The Vatican newspaper response to Professor Karen King’s paper on a fragment of papyrus that has Jesus referring to “my wife” was to call the document a forgery. I don’t suppose anyone — particularly Prof. King — was surprised.
I cannot find the oft-quoted editorial online, and can only find a brief version of what has been described as a “lengthy” discussion of the problems with the fragment by Prof. Alberto Camplani, so I don’t know the scholarly basis of the Vatican objection. But I have not seen anything indicating the Vatican has examined the document or consulted directly with the experts in Coptic text and papyrus who have seen it.
As near as I can tell, the official Vatican response is “this is a fake because we say so.”
Now I don’t have a clue as to whether this fragment is an ancient document or not. That’s for scholars who know how to look at these things to determine. (A piece in Smithsonian magazine gives an lay overview of the scholarship so far.) But it is a shame that the Roman Catholic Church is unwilling to be open-minded about serious scholarship.
A shame, but not a surprise. This is the same church that found Galileo guilty of heresy for saying the Earth orbited the Sun and took hundreds of years to admit that Galileo was right, although apparently still holding to the view that he shouldn’t have said anything at the time.
Heliocentrism was less of a challenge to the all-male church authority than the idea that early Christians debated whether Jesus was married, not to mention the research that shows Jesus had women disciples and that many of the early Christian leaders were, in fact, female. (Here’s Prof. King’s overview of that work written for a program on PBS’s Frontline.)
The Roman Catholics — and many other Christians — also seem to believe that all the early Christians preached exactly the same gospel. Scholarly research on recently recovered ancient gospels has shown that to be false, though anyone who has ever looked at the schisms that occur on the death of a charismatic leader when followers vie to take over would have expected those divisions.
As Christianity moved from being a persecuted cult to a recognized and powerful religion, it took on the patriarchal hierarchy of the day. Women were written out of the church and some writings were deemed the canon while others were condemned as heretical. While I’m sure many religious persons would like to assume that those decisions were divinely inspired, it is far more likely that they were rooted in the ideas of the time about men and women as well as in political expediency, not to mention the fact that some of these ideas would have undermined a powerful institution by their very existence. (If the kingdom of God is within us all, perhaps we don’t need a hierarchy.)
I don’t really care whether Jesus was married or not. I’m much more interested in the work showing he had women disciples — women he took seriously as followers — and that showing the role of women in the early church. It was a period of radical change and the involvement of women indicates Christianity was even more of a challenge to the power structure than was previously understood.
But if Jesus was married, and to a woman who was also one of his disciples — perhaps his favorite disciple, as some of the writing about Mary Magdalene indicates — that does make him a very special man, one who was able to recognize value in a woman beyond the service she could be to him. I’ve always thought of Jesus as one of those people who believed in something powerful and spent their lives trying to convey it to others. One might expect a married Jesus to rely on his wife to take care of life’s details while he preached his gospel. But if was capable of seeing his wife as a follower of his ideas, one who would also preach his gospel, that shows him as someone who was not concerned about gender differences in spiritual truth.
I suppose any indication that Jesus didn’t see women differently from men might threaten those whose religion is based on rigid gender differences even more than the idea that he might have had a sexual relationship with a woman.
It seems to me that the Roman Catholic Church would be better served by embracing the scholarship that shows women as Jesus’s disciples and even the idea that he might have been married. An encyclical announcing those ideas would open the priesthood up to women and to married men. While that would change the church, it would likely also increase its health and relevance in the world and ensure that it survives as a healthy institution.
However, if the church continues to hold on rigidly to outdated ideas, I suspect it will gradually become less and less important. It is still a powerful institution today, but not so powerful as it was in Galileo’s time, and it could lose even more ground.
While the church has been guilty of some great harm (the Spanish Inquisition springs to mind), it has also done great good. It would be a shame if the valuable work it has done disappears because church authorities were too rigid to acknowledge scholarship and accept new interpretations.