Thursday, September 20, 2012

Paging the Albino Monks

Was Jesus a married man?

For that matter, did he have 2.5 children, a mortgage, and nagging pain in his lower back?  These are among the many questions that cannot be answered from study of the few reliable or even roughly contemporary accounts of his existence.*

Karen L. King, Harvard's Hollis Professor of Divinity, does not dispute this idea, at least so far as marriage is concerned.  In a paper to be published in January's Harvard Theological Review, she makes it quite clear that she does not believe the matter to be addressed by any of the earliest or most reliable documents.  It is important to remember that she says this, since the article in question is devoted to a scrap of Egyptian papyrus which she claims  does provides "the first known statement that explicitly claims Jesus had a wife."

The fragment -- 4 cm by 8cm, written in the Sahidic form of Coptic -- is pretty clearly part of a codex written by and for Christians. It is written in an exceptionally crude and unattractive handwriting.  And it includes both a reference to "Mary" -- the almost generic female name of the New Testament -- and the words, "Jesus said to them, 'My wife ....' "

It seems likely that Da Vinci Code enthusiasts will be on this in a heartbeat.  More reasonable people have surely caught wind of the disclaimers:

  • The authenticity of the papyrus is not certain;
  • The fragment is small and in poor condition;
  • No sentence written on it is complete;
  • It is tentatively dated to the 4th century, and King believes it may be a copy of a 2nd-c. text.

So, really, this is not much evidence of anything:  a late text, the contents of which are exceptionally unclear.  Despite some hyperventilation by the Times's Laurie Goodstein, it is impossible to imagine that anything so slight could have any direct impact upon the teaching or practice of any major church body.

What seems likely -- in our opinion, mind you -- is that this fragment belongs to a document once circulated among some of the Gnostics known to have used the language and symbolism of Christianity to communicate a body of quite different and distinct ideas.  Although much of their literature has returned to light in the 20th century, one no more adjusts one's doctrine to accommodate Gnostic ideas than one does to accommodate Creflo Dollar, Joseph Smith or the host of other people who would like you to believe that their ideas are "Christianity."  They were running around in the second century and they are running around now, but -- well, so what?

We say all this to offer some convenient boilerplate for any Egg readers who are asked about this by, say, a church member addicted to The History Channel.  But, for those who can approach it without any unrealistic expectations, King's paper is exciting indeed.  (Why not?  This may be a wee scrap of paper, but it is still an ancient text about Jesus.)  She describes the fragment in detail, and offers a highly speculative interpretation -- an educated guess at what the complete document might have been about, but one educated by close comparison with similar documents, Biblical and otherwise.  (There's some especially interesting stuff about the rites of initiation alluded to in The Gospel of Philip).

Here's a good Harvard Magazine description for the general reader (from which we have lifted the graphic up top), and here's King's paper itself, in a preliminary form.  Well worth a read.

* Actually, it might be possible to answer the mortgage question easily enough, based on 1st-century Jewish legal codes.  The question, we suppose, was whether charging any interest at all was permissible, and if so at what level "interest" became "usury."  But we'll leave this matter to scholars of the historic home-loan market.

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