So there has been a lot of talk this week about the now published report from Harvard regarding an ancient papyrus first revealed by Dr. Karen King in 2012. The fragment contains dialogue attributed to Jesus which reads, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…” and later “she will be my disciple.” Thus, the firestorm that began with the introduction of this fragment a few years ago has promptly been reinvigorated as scientists are now able to carbon date the ink of the papyrus as consistent with other similar fragments dating from 400 BCE to 700 CE. For scholars, this means that we move the papyrus from the late forgery column to consideration as an authentic ancient artifact.
Before all of Christendom is struck with cardiac arrest and turns to the streets with picket signs or pulls sponsorship of some organization or the other over evidence that Jesus may have been married and continued affirmation, in addition to the canon, that Jesus had female disciples; I’d like for us to take a collective breath and weigh out what all of this means. Seriously, breathe in, breathe out, take my hand and let’s talk through this.
On the canon...
First, we must admit that the evidence we rely upon most heavily for the details of Jesus’ life lie in the canonical gospels. If we understand the gospels as theological documents containing stories written about Jesus, at the earliest in the case of Mark, some thirty years after his death and Matthew and Luke closer to fifty years later while John’s gospel is the fourth and final dated somewhere around 90 CE, then we understand it is likely that there are some things Jesus said and did that we do not have recorded. In fact, the canonical gospels share nothing about Jesus’ life as a child, save the Temple story in Luke, and focus on his public ministry in the Galilee and the culmination of his life in Jerusalem at the crucifixion and resurrection.
For the canon to be authoritative for our lives, we need only affirm that we have what we need necessary unto salvation, that is to say, we are not forced to contend that within the canon we have all that was ever done or said regarding Jesus in the early centuries. If this is true, we need not be threatened by ancient evidence that emerges to tell us more about the earthly life of God incarnate.
The truth is, for Jesus to have been a thirty year old Jewish man living in the first century who was unmarried would have been a cultural anomaly. However, this would not be the only thing Jesus did that was culturally askew; he also ate with sinners, talked with prostitutes, touched dead people causing them to be raised, and he said, “Blessed are the poor.” Thus, the contextual argument alone is not enough to conclude Jesus’ marital status.
It seems the bigger question is, what does it mean for Christendom if Jesus was married? What does it change about Jesus’ role in God’s salvific plan? Does Jesus’ marital status call into question the Catholic Church’s rationale for the celibate religious life? Perhaps but we don’t see issues of celibacy for priests addressed until the Council of Nicea in the 4th century which says a priest cannot be married after ordination. For Protestants, who allow clergy to marry, what are the concerns?
I wonder if the anxiety and outrage over the “Jesus’ Wife” papyrus says more about us than it does about Jesus. It seems like this debate asks what’s true; what’s true about Jesus, sure, but also, what is true about Jesus’ 21st century followers. Are we afraid to admit, there might be things about Jesus that we don’t know? Are we uncomfortable with a wild and free God who might have stepped outside the boundaries of what we’ve come to accept? Do we wring our hands at the notion of new revelations and more to learn about Jesus, the man who walked the sands Palestine, whose sandals slapped the Roman road under the burning sun? Do we have room in our hearts, space in our minds to explore possibilities, to open to what God might want to show us in this millennia, are we willing to accept Jesus as he is, not as we want him to be?
While attending the Festival of Faith and Writing conference this week, I heard Rachel Held Evans say this to students at Calvin College in a chapel service. “I don’t think God wanted Scripture to be easy, otherwise we wouldn’t need to talk to God and we wouldn’t need to talk to each other.”
Maybe this is why new scholarship on ancient papypri helps us along. Maybe it’s good for us to scratch our heads, dig deep and consider new ways of understanding the life of Jesus. Maybe this reminds us we need to talk to God and we need to talk to each other.