Did Jesus Have a Wife? A Caution to Media Sensationalism
A year or so ago I contributed to the mass evangelical out-pour concerning the 70 book of Revelation tablets. The BBC had jumped the gun, Daily Mail had jumped the gun, Glenn Beck had jumped the gun, and I jumped the gun. This is great I thought! After all, I am a Biblical Studies student and a Christian. What could be better than, perhaps, the greatest archaeological discovery of all time?! The artifacts seemed not only historically interesting but spiritually interesting too! They would have demonstrated from an unprecedented archaeological standpoint the continuity of the Christian message from the very beginning: Jesus was raised from the dead.
Well, as it turned out, like so many revolutionary finds from the ancient world, the tablets were deemed by professionals to likely be forgeries. False artifacts. Fraudulent sensationalism.
I had fallen for the trap which I was not supposed to. Unlike the news outlets, many scholars, even the Christian ones, encouraged hesitancy at the first announcement. Larry Hurtado, not known for his west coast surfer talk, encouraged us to ‘Chill, dude.” Ben Witherington III, likewise, encouraged Christians to be wary of pronouncing a claim (however well intended) too early and without enough information. Taking their advice, I pulled back. They were right; too many times we have pronounced the authenticity of something remarkable which proved to be false, often times to our own dismay and/or embarrassment. I took a lesson and have since been fairly
cautious about new discoveries.
But the problem of early pronouncement and misplaced confidence is, of course, not a solely evangelical one. It is a human one. Recently news headlines have been rampant with the question “Did Jesus Have a Wife?” which stemmed from the controversial announcement of a 4th century papyrus text which has Jesus say ‘my wife.’ Blogs, videos, newspapers, interviews, and radio programs around the country set out on the question of Jesus’ marital situation. It was like The DaVinci Code all over again except this time without the high-speed car chases and secret cults. But just as Brown’s novel replaced quality research for sensationalism, this new announcement has led many to an unfortunate and poorly constructed conclusion of the implications of the text. Indeed, the entire question may become irrelevant by one simple possibility: the fragment may very well be false.
In other words, Karen King, the Harvard professor at center stage in this, may have jumped the gun a bit in her announcement. Or at least the media did. The devil is in the details. The text may likely be a forgery. A false artifact. A fraudulent sensationalism.
Perhaps it’s not false, though I do admit that the caliber of scholars who are bringing skeptical questions to the forefront make me somewhat sympathetic to this opinion. Alin Suciu states rather boldly, “I would say it’s a forgery. The script doesn’t look authentic.” Others have brought up the same observation. Craig Evans notes,
“…one scholar after another and one Coptologist after another has weighed in pointing out serious problems with the paleography, the syntax, and the very troubling fact that almost all of the text has been extracted from the Gospel of Thomas (principally from logia 30, 101, and 114)…Is the Coptic papyrus, in which Jesus speaks of his “wife,” a fake? Probably.”
Still, even if it proves to be authentic, this leaves us with the question of what does it mean? Does this mean that the historical Jesus was married? No, and thankfully King admits just as much (thankfully not going the full Dan Brown route). What it proves is that the question may have been in the air for some. Or it may suggest that a particular community (i.e. a sect of the Gnostics) believed such. Or it may be that the term ‘wife’ is a reference to the Church (“the bride of Christ”). Or it may be a reference to monastic sister-wives. Or, as John Stewart comically noted, it may be fragment in which Jesus says “My wife? I have no wife!!” To be blunt, the text–even if it’s authentic–says nothing to answer the question of whether Jesus of Nazareth had a wife. So here we have it: Did Jesus have a wife? The text has no answer and we’re exactly where we’ve sat for the past 2,000 years. Even beyond this, if the text proves to be inauthentic, the whole conversation has only served us as a temporary sensation.
I want to refrain from making early judgments on the authenticity of the text but I have learned to be sympathetic to the warnings of the professional scholars. Specifically here the first-rate Coptologists have warned that more research is in order. I want to heed that warning, leaving room for the text to prove itself authentic or not. But the greater point to be learned from this and other early pronouncements is to be cautious in our approaches towards these things. We want to watch our steps, inquire with others, do solid research, and understand the options before making sensational claims before the watching world. Our desire for 5 minutes of fame should never do away with our desire to work honestly.