Does a Scrap of Egyptian Papyrus Prove Jesus Was Married?

Does a Scrap of Egyptian Papyrus Prove Jesus Was Married?

A paper published on Thursday, April 10, in the Harvard Theological Review cited scientific studies that dated a business-card-sized scrap of papyrus, written in the Egyptian Coptic language, to at least the sixth-to-ninth century and possibly the fourth century.

So, apparently, it’s not a modern forgery of an old bit of papyrus, it’s actually an old bit of papyrus.

On the front of this papyrus are eight mostly legible lines of writing, and on the back are six barely legible faded lines of writing. No one knows who wrote it; there are grammatical errors in the Coptic; and it bears a resemblance to the so-called “Gospel of Thomas,” which can’t actually be traced to the Apostle Thomas.

Instead, the “Gospel of Thomas” is believed to be a collection of 114 sayings attributed to Jesus compiled by a Gnostic sect, probably in the late second century, discovered by an Egyptian peasant in 1945. Some resemble those in the canonical Gospels–the four that are part of the New Testament–some appear to have been reworked from a gnostic viewpoint, and some, written in a cryptic style more akin to Zen than Jesus’ way of speaking in the canonical gospels, seem to be original.

Scholars have pointed to the particularly non-Jewish flavor of the sayings, as opposed to the canonical gospels, in which Jesus talks in the manner of a first-century rabbi speaking primarily to fellow Jews.

Gnosticism is one of the many heresies–belief systems coming from those within a religion that persistently and obstinately deny or diverge from central elements of that religion–that have popped up from time to time over the two millennia of Christian history.

In short, it sees the physical world as evil, the creation of malevolent powers that want to keep the soul trapped in a fleshly body. And it believes that there is a hidden wisdom or knowledge, revealed to only a select few, that will set humans free from the prison of matter.

To Christians, this denies Genesis 1:31, which states, God looked at everything He had made, and found it very good,” which appears to indicate that God approved of the existence of a material world, since He made one.

Since Christianity’s earliest days, there have been those who proposed ideas that were incompatible with Scripture or Sacred Tradition. Some modern folks who think they’ve raised an original argument against the faith may be dismayed to discover they aren’t the first to think of it. Whether or not they accept the arguments against their notion is another question, but if you’re interested, the Anglo-French writer Hilaire Belloc did an extensive survey on these notions, called “The Great Heresies.”

But anyway, back to the papyrus. It first came to the attention of the media in 2012, when a historian at Harvard Divinity School cited it in a discussion of Christian attitudes toward marriage, sexuality, and women, including whether Christ had female disciples.

The most discussed phrases in the fragment are “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…’, and “she will be able to be my disciple…”

Historian Dr. Karen L. King said in 2012, “It does not, however, provide evidence that the historical Jesus was married, given the late date of the fragment and the probable date of original composition.”

This of course, didn’t stop her from dubbing it “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife,” as reported in a somewhat dodgy 2012 New York Times story, which also states that “When, where or how the fragment was discovered is unknown.”

In the fall of 2012, Smithsonian Channel was all set to air a documentary on “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife,” based on King’s findings, only to cancel it mere days ahead of time and pull back quickly from the topic.

But even if the fragment is old, it’s not nearly as old as far more authoritative documents.

It’s centuries newer than the heavily researched, studied, and dissected canonical Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, which were composed in the first century after Christ’s death, either by those who knew Jesus or by disciples (students) of the twelve apostles, those Christ chose to be his successors. These mention nothing about a wife. As for female disciples, some of those, like Mary Magadalene, are mentioned in the New Testament, but only male apostles. All apostles are disciples, but not all disciples are apostles.

As for marriage, we know from the Gospels that at least Saint Peter was married at some point (mention is made of his  mother-in-law). Many early Christians mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles are married, including the missionary couple of Priscilla and Aquila, who worked with Saint Paul.

There were married clergy in the early Catholic Church, with priestly celibacy not becoming a discipline (not a dogma, so it’s a decision by humans inspired by God, not a dictum from God Himself) of the Latin Rite of the Church until centuries later. And there exist married clergy in the Eastern Rite of the Catholic Church today, along with, in the Latin Rite, some married clergy primarily from Anglican and Lutheran traditions.

Also, of course, there are married clergy in the Orthodox Church, and in the many Protestant, Evangelical, and nondenominational Christian communities.

On the imaginative side, there is the persistent belief, popularized in the Dan Brown pulp thriller The DaVinci Code, that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, and that it was all covered up by the Catholic Church, which hates women (so much so that it made Mary Magdalene a saint, just to show her it meant business).

Catholic tradition does hold that Mary Magdalene ended her days in France, where, if we are to believe the boasts of the Merovingian dynasty of Frankish kings, she gave birth to Jesus’s child, who was their ancestor.

Handy for them, then.

Even Dr. King says, “At least, don’t say, this proves Dan Brown was right.”

In linguistic terms, there is also the assertion that “wife” could also be translated as “bride.” Since its earliest days, the tradition of the Catholic Church has characterized Christ as the Bridegroom and the Church as His Bride, so the language could be metaphorical instead of literal.

Or, the papyrus–the paper trail for which only stretches back to the 1980s–is something else altogether.

Brown University Egyptology professor Leo Depuydt has written a rebuttal that says, “There is no doubt in my mind whatsoever that the text… is a patchwork of words and phrases from the published and well-known Coptic Gnostic Gospel of Thomas. It is therefore clear that the Text is not an independent literary composition at all.”

But one thing we know, mostly, if one can depend upon the dating techniques, is that is indeed old. Which proves… nothing beyond that.

Simply put, Christians believe that Jesus wasn’t married because there is no credible evidence that he was married. For a faith often criticized for believing what is in its Holy Scriptures, it’s interesting to see it also being criticized for not believing what is not in its Holy Scriptures.

When it comes to secular academia and the mainstream media, Christians just can’t win.


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