Was there a Mrs. Jesus?

In case you don’t regularly visit the “Entertainment” section on the main Google News page, you may have missed the article published yesterday afternoon with variations on the headline, “A Faded Piece of Papyrus Refers to Jesus’ Wife.” Harvard historian, Karen L. King, presented her findings yesterday at a conference in Rome. Dr. King has acquired a small piece of parchment containing Coptic writing. The crucial information is contained in the remains of lines four and five:

The fourth says: “… Jesus said to them, ‘My wife….”

The next line reads: “…she will be able to be my disciple.” (Boston Globe)

I stumbled across this article and stubbed my brain. “His WHAT?” King explicitly emphasizes that this piece of paper does not prove that Jesus was married. But the mere possibility is going to raise hackles and questions in near equal proportion.

Perhaps the categorization of this scholarly grenade under “Entertainment” is due to the common association of a married Jesus for many readers/viewers with Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. For those of you who have never seen the movie or read the book, it posited that the Holy Grail was not a cup but the remains of a person, Mary Magdalene, who had been married to Jesus and bore his children.

For many Christians, primarily Catholics, the whole notion of a married Jesus–regardless of who the wife might have been–is heresy.

The Catholic Answers website has a page called “Cracking the Da Vinci Code,” devoted to debunking the book, movie, and in a bigger sense, refuting the idea of a marriage between Jesus and anybody, “It is irresponsible and offensive for Brown to impugn the faith of countless Catholics in this fashion.”

Why should a Catholic be concerned about the novel?

  • Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene.
  • Jesus got her pregnant, and the two had a daughter.

The whole notion of priestly celibacy in the Catholic Church is closely linked to church history and its interpretation of the Gospel. Celibacy is a rule within the church, not dogma (such as the belief in the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary–as opposed to the Immaculate Conception by the Virgin Mary, another story). Rules can be changed–or adhered to–as opposed to dogma, which a Catholic is required to believe. Celibacy, in the technical sense, means that a person remain unmarried. This is paired closely with the virtue of chastity, which means that they also abstain from sexual activities.

Raising the question of a married Jesus poses issues for the Catholic Church (and other Christian denominations). According to Santiago Cortés-Sjöberg, writing for U.S. Catholic,

“Current church teaching sees celibacy as a gift that God bestows on those who are called to the priesthood. Among the church’s arguments in defense of celibacy is the example of Jesus, which must be reflected in the life of a priest. Through celibacy the priest mirrors the love that Christ has for all, a love that the priest, unattached to spouse and children, can also extend.”

In the vernacular, “Jesus was a male unmarried virgin, so priests must be all of those things” to properly portray the role of Christ on the altar, especially in the consecration of bread and wine for communion. This explains why women cannot be priests, why priests cannot marry (although, yes, some married priests from other denominations can become Catholic priests and remain married), and why sexual activity on the part of priests causes scandals on multiple levels.

It is telling that Dr. King gave a joint interview to three newspapers, on the condition that they not publish the story until the time of the delivery of her paper. She understands the gravity of her research. Clerical celibacy is a vital part of modern Catholic identity.

One of the many issues raised by her research is the historical view of Jesus on the Gospels and the Church. None of the Gospels were written while Jesus was alive–they were initially oral traditions that were written down later. The written versions were recorded in different places, by different authors, from different cultures and traditions. Initially there were probably hundreds of versions of the Gospels, written over a couple of hundred years.

Over time, power struggles within the Christian church resulted in the rise of the Catholic Church as the predominant institution with the ability to determine the body of official knowledge. The “winning” gospels were gathered into the New Testament and the rest were declared heretical, destroyed, or continued to live on in local communities. The idea of the marriage of Jesus (often to Mary Magdelene), can be traced to these Gospels. Mary Magdalene even had her own version of the Gospels, now considered apocrypha or heresy. But it claims both that Jesus loved Mary Magdalene more than other women and more than his male disciples. It does not, however, lay a claim to a marriage.

The work by Dr. King will undoubtedly be dismissed by some as a hoax or fraud, by others as unsupported or erroneous. She may be branded as a New Age charlatan or a fake–about as close as we get these days to a charge of heresy. Fortunately, in this day and age, she probably won’t be subject to excommunication, stoning, or the Inquisition.

It would not be unexpected, however, given the high level of orthodoxy and fanaticism promoted by some, that she will face threats and denunciations. That anyone–especially a woman–would dare to raise a point of history that calls into question a long-held belief and practice, will not sit well with some. Protests accompanied The Da Vinci Code and its predecessor, The Last Temptation of Christ. Given the increased climate of faith-based violence in the world, nothing is outside the realm of possibility.

That being said, it takes a brave scholar to invite the scrutiny of her peers and critics, especially of a subject which so many many will have a vested interest in proving or disproving. As she acknowledged, “‘This is not a career maker,’ said King, a tenured professor at Harvard. ‘If it’s a forgery, it’s a career breaker.'” I don’t have money riding on the outcome–but I’m looking forward to the rest of the story.

7 replies »

  1. What still amazes me to this day is the vast number of Protestant faithful that take it on faith that the canon as defined by the Catholic Church (minus the Apocrypha) is “the” canon, without giving other texts such as those from the Nag Hammadi collection even the slightest scrutiny or running them through some theological filter of their own. Personally, I’d love works like the Gospel of Thomas to get far more scrutiny, since I think they would shed quite a bit of light on what it even means to be Christian in the “early church” sense of the word. For that matter, I’d love the Book of Enoch to be more widely considered since it poses some rather dramatic challenges for many aspects of Catholic faith, not least the substantiality or insubstantiality of spiritual beings. Of course, that would just open a whole new can of heretical worms for them.

    As for Dan Brown, whatever else can be said for or against him, I just think of him as a second-rate hack that borrowed extensively from the work of Baigent & Leigh in Holy Blood, Holy Grail, which in turn ended up being an amusing waste of time since the whole “lineage of Jesus down through Merovingian kings to modern day Pierre Plantard” scheme has been demonstrated to be a hoax.

  2. @ Frank: You’re right about the nature of the “canon.” English teachers and professors do more arguing over the contents of the “literary canon” than theologians do over the religious one.

    Although, having said that, the first time I ever heard of the Gospel of Mary Magdalene was in a sermon by a UCC pastor here in Cleveland. I took a class a few years ago in the Gospels of Judas and Mary Magdalene, taught by a theologian from a local Catholic University. Would love to get his perspective on this find.

  3. I think the Catholic university for which I toil might frown on discussing this in our classrooms …

  4. As might the school I work for (but I home some student brings it up–wish I could be a fly on the wall for that one)

  5. The question of whether Yeshua of Nazareth was married has been floated for quite some time. There’s a group of scholars who make a very compelling point that a man his age who was unmarried would have been considered highly suspicious, and even more so as an itinerant teacher. Furthermore, a group of unmarried men suddenly showing up in a small town full of women, while the men were in the fields, would probably have gotten them beaten out of town or even killed.

    Hope it’s not a forgery. It makes things so much more interesting if it’s genuine.

  6. @JSOBrien: I’ve heard a similar argument made from Jewish friends, “A good Jewish son would have been married.” In a similar vein, the notion of a married, Virgin Mary strikes many as inconceivable.