Once in a while a more or less esoteric academic event is picked up by the media. This has happened in September following a gathering (of all places in Rome) of a scholarly association of Coptic studies. This must be a small and exclusive club. (It must be satisfying to belong. I’m a little envious. Sociological meetings are attended by thousands of people.) Coptic is an ancient language, derived from the Egyptian spoken at the time of the Pharaohs. It is still the liturgical language of the Coptic Church in contemporary Egypt (much in the news these days). But the main scholarly interest in Coptic studies concerns a sizable body of literature in that language, most of it emanating from Gnosticism, a diffuse religious and philosophical tradition which influenced and competed with Christianity in the early centuries of the common era.
At the aforementioned gathering Karen King, a historian of early Christianity at the Harvard Divinity School, reported on a recent finding which, understandably, quickly drew widespread media attention. The report concerned a very small papyrus fragment (described as “receipt-sized” in one story, “about the size of a business card” in another). It contains a total of 33 words, in incomplete sentences (the words are torn out from the original text). None of this would have excited anyone not professionally immersed in Coptic studies, except for two separate phrases: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…”. And “…she will be able to be my disciple…”. Needless to say, for lots of people unrelated to Coptic scholarship this immediately evoked the association with Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code (2003) and the film based on it, which revolved around a fictitious source purporting to prove that Jesus had been married and the equally fictitious effort by a secret Catholic order to suppress this dangerous information.
Anyone wanting a succinct overview of this episode will find it in this release by Religious News Service (of course it was also splattered across the secular media).
As is to be expected, the original excitement wanes as one knows more about the document in question. King estimates that the text comes from a fourth-century Coptic translation of a second-century Greek source—that is it is dated around two centuries after the life of Jesus. This would be like, say, the publication of a page torn out of an unknown Russian newspaper from the 1930s, which seems to quote from a French article from the early 19th century, which seems to allege that Napoleon had an affair with the Queen of England. By all accounts King is a careful scholar: She asks whether her Coptic business card proves that Jesus was married, and answers that of course it does nothing of the sort. All it shows, she says, is that there were some Christians in the fourth century who may have thought so. (Even that is speculative: The “marriage” may be metaphorical—for example, referring to the frequent description of the church as “the bride of Christ”—and the female “disciple” may not be a wife.)
The question of how Gnosticism related to the shaping of what became Christian orthodoxy (mostly by the latter defining itself against the former) is a very interesting one, theologically as well as historically. King’s find almost certainly comes out of the large body of Gnostic writings. Partly because of some dramatic discoveries, such as the one in 1945 of the so-called Nag Hammadi Library in Egypt, we now know a lot about Gnosticism (some of it avowedly Christian, some not). It appears that Gnostic Christians were more open to women taking leading roles in the church. Another reputable scholar of Gnosticism, Princeton historian Elaine Pagels, has made this point in a number of her writings. (Incidentally she and Karen King were co-authors of a book about the Gnostic Gospel of Judas—Reading Judas, 2007.) Feminists have of course picked up on this interpretation and used it as a counter-image of the alleged “phallocracy” of Christian orthodoxy. Roman Catholic feminists (some of them among the angry nuns that are currently upsetting the Vatican) have found this interpretation of early Christian history congenial in their advocacy for women priests. There is also a long history of the notion that Jesus was intimate with and perhaps married to Mary Magdalene.
Was Jesus married? I am not a historian, but it seems very improbable to me. It is not so much that there is no trace of this in the canonical New Testament—after all, if the philo-Gnostics are right, references to Jesus’ marriage would have been edited out of the Gospel sources. Rather, marriage (let alone parenthood) does not fit well with the picture we get from all the sources of an itinerant preacher announcing the cataclysmic coming of the Kingdom of God. Mary Magdalene as Jesus’ lover or spouse is as implausible as the “beloved disciple” in the role of Jesus’ gay partner (as has also been suggested). Jesus has been redefined many times for this or that ideological purpose—as nationalist symbol (Franco’s troops in the Spanish civil war went into battle in the name of Cristo Rey, “Christ the King”), as a successful capitalist salesman (in Bruce Barton’s 1925 bestselling novel The Man Nobody Knows), as a sort of premature Che Guevara (in Liberation Theology), and in many other disguises. As the record of the “quest for the historical Jesus” shows, he keeps escaping all these attempts at ideological entrapment.
Does it matter? The answer will obviously depend on one’s Christology, or lack of it. What will always remain at the core of the Christian faith is the astounding assertion that the God who created the galaxies was incarnate in a human infant born at a particular time, “in the days of Herod the king”, in a provincial corner of the Roman empire. I don’t think that anything discovered by historians can either support or falsify this assertion.