Did Jesus Have A Wife?

Photo of Coptic papyrus allegedly reporting a wife of Jesus Christ.
Public Domain in USA -- Wiki Commons
(New York Times) - A historian of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School has identified a scrap of papyrus that she says was written in Coptic in the fourth century and contains a phrase never seen in any piece of Scripture: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife ...’ ”

The faded papyrus fragment is smaller than a business card, with eight lines on one side, in black ink legible under a magnifying glass. Just below the line about Jesus having a wife, the papyrus includes a second provocative clause that purportedly says, “she will be able to be my disciple.”

The finding was made public in Rome on Tuesday at the International Congress of Coptic Studies by Karen L. King, a historian who has published several books about new Gospel discoveries and is the first woman to hold the nation’s oldest endowed chair, the Hollis professor of divinity...

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A scrap of papyrus dating from the fourth century contains a very interesting inscription.  It contains the words "my wife" in reference to a saying from Jesus.  It also mentions the phrase "she will be able to be my disciple," giving rise to much speculation in the academic world about the possibility of some early Christian traditions that account for Jesus being married and having a female disciple/apostle.  Surely, this will give ammunition for many in the world to attack the traditions of historic Christianity and especially the Catholic Church.

Okay, now before anyone hyperventilates, let me start by saying this is much to do about nothing.  First of all, we are not just talking about an obscure piece of papyrus here, dated about 200 years after the time of Christ, but we are talking about an obscure SCRAP of papyrus here, dated about 200 years after Christ.  It's just a smaller piece of a much bigger document that is cut off mid-sentence.  The text says: "Jesus said to them 'My wife...'"  To which I must ask; my wife... what?  That could mean anything.  Is he talking about a woman he's allegedly married to?  Or is he talking about something completely different.  What if the full sentence reads; "Jesus said to them 'My wife... shall be the Church.'"  That would be more in line with historic Church tradition, which consistently referred to the Church as the "bride of Christ," but we don't know.  We can't know, because we don't have the rest of the text.  All we have is this scrap which is cut off mid-sentence.  To formulate any kind of a conclusion from this, especially a conclusion that contradicts the settled tradition of the early Church period, and the historic tradition of all Christianity, would be highly presumptuous to say the least.  It is after all, a scrap of papyrus, not a full document, and it does come from an obscure source in ancient Christian history (southern Egypt), which we cannot know the full context.  So to make any kind of a big issue out of this is rather foolish.  It is a curiosity and nothing more.

Second, we in the twenty-first century are quick to assume the "Jesus" in this text is Jesus of Nazareth that is mentioned in the gospels.  It could be.  However, it doesn't have to be.  The name Jesus was actually fairly popular in that part of the world during that time.  The actual Hebrew name for Jesus is "Yashua," which is probably the name used by his disciples when he walked with them, and also by his mother when she called him for dinner.  If translated directly from Hebrew to English "Yashua" becomes "Joshua," a common name in many languages today.  There were probably dozens of Jewish rabbis with that name during the time period of the early Church.  This is why names from that time period were specified by location, such as "Jesus of Nazareth" and "Joseph of Arimathea" for example.  There were lots of men by the names Jesus and Joseph during that time, and surnames were not a common feature back then, so location was often used to clarify.  Was the Jesus in this papyrus the same "Jesus of Nazareth" we know from the gospels.  Maybe, but none of us can say for sure.  The scrap of text does not specify.

Third and finally, we have to look at the historic teaching of the Church, because admittedly, nobody in the modern world would even know about Jesus, were it not for the Church faithfully passing down its message about him.  Yes, that's right, I said it.  Were it not for the Church, and its faithful mission of spreading the gospel, a papyrus text like this one would be rather meaningless to us.  "Some guy named  'Jesus' is talking about a wife," we would say.  "Big deal! Who is Jesus anyway?"  So let's give a little credit where credit is due.  The only reason why we know about Jesus, and why he is so important to our Western civilisation, is because of the faithful mission of the Church, preaching him to us for centuries.  So this is where accepted Christian tradition comes in.  Many non-Catholic Christians (Evangelicals, Baptist, Pentecostals, or just Protestants in general) will immediately appeal to Scripture for the answer.  As well they should, because after all, the Scriptures do tell us a lot about Jesus of Nazareth.  Therein the pages of the Gospels, the Book of Acts, and all the Epistles, they will find no mention of Jesus ever getting married or having a wife.  In fact, the message would seem to be quite clear.  Jesus was celibate.  To the conspiracist however, that's not good enough.  To the devotees of Dan Brown's fictional novels (The Di Vinci Code, Angels and Demons, etc.) the Bible may be "corrupted" by a wicked Catholic hierarchy bent on keeping such "scandalous" information secret from the general public.  Of course, such nonsense makes for great literary fiction, and nobody can deny that Mr. Brown is a great entertainer, but is he really an "Indiana Jones" who has cracked open the greatest conspiracy of all time?  My hat goes off to Mr. Brown, as he has managed to excite the imagination of millions with his novels -- novels that he himself admits are fiction.

So what it really comes down to is this.  There are two gospels in the modern world today.  There is the historical gospel given to us by the ancient Church.  Then there is the conspiratorial gospel given to us by modern fictional novelists.  I have yet to discover the redeeming part of believing the later, as it mentions nothing about saving souls or improving the quality of human life.  It is, in the end, just a conspiracy theory.  If that is what one wants to base one's beliefs on, then who am I to deny them that belief.  I just think it's a rather empty belief when you really stop and think about it.  Let's assume it's all true, just to play devil's advocate, so now what?  If it's all true, where do we go from here?  Nobody seems to have a very good answer to that question.  Thankfully, it's not true, and to seriously entertain such a thought is rather silly when you really stop to think about it.

Our Protestant brethren have only Scripture to rely on, and in defending their beliefs against such conspiracies, that will only get them so far.  The Bible, after all, is a Catholic book.  It was compiled by Catholics in the fourth century, organised and canonised by Catholics in the fourth century, and ultimately published and distributed by Catholics in every century since.  As a Catholic, I find it comforting to know just how much Catholicism has really contributed to the religion of the Protestants.  That being said, the Bible is a book of Tradition.  It's not a complete compendium of the Tradition of the Apostles, but rather a fairly large cross section of it.  It was compiled, canonised and published in the fourth century for one reason and one reason only.  That was to combat the heresy of the Arians.

You see, as early as the first century, the apostles wrote of doctrinal dangers presented to the early Church.  The two biggest heresies that faced the apostles in the first century were both among the Greeks and the Jews.  The Jews put forward the heresy of the Judaizers, which was later called the Ebionite Heresy.  This was the notion that Christians must follow the law of Moses, effectively becoming good Jews before they could be rightfully called Christians.  The Greeks put forward the heresy of Gnosticism, which eventually led to many different forms of heresy throughout the centuries, one of which was the Arian Heresy.  The point here is that the early Church was immediately confronted not only with physical persecution from the Jewish and Pagan world, but it was also confronted with various corruptions and counterfeit gospels within the Church itself.  These the apostles strongly condemned.  They embraced the persecution, but they condemned the heresy.  It's important to understand that.  This is how the term "Catholic" came into being in the late first century to early second century, so as to distinguish between those Christians who rightly accepted the "whole" gospel of Jesus Christ taught by the apostles, verses those who cherry picked the teachings of the apostles to come up with their own heretical version of the gospel.  The Arians were a Gnostic sect who denied the divinity of Jesus and compiled their own version of the Bible to back it up.  In response to this, the "Catholic" Christians, meaning those who strictly followed the teachings of the apostles by accepting the "whole" gospel, were forced to compile their own Bible in return.  This later became the Bible we use today.  Thus, it was the Tradition of the apostles, faithfully kept by the Catholic Christians, that gave us the Bible we have today.  Where are the Arians today?  Where are the Ebionites today?  They're gone.  Oh sure, you can find modern little splinter groups today who are desperately trying to resurrect their teachings, but the lessons of history tell us they will suffer the same fate as those who went before them -- that is obscurity followed by extinction.  There is a reason why the Catholic gospel is the only one that has survived and flourished into the modern era.  It's because it's true!  Even the Protestants admit that, by using the very same Bible the Catholics published (minus some Old Testament books they removed for not tickling their fancy).  My point here is that Christianity is not just a religion of the book.  I would reverse it by saying the Book is the product of the religion.  Christianity is a religion of Tradition -- Apostolic Tradition to be specific.  It is the Tradition that gave us the Bible, and it is the Tradition that made Christianity the religion of Western civilisation.  There were many competing traditions shortly after the time of Jesus, and Jesus knew this would happen, which is why he gave us Apostles with authority to recount the events of his life and teach his word.  The Gnostics didn't have this.  Their religion was man-made, created not from the Apostles, but from men who did not know Jesus, and were simply trying to imitate the Apostolic message.  Lots of books were published under the spurious traditions of these men.  That's why the successors of the apostles took nearly a century to painstakingly go through all of them, and determine which were from their Apostolic masters and which were not.  This question was settled 1,645 years ago, when in AD 367 St. Athanasius of Alexandria Egypt gave us the list of 27 books we now hold as New Testament Scripture today, in their present order, Matthew through Revelation.  Of the hundreds of manuscripts circulating about Jesus at the time, many from Gnostic and Ebionite sources, it was these 27 books the early Catholic Church decided to be indisputable and part of the Apostolic Tradition.  Other books they classified as "orthodox" but not inspired.  While some they classified as "heterodox" meaning "heresy."  All of this was based on the Tradition of the apostles, handed down and faithfully kept by their successors, in writing, word of mouth, prayer and liturgy.  We can either accept it, or we can reject it, but if we reject it, we are left with nothing but a mountain of conflicting conspiracy theories, that serve no purpose other than to sell fictional novels.

After all is said and done, the question that must be asked in all of this is "why?"  Again, let's play devil's advocate.  If indeed Jesus Christ was married, "why" pray tell, would his followers try to hide it?  I mean seriously, what was their reason?  There is certainly nothing wrong with marriage.  The Church teaches that it is a sacrament of God!   Matrimony is a holy institution, according to the Catholic Church, on par with the holy orders of priests.  Celibacy is not mandated of all Catholic priests either.  Exceptions are given in the Western rite of the Catholic Church, and married priests are somewhat the norm in the Eastern rites.  So it's not like sex within marriage is seen as some kind of dirty thing, because it's clearly not.  The Church actually blesses it.  The Church likewise has no problem admitting that Saint Peter, the first pope, was a married man.  So what's the problem?  If Jesus was married, why not just say so?  Why hide it?  This is the question we must seriously ask ourselves.  Outside of ridiculous conspiracy theories there is no answer.  If Jesus were married, the Church would simply tell us so.  That doesn't necessarily mean he would have had any children, but if he did, again the Church would tell us so.  Such information would have been very hard to suppress in the early Church.  I dare say, it would have been impossible to hide.  The volume of ancient literature that would contain mention of this would be insurmountable.  If such a conspiracy to hide it actually happened (and again who knows why?) it would have resulted in schism within the early Church, and indeed those hiding the truth of his offspring would have eventually died out.  There is no logical reason to believe such nonsense, unless of course you just like conspiracy theories, and care nothing about Christianity in the first place.

It's time to take a closer look at those who promote such conspiracy theories.  No, I'm not talking about the good historian like Professor Karen King of Harvard who is just doing her job.  Nor am I talking about the fictional novelist Dan Brown who is just making a living as a writer.  I'm talking about those who advocate and promote these conspiracy theories as if they were fact.  Let's face it, there are a lot of people in the world today who want the Catholic Church (and all of Christianity really) to radically change its ways.  They want female ordination of priests and bishops.  They want a more feminine Church that redefines the roles of men and women, and likewise redefines the role of marriage as well.  Such conspiracy theories work to the advantage of those who would like to promote these things, and this, more than anything else, explains the hysteria that surrounds discoveries of incomplete texts on papyrus and suspicious inscriptions on ossuaries.  By themselves, these are just curiosities, that leave us with more questions than answers.  When put into a broader conspiracy theory however, they become powerful weapons to use against the credibility of the Catholic Church and historic Christianity.  We should keep in mind the motivations of those who would use them as such.

UPDATE (21 September 2012): Harvard University questions authenticity of "Jesus wife" papyrus - read more

UPDATE (27 September 2012): After further investigation, Vatican declared the "Jesus wife" papyrus a fraud - read more


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aramis said…
I suspect a good part of the issue with whether Jesus was married was because the strongest proponents of the view that he was we Gnostics... Gnostics claiming his wife Mary Magdalene was given instruction not given to the 12...

if not married, the his purported wife has less access to private teachings, and is reduced to no better than the 12; further, in that time, a woman was not equal to a man by the law and custom - if not his wife, she'd not have had the access to get that private revelation.

Likewise, being unmarried at the age of 30 would itself be odd in Jewish society of the time. Not unheard of, but definitely unusual, and something worthy of mention... Something that Josephus should have mentioned.
Brian Price said…
The only way Jesus could have had a wife, is she would have had to be supernaturally conceived like Jesus was, or she would have had to come from one of his ribs like Eve came from Adams. The reason is. Jesus was made from perfect seed, and lived a sinless life,not from the imperfect seed of Adam, if he took a wife from the imperfect seed of Adam, and became one flesh with her, he would have been defiled, and his sacrifice on the cross would have been rejected by God.