|A picture of the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.” The recent
discovery by Dr. Karen King of Harvard. Measuring
4cm x 8cm, the fragment is smaller than a business card.
If you haven’t already heard, you probably will soon. A Harvard Professor, Dr. Karen King, has discovered and is publishing a fragment from what she calls, “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.” Several news sources have already picked up on this story, including the NBC video which I am including below. Some of these news sources are describing the find as a “blockbuster.” However, I believe a few preliminary observations can keep us from getting led astray in all the hype.
Facts About the Manuscript
Dr. King has published a 52 page paper that details the discovery of the fragment, explains the research that has gone into verifying its authenticity, and offers a preliminary interpretation of the text. Thanks to Andy Witt who directed me to her article, “And Jesus said to them, ‘My wife’…: A New Coptic Gospel Papyrus.“ The following facts come from her article.
The fragment was brought to Dr. King by an anonymous donor, who apparently owned the fragment for nearly 30 years before bringing it to her. It is possible that some will suggest that this fragment is a forgery because of its peculiar history, however Dr. King details convincing evidence that this fragment is indeed from the 4th Century (300-399AD). There is no need for faithful Christians to challenge the authenticity of this fragment, and it seems that they would be on shaky ground if they did.
The reason that the fragment may prove controversial is that the 4th line of the text is translated “And Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…” Dr. King is responsible for the translation and she has supplied the original Sahidic text and her translation for comparison. What is most important for our purposes is to note that the fragment provides an incredibly small sample of text. The sentence being attributed to Jesus literally only consists of a subject, “my wife,” but no other information is provided to help us interpret the sentence.
Don’t Buy the Sizzle
I don’t know who first said “sell the sizzle, not the steak,” but I believe it has become the golden standard of news media. Because of this, I don’t doubt that coverage of this story will seek to ruffle feathers and perhaps challenge the way Christians have accepted the traditions that have been handed down through the ages. However, the following three points will hopefully convince us that there is no sizzle to buy and prevent us from unwarranted doubt as the story continues to play in the media.
- This fragment is not a reliable guide for finding the “historical Jesus.”
Fortunately, Dr. King readily admits that this fragment is not reliable historical evidence for determining what the “real Jesus” was really like. However, we should be prepared for other scholars to show less constraint. In fact, this is the kind of document that the “Da Vinci Code” craze was based on and that almost every History Channel or Discovery Channel documentary uses as evidence.
The manuscripts these scholars rely on are typically 200 years older than the gospel accounts in our Bible. Yet, some scholars have preferred the older manuscripts for their reconstruction of Jesus to the 4 gospels in our New Testaments. The reason for this odd preference is that they present Jesus as a more human figure. “Scientific” study of the Bible rules out the possibility of a divine figure who could work miracles and raise from the dead. They assume these outlandish stories are myths developed by the devout. Therefore, they believe that even though fragments such as these are much older, their more human depiction of Jesus must be less biased.
Bias, however, can be a two-edged sword. For instance, an anti-supernatural bias has led many scholars to reject early, widespread, accounts of the life of Jesus in preference of rare, incomplete, and late accounts that diminish the deity of Jesus. With this in mind, Christians are under no obligation to find these late manuscripts to be a more reliable guide on Jesus that the 4 gospels we have in the New Testament
- We already know that there was debate (and heresy) in the early church period.
While Dr. King admits that this fragment doesn’t tell us much about the actual Jesus, she does suggest that it proves that some Christians thought Jesus had a wife. I don’t believe the document necessarily proves that, but I will reserve that for the next point. Here we need only say that debate concerning the person and nature of Jesus during the early church period is not newsworthy.
Any student of Church History knows that the early church period is largely defined by its development of the doctrine of Christ. Much of this was due to a rise in other groups, claiming to be Christian, but redefining who Jesus was and what he did. Much of the theology we take for granted today was hammered out by the early church in the face of a variety of heresies including gnosticism and Arianism.
Where we would disagree with Dr. King is that the term “Christian” is a fit descriptor for these other groups. While these groups may have claimed to be Christian, the early church condemned their teaching and declared their theology as outside the bounds of the true church. In the early church, as today, simply talking about Jesus did not make you a Christian. You had to believe in the Christ presented in the Scriptures. Only through faith in the Jesus of Scripture could one find salvation, and rightly be called a Christian.
- Scholarly speculation should not be accepted as fact.
Finally, Dr. King suggests that the phrase “and Jesus said to them, ‘My wife’…” proves that there was a group of Christians who thought Jesus was married. In reality, this phrase does not prove this at all. Jesus occasionally referred to family members in metaphorical terms. For instance in Matthew 12:50 Jesus says, “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” Further, Ephesians 5:22-24 is one of many places that the church is depicted as the wife of Christ.
Again, we already know that there was great debate concerning Jesus during the early church. We also know that some sources, though discounted are heretical, even maintained that Jesus was married. We have no need to suggest that this fragment does not suggest that Jesus had a wife. The point here is that scholars often suggest that something is proven when it is only possible.
Like the news, scholars are rewarded for making strong statements. The history channel isn’t looking for “I don’t know.” Therefore, something that is speculative can easily be cast as something that is certain. With this in mind, as we watch the news unfold the story of this new fragment, we should listen with a healthy dose of skepticism, not trusting outlandish claims simply because they are backed by “scholarly opinion.”
Don’t Be A Wave Tossed By The Wind
In the book of James we are told to ask for wisdom. His exact words are:
If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind.
2,000 years later we still need to make that same request. Our television will offer arguments that seem designed to turn us into a wave of the sea, tossed by the wind. My hope is that a little information, combined with the wisdom of God, can equip us to endure this latest squall.
Update: In the post I claimed that denial of the authenticity of this fragment would be made on shaky ground. However it seems I may have spoken too soon. The Evangelical Textual Criticism blog posted this article claiming that many who were present for Dr. King’s presentation have expressed skepticism. Discussion of Coptic print and papyrus is well beyond my pay grade so I will be content to wait for the smoke to settle on this issue.
Regardless, even if the fragment were universally accepted as legitimate, I maintain that this would pose no real threat to Evangelical Christian thought for the reasons listed above.