You have surely heard by now. “Jesus may have been married.” At least, the media has come to this “scholarly” conclusion based upon a papyrus fragment written in Coptic that surfaced last week at a conference on Coptic texts.
Karen King, Harvard Divinity School Professor, presented the fragment to the conference that is held in Rome every four years. She gained access to the artifact in 2011 when an anonymous dealer brought it to her for translation and analysis. It was authenticated at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University according to its director, Roger Bagnall. Other scholars are awaiting more testing to rule out a possible fraud.
The small fragment contains the words, “Jesus said, ‘My wife ….’” The papyrus is torn so that the remainder of the sentence was truncated. King dates the fragment around the 4th century, 300 years after Jesus was on earth. She also suggested it may be a copy of one of the Gnostic gospels written in the 2nd century.
Jon Stewart, host of the satirical comedy on Comedy Central, The Daily Show, skewered the media for racing to conclusions. In his sardonic style, Stewart suggests possible wording to complete the sentence, “My wife, if I ever find one, will really have to like Thai food. Or how about this? My wife? No, I’m not married.”
Stewart raises one of the many issues challenging the conclusion that Jesus was married based upon the papyrus fragment. Even King was quick to say, “This fragment … does not prove that (Jesus) was married, nor does it prove that he was not married.” (Of course, the latter seems a little too obvious.)
The Green Scholars Initiative oversees one of the largest collections of biblical antiquities in the world. Executive Director Jerry Pattengale commented, “This is an aberration; this is something totally outside of any biblical tradition.” Pattengale seems to hold the door open that this aberration might somehow supplement biblical tradition, correcting it in some way.
Biblical tradition leaves no room for a spousal Jesus. Although no direct statement denying Jesus had a wife occurs in any New Testament text, the gospels definitively portray Jesus as single. One cannot easily explain how such an important character as the wife of Jesus could have been omitted from any gospel account.
In his popular novel, The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown claimed that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and fathered a child, facts the Church has suppressed for 2,000 years for self-serving reasons. The novel bases the assertion on the non-canonical gospels, those records of Jesus that were not included in the biblical canon for various reasons.
Mark D. Roberts has debunked any notion that these Gnostic gospels prove a conjugal relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. The few references to her offer no substantial evidence of a marriage with Jesus. In fact, careful interpretation of them would argue that Jesus was not married to her.
Scholars will always debate new discoveries that relate to the biblical record. And they will always view any new discovery with a certain bias. They are not impartial androids that can interpret the data purely.
Biblical scholars are predisposed to explain new discoveries subject to the priority and authority of Scriptures. Liberal scholars, who do not hold to the same high view of Scriptures, will often slant their interpretation in favor of supporting their assumption that biblical authority does not prevail over human reason.
These biases bring balance to the debate. The arguments must be weighed with honesty and prudence. Certainly the reliability of Scriptures must be respected. For hundreds of years the Scriptures have withstood the tests of accuracy. Problems usually sprouted from seeds of naïve or shoddy interpretation, not because the text was dubious.
The media, however, generally does a great disservice to this debate. They will sacrifice scholarship for sensationalism every day. Media outlets are in the business of selling news and attracting viewers with entertainment. Popular hosts do not gain popularity through the intellect.
Many of the comments by the media seemed to favor the shocking revelation of a hitched Messiah. Who cares about the arguments? As long as they can entertain viewers, they will ignore the scholarship.
Jon Stewart specializes in a satirical perspective of the news, in particular the reporting of it. With humor, Stewart at least explored the “evidence” of the claim that Jesus was married, lampooning the lack of such evidence. Although it was not a careful analysis of the issue, the piece at least pointed the audience in the right direction for interpreting it.
In our media saturated culture, Christians must be “shrewd as serpents” as we interpret the incessant supply of information. Media sources must be viewed with a healthy skepticism. They rarely offer all the facts.
We should frame Proverbs 18:17 and hang it over our flat screens:
“The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.”
I was just teaching on that last section of Matthew that you quoted about “shrewd as serpents” today. Lambs among the wolves certainly describes how we live.
I first heard of this news through report through The Colbert Report (the night before The Daily Show reported on it). Colbert didn’t question or skewer the news reports – or offer many details about the fragment (he didn’t mention the date or that it was Coptic), but as soon as I heard of it, I thought, “I’ll bet it was written between 300-600 A.D. during the ‘legend forming’ period.” Sure enough – it was. How is it that I can think of obvious reasons to question the validity of this off the top of my head, but no one in the media can? Lame.
‘Tis a mystery!
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