Bulletin Banner

Return to May/June 2013 articles.

Article title

In September 2012 an announcement was made that a fragment of an ancient papyrus had been found by Dr. Karen King, Hollis professor of divinity at Harvard, proving that Jesus Christ had a wife. The story was on the front page of the Denver Post on September 20, 2012, was promoted by Diane Sawyer the same night, and run on Yahoo by Erin McLaughlin. Our interest in this claim is not so much whether the claim is true or not (although we will explore that question), but more concerned with how we approach claims like this and how we answer people who are disturbed by such media presentations.

Sculpture of JesusThere have been several reactions from church members when a claim like this is given wide publicity. Some function from a position of denial. They either ignore the stories completely, or assume it is a liberal plot to destroy Christianity and if it is ignored it will just go away. For others the reaction is out and out apathy. “Nothing can change my mind” is the verbal response, and it is assumed that this is all that is needed. A third reaction by church members is fear. When this story came out I had a call from a woman who was in tears and cried out in a loud voice, “What are we going to do?” as if the world was ending with this announcement. Actually, this last reaction is more constructive than the other two. In 1 Peter 3:15 we read, “… be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear.” Christians have to be concerned not only about their own understanding of issues like this, but also concerned about how these issues affect others — their families (their children especially), their friends, and their neighbors.

There are two major approaches to this situation. One approach is fideism, which is belief without examining evidence. Many atheists practice fideism in that they will accept anything that discredits religion or especially that discredits the church. Many atheists, including some masquerading as church members, really do not want to believe in God because they know it will mean a change in their lives, and so they summarily reject anything that might support the validity of the church or of religion in general. Many people in the church have an inherited faith. They believe, or at least participate, because their parents or maybe their grandparents believed and practiced a certain set of beliefs. They really do not have faith; they have acceptance. This means their involvement with the work of the church will be minimal at best.

Let me just give you a hypothetical picture of this belief system and how illogical it is. Let us assume a man is brought before a judge for a crime. The dialogue between the judge and the defense lawyer goes something like this:

Lawyer...My client is innocent.
Judge.....Why is he innocent?
Lawyer...Because I believe he is innocent.
Judge.....What evidence do you have that he is innocent.
Lawyer...I don't need any evidence, I just know it in my heart.

Who would accept such a defense? Certainly the bright young people in our high schools and colleges would not accept it.

The second major approach to this issue is evidentialism. In the words of Antony Flew, the famous atheist who left atheism after being a spokesman for atheism for years, “You have to follow the evidence, wherever it leads” (see our November/December 2010 issue, page 12). In the words of Jesus Christ, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Matthew 7:7, 8). This is not talking about material wealth. The context of the passage is finding answers and making good judgments. In John 15:26 Jesus promised, “When the [Counselor] comes, whom I will send to you from the Father — the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father — he will testify about me.” In 2 Timothy 3:16 – 17 we are told that Scripture was given “so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” Jesus always referred his listeners to evidence, both in his parables and in references from the Bible. Notice passages like Matthew 21:42 “Have you never read the Scriptures?” and Matthew 22:29 “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures.” Luke 24:27 says, “… he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.”

Christians should welcome evidence and equip themselves to deal with it to the best of their ability. Let us take this story about Jesus being married and talk about how we approach the claim and what answer we give about it. We first of all go back to the original article written by Dr. King. The article is 52 pages long and is a factual statement of a papyrus which she has studied. Dr. King says, “This find provides no reliable historical information about the historical Jesus.” It is called a “gospel” by the press because it appears to be a page from a book. Dr. Elaine Pagels of Princeton, who is an expert in this area of study, said she could find no reason to call it a gospel except to make it sound more important. The fragment under question is written in ancient Coptic — an Egyptian language. The papyrus is very old, dating back to AD 300 and contains grammar like the Coptic people used in the 200s and 300s. It is written on both sides of a papyrus that is about the size of a business card and contains fragments of eight lines on the front as follows:

1)..“not [to] me my mother gave to me li[fe] …“
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

If the document were written in modern ink or made references to modern things, we could summarily reject it. This has been the case in some claims, but is not the case here. To evaluate this claim we have to look to the situation in the world at the time the fragment was written as a starting point for our evaluation. At that time the Gnostic teaching had grown with all of its false claims. The so-called Gospel of Thomas was written about that time and has the same style as this fragment. The Gnostics believed that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, and the book of Thomas has all kinds of statements about it. For example, that document says, “Every woman who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.” So Gnostics believed women had to become men in order to be saved. The line in question in the King fragment says, “Jesus said to them ‘My wife …’ and then ‘She will be able to be my disciple.’  ” The rest of the lines are not present. Assuming that being the wife of Jesus in order to be a disciple was the issue does not fit well with the teachings of Jesus, but it does fit well with the tradition of the Gnostics.

Mosaic of JesusThere are many professors in the academic world who are convinced the document has no credibility. Dr. Wolf-Peter Funk who is an authority on early Christian manuscripts says, “Some guy in the first or second century decided to write the words my ‘wife’ and put them in Jesus' mouth.” King admits that her first reaction to the fragment was, “This is highly likely to be a forgery.” There are lot of people in the academic world who do not believe this discovery will stand up under closer examination.

That brings us to the point of how well this fragment fits with the rest of the New Testament. First of all, the Bible is silent on whether Jesus had a wife. The Roman Catholic church has always maintained that Jesus was celibate, so the reaction from the Vatican was fairly predictable. When Jesus was near death on the cross it was his mother that he expressed concern for and committed to the care of John (John 19:26 – 27). If he was married, his wife’s situation would have been even more critical than his mother since he did have brothers and sisters who could care for Mary. Being the oldest son however, gave him a special responsibility, and if he had a wife that would have been true of his care for his wife as well. The concept of Jesus being God who came to earth and dwelt among men (John 1:14) does not fit well with Jesus having a wife. The mission that Jesus had was all-consuming. Luke 19:10 tells us that “The son of man came to seek and to save the lost.” Putting that together with “I am the way and the truth and the life. No man comes to the Father but by me” (John 14:6) and “Salvation is found in … no other name under heaven” (Acts 4:12) it is difficult to justify Jesus living with a woman and being involved in the day-to-day work and care for a family. Also, the Scriptures indicate that the church is the bride of Christ. (Revelation 19:7; 21:2, 9, as well as other passages.) The evidence is that Jesus did not have a wife.

We take this current media sensationalism as an example of what happens daily to young people on the Web. Individually, we may not have the time to research every claim that is made, but there are journals like this one that do analyze the claims. Working together we can “give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15). We can also encourage our young people to be evidentialists and go where the evidence leads them. Source: Smithsonian magazine, November 2012, page 74.

— John N. Clayton

Picture credits:
© Finner1968. Image from BigStockPhoto.com
© Tonygers. Image from BigStockPhoto.com