You’ve heard the story. “Ancient Papyrus Proves Jesus had a Wife!” Well, not exactly. Not exactly at all.
As it turns out, the papyrus in question is only a fragment, dates from over 300 years after the time of Christ, and has a meaning that may be less than literal. Hmmm.
Every few years or so, the media likes to remind the public that there were lots of extra “gospels” floating around in ancient days–all of them apparently authentic. The same narrative normally concludes that a rigid and authoritarian Church clamped down on those teachings and actions of Jesus they did not like, thereby removing them from the biblical canon.
Not really. You see, while there are extra documents in the ancient world that are often called “gospels,” either their authorship, dating, authenticity, or take on Christ seem very questionable (and did even during that time). By contrast, the four actual gospels accepted by Christianity all likely date from around the first century and broadly agree in their perspectives. John offers a slightly different perspective and may have taken longer to gain full acceptance, but all the same is not considered out of bounds.
These “other gospels?” Well, some of them (like the fragment currently in the news) may date from substantially later. During the intervening centuries additions and legendary tales accreted together with agendas alien to the teachings of Christ. Few if any in the early Church thought these obscure writings worthy of adoption. Errant teachings in the first century would have easily been corrected or rejected by the living witness of those who had actually known Jesus, and later questions could be answered by a recourse to known stories about Christ that had been passed down.
Plus, there’s this: secret gospels sound rather exciting until you start reading them and find out how bizarre, wrong, and/or boring they can be.
The “Gospel” of Thomas: “Simon Peter said to Him, ‘Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of Life.’ Jesus said, “I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.'”
The Infancy “Gospel” of Thomas: When the boy Jesus was five years old, he was playing at the ford of a rushing stream. And he gathered the disturbed water into pools and made them pure and excellent, commanding them by the character of his word alone and not by means of a deed. Then, taking soft clay from the mud, he formed twelve sparrows. It was the Sabbath when he did these things, and many children were with him.
The “Gospel” of Judas: “The twelve aeons of the twelve luminaries constitute their father, with six heavens for each aeon, so that there are seventy-two heavens for the seventy-two luminaries, and for each [of them five] firmaments, [for a total of] three hundred sixty [firmaments …]. They were given authority and a [great] host of angels [without number], for glory and adoration, [and after that also] virgin spirits, for glory and [adoration] of all the aeons and the heavens and their firmaments.
The Gospel of Mary: “The Savior replied, ‘Every nature, every modeled form, every creature, exists in and with each other. They will dissolve again into their own proper root. For the nature of matter is dissolved into what belongs to its nature. Anyone with two ears able to hear should listen!'”
Do these sound a little strange or just wrong to you? If they do, than you stand with the early Church in deciding they don’t belong in the Bible. They are not the same as our accepted gospels. As a matter of fact, they ought not even to be called gospels, because so doing confuses the whole matter.
Did Jesus have a wife? Despite the fact that there is zero direct evidence he did, I suppose it is within the realm of possibility (though if he had children it does raise some interesting questions). Whatever the case, the question of whether Jesus was married can almost certainly not be answered by this strange piece of papyrus. The only thing it does tell us definitively is that some people may have been talking about the possibility of Jesus having a wife 300 years later. It would be like us debating about Benjamin Franklin’s favorite childhood toy.
Still curious about Christ’s matrimony? Take a look at the Twitter hashtag #ifJesushadawife. Fascinating.
#ifJesushadawife could you imagine being her second husband? Sure, you make more money, but…
#ifJesushadawife, she would get to use the phrase, “I don’t care if you were born in a barn, close that door!”
“What – you think you’re God’s gift?!” #ifJesushadawife
Enjoy your weekend, and please, feel free to comment (especially you historians and New Testament scholars out there.)