It never fails that right around Easter some sort of archaeological discovery gets all kinds of buzz in the media. This year was no exception. The Harvard Theological Review announced last week that the controversial “Jesus Wife Fragment” is authentic.
In this case “authentic” means “old.” How old? The papyrus fragment dates from sometime between the 6th and 9th centuries. Tests on the papyrus itself as well as analysis of the handwriting and grammar all support a date from that time period. While there is some debate, the evidence suggests that this fragment was not a fake or a forgery. What we have is a small fragment of papyrus written in Coptic, including the phrase “Jesus said, ‘My wife. . .’”
So what impact does the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” have on historic Christianity? None. Here’s why:
1. The fragment is incomplete. The size of the fragment is only about one and half by three inches wide. The sentence that has garnered the most attention, “Jesus said ‘My wife . . .’” is incomplete. We don’t have the end of the sentence. And, as Jon Stewart points out, there are multiple ways that sentence could have ended.
Jesus said “My wife? . . No, I don’t have one.” Well played Jon, well played.
2. The Jesus’ wife fragment was written long after the New Testament was already completed. Again, this fragment dates from between the 6th and 9th centuries. The last of the four Gospels to be written was the Gospel of John. John was completed by the end of the first century. In fact, all of the New Testament books were written before the close of the first century. Our oldest complete or almost complete manuscripts of the New Testament date from between 300-450 A.D., and historic evidence indicates that the New Testament canon was largely set by the close of the second century A.D. (For more information on the development of the canon see How We Got the Bible by Neil R. Lightfoot or The Books and the Parchments: How We Got Our English Bible by F.F. Bruce). The Jesus’ wife fragment was written too late to have any relevance to the New Testament Canon.
3. The Jesus’ Wife fragment fits in with Gnostic tradition. The Gnostics were a late heretical sect who borrowed from Jewish as well as Christian tradition. According to Gnosticism, Jesus was the last of a long line of Wisdom figures who descended to enlighten humanity. Some of the the Gnostic gospels describe Mary Magdalene as Jesus’ consort. Other features of the Gnostic gospels include a talking cross and Jesus’ statement that Mary could become a disciple because he would make her male. Though some people like to talk about the Gnostic gospels as having been suppressed by the church (I’m looking at you, Dan Brown), nothing could be further from the truth. Again, these works were all written long after the completion of the New Testament. Much like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies tells us nothing new about what Jane Austen actually wrote, the Gnostic gospels don’t tell us anything new about the historic Jesus. The Gnostic gospels tell us what Gnostics believed about Jesus–not what Jesus actually said or did. The Jesus’ Wife fragment fits in much better with Gnostic teachings than with historic Christianity.
Basically what we have is a tiny scrap of papyrus with an incomplete sentence on it that dates from between the 6th and 9th centuries and is likely from the Gnostic tradition. Does it mean that Jesus was married? Nope. Does it mean early Christians thought Jesus was married? Nope. Does it shed any light on the New Testament as we know it? Nope. Is it worthy of further study? Sure. But it has nothing to do with the Jesus of the gospels who was incarnate son of God, born of a virgin, lived to show us God, and died to set us free. This Easter, that’s who I worship.
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