Hype about a “Wife”

28 September 2012

Professor Karen King thinks she has found an ancient text in which Jesus is presented as speaking of “my wife…,” and the media are having a heyday, ignoring her carefully framed remarks and sensationalizing the claims. Even one of the less sensationalist pieces, in the NY Times, has headlines claiming that the papyrus fragment “refers to Jesus’ wife.” That headline claims historicity for the statement. To be accurate, one must say that the text puts the expression “my wife” in the mouth of Jesus—which is quite a different statement than claiming that Jesus actually had a wife. (If you don’t follow this distinction, keep re-reading those last three sentences until they sink in. The effort will have been worth your while when you shift to parsing the claims in political advertisements.)

Fourth century papyrus fragment of a Coptic manuscript, made public
by Harvard Prof. Karen L. King, in which Jesus refers to “my wife”

What has been obscured by the sensationalist press coverage:

  1. Prof. King never claims this fragment proves anything about Jesus’ marital status.
  2. We do not know the date of the text. We simply know King’s view that the fragment reflects a later second-century text (CE 150-200).
  3. King admits that the papyrus itself has been dated to the fourth century. Her positing of a prior text is an hypothesis, not a proven fact.
  4. A truism of historical method holds that sources tend to be less reliable the further they get from the actual historical persons or events to which they attest. Hence, a fourth-century text is less likely to be reliable than first-century ones (such as the canonical gospels).
  5. We know that the provenance and pedigree of this fragment have been lost.
  6. Given #5, the question of a forgery is acute.
  7. King is persuaded the fragment is authentic. Maybe she’s right; maybe she’s not. Right now we do not have enough data to answer that question definitively—and the loss of provenance means that we likely never will. I have not seen the fragment up close, so I cannot comment on the text. From this distance, I am suspicious of the too-neat shape of the fragment. It’s not impossible, but I’ve never seen another fragment with such regular, square edges.

Who cares whether Jesus “had a wife”?

Notice how that question is framed: Did Jesus possess a woman? The hype about this possible ancient text is tedious because hype always is. However, this particular spin is disturbing because of the way it assumes and feeds the strictly gendered thought-patterns that scholars work to overcome, since those attitudes pre-determine the “answers” to any questions one might ask.

Whether or not Jesus was married, frankly, I don’t really care too much. I occasionally raise the question simply because setting someone on the quest for data one way or another poses an interesting and modestly sophisticated exercise for historical-Jesus students.

However, I DO care very much that every time this idea hits the press the speculation turns to Mary of Magdala, an historical figure who is grossly misunderstood by most people. The talk makes Magdalene important *because* she may have been Jesus’ wife. Saints preserve us, as my grandmother would have said.

No; Magdalene is important in her own right as a leader among Jesus’ disciples. Without her, the other guys would never have known about the resurrection. Her significance is eroded—even eliminated—by the way popular opinion jumps to put her into a neat little “wife” box. The poor woman is rolling over in her grave!

So, are we to “recover” the women of the early Jesus movement precisely so we can control their image and make them safe, rather than letting them rattle the cages of those who still, after fifty years of feminism, cannot imagine a woman without a man? Oh no, I don’t think so!

[Editor’s note: Much of the foregoing is cross-posted with the Feminism & Religion blog article at http://feminismandreligion.com/2012/09/26/in-the-news-wives-silent-hidden-and-unnamed/#more-6268.]

The Bible According to McGinn

People, places, and other points of interest relating to the Biblical texts

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