Harvard Professor Karen King with the papyrus fragment. (Photo: Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer)
The story is spreading across the country now, as local newspapers, websites, and bloggers are picking up early reports, like this New York Times account, of a discovery recently announced by Harvard scholar Karen L. King -- a small fragment of ancient papyrus contains a tantalizing reference to Jesus as a married man.
The poorly preserved fragment, written in an amateurish hand, is of uncertain date, but may have been copied from a second century manuscript, King believes. The tiny text, owned by an anonymous man who bought it from a German collector in 1997, is part of a larger page that was probably cut or torn into parts by an unscrupulous antiquities dealer seeking higher returns from multiple sales.
The text makes little sense on its own, because the surrounding context is lost. But the snippets that exist -- written in the Sahidic dialect (from southern Egypt) of the Coptic language -- are intriguing. They include phrases like "Mary is worthy of it," "Jesus said to them, 'My wife ...'" and "She will be able to be my disciple."
This naturally leads to speculation about whether Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, a known subject of discussion in the church as early as the second century, and whether she (or other women) could be considered as disciples.
Questions such as this played into the Catholic Church's position that priests should be male, unmarried and celibate, following Jesus' example (obviously, those who argued that Jesus was married or that women could have been among the disciples lost the debate).
The current text is quite interesting, but offers no real evidence about Jesus' personal life. It is a poor copy of an early gospel-like text, written at a time when all sorts of putative "gospels" were vying for acceptance within various branches of the church. Any number of other sayings, some of them quite strange to our ears, were attributed to Jesus.
We should note that King, a distinguished professor of early Christian history at Harvard who specializes in Coptic, has pointedly observed that the text proves nothing about whether Jesus was married. Its primary significance is that it's the first known document from antiquity that quotes Jesus as speaking of a wife -- at least in the traditional sense.
The canonical gospels quote Jesus as comparing himself to a bridegroom (Mark 2:19, Matthew 9:15, Luke 5:34, John 3:29), and Paul appeared to speak of Christian believers as being metaphorically married to Christ (Romans 7:1-4; 2 Corinthians 11:2-4). References to "the bride" of Christ in the Book of Revelation (19:7; 21:2, 9-10) are often interpreted as relating to the church.
The newly announced text fragment is worthy of note if for no other reason than that it offers a reminder that early traditions and beliefs about Jesus were far from uniform. The traditions found in the Bible are not the only ones, but those that won out -- documents that were judged by the early church to have the most authority as witnesses to the earthly life of Christ.
Speculation about whether Jesus ever loved a woman as a wife may be provocative, but is also fruitless. Better to recall that Jesus loved all people enough to give his life for our benefit, and called us to love others in the same unselfish way -- whether married, or not.
Tony Cartledge is associate professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School and contributing editor to Baptists Today, where he blogs.