The big news of the last week was the announcement of publication by Karen King of Harvard Divinity School of a Coptic papyrus, named by her the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife (there’s a loaded title, if there ever was one) that has a line in which Jesus purportedly refers to his wife.
This revelation reveals much that is both good and bad with the instant communication world in which we live, including that of blogging. To summarize briefly, one blogger heralded this great announcement, only to find himself retracting in subsequent blogs. Another blogger spoke (over?) confidently about how he thought there were many questions about its authenticity, with many other bloggers joining in what was beginning to look like a feeding frenzy—of course, none of them had actually seen the papyrus, only a digital photograph. Along the way, some came close to calling into question the reputation of at least one major scholar who had thoroughly examined the papyrus—again, they had not seen the papyrus or even spent nearly as much time contemplating it as this scholar had. The one reaction I read that has the greatest plausibility is by Francis Watson, who argues that the papyrus may be a forgery because it seems at numerous points to be dependent upon the published (N.B.) edition of the Coptic Gospel of Thomas.
So, what do I think? I don’t have a firm idea, because I have not examined the papyrus and have not had a significant amount of time to contemplate the various arguments—and neither have most of the others who have been so quick to respond so passionately.
I have to admit that there are more than a few suspicious elements to the papyrus. I too was struck on first examination of the digital photograph that the writing looked odd, almost like it was painted rather than written on the manuscript, and that the manuscript looked perhaps like it had been torn to contain the writing or the writing placed strategically on it. I am also a little suspicious of the timing—if the rumors are correct—that the revelation of the papyrus right now correlates with a television special to be shown sometime very soon. How opportune (or should I say, opportunistic)! Perhaps it is no wonder that there are also rumors that the scholarly journal that was scheduled to publish King’s article may be having second thoughts. However, that is the exact place where publication should take place and lead to sober further thought.
Even if the papyrus is shown to be authentic, however, that does not settle the issue of whether Jesus was married. The context of the papyrus is so limited that we can only say that Jesus appears to refer to “my wife,” but we do not know if this is a literal wife or a figurative one (for example, it might be a text in which Jesus refers to the Church as his wife, picking up on good New Testament language such as Ephesians 5). This papyrus may well be a gnostic text, in which case all sorts of unusual things might have been contained within it—if it is authentic.
Even if the reference is literal, the papyrus tells us no more than that some author in perhaps the fourth century (the dating of this manuscript is bound to be disputed) records Jesus as referring to his wife. So what? We have a lot of non-canonical and later documents referring to all sorts of things that Jesus said and did that have no real bearing on what he actually said and did.
The canonical Gospels do not explicitly tell us whether Jesus was married or not. They certainly do not say that he was married, and I suspect that he was not—although they do not say that either (to be honest, it is unlikely that they would, unless there was a good reason to say so), and this papyrus does nothing to clarify that situation. The text of this papyrus may have been written earlier than the fourth century manuscript on which it is now recorded (perhaps around the time of the Gospel of Thomas, if it is not plagiarizing from it), but that is also up for debate. It still does not give us any firm evidence either way, only one scribe’s statement.
At the end of the day, this papyrus looks like it is heading in the same direction as many other similar, previous finds—a lot of hoopla over nothing (remember the Gospel of Judas?). If it is authentic, it probably shows, at best, that some individuals and possibly offbeat groups within early Christianity in the second to the fourth or later centuries had great creativity and ingenuity. But we already knew that, and we don’t need a television special to tell us.