Recently Karen King of Harvard Divinity School made public a a fourth century papyrus which contains the phrase, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …’ ” followed by “she will be able to be my disciple.” This has triggered a debate on if this means Jesus was really married, on if the papyrus is fake and what not.
The provenance of the papyrus is mysterious. It came from an anonymous collector who acquired it in the 60s from Communist East Germany. The fragment itself is quite small
The fragment is some four centimeters tall and eight centimeters wide. Its rough edges suggest that it had been cut out of a larger manuscript; some dealers, keener on profit than preservation, will dice up texts for maximum return. The presence of writing on both sides convinced the scholars that it was part of a codex—or book—rather than a scroll. [The Inside Story of a Controversial New Text About Jesus]
There is one argument which goes that this is a fake because the writing seem to be similar to the ones in The Gospel of Thomas, a Gnostic gospel discovered in Nag Hammadi. There is also another argument that even though the papyrus itself could be old, the ink may not be. Harvard University journal itself says that the research is unverified.
That said, the appearance of the papyrus has produced lots of back and forth which gives us a glimpse of the Jesus movement in the early periods. For example, the wife of Jesus theory is not something new, but something which has existed in other texts as well.
But let’s keep in mind that we actually already have a text that mentions Jesus’ wife. It is the Gospel of Philip. We already know that there were some early Christians, in particular the Valentinian Gnostics, who taught that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ consort or wife. They wrote about it in the Gospel of Philip.
The new gospel fragment supports this Valentinian picture. If it turns out to be an authentic gospel fragment from antiquity, it likely came from a page of yet another Valentinian gospel that contained sayings of Jesus. Valentinian Christians were very prolific and they preserved an entire sayings tradition of counter-memories that supported their creative metaphysical outlook and Gnostic spirituality [Did Jesus have a wife?]
Smithsonian has a long backstory of the papyrus. From that:
Though King makes no claims for the value of the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” as, well, a marriage certificate, she says it “puts into greater question the assumption that Jesus wasn’t married, which has equally no evidence,” she told me. It casts doubt “on the whole Catholic claim of a celibate priesthood based on Jesus’ celibacy. They always say, ‘This is the tradition, this is the tradition.’ Now we see that this alternative tradition has been silenced.”
“What this shows,” she continued, “is that there were early Christians for whom that was simply not the case, who could understand indeed that sexual union in marriage could be an imitation of God’s creativity and generativity and it could be spiritually proper and appropriate.”
In her paper, King speculates that the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” may have been tossed on the garbage heap not because the papyrus was worn or damaged, but “because the ideas it contained flowed so strongly against the ascetic currents of the tides in which Christian practices and understandings of marriage and sexual intercourse were surging.”[The Inside Story of a Controversial New Text About Jesus]
(Credits: Image via Wikipedia)