all of what we know of the fragment is based upon her her work, which can be accessed here: http://www.hds.harvard.edu/faculty-research/research-projects/the-gospel-of-jesuss-wife

A transcription and translation of the fragment can be found at the link. As you can see, the relevant line 4 of the fragment reads "... Jesus said to them, 'My wife ...' (text breaks off at the edge of the fragment)" Most scholars do not take issue with either transcription or translation.

Predictably, some news sources have characterized this find as a sensation which may have repercussions on the Church's traditional teaching on Jesus and/or marriage and/or singleness. Is this manuscript really such a sensation?

Let me say firstly, as a student of the historical Jesus and early Christianity, that any historical datum which may cast light on that period is most welcome. After all, Christians affirm that God sent his Son into our world "in the fullness of time" (Gal 4.4). The great event that was God-with-us-in-theflesh happened in a real time and place in history, and affected the flow of human history. We do not need to fear history, as long as history is done with proper rigour.

As it turns out, the manuscript is much ado about ... well, definitely less than what some newspapers claimed. Several scholars - much better qualified than I am - have offered assessments that confirmed my early suspicions. It is enough for me to briefly summarize their thoughts, and point you to where you can find fuller treatments:

  1. While the fragment - with writing in Sahidic, the oldest dialect of the Coptic language of Egypt - looks at first glance as if it is from the 4th century (so Professor King and some others), there is significant doubt as to its authenticity. Many coptologists who attended the International Association of Coptic Studies conference in Rome (incuding a personal friend of mine, Dr Christian Askeland) are sceptical as to its authenticity. This assessment is based in part on the unusually dull lettering (suggesting the letters were painted or "markered" on rather than written with a stylus); as well as some omissions in the language used (suggesting weak knowledge of Sahidic). For a fuller discussion by Dr Askeland, see: http://evangelicaltextualcriticism.blogspot.sg/2012/09/gospel-of-jesuss-wife.html

  2. It has been noted that parts of the text share similarities with the Gospel of Thomas (middle of 2nd century), especially sayings 101.1-2, 3; and 114. Professor Francis Watson of Durham University has argued that a large portion of this fragment is actually taken from a modern edition of the Coptic Gospel of Thomas. If Professor Watson is right, this is a cut-and-paste job (fake). You can read his argument here: http://markgoodacre.org/Watson.pdf

  3. If the fragment is genuine, then it looks like "a typical sort of text which arose after Christianity had become very popular and when derivatives of Christianity began to emerge." (from "Gathercole on Jesus' Wife" on the Tyndale House, Cambridge website). These "derivatives" are the sub-Christian or what the Church Fathers called the "heretical" groups, including the various strands of Gnosticism. As noted above, the language of the text is very similar to the Gospel of Thomas. This way of speaking belongs to the mid-2nd century or later.

What of the meaning of the text? Professor Daniel Wallace of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts provides some suggestions:

If genuine, the text is either (a) not Gnostic (since it contradicts the basic Gnostic [negative] view of the material world); (b) Gnostic though with an interpretation of marriage as other than the physical bond between a man and a woman [i.e., marriage is an allegory for something else] ... (c) orthodox but metaphorically referring to the church as the wife of Jesus (a view already attested in the New Testament—implicit in Eph 5.23–27 and explicit in Rev 19.7); (d) a derivative Christian group that gave some push-back against the growing asceticism of the orthodox in the late second century, when marriage was somewhat frowned upon; or (e) parabolic or metaphorical with some other referent in mind.

All this means that this 4th-century fragment, if genuine (big "if"!), tells us very little about the historical Jesus. Professor King dates this fragment to the 4th century, and proposes an earlier composition date in the 2nd century. But even she states that “its possible date of composition in the second half of the second century argues against its value as evidence for the life of the historical Jesus.” So no, this fragment doesn't tell us that the historical Jesus had a wife. But, as Professor Simon Gathercole of Cambridge University says, it "offers us a window into debates about sex and marriage in the early church, and the way Jesus could be adapted to play a part in a particular debate, but only if it is genuine."

For more detailed discussion from Simon Gathercole and Daniel Wallace, see the respective links below:
http://www.tyndale.cam.ac.uk/ReJesusWife
http://danielbwallace.com/2012/09/21/reality-check-the-jesus-wife-coptic-fragment/

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