I loved the headlines as the Vatican declared that a fragment of papyrus was a fraud: There's a nagging feeling that Jesus had a wife ... Vatican Says Papyrus Mentioning Jesus' Wife is 'Fake' ... So Jesus WAS Married -- Oy Vey!
Laurie Goodstein, New York Times religion writer, provides the most informative account about the remnant of an ancient papyrus text, wherein Jesus refers to his wife and says she is worthy to be a disciple. The fragment was given to Dr. Karen King by a donor who remains anonymous to avoid the ecclesiastical and media fray that such documents inevitably engender.
This is not the first time the possibility of Jesus being married has created a stir. In 1970, William Phipps wrote a book, "Was Jesus Married?: The Distortion of Sexuality in Christian Tradition." Phipps argues that marriage was assumed for males in Jesus' time, so when Peter's mother-in-law shows up in Scripture, the wife is assumed to be in the picture and there is no need to explain where. Paul later recommends celibacy but never once points to Jesus as a model for this way of life.
In the case of this recent discovery, the first explicit reference to Jesus' wife, Vatican officials were quick to call it a fake. But according to papyrus and linguistics experts consulted by Professor King, who herself is a renowned Harvard scholar, if the fragment is fake, it was created by an expert in Coptic grammar, handwriting and ideas. King's goal is to mobilize biblical scholars to study and examine the text to learn more.
In TIME Magazine, Professor King suggests that it appears to be a second century, early Christian snippet that was almost certainly part of a bigger text. She calls it a Gospel but does not thereby imply that it should be part of the Bible, or even that it is authentic. It is simply an ancient text that appears to be an account of Jesus' sayings, which are typically called "Gospels."
Is it true? Is it a fake? Should we care? If Jesus was married, would it overturn the patriarchy that for 2,000 years kept women out of ordained leadership (and still does in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions)? Would it allow men to be married and ordained in the Catholic Church? The Orthodox and Protestant traditions have long allowed marriage for clergy.
Early church texts that did not make it into the Bible, as well as those that comprise our ancient Bible, are intriguing. Churches have the privilege and responsibility of reading and interpreting these ancient and sacred texts responsibly. They are a window into the lives of ancient peoples who were trying to understand their own lives and to participate in that which is divine.
Sadly, I don't think this text -- whether authentic or not -- will change the patriarchal, anti-woman, anti-sexual body beliefs that continue to plague the church.
The Bible already shows women being valued and in leadership. Jesus announced his divine role to the woman at the well, who immediately became an evangelist. It was Martha who declared that Jesus was the son of God. It was his Mother who encouraged his first miracle. It was Martha's sister Mary who was taught by Jesus. It was women who supported Jesus' ministry with their means, who stood by him at his crucifixion, and who first witnessed and announced his resurrection.
After Jesus died, women like Lydia, Junea, Priscilla and so many others rose to the surface in a time when there was no shared leadership with women. Manhood and class status was determined by whom you could dominate. But there they were -- their stories are in our sacred text. Jesus didn't need to get married to give women status. He was constantly affirming women and declaring women in full relationship with God and full persons in their own right.
But in spite of these liberating accounts, the early church turned against women, against sexuality and even against pleasure itself. To be generous, this rejection of embodiment emerged in part out of more than a century of persecution. Martyrdom became a sure path to heaven for Christians, and many longed to make the ultimate sacrifice. Women were lifted up as paragons of virtue in the gruesome sacrifice of their bodies to torture and death. When the age of persecution ended, Christians replaced martyrdom with self-denial.
All pleasures from life were viewed as detriments to the holy life. Bodily self-denial became the ideal; asceticism and celibacy became equated with true Christianity. Marriage was viewed as a weakness that should be avoided, as Paul had taught. And we wonder why we have problems with accepting the sexual and gender diversity among us. The Metropolitan Community Churches across the world pick up the pieces from this heritage of body-rejecting, woman-rejecting, sex-rejecting, pleasure-rejecting theology. It doesn't just hurt women and sexual minorities. It hurts all of us.
Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people know what it is to be told that you are categorically immoral -- just as women have been blamed for sin itself. Blaming others is not empowering. Men are forced to think of their wives, mothers, sisters, daughters and all women as categorically inferior and, according to ancient church teaching, the source of sin. Straight people have long been told to reject their loved ones and anyone else who loves someone of the same gender.
Today, as the world struggles to open the door to LGBT people and to allow marriage for all loving couples, the rejection of bodies, love and pleasure taught by churches haunts us because we have focused almost totally on Jesus' divinity when it was actually Jesus' humanity that made him unique -- God embodied. Jesus affirmed bodies through healing and touching. At the last supper, he took bread and wine and said that this is my flesh and blood; remember me in these elements that feed our bodies; that make us human. We would do well to spend the next thousand years reflecting on the humanity of Jesus.
Will a little snippet of ancient writing change the Christian world? It is possible, and I am hopeful. Scholars who raise tough issues for the church and do not apologize for evidence that contradicts doctrines or tradition can change us. They are a bit like Jesus who treasured tradition enough to look for the values beneath the rituals, rules and words. This is a path we can all follow, in this complicated and embodied world!
Follow Rev. Dr. Nancy Wilson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@RevNancyWilson