Q: I’m sure you’ve been following the story about a papyrus claiming that Jesus had a wife. What’s your opinion about this? – M., Long Island
A: This high-profile story has surfaced in the normally theologically indifferent general secular press because Professor Karen King, of Harvard Divinity School, recently revealed the existence of a papyrus fragment that supposedly quotes Jesus directly as referring to his wife, whom he identifies as “Mary.” The text is written in Coptic, which was the ancient language of Egyptian Christians and remained so until Egyptian Arabic supplanted it in the modern period.
The passage in question was supposedly translated from a Second Century Greek text. This explosive discovery may or may not be authentic. Some scholars think it is and some think it isn’t. If it is real, it would cast doubt on the idea that Jesus was celibate and, among other things, would provide scholarly support for Dan Brown’s fictional account in “The Da Vinci Code.”
Regarding such high-profile stories, I think it’s often a good thing to have a sympathetic non-Christian lover of Christians (oh, me, for example) weigh in. For Christians to defend Christian beliefs is like Jews defending Jewish beliefs, or Muslims defending Muslim beliefs – it is both expected and unconvincing. I’m an outsider to all this, but I have strong opinions that the reaction to this discovery, if not the discovery itself, reveals some serious anti-Christian prejudice.
Leaving aside for the moment the main reason to doubt the authenticity of this papyrus, which is the all too common habit of antiquities dealers passing off forgeries as authentic in order to make a buck, the main problem with the text is that it’s simply not supported by the entire New Testament. If Jesus was indeed married, it would have been inconceivable for this fact not to have been mentioned somewhere in the Gospel accounts.
James Martin, a Jesuit priest, made this point succinctly in a recent New York Times op-ed piece. “If I make it to heaven and Jesus introduces me to his wife, I’ll be happy for him (and her). But then I’ll track down Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, who wrote so soon after the time of Jesus, and ask them why they left out something so important,” Martin said. (NYT 9/20/12)
I agree. I encounter this very same problem when I engage certain Christians who believe that the coming of Jesus is prophesied in the Hebrew Bible. If that were true, one might expect a definitive reference to Jesus in many places in Hebrew scripture, and this also is not so. The suffering servant texts in Isaiah chapter 53 are about the people, not a person. The virgin birth mentioned in Isaiah 7:14 is, as I noted last week, actually concerns the birth of a child to a young woman, not a virgin.
I understand why some Christians want Judaism to be just Chapter 1 of God’s revelation, but that’s not how we Jews understand it, and we ought to be able to understand our texts as they are, not as some outside our faith want them to be.
For people who want Jesus to be just a person and not God incarnate, it’s also understandable but lamentable that they would seize on every opportunity to emphasize his personhood, and thereby diminish his divinity. Perhaps Jesus was just a person, and even I who believe this also believe that Jesus was such a luminous and loving person that he pushed the definition of personhood to its highest limits.
So let us all allow Christians to believe in a Jesus who is also the Christ. They have earned that right over two millennia, and no scrap of pounded out sea grass can or ought to change that sacred commitment of their faith. Faith emerges from history, but it then transcends history.
Accepting the faith of Christianity is not an empirical act. It’s not like accepting the fact that there’s a glass of water on my desk (yes, it is only water). Faith is a matter of belief, and belief is ultimately a matter of hope – the hope that we are not alone in an empty, unfeeling, amoral cosmos – the hope that we are loved by a loving God who created all that we know. The claims about Jesus are life-altering articles of faith for Christians. They are not refutable by pieces of paper that will in time just blow away in a cold wind.