Reflections & Implications of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife Announcement

I’d like to provide my own thoughts on Karen King’s provisionally accepted article on The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife (GosJesWife). This Coptic papyrus fragment contains a surprising statement that could indicate Jesus as having a wife. Her 52 page article can be found here

Please note all comments regarding the GosJesWife are taken from her ground-breaking article, so I will forego with formal citations. I will not attempt to summarize her well written article or hope to add anything to her work. As a member of the broader church with some experience with archaeology, textual interpretation, and confessing Christian theology, I thought that I might offer a few reflections on this announcement. I wish to organize my reflections on three areas: the announcement, the artifact, and the text. Then I will close with thoughts on the confessing Christian implications.

I. First on the announcement, I believe that the confessing church should give Dr. Karen King of Harvard University Divinity School an overwhelming display of respect and appreciation. She has demonstrated great care in coming to her conclusions. A lesser scholar might rush to publish with limited verification and eyes full of sensationalism at possible press on a truncated review of the findings. Instead King has steadily been working on verification and careful consideration of what this textual fragment means or could mean.

I have enjoyed the careful scholarship of King having read her earlier work on the The Gospel of Mary Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle. While most scholars often present novel interpretations and seek sensational conclusion, King is refreshing in pointing to what her work can and cannot prove. Even in this recent article on GosJesWife, King makes clear her findings actually have no bearing on the historical Jesus. Her interests are in early church traditions. Publicly, I wish to thank Dr. King for her caution and precision in study and announcing with a high degree of scholarly integrity a model for all scholars of Christian relevant religious studies.

II. Secondly regarding the artifact, from the well reasoned argument that King presents I think it would be poor form for non-scholars to cast doubt on this text’s authenticity. Great care has been taken to consider the papyrus, writing style (paleography), grammar, and private owner of the fragment. It is worth noting this is dated as a 4th century fragment of a codex; according to King it has an original Greek source probably dating to the second half of the 2nd century. The most suspicious piece or unhelpful part of this fragment is that it is unprovenanced, meaning we don’t know anything of where it was found or really when. This limits our understanding of what it might mean in its context if it was found in an amulet, in a book, or any number of other locations. Finding an artifact in situ provides scholars with clear claims of authenticity as well as a better context of how it might have been used. King does not shy from this fact, but is quite honest that this is not ideal.

Additionally the language of the document is clearly Sahidic Coptic although King hypothesizes the original composition perhaps in Greek. This is a joining of both a fact and a hypothesis and each should be understood for what they are. We will return to this point below in considering the literary aspect.

III. Finally regarding the literary text, I want to ensure those less familiar with these types of finds how it relates to the canonical Christian Scriptures. The GosJesWife is not part of the received Christian NT canon; in fact, even the most diverse opinions date this much later than other NT books. This means that the confessing church should feel no fear or angst over this text as it is similar to other late found “gospels.” Gospel as a modern genre essentially refers to narrative stories (typically with dialogue as well) with the life of Jesus being a central topic. I will forego the broader debate on the genre classification of gospel to be accommodating to both canonical and non-canonical gospels.

Some of the well known non-canonical gospels are referenced by King in her study: Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Phillip, and The Gospel of Mary. These gospels are not accepted by the confessing church (almost unanimously) and do not factor into church dogma, practice, or tradition since these are later than the life of Christ and the apostolic era. Thus, confessing Christians should not be more frightened by the GosJesWife’s potential claim that Jesus had a wife than it is about the talking cross in the Gospel of Peter!

King makes clear in her article that she is not shedding light on the historical Jesus but rather as he may have been understood in later Christian generations. For the confessing church it is healthy to remember heresy has always existed. In an era that salivates at revisionist history, conspiracy theories, and minority opinions, the opportunities for fictitious embellishment is endless a la Davinci Code. The Christian church has worked through heresies from the 2nd century, and in NT canon some existed even in the 1st century.

This is not meant to downgrade the level of discovery King is announcing. This is an interesting implication of how the Christian church has consistently taken unbiblical and arguably unhealthy stances at points regarding gender and sexuality. I am personally fascinated by King’s attention, towards the end of her article, on the stated responses of Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Chrysostom. Clearly the idea of Jesus having a wife was an intellectual thread in church history. The fragment of GosJesWife shows just how ancient this is. This does not authenticate the idea, but traces well the concept in time.

One potential question to raise is, “Are we sure the statement we have really conveys that Jesus had a wife?” “Is this actually the author’s intention?” I was delighted to see King interact with Matthew 12:46-50 in her article as this was immediately where my mind went reading the translation of the GosJesWife. I think there is more work to be done here on considering how the fragmentary words could be understood rhetorically. Is there a demand that Jesus’ statement of having a wife (perhaps spiritually?) necessitate he have an earthly wife as well? The illocutionary possibilities of this speech could use sharpening. Closely related with this I would be interested in how the potential Greek source of the Coptic fragment might influence the potential meaning of “wife” in its Coptic context. I trust King’s statement that this clearly means “wife”; however, the lack of this precision in Greek raises the question in my mind if this might make this concept date to the 4th century as the fragment is dated rather than a hypothesized Greek source of the 2nd century.

Concluding implications for the confessing Christian church are limited in light of this announcement.

1. First, the Christian church should never fear discoveries and seek to hide from considerable rigorous academic efforts. I stand confidently as a confessing believer that the more evidence that is found and the more texts that are considered, the more the true teaching of the Bible will be supported. At times there may be uncomfortable tensions as more research needs to be done. I do not feel the GosJesWife is even an uncomfortable tension for us though.

2. Secondly, the Christian church has always faced varied views of doctrine. Some are quite ancient such as the relationship of the members of the Trinity and the nature of Jesus Christ. Robust debate should always be encouraged and not shirked.

3. Finally, the Christian church should continue its recent efforts to think hard and both speak and write more articulately on matter of gender and sexuality. These are matters of humanity and the Christian faith accounts for human relationships in reality with God. Thus, we must renounce ascetic practice as a means of grace. We must extol the virtues of both singleness, as dedication in purity to God, as well as sexual pleasure, within the bounds of the marriage, as good gifts from God. Others have done better work here and should be sought, but I briefly want to remind us that the controversies that come in the church from a variety of angles often reflect miscommunication by its leaders, poor practice by its followers, and an avoidance by both to confront the true issues of the day with honesty and humility.

Thank you Dr. Karen King for your handling of the announcement and provision of the article to allow a good understanding of this text and its implications to a host of people and disciplines.

Tim Barker 9/22/2012 Somerville, MA

1 comment:

Aaron said...

Thoughtful post, Tim. I found your synthesis of all of the information and your interpretive insights lucid and helpful. Thanks!