Coptic Christian ReadingAn Ethiopian devotee reads the Bible before Mass at the St. Raphael Coptic Orthodox church in Entoto, on the outskirts of Addis Ababa. (Photo by Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images)

Vying for space and time on the religion-and-media front this week, in competition with presidential campaigns, Muslim extremist riots, and almost numberless other stirs, has been the attention given to a tiny piece of papyrus which includes the teeny words "Jesus" and "wife." This text was pictured as being "hot off the press," with only a four century pre-publication delay after the time of the occurrences to which it presumably referred. Four centuries from the implied wedding of Jesus to this "evidence" is the amount of time from the writing of the Mayflower Compact to our own.There is little need to rehearse the controversy, so familiar has it become.

The fact that well-recognized Harvard expert on Coptic Christian texts (and on more than that), Karen King took it seriously prompted other sober scholars to pay attention. We are told that her paper on the subject was one of some sixty delivered at a conference in Rome. The other 59 or so no doubt elicited yawns among many scholars of things Coptic and ancient Christianity in general, and suffered neglect by media. This one was different.

Shadow BrideWhy? Some commentators assumed that publicizing this would shake the faithful for whom the canonical gospels are unique sources. The usual suspects from the "New Atheist" front checked in, picturing that their suggestion that Jesus may have been married would score one against God and all that stuff. As mentioned, alert scholars of Coptic texts had good reason to be more alert than ever, and to be seen as relevant in the 21st century. Most of all, we heard and read that this piece of papyrus would cause defensive Catholics—and there are many--who argue for and insist on celibacy for clergy to find their fortress shattering. They would have to cry "uncle," throw in the towel, and let feminists have their way.

We can put this kind of media event into perspective by noting that each such unearthing of non-canonical ancient Christian texts receives publicity in direct proportion to attention being given to particular controversial issues in the contemporary world. In the long perspective of Christian history of twenty centuries, my generation and I are virtual kids, with only a half-century of observation behind us. But we can see ancient textual interests and contemporary itches matching almost decade by decade.

Thus: when in the 1950s-plus "we" were seeking precedent for social justice on Christian fronts (count me in!), Jesus got pictured as an East Harlem Protestant social worker. Then came a time when best-sellers and their publicists proved that Jesus worked wonders because he and his followers were chewing mushrooms which gave them hallucinatory and thus divine-revelatory visions. Just in time to match the world of hippies and consciousness raisers. They came and went. Remember the Passover Plot? It had its moment in a time when such plotting mattered. Recall the books on "Jesus the Zealot," based on discoveries from times of old to match the most radical Liberation Theology of our time? This dagger-carrying Jesus came and went.

Now the churches and the culture are hung up on sexual issues, and "Jesus-"and- "wife" prompts new obsessions. (Sexual issues won't go away in any hurry, so the various celebrating factions can elaborate at leisure on this papyrus). But if the majority of Christian scholars don't jettison all their other texts to embrace this one, we do not need to wonder. We and they might even yawn.

Photo, bottom, by Stefano Corso/Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0


Martin MartyMartin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at The University of Chicago. He’s authored many books, including Pilgrims in Their Own Land and Modern American Religion.

This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

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2Reflections

Reflections

Like many people, I, too, am fascinated with the information concerning the so-called "Gospel of Jesus's Wife." As a Christian, I am daily trying - struggling, to be more accurate - to be a follower rather than merely a big fan of Jesus. Mr. Marty's wonderful tracing of the different ways in which Jesus has been considered and interpreted through the centuries suggests to me that, in the last analysis, we are on a continual quest for the human Jesus. If Jesus had indeed been married, had experienced (and hopefully enjoyed) marital life, then that would, once and for all, settle the matter as to his humanity.

If that is what's behind all of the excitement over this postage stamp-sized parchment, then that would be a waste of time and scholarship. The New Testament accounts already settled the matter as to Jesus's humanity: he was born, grew into manhood, experienced temptation, wept at the death of his friend Lazarus, suffered torture, and died a human death. Those events pretty much settle the "humanity" question for me, as well as for many Christians.

Whatever the little parchment eventually tells us, the bigger question will always be centered on who is Jesus for each of us. Regardless of whether he had a marital relationship or not, the more important relationship is the one he has with us, and we with him.

Dr. Marty, your comments are interesting and useful. However, the same argument could be used to suggest that the canonical New Testament writers, such as the author of Matthew, co-opted the 8th century B.C.E prophecies for their "personal" interpretations of Christ's life and ministry. And the author of Luke, who starts out writing to Theophilus, might have included all manner of symbolic stories intended to prove that Jesus was who Luke said he was. And preachers give vastly different messages using the very same passages. I think one wise way to look at this is to understand the context for all contentions as well as we can know them, including the perspectives of the original writers, none of whom had training in professional journalism (nor did they write after reviewing the replays). Motives are such interesting human attributes. We all do, say, and write different things in varying contexts and for a diversity of purposes, and people have done so throughout history.

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