Did Jesus have a wife? Last week, the news was a buzz with headlines claiming that Jesus did have a wife. What was the source of all this controversy? Harvard professor and researcher Karen King unveiled an ancient papyrus fragment with the supposed phrase, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife.’” Of course like happens every few years, the media latches on to a new controversial claim about Jesus and spreads it like it is the Gospel. Unfortunately, for the media, once one takes a moment to read the claims, the whole issue is really more TV script than scripture. For the sake of those who don’t have the time to research the issue on their own, we will lay out the issue starting with looking at the papyrus itself and then moving on to look at the person by behind the controversy Karen King.
What you need to know, first of all, is that the whole news story relies on a recent “discovery” of a fragment of worn papyrus reportedly from the 4th century. The fragment is smaller than a business card, and appears to have been torn from the middle of a page in a primitive book, written in a southern Coptic dialect. Its owner, who does not want to be made known publicly, does not know where it was found. It contains just eight broken lines, scrawled in a crude Coptic hand. Much of it is ineligible. However, Harvard Professor Karen King could translate a couple of fragments of sentences in which they are alleged to say, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife`” and later “she will be able to be my disciple.” Several scholars have debated as to whether the writing itself is a forgery. In fact, two out of three authorities originally consulted by the editors of the Harvard Theological Review expressed doubts on its authenticity.
There are many issues for one to consider when looking at this discovery. First of all, the background on how the fragment was first discovered is unknown. This does not mean right away that the artifact is not certain because many original archeological artifacts have had similar histories, but it does lend some doubt to the origins of the document and makes it hard to place the document in context. Speaking of context, this might be the real crux of the situation. Without knowing where the document comes from, there is no way of knowing exactly what the fragment is saying. So much of translating documents from ancient languages into English is knowing the context of the writing. Unfortunately, eight broken lines are not nearly enough to go on. We will never know the purpose behind the writing. We cannot even be sure that the text is talking about the Jesus of Christianity. Jesus was a common name at that time akin to the name Joshua. To have a fragment of a sentence on a fragment of a paper referring to the name Jesus once does not give us any evidence to go on.
Much of what will be said of the document is speculation. Even if the papyrus is speaking about the biblical Jesus it is still impossible to know the context of the phrase “my wife.” Some have speculated including Karen King that the text is itself a translation of a Greek text from the second century which was possibly a gnostic text. How King could know that it is a translation from an earlier text which we do not have any evidence for is anyone’s guess, but supposing it is authentic and from a second century gnostic text, what does that tell us? Not much that we do not already know about gnostic texts. Gnosticism was an ancient religion born out of Platonist and paganism ideas. Gnostics were not uniform in belief but consisted of different sects. However, most gnostics taught that matter and the material world are evil and that only through a secret knowledge (gnosis is the Greek word for knowledge) that one can find their inner divinity and escape this material world. Because Gnostics had no real historical tradition of their own, they latched on to the histories of other religions, including Judaism and Christianity. Teaching that they had a secret knowledge, Gnostics sought to find approval in their teachings by writing books in which they claimed authorship from the Disciples and other known religious authorities. The early Christian church was very concerned over the confusion this would bring to the world and therefor many of the very early church fathers wrote arguments against the gnostic heresies. Even the apostles Paul and John wrote against some of the proto-gnostics in their epistles, which are now a part of the Bible. Paul was especially worried about people going around presuming to teach a different message than the true Gospel of Jesus. Paul warns in the letter to the Galatians that “even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!” The early church worked hard to make sure it was known that the Gnostic writings were not scripture and were not written by the disciples. The church was right because, for instance, the Gospel of Thomas was not written until at least a hundred years or more after Thomas the disciple was already dead. If this brand new fragment were to be a gnostic text, then it too would not be considered true by the first Christians and would be another example of gnostics trying to leach onto the Christian religion. Once again, there is no way of really knowing if this new text is from a gnostic source or not without more research into the origins of the text.
Suppose though for an instance that this fragment of a fragment is not gnostic and is from an authentic source on the Biblical Jesus, what does that mean to us? It actually means very little. Jesus himself taught in the Bible about his wife. That’s right, Jesus has a wife, and he talked about her.
“And Jesus said unto them, Can the friends of the bridegroom fast, as long as the bridegroom is with them? but the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then shall they fast.” – Mark 2:19
Jesus often referred to himself as the bridegroom. John the Baptist also spoke of Jesus as a groom to be married.
“He that hath the bride is the bridegroom: but the friend of the bridegroom, which standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice: this my joy therefore is fulfilled.” – John 3:29
So who is this bride of Christ? The book of Revelation reveals this bride.
“And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. … And there came unto me one of the seven angels which had the seven vials full of the seven last plagues, and talked with me, saying, Come hither, I will shew thee the bride, the Lamb’s wife. And he carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and shewed me that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God” – Revelation 21:9-10.
The bride of Jesus is none other than the Church. Paul explains this best when Paul gives his instructions for how husbands and wives should live.
“Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.” – Ephesians 5:22-33
Marriage itself is a picture then of the love that Jesus has for his Church. This is why the definition of marriage between one man and one woman is so important. This is why divorce, sexual immorality, adultery, and homosexuality are incredibly evil. Marriage is meant to be an example of sacrificial love and when marriage is not honored, it reflects poorly on the sacrifice of Jesus. Divorce is not just the tragic ending of a love story here on earth, but it is direct blasphemy against the cross of Christ. Christ’s love for the church is a marriage covenant that will last forever and ever. Therefor, if this papyrus is, in fact, a true document, then it really is not saying anything different than what Jesus has already said in the scriptures.
Lastly, we will look quickly at the person behind the discovery and controversy, Karen King. King is the holder of the oldest endowed chair in America, the Hollis Chair of Divinity. It was established in 1721by Thomas Hollis, a Baptist and wealthy Englishman. The position was originally established to be for a theologian with sound principles. “That he should be a man of solid learning in divinity, of sound, or orthodox principles, one well gifted to teach, of a sober and pious life, and of a grave conversation.” This meant that the person should hold to official Christian principles which according to Hollis were Reformed Protestant principles. The chair’s first occupant, Edward Wigglesworth, had to swear allegiance to the Medulla Theologiae, a Calvinist theological manual by William Ames. However, just as Harvard would leave behind its puritan founding, this chair too would be given to those who did not hold the principles in which it was established. Karen King is the current occupant of this professorship, and she also does not hold to orthodox Christianity. She has spent most of her career focused on gnosticism and feminism. Among her writings are:
Gnostic studies: Revelation of the Unknowable God (1995)
Revelation of the Unknowable God: With Text, Translation, and Notes to NHC XI, 3 Allogenes (1995)
Images of the Feminine in Gnosticism (Studies in Antiquity & Christianity) (2000)
What is Gnosticism? (2003)
The Gospel of Mary of Magdala (2003)
The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle (2003)
What Is Gnosticism? (2003)
The Secret Revelation of John (2008)
Albert Mohler in a recent blog explains best that the reason for King’s interest in this new fragment is her desire for heterodox gnosticism.
“King . . . reject(s) traditional Christianity, and (she) clearly prefer the voices of the heretics. (She) argue(s)s for the superiority of heterodoxy over orthodoxy. In the Smithsonian article, King’s scholarship is described as “a kind of sustained critique of what she called the ‘master story’ of Christianity.””
King ,like others liberals, has an ax to grind and will look to any source she can to try to overturn Christianity. Many people want to get rid of Christianity and turn to gnosticism for several reasons. Some hope to find a more feminist centered message there. Others like the teaching of gnostics which says that since the body is evil but the soul is good, then anything we do with our bodies does not really matter. Therefore according to gnosticism we are free to behave sexually anyway we want. Whatever the reason that most want to tear down Christianity, the core reason is rebellion against God. This rebellion has so clouded their eyes that someone who holds one of the most prestigious chairs in the academic world, will put out shoddy academic and research work if it will further her agenda.
In conclusion, the news media’s sensationalist controversial news story is really nothing to get worked up about. The controversy is over a piece of paper that may or may not be from the fourth century that may or may not have writing that is authentic and may or may not mention Jesus of the Bible and may or may not be an original teaching on Jesus. While this is certainly interesting for an archeological and historical perspective, it is not the least big troubling theologically. What we can be sure of however, is the Gospel message delivered to us from those who knew and lived with Jesus. The Bible is the most well attested and historically verifiable document on Jesus. When it comes to the four gospels in the Bible and the epistles to the Churches in the Bible, we do not have to rely on fragments of fragments. “Significantly, in comparison with other ancient documents, the New Testament materials are embarrassingly rich. There are almost five thousand manuscripts of part or all of the Greek New Testament, eight thousand manuscripts in Latin, and a thousand additional manuscripts in other ancient versions.” In addition to these manuscripts of the New Testament, there are countless quotations of Scripture in the writings of the early church fathers. “In fact, it has been said that if all the New Testament manuscripts were destroyed, the text of the New Testament could still be restored from the quotations made by the church fathers.” We can be sure that we have the authentic teachings of Jesus Christ. Will there be more hooplas in the future over more supposed discoveries? Yes, those who have an ax to grind will constantly try to find some way to overturn the rich biblical record on Jesus. However, if we pay attention and do good scholarly work, we will find that the Bible is always true and trustworthy. Don’t be fooled by fragments of truth and lies, read the Bible to find the complete truth on Jesus the savior and his wife.