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The “Big” Little Papyrus Fragment

In mid-September an ancient Coptic papyrus fragment that quotes Jesus referring to “my wife” made front-page headlines all over the world. The business-card-sized fragment, measuring about one-and-a-half by three inches, includes the words “Jesus said to them, my wife” and the phrase “she will be able to be my disciple.” The Harvard scholar who unveiled the 1,700-year-old fragment said it is the first clear recorded statement of a claim that Jesus was married (Reuters, Sept. 19). Karen King, a professor at Harvard Divinity School, however, said the discovery provided nothing definitive, no “silver bullet” proving that Jesus had a spouse. But the ensuing loose talk and overreaction by the international press utterly buried Prof. King’s attempt to provide perspective.

“I want to be very clear that this fragment does not give us any evidence that Jesus was married, or not married,” she repeated. “I think the fragment itself is discussing issues about discipleship and family. But certainly the fact that this is the first unequivocal statement we have that claims Jesus had a wife, is of great interest.” While she was careful not to state theories as facts, lesser lights — especially reporters — were, of course, not so fastidious. After the first wave of hype died down, one particularly controversial Church teaching — the one that says women cannot be priests because Christ chose only men as His disciples — was firmly in the media crosshairs. Would-be revolutionaries of doctrinal reform looked ahead to sweeping changes while mystified reporters waited in vain for reactions from the Vatican.

Prof. King lent a hand to the commotion herself by referring to the discovery as “the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.” She encouraged Christians and theologians to weigh in on issues of sexuality and the role of women — issues that appear to have been discussed in the early Church and are still hot topics today. Naturally, the press would relish nothing more than a public conversation about women, sex, and an “updated” Jesus; and so pundits and religion-watchers of every stripe found a platform for every conceivable opinion in such a free-for-all. One Catholic priest who jumped into the spotlight was Fr. James Martin, S.J., whose admittedly lighthearted op-ed in The New York Times (Sept. 19) was shamelessly entitled “Mr. and Mrs. Jesus Christ?”

The Denver Post reported on early reactions by various scholars. A distinguished New Testament professor from the Christian Denver Seminary, Craig Blomberg, pointed out the possibility that the papyrus, “even if a genuine 4th-century document, is likely a deliberate invention and distortion by an unorthodox Christian group” that lived four hundred years after Christ. Blomberg also raised the little-discussed detail that “the Coptic word for ‘wife’ is the same word for ‘woman.'” As can be seen in diverse Bible passages, Jesus “could have been talking about his mother,” Blomberg said.

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