Closed Minds

By Nancy Jane Moore

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.”

Gospel of Jesus's wife

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.

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Closed Minds — 16 Comments

  1. A few years ago, I watched a documentary about where Jesus was really buried. It was in an insignificant place in the middle of a tiny suburb in a quiet little village they couldn’t disclose (for obvious reasons). And the locals there were very open about where the burial site was; showing the film crew where it was, opening up the closed up well. Once the cameras were inside this well, it had 3 boxes. One was of Jesus’, one was of a woman’s and another was of a young boy’s. It was a family grave under the same name – Jesus’. However, they didn’t get very far into the investigation as the local authorities arrived and ordered them to get out and closed up the well more permanently.

    Now, nobody can get into it.

    My question about this is: why hide something that is obviously there about somebody everyone wants to know about?

  2. There were a lot of people named Jesus (= Yeshua = Joshua) in Roman Palestine. At this late date it would be difficult, if not impossible, to determine which Jesus was in that tomb. The same problem runs through many historical periods; I foolishly picked up I CLAUDIUS the other day and immediately became flummoxed by the number of Claudiuses, Tiberiuses, and Julias floating around the plot. I am told that the cable show THE TUDORS found the plethora of Marys in the period so overwhelming that they just combined a couple.

  3. The best reason for thinking it a fake is that it’s copied from another text of that era — and indeed a specific online version of it. We can tell because it reproduces a transcription error of that version.

    • Do you have a source for this, Mary? Was this said by someone who has actually examined the manuscript? It appears that everyone who is sure it’s a fraud has not actually seen it.

      • Also, all manuscripts of that era were copies, and errors were indeed moved forward. There’s a famous joke about that, where a monk comes running out of the cloister shouting, “No, the word was supposed to be ‘celebrate’!”

  4. If a historical Yehoshua ever existed, his teachings would make him a rabbi. Rabbis were expected to marry and have their wives as active helpmates. This doesn’t imply “enlightened” gender roles in the Hebrew culture of that era or in Yehoshua himself, but it does tilt the balance in favor of his having a wife.

    All abrahamic religions are disasters for women, because they consider them de facto lesser beings by positing a single godhead who is male. If we want to point out irrelevance (indeed, active harm) of this church, their stance on contraception — vis-à-vis both women in general and HIV transmission in particular — is more than enough.

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  6. While not defending the Vatican in any way, there does seem to be a fair amount of evidence that this particular fragment is a forgery. There’s a good discussion and collection of links at http://evangelicaltextualcriticism.blogspot.com/2012/10/gospel-of-jesus-wife-final-death-throes.html

    Forgeries that succeed tend to appeal to the dominant taste of an age — we don’t want to investigate them because they feel like confirming what we want to believe.

    • I find it interesting that so many people are quick to say it’s a forgery when they haven’t examined the actual document. While it may be true that some people want to believe in something that supports our current belief, it appears to be equally true that some people want to deny new discoveries because it challenges a belief that hold dear.

      I’d point out that this document has been examined by experts who think it’s real and is still being examined and tested. The scholarly process is going forward, as it should be.

      • I’ll bet that the Vatican is part of that process, which is slow and very, very exact, these days. I don’t claim any insight into Roman Catholic thought, but I do know that they have long memories due to exhaustive archives, and one thing they don’t want anymore is the proliferation of fake holy sights, such as Martin Luther reviled against at the start of the Reformation. RC did clean that stuff up, examining one by one supposed holy relics and sites, and closing down the con artists and money makers–it’s actually interesting detective work, from a history-of-forensics POV. They do the same with claims of saints and miracles.

  7. A friend who is a priest once explained to me (this was decades ago – I don’t know how he feels about the subject now) that is not in the Vatican’s interest to allow priests to marry. Not good for Catholicism, not good for the individual. The church wants those men working 60-80 hours a week for them. That doesn’t leave any time for a personal family. Also – divorce is part of that equation. The Catholic position remains that divorce is a no-no. What of a priest who wanted a divorce? They couldn’t keep him on if he went forward with the divorce.

    So the man would lose his marriage, his livelihood, and, if he did not get an annulment, his religion. I understand why the Vatican has a vested interest in keeping Jesus unmarried. I think it’s unhealthy, but I see the advantages to the church administration.

    • It seems to me that opening the priesthood to women would give them an even larger base of priests willing to work ridiculous hours. And unlike the issue of whether Jesus was married (even if this document is proved valid, it only proves that some early Christians thought he was, not that he was), the participation of women in the early Christian church is well-documented.

  8. Whether it’s a forgery or not is probably best determined by scientific analysis, the translated text doesn’t necessarily indicate that Christ married. He referred to the body of believers as His “bride” by inference a number of times by referring to Himself as the “bridegroom”. The Book of Revelation also refers to the body of the law or revelation—the New Jerusalem—as the bride of Christ.

    This isn’t unusual in sacred texts, really. The Torah also makes makes reference to the idea that the believers are wedded to God (“thy God shall be thy husband”) and speak of the believer’s relationship with the divine Beloved as individual souls and as a body of believers. This type terminology appears in texts from the Bhagavad Gita to the Baha’i scriptures.

    Of course, before we go rewriting history, we probably should ascertain 1) is it a legitimate document and 2) does it carry an unquestionable meaning.

    • No one is suggesting this document proves Jesus was married, but only that it indicates that some early Christians thought he was. Prof. King and the other scholars who have examined it are of the opinion that it refers to an earthly wife, not to the idea of God or the church as wife. That’s discussed in her paper.