Jesus’ “wife”?

On September 18 I glanced quickly at the headlines from the mobile edition of the New York Times and went straight to “A Faded Piece of Papyrus Refers to Jesus’ Wife.” As a theologian I’m always interested in how such stories are presented and received in relation to Christology (an account of the theological significance of the person and work of Christ), and since one of the specializations of my graduate studies and ongoing research is the intellectual history of early Christianity, I’m also interested in seeing how others in my profession tackle the challenge of communicating the import of ancient Christian texts to the public.

Finds such as this one are rarely as revolutionary as the media presentation of them suggests. When the existence and translation of a “Gospel of Judas” was announced to the public by the National Geographic Society in 2006, for example, there was much media discussion of how this find might alter our understanding of early Christianity. In actuality, it merely confirmed the accuracy of a reference to the document and summary of its contents by Irenaeus of Lyons in his treatise Against Heresies in the late second century CE.

Here’s what we know right now about this new find. I’m relying for the time being on reporting by the New York Times and the Associated Press for information about the fragment presented by Karen L. King, Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School, to a meeting of the International Congress of Coptic Studies in Rome on September 18 and scheduled to be published in a future issue of the Harvard Theological Review. (Coptic is a stage of the indigenous Egyptian language that after the conquests of Alexander the Great came to be written in a largely Greek script with additional characters for sounds present in the Egyptian language but not in Greek and with numerous Greek loan words. Many ancient Christian texts from Egypt are written in Coptic, and Coptic continues to be the liturgical language of the Coptic Church.)

The manuscript fragment—but not necessarily the document itself—seems to date to the fourth century CE. Thus it could reflect a written text or oral tradition that originated as early as the first century and as late as the fourth.

In English translation, what can be deciphered of it seems to say: “…not [to] me. My mother gave to me li[fe]…The disciples said to Jesus…deny. Mary is worthy of it…Jesus said to them, ‘My wife’…she will be able to be my disciple…Let wicked people swell up…As for me, I dwell with her in order to…an image.”

This immediately reminded me of a dialogue between Peter and Jesus about the worthiness of Mary portrayed in the final pericope (114) of the Gospel of Thomas, another early Christian text written in Coptic:

Simon Peter said to him, “Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.” Jesus said, “I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.”

If the new fragment has connections to this text in the Gospel of Thomas, it’s not necessarily new evidence for a supposedly suppressed affirmation of women in certain “lost” streams of early Christianity. Indeed, one would be hard pressed to find a more patriarchal perspective in surviving early Christian literature than the one expressed in Gospel of Thomas 114.

What of Jesus’ reference to “my wife” in this fragment?

It seems to me that there are at least three possible referents of this construction. First, as suggested in the media summaries of King’s work on the text, it could refer to a wife taken by Jesus. (More on the theological implications of that possibility later in this post.)

Second, as Ben Witherington III, Jean R. Amos Professor of New Testament for Doctoral Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary, points out in the Associated Press story, a number of Coptic texts representing Gnostic Christianity in the second through fourth centuries are “sister-wife texts” which reference some Gnostic Christians as having “carried around a female believer with them who cooks for them and cleans for them and does the usual domestic chores, but they have no sexual relationship whatsoever.” If this fragment reflects that practice, it could be imagining Jesus as having such a “wife.”

Third, when I read King’s English translation of what can be deciphered of the fragment I thought of the New Testament texts in which Jesus is compared to a bridegroom in relation to his followers (e.g., John 3:29) and, in at least one of those texts, the church is portrayed as Christ’s “wife” (Ephesians 5:22-33).

A disclaimer: I am not a Coptic expert. I did, however, take a course in Coptic as an overly ambitious graduate student who in that same semester also took a course in Syriac along with seminars in the Greek Christian Apologists and in patristic theology (don’t try this at home). Consequently I retained very little of the Coptic and Syriac that I barely survived, but enough that I can read the script in the image of the fragment and can translate much of it with the aid of a Coptic lexicon. The expression “my wife,” tahime in transliterated Coptic, reflects the same word for “wife” (hime) employed in the early Coptic translations of Ephesians (“bride” as employed in the “bridegroom” texts in the Gospels is another word in Coptic). It’s a tenuous connection at best, but it’s possible that this fragment reflects knowledge of the Ephesian image of the church as the wife of Christ as well as the image of Jesus as a bridegroom in the New Testament Gospels. If so, a third possibility is that the fragment’s Jesus is referring to Mary as a member of the community of disciples that constitutes his “wife.”

But what if Jesus really did have a wife with whom he had sexual relations? Quite apart from the lack of any reference to Jesus’ married state in the canonical Gospels—or elsewhere in early Christian literature, with the exception of the possible reference in this text—would it pose any Christological difficulties if Jesus had a wife?

The celibacy of Jesus is not essential to Christology, just as Jesus’ maleness is not essential to Christology. The celibacy of Jesus does not privilege that state over married life (though it does suggest to us that one can be fully human in one’s gendered humanity without being sexually active or married), just as the maleness of Christ in the historical event of the incarnation does not privilege being male over being female (contra the Gospel of Thomas).

The particularities of Jesus’ historical existence are representative of the totality of human experience, from birth through death and resurrection, even if they do not reflect the particularities of every human being’s experiences. If Jesus was celibate, he nonetheless represents the fullness of what it means for sexuality to be a dimension of being human, for celibacy is one expression of an individual’s sexuality in relation to others, as is also married life.

Theologically, for Jesus to have been married would not require us to re-think historic Christological doctrine. But historically, there is not sufficient evidence to suppose that he was–even if the best interpretation of this fragment is that Jesus therein is referring to a woman named Mary as his “wife” in the usual sense of that word.

Steve Harmon

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About the Author
Steven R. Harmon teaches Christian Theology at Gardner-Webb University School of Divinity in Boiling Springs, North Carolina. His most recent book is "Ecumenism Means You, Too: Ordinary Christians and the Quest for Christian Unity" (Eugene, Ore.: Cascade Books, 2010). Dr. Harmon blogs at Ecclesial Theology. He and his family are members of St. John's Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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  • http://www.toddejones.net/ tejones

    Well done Steve!

  • Ircel

    Steve. thanks for a reasoned and informative commentary on this news item.

  • Scott Hudgins

    Thanks Steve for these insights. Robin Scroggs use to say that interpreters of the Bible (and Christian tradition, for that matter) generally fell into two camps: the splitters and the joiners. As a splitter I want to add that the diversity of opinion and experience in the early church was remarkable, and this fragment seems to add to that diversity. On the other hand, the uniformity of the early church, driven in no small part by the power and control of authorities, is also remarkable. If asked today to define the Christian movement in our own time, the diversity and lack of consensus might well overwhelm us. For me it is comforting to know that the earliest traditions, far from offering “original intent and meaning”, also struggled with the diversity of human experience. As Augustine might put it, “its not that we experience different things, its that we experience things differently.” Openness to our need for both joining and splitting means that the traditions we inherit can be instructive and transforming. Thanks again for your words.