I don't know if Jesus had a wife. I don't know if the early Christians who wrote the Coptic papyrus fragment recently publicized by Harvard Divinity School scholar Karen King thought he had a wife. And even if he did, I don't know if or what that would really change in terms of religious belief: I am neither a Christian nor a theologian. What I do know is that whenever a scientific discovery having to do with religious texts, sites, or history becomes public, it goes through a a news cycle that's becoming familiar: giddy excitement, intense skepticism, and cynical acceptance.
Some "scientific" discoveries are counted out by virtue of the unlikeliness of their claims. In 2007 Biblical archaeologist Eric Cline wrote in an editorial: "When most archeologists and biblical scholars hear that someone has (yet again) discovered Noah's Ark, they roll their eyes and get on with their business." (But the lack of acknowledgement from legitimate archaeology in no way stems the tide of these discoveries and their announcements. Next month there's another "scientific" account of Noah's Ark being published.)
But how do I as a non-specialist know when to roll my eyes?
The so-called "Gospel of Jesus's Wife" is now joining a storied lineup of Jesus-related relics suspected of being fraudulent. Remember the "Jesus Box? It's still on trial. Or the Shroud of Turin? It's enough to make one discount anything that turns up as "evidence" of anything religious at all.
Isn't it possible that there's some untranslated scroll, some still-buried tablet, which really does have significant implications for how we practice religion? The same paper reporting on the Jesus's Wife controversy recently reported on a global team of scholars in the Sinai using new technology to read never-before-readable ancient documents.
The question of "is this a legitimate, non-fraudulent scientific discovery" is of course different from the question of "does this new piece of information change what I believe?" Take the case of Jesus's wife (please). The mention of a wife for Jesus may make worldwide headlines, because, among other surprises, it seems to contradict the established belief in Jesus's celibacy. But the existence of other ancient Christian documents which have not made it into the official canon of scripture, and which posit all kinds of non-scriptural things, doesn't make a ripple in the news.
To acknowledge the existence of other Gnostic Gospels means acknowledging that the text of the Old and New Testaments is not all that is in existence; it is a curated, translated, and heavily revised selection of older texts. And that begs the question of who is doing the curating and translating, and that brings us into the question of the institution of church.
Perhaps that's why the news cycle on the papyrus scroll went so quickly from heady headline-grabbing excitement to cynical skepticism. Declaring it a fraud might be easier for some than admitting there's room to question our assumptions about how the Bible was formed. But, much as we might wish otherwise, religious belief does not run in a straight line from text to believer. It's more complicated than that.
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