About a year and a half ago I penned a post regarding the so-called Gospel of Jesus’ Wife. Like most of these sorts of sensationalized reports about discoveries that will rock Christianity to its core, the reporting on the subject was far more absurd than the actual claims being set forth by the researcher in question. But then again, these kinds of things generally follow the 10 step process I laid out in my initial post:
1. Professor/scholar announces some discovery
2. Media reports over-inflate/sensationalize the claims
3. Research school/organization calls for inquiry
4. Actual claims, upon investigation, are either walked back or were never that sensational (see #2)
5. Stock experts make appearances on news broadcasts and in future documentaries
6. Peer-review dismantles or significantly deflates claims (or reported claims)
7. Research school/organization quietly distances itself from the controversy
8. Controversy fizzles into obscurity
9. Books are sold, ads are seen, documentaries are produced, research grants are disbursed
10. Rinse, repeat.
Well, the whole issue has mostly fizzled into obscurity, although earlier this month Harvard Theological Review published some articles on the fragment. As should be expected, it is a bit of mixed bag as far as the date of composition, the authenticity, the importance of the fragment, etc.
In my earlier post I mentioned that my opinion was that this is probably a modern forgery, and I cited some examples of scholars who took this position. Well, according to the same sorts of outlets who published the sorts of link-bait headlines with which my previous post took issue, science says otherwise:
There is potentially a lot to unpack in that headline (as well as the article itself), but rather than drudge through all that suffice to say that there is not consensus on the genuineness of the papyrus in question. In fact, one of the scholars (Egyptologist Leo Depuydt) published in the same issue thinks that its a slam-dunk case for it being a forgery, based (for example) on how it makes a typographical error that exists in an online version of the Gospel of Thomas. He notes:
“You can’t make sense of it as a fluent Coptic text,” he said. “Then you find out it’s all coming from Gospel of Thomas. Well, case closed.” (Boston Globe, No evidence of modern forgery in ancient text mentioning ‘Jesus’ wife’)
Naturally, King disagrees:
In sum, King said, it does not make sense that a forger with poor Coptic and scribal skills could also manage to acquire the right kind of papyrus and ink, and leave no ink out of place at the microscopic level. “In my judgment, such a combination of bumbling and sophistication seems extremely unlikely,” she wrote in her article. (ibid.)
All of this is of course interesting scholarly disagreement, and I myself am somewhat on the fence about the authenticity or not of it from a purely historical standpoint. But even more interesting is that King’s initial dating of this papyrus was quite a bit off. When her research was first released she argued for a dating of the fourth century. However, the same science which thinks it likely authentic also thinks it likely her assessment was four centuries off:
The results of a carbon dating test found that the papyrus probably dates to eighth-century Egypt, about 400 years later than King originally thought, but still in ancient times. (ibid.)
Now, of course, that is not to say that the sentiments expressed in the papyrus (as limited, non-contextualized and incomplete though they be) are from the 8th century; King thinks it a copy of something far earlier:
“King believes the document may have been copied from a much earlier Greek text, perhaps composed in the second century, and sees it as an important addition to the study of the development of Christianity as it spread through the Mediterranean world.” (ibid.)
I’d have to call foul here. I would grant that the content- whatever it might be or mean- predates the eighth century. It’s a bit of a stretch to jump from the eighth to the second century; in fact, one major reason for doing this is because its content is so similar to other earlier works like the Gospel of Thomas (which would seem to lend weight to the skeptics argument somewhat). However, this similarity in style and content is a double-edged sword; for if this fragment is operating within a similar theological perspective (which I suppose, given the paucity of the content, is difficult to determine), why would one think it is taking a different approach to the way in which terminology is employed?
Most ‘Gnostic’ texts, while sometimes using historical personages and narratives as a wrapper for the content, very rarely intend the reader to understand those portions literally. Proper to the notion of ‘gnosis’ is that some kind of specialized knowledge that transcends the mundane significations of words, phrases and terms is necessary to understand the truth behind them.
In the Gospel of Philip, for example, we are given a rather straightforward explanation of how this works:
The names which are given by the worldly—therein is a great confusion. For their hearts are turned away from the real unto the unreal. And he who hears the (word) ‘God’ does not think of the real, but rather he is made to think of the unreal. So also with (the words) ‘the Father’ and ‘the Son’ and ‘the Sacred Spirit’ and ‘the Life’ and ‘the Light’ and ‘the Resurrection’ and ‘the Convocation’ [and] all the other (words)—they do not think of the real, but rather they are made to think of the [un]real. […] Moreover they have learned the [all-human] reality of death. They are in the system, [they are made to think of the unreal]. (Gospel of Philip, 10)
One single name they do not utter in the world—the Name which the Father bestowed upon himself by means of the Son, this existent Name of the Father, (which) he exalts over all.¹ For the Son could not become the Father, unless he were given the Name of the Father. This existing Name they are made to have in thought, yet nonetheless they speak it not.² Yet those who do not have it, cannot even think it. But the truth engendered words in the world for the our sake. It would not be possible to learn it without words. (ibid, 11)
The point is that in the natural state human beings take words and names on a base level, as pertaining to worldly things and realities. To think in such a way, however, is to be confused and to be mired in unreality. In fact, in another place the evil powers perpetuate this confusion so that humans remain in slavery, by applying the ungood to the good; that is, by believing the transient reality of the material world to be reality itself. Only when humans come into gnosis- which the Gospel of Philip describes as ‘recognizing oneself’– is grace received and the words which were applied to what was not good become applied to what is good.
Another more pertinent passage from the Gospel of Philip illustrates this principle in relation to the (admittedly bare) narrative with which some of these sayings are garbed:
[Grace comes] forth from him thru the mouth, the place where the Logos came forth; (one) was to be nourished from the mouth and to become perfected. The perfect are conceived thru a kiss and they are born. Therefore we also are motivated to kiss one another—to receive conception from within our mutual grace. (ibid, 35)
The Gospel of Thomas has a remarkably similar passage:
Yeshua says: Whoever drinks from my mouth shall become like me. I myself shall become as he is, and the secrets shall be revealed to him. (Gospel of Thomas, 108)
Whatever is meant by this, the notion here is that the kiss itself does not carry the connotations that moderns associate with kisses, but rather symbolizes the grace pouring out from the perfect to each other. It is through this kiss (probably on some level the physical act but more importantly the spiritual act of gnosis in play) that the perfect are ‘conceived.’ This helps to give some content to what follows:
The wisdom which (humans) call barren is herself the Mother of the Angels. And the companion of the [Christ] is Mariam the Magdalene. The [Lord loved] Mariam more than [all the (other)] Disciples, [and he] kissed her often on her [mouth]. The other [women] saw his love for Mariam, they say to him: Why do thou love [her] more than all of us? || The Savior replied, he says to them: Why do I not love you as (I do) her?
(While) a blind (person) and one who sees are both in the dark, they do not differ from one another. When the light comes, then he who sees shall behold the light, and he who is blinded shall remain in the darkness. (Gospel of Philip, 59-60)
The implication of this passage is that by means of the ‘kiss on the mouth’ Christ was bestowing grace (charis) upon Mariam more than the other women. And the reason is given: even though Mariam and the other women are all women (paralleling the blind and the seeing, both in the dark), Mariam ‘sees’ because she has been perfected, by receiving grace from Christ’s mouth. In Thomas’ wording she would be the one who drank from his mouth and became like Christ and had his secrets revealed to her.
The Gospel of Philip continues to use marital imagery to underscore the sacrament of the Bridal Chamber, which in Valentinian theology was the highest sacrament, wherein redemption is consummated. We get more notions that what is being talked about is not an actual consummation in the bridal chamber, but rather a spiritual union:
The [Lord arose] from among the dead. [He became (again)] as he had been, but [his body] was made [entirely] perfect. He is incarnate, but this [flesh is indeed] a true flesh. [Yet our flesh] is not true, but rather a mirror-image of the true [flesh]. (Gospel of Philip 78)
Here we are to understand that while we think we have ‘flesh,’ ours is not the ‘true flesh’ that Christ possessed. This has been seen earlier in how the names we give things are not the realities but the unrealities, since we are deceived in our thinking. The spiritual nuptials are highlighted quite clearly:
Thru the Sacred Spirit we are indeed born, yet we are reborn thru the Christ. In both we are anointed thru the Spirit—(and) having been begotten, we were mated.
The soul of Adam came into being by a Spirit, whose mate is the [Christ. The Spirit] bestowed upon (Adam) is his Mother, and […] her place was given to him in his soul. (Yet) because he had [not yet] been mated in the Logos, the dominant powers bewitched him. [… Yet those who] mate with the [Sacred] Spirit […] (in) secret […] are invited individually […] to the Bridal-Chamber, in order that […] they shall be mated. (ibid, 80, 87)
In the sacred Bridal Chamber humans who are made perfect can give birth to Sons of God- the Sons of the Bridal Chamber. These sons are not brought about physically, but spiritually:
All those who are begotten within the world are begotten physically, and the others are begotten [spiritually]. Those begotten in His heart [call forth] there to humankind, in order to nourish them in the promise [of the goal] which is above. (ibid, 34)
Thus, the whole point of the sacrament of the Bridal Chamber is to unite spiritually- to be mated with the Sacred Spirit. The ‘true flesh’ of Christ was brought about by this sacramental union between Mary and the Father, and in this way becomes the archetype of the power of the Bridal-Chamber:
If it is appropriate to tell a mystery, the Father of the totality mated with the Virgin who had come down—and a fire shone for him on that day. He revealed the power of the Bridal-Chamber. Thus his body came into being on that day. He came forth in the Bridal-Chamber as one who has issued from the Bridegroom with the Bride—this is how Yeshua established the totality for himself in his heart. And thru these, it is appropriate for each one of the Disciples to enter into his repose. (ibid, 89)
Of course, there seem to have been unscrupulous individuals ready to take advantage of those who participated in this Valentinian sacrament. Irenaeus relates the following regarding a Valentinian named Marcus:
He devotes himself especially to women, and those such as are well-bred, and elegantly attired, and of great wealth, whom he frequently seeks to draw after him, by addressing them in such seductive words as these: “I am eager to make thee a partaker of my Charis, since the Father of all doth continually behold thy angel before His face. Now the place of thy angel is among us: it behoves us to become one. Receive first from me and by me [the gift of] Charis. Adorn thyself as a bride who is expecting her bridegroom, that thou mayest be what I am, and I what thou art. Establish the germ of light in thy nuptial chamber. Receive from me a spouse, and become receptive of him, while thou art received by him. Behold Charis has descended upon thee; open thy mouth and prophesy.” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1,23,3)
The end result is unfortunate:
Henceforth she reckons herself a prophetess, and expresses her thanks to Marcus for having imparted to her of his own Charis. She then makes the effort to reward him, not only by the gift of her possessions (in which way he has collected a very large fortune), but also by yielding up to him her person, desiring in every way to be united to him, that she may become altogether one with him. (ibid.)
Now, this rather lengthy diversion is meant to place this small fragment of papyrus in context. That being accomplished, I wonder about a statement already quoted:
“King believes the document may have been copied from a much earlier Greek text, perhaps composed in the second century, and sees it as an important addition to the study of the development of Christianity as it spread through the Mediterranean world.” (Boston Globe, No evidence of modern forgery in ancient text mentioning ‘Jesus’ wife’)
There are a couple of things here. Firstly, given that we have little to no context for this fragment, and given that the most likely context (due to its similarity in language to other Gnostic texts) is something like the sorts of Gnostic notions that we have some knowledge of, how exactly is this small fragment an important addition?
After all, as far as I am aware there are no other Gnostic writings in which Jesus is said to have a wife. Further, in other Gnostic writings nuptial imagery is predicated of spiritual realities rather than carnal unions. Given this frame of reference, it seems that there would need to be a tremendous amount of evidence that this fragment amongst all extant gnostic writings is taking a literal stance on a (potentially) sexual union and is predicating of what is normally held to be a spiritual reality that the mundane reality is what is being expressed in Jesus’ sayings.
However, the case is that since there is absolutely no context for the words of the fragment, we have absolutely no way of knowing what sort of meaning is intended. As I mentioned in my earlier post, there is plenty of biblical nuptial imagery that is meant to convey some sort of spiritual import apart from its physical reality. Given that many other Gnostic texts (such as Philip) consider Jesus’ true flesh to be unlike the flesh which the unenlightened deem to be reality, there seems to be absolutely no reason to suspect that this fragment is taking wildly different approach, especially given its similarities (such as they are) which other extant texts.
Of course, probably the most damning bit of evidence for the sheer lack of importance that this fragment probably has is that it is not quoted or alluded to anywhere else. As mentioned in my previous post:
Christian history was not an insulated reality inside of a bubble; in its early days these writings that make for A&E documentaries were the ravings of splinter sects who were relatively small in numbers and factious even amongst themselves. The challenges to Christian theology that these shocking discoveries are meant to entail were known and addressed centuries ago. It is not as if Christian writers, thinkers and leaders were oblivious to what is commonly referred to as gnosticism. Much of the Christian literature in the 2nd-to-3rd century that has come down to us is in fact a response/rebuttal.
Granted, it is entirely possible that men like Irenaeus simply missed whatever group penned this fragment, assuming King’s dating is even anywhere near the mark. More than likely the reason it has never been mentioned or seen anywhere in any writing or controversy before (which might lend weight to skepticism regarding its authenticity) is that the group (or lone thinker, perhaps) responsible for it was so insignificant that they (he) did not merit attention or rebuttal. ‘Gnosticism’ was no monolith but was incredibly diverse, hard to pin down and scattered. Irenaeus sort of sums up the exhaustion faced by the polemicist:
But since they differ so widely among themselves both as respects doctrine and tradition, and since those of them who are recognised as being most modern make it their effort daily to invent some new opinion, and to bring out what no one ever before thought of, it is a difficult matter to describe all their opinions. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1, 21, 5)
So where do we stand? The thesis- that early Christians debated whether Jesus was married or not- seems to have absolutely no substantiation anywhere. As I mentioned in a previous post:
The important thing to note is that in this whole discussion, all parties involved agree that Jesus wasn’t married. So sure, there may be claims about Jesus’ marital status, but they are the same claims from both sides.
In my opinion, the mere mention of the term ‘wife’ in this fragment without any context (besides that of the general tendency of other Gnostic writings towards marriage and marital imagery) doesn’t point to any sort of notion that some early Christians thought Jesus was married, as was King’s original contention. Of course, given the tendency for these sorts of ‘discoveries,’ the original contention has been walked back a bit:
King said in the interview this week that her thinking about the meaning of the document has evolved somewhat. She originally hypothesized it concerned debates about discipleship, and whether becoming a Christian meant giving up one’s family to join a spiritual family. But in researching what early Christians said about whether Jesus was married or not, she recognized the importance of early Christian controversies about the spiritual advantages of celibacy. If Jesus were celibate, were Christians who were married or sexually active less fully human, or lesser in the eyes of God?
“Now when I come back and read the fragment, it seems the major issue being talked about was that Jesus was affirming that wives and mothers can be his disciples,” King said. (Boston Globe, No evidence of modern forgery in ancient text mentioning ‘Jesus’ wife’)
If this is now the contention, the media storm surrounding this fragment (fanned into flames by King dubbing it The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife) is, as I predicted in my previous post, an absolute yawner. After all, as I mentioned previously:
That some were debating whether to get married or be celibate is another bit of a yawner, since these same discussions exist in the canonical gospels, the writings of Paul, etc. In fact, some of the same arguments are used. For example, in 1 Timothy we find these words:
They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth.
As far as wives and mothers being disciples, I will repeat what I wrote earlier:
After all, in the Gospels Jesus speaks about how people who are not his mother and his brothers are his mother and brothers. Why not also interpret the term wife in the same way? The Gospel of Thomas has Jesus saying that women must become men to attain salvation. Does this mean there was a robust debate among early Christians about the theological subtleties and/or practicalities of sex-change procedures?
Additionally, St. Paul repeatedly likens the relationship of Christ to the church as that of a bridegroom to his bride, of a husband to his wife. St. John in his revelation speaks of the wedding of the Lamb. In fact, Jesus himself tells a parable in which he is a bridegroom coming for ten virgins.
In the end, this controversy panned out like nearly every other, with a lot of initial sensationalism, some hedging of bets in the actual presentation, and an eventual bit of walking it back a year and half later. Kind of boring, really, since these things generally tend to go this way.
The bottom line- the search for alternate Christianities is a dead-end, no matter how much sensationalism is attached to new discoveries of somewhat ancient papyri which may or may not be copies of papryi from even earlier.
And since this is my blog, I’m going give myself the final word, an updated headline that should have been used for this discovery:
Obscure 8th century Coptic scrap sheds light on what a previously unknown sect may have thought about what Jesus might have said about having a wife, even though we have no context for what wife means beyond the marital imagery employed in other Gnostic sects, which is so convoluted and dull that it wouldn’t make good link-bait.
Clearly I have a career in copywriting.