The new “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” fragment has captured the imagination of scholars and the news media alike. How weird.
For those of you who are gainfully employed and have a rich enough life that you have not wasted your time following this story, a very brief capsule summary. A small papyrus fragment, written in Coptic, was revealed. Lines 4-5 appear to say: “….Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…./…she will be able to be my disciple….” A link to the press release with the full preliminary translation is here.
I have no idea if this is a forgery, as many are now claiming. And, as scholars from the beginning have repeatedly emphasized – much, it seems, to the chagrin of the mainstrem media – even if authentic it is not terribly significant. Like many such accounts of the life of Jesus (or, in fact, of nearly every famous figure from antiquity), it tells us more about the imagination of its author than the actual life of its subject. At very most the fragment might testify to the fact that an early Christian in Egypt imagined that Jesus was married. Even that possibility, though, seems unlikely or impossible to prove based on the fragment itself.
Yet the bottom line is that even if it came to light that Jesus was married, this would not be a shock for non-confessional historians and textual scholars. The canonical Gospels portray Jesus as vaguely anti-family (in the sense that the new, important “family” is the spiritual rather than physical one) but says nothing of his own marital status and sexual life. There is nothing surprising or sinister about this – there is much that the Gospels don’t tell us about Jesus’ life. The discovery that Jesus was married might upset centuries of Church teaching, but scholars would take this in stride.
Now, on the other hand, imagine if we found a fragment of a lost letter of Paul that reveals that he had a wife. This would be news. Unlike Jesus, Paul explicitly preached against sex and marriage (they are concessions for the weak) and he asserted that he himself was sexually ascetic. Much Church doctrine on asceticism is based on Paul’s writings, not the Gospels. So if we were to find evidence that Paul had a wife, mistress, or lover – this would be interesting and of far greater consequence than the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.”
So a word to prospective forgers: Take a lot of koine Greek; learn the Hebrew Bible inside and out; read up on ancient history; learn the technologies of writing in antiquity; and then channel Paul. There’s gold out there to be had.