Did Jesus Have a Wife? (No)

The Religion section various news outlets have all covered the story of a new fragment written in Sahidic Coptic which implies (kind of, but not really) that Jesus had a wife, presumably Mary Magdelene.  Remarkably the DaVinci Code still gets name-checked in these articles.  I think that it is quite silly that a legitimate news outlet could state “The text is being dubbed ‘The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife,” citing a PDF copy of a paperwritten by Karen L. King of Harvard.  This is a draft of a paper which will appear in the Harvard Theological Review in January.

If you are interested in the fragment, read the paper – it is well written, includes a transcription of the fragment and has judicious conclusions.  The paper states quite clearly that the fragment does not prove  Historical Jesus had a wife.  It is a fragment, “measuring c. 4 cm in height by 8 cm in width,” with 8 complete lines on one side, 6 on the other.  All lines are fragmentary so reconstruction is necessary.   Since the fragment is small and does not say that much, King’s article is a good introduction to Gnostic literature in general and how Gnostic Literature uses marriage imagery. The bottom line is that this fragment is interesting, but adds little to what was already known about Gnostic thinking the second and third century.

Does this fragment tell us anything about historical Jesus?  No, and I do not think that the document, if we had the whole thing, would claim to be making historical statements about Jesus.  This is not a lost or suppressed tradition about the way Jesus really lived, it is a bit of theology from the fringes of early Christianity.  That alone makes it interesting, but it cannot be trotted out as evidence for the Real Jesus.  As King herself concludes, “our papyrus is much too fragmentary to sustain these readings with certainty” and that the late date “argues against its value as evidence for the life of the historical Jesus.”

The NBC News story interviews Ben Witherington and links to Jim West and James McGrath.  Two observations are in order here.  First, Witherington is a generally conservative voice, yet his scholarship has drawn the attention of a “big news” organization.  I like this trend and would like to see more voices from conservative scholars int he media – perhaps even an evangelical or two.  I cannot imagine Darrell Bock has nothing to say about the fragment.   Second, that two scholar-bloggers are cited is an indication that the biblio-blog community should be taken seriously as an outlet for real scholarship.  Given the format of a blog / website, scholarly response to these sorts of media frenzies are much more swift than a journal article, which may be published months later, long after the media has moved on to something else.