Mrs. Jesus and the Zombie Gnostics


In what can only be termed predictable hilarity, every year (sometimes even twice a year!) we are treated to the latest round of a discovery so shocking,  so earth-shattering that all of Christian history will have to be re-thought, re-examined and- once the books get written and the A&E documentaries get produced- re-purchased.

This year was no deviation from the norm. In fact, the only real surprise was that the announcement did not come a bit closer to Christmas. (However, given the state of the economy, the timing may be fortuitous since it gives a little more time for market exposure.) The cycle goes a little like this:

  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.

This year’s bit of fun was the so-called Gospel of Jesus’ Wife. As with most of these shocking discoveries/announcements, the furor erupts because some sect with gnostic tendencies possibly located somewhere within the span of 350 years or so wrote something which happened to survive to the present day. (maybe) Normally this would be treated as any other kind of historical ephemera, but not so with the gnostics.

No, the Gnostics were those champions of individuality and freedom of thought and expression who with unsurpassed tenacity had the temerity to stand up to the stuffy, mean old members of the orthodox party who hated everything and wanted to keep any sort of emanations under wraps. (double entendre intentional)

All that of course is a bit tongue-in-cheek. There was never such a monolithic group as the Gnostics. Rather, Gnosticism is better used (if at all) as a catch-all term for quasi-Christian (and sometimes not even that) splinter groups during the first couple centuries of the common era whose beliefs/practices/whatever are as nebulous and impervious to categorization as the term itself. Broadly speaking, they had as a doctrinal underpinning the notion of a specialized form of gnosis (knowledge) as the means to salvation.

Naturally, such a description doesn’t really say anything at all, which is why Gnosticism as a term is little better than useless.

Actually, it is really only useful because broadly saying salvation by knowledge makes a hell of a lot more sense then describing the manifold emanations of the Aeons from the Proarche, the abortive anti-emanation of the Demiurge from Sophia as a misguided attempt at divine mimicry, or any host of other esoteric gems. Theories of emanation are probably more descriptive of gnosticism than the term from which its name is derived, but emanationist doesn’t sound as sexy.

Fruits from Bythus streaming, indeed.


Soul from air forth flashing

One of the tendencies within modern historical scholarship in regards to the gnostics is to see them as an alternate Christianity. The gist of the narrative (which, like the gnostic sects, splits off into numerous theories and bits of speculation) is that in the early days of Christianity there were basically two paths that were being forged- the path struck by the so-called orthodox which broadly conforms to what we understand of orthodox Christian history, (boo and hiss) and the path struck by the gnostics. (yay!) The general idea (at least as it gets filtered into the more popular conception) is to understand this conflict as being more or less dominated by the orthodox party which could not brook dissent from the more open and, dare I say it?, tolerant gnostics who were supposedly more open to understanding things less literally, dogmatically, or whatever modern preoccupations and prejudices one wishes to project upon them.

To some extent this narrative has merit. Even in the later New Testament writings we see conflicts beginning to arise with those referred to as false teachers, which some would categorize as proto-gnostics. Of course, within the aforementioned narrative the now-judged judgmental nature of the New Testament writings must be allowed some measure for circumspection, since the highly biased and religiously charged nature of the polemic contained therein can give us no confidence for its veracity concerning its opponents, and must be seen as a way of exercising power since the written word simply becomes another means to dominate the religious and philosophical questions being approached within the broader community.

Within this sort of approach to these issues, the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife is not merely the ramblings of some sect that by a sheer accident of history managed to emerge somewhat preserved. The very fact that this sort of thing even exists is now evidence that discussions about Jesus’ marital status (and thus a host of any number of other issues one might wish to insert) were robust, diverse and shed light on other paths that Christian theology and practice could have taken.

That numerous book deals and documentaries spring forth from this notion like Nous and Aletheia from Sige, the erstwhile companion of Proarche, is delightful. Certainly no one can blame them- someone has to fill out the Ogdoad.

Wait, what’s that you say? The phrase filling out is indicative of a pleroma?



I meant what you said

Gnostic humor aside, the problem, of course, is that this little scrap doesn’t really say anything of the sort. Although many scholars are convinced that it is actually a more modern forgery, one Francis Watson has demonstrated (some think conclusively) that, whatever it is, it’s most likely just a bad copy of the Gospel of Thomas by someone who doesn’t know much about the Coptic language. (As a side note, I think Watson’s evaluation of the stakes attached to this are a bit hyperbolic.)

Although many media reports (which are almost always ridiculous when it comes to these sorts of things) characterized this as opening up speculation on to whether Jesus was actually married or not, the author’s analysis was much less sensational. (As is nearly always the case.) She specifically stated that it did not provide any additional evidence about the historical Jesus, a statement many media reports conveniently left out. After all, Did Jesus Have a Wife? makes for more link-bait than Obscure 4th century Coptic scrap sheds light on what a previously unknown sect may have thought about what Jesus might have said about having a wife.

Rather, the pretext of the announcement was that, for the first time in history, we have evidence of some Christian group (or even quasi-Christian group) with a text wherein Jesus speaks to maybe, possibly having a wife. Prof. King believed the text to be from a fourth-century document that is a reproduction of a second-century production. The argument goes as follows:

Nevertheless, if the second century date of composition is correct, the fragment does provide direct evidence that claims about Jesus’s marital status first arose over a century after the death of Jesus in the context of intra-Christian controversies over sexuality, marriage, and discipleship. Just as Clement of Alexandria (d. ca 215 C.E.) described some Christians who insisted Jesus was not married, this fragment suggests that other Christians of that period were claiming that he was married.

An interesting argument to be sure, but even as it is presented it is suspect and even a bit misleading. For example, we start off with the statement that this text provides direct evidence concerning claims about Jesus’ marital status. The example proffered is Clement of Alexandria (a late 2nd to early 3rd century writer) who wrote this:

There are some who say outright that marriage is fornication and teach that it was introduced by the devil. They proudly say that they are imitating the Lord who neither married nor had any possession in this world, boasting that. they understand the gospel better than anyone else. The Scripture says to them: “God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Further, they do not know the reason why the Lord did not marry .In the first place he had his own bride, the Church; and in the next place he was no ordinary man that he should also be in need of some helpmeet after the flesh. Nor was it necessary for him to beget children since he abides eternally and was born the only Son of God. It is the Lord himself who says: “That which God has joined together, let no man put asunder.” And again: “As it was in the days of Noah, they were marrying, and giving in marriage, building and planting, and as it was in the days of Lot, so shall be the coming of the Son of man.” And to show that he is not referring to the heathen he adds: “When the Son of man is come, shall he find faith on the earth?” And again: “Woe to those who are with child and are giving suck in those days,” a saying, I admit, to be understood allegorically. The reason why he did not determine “the times which the Father has appointed by his own power” was that the world might continue from generation to generation.

It is worth noting that among the discussions about Jesus’ marital status in this section there is no implication that Clement nor his interlocutors nor his polemic targets had any notion that Jesus was married. The whole point of this section is that some people put off marriage, perceiving it as evil, and then justify such a position by claiming that Jesus did not marry for the same reason. Clement’s answer to this reasoning is not to suggest that Jesus was married or possibly married but rather to explain why Jesus wasn’t married. 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.

But King then moves from this statement into a fairly large non sequitur: if people were using Jesus’ celibacy as a justification for their forgoing of marriage, then perhaps the inverse is true and there was, as she mentioned to the New York Times, an active discussion among early Christians about whether Jesus was celibate or married, and which path his followers should choose, as suggested by this fragment.

So we have subtly moved from direct evidence to a text fragment that suggests something.

Got it.

The latter part of that statement, (which path his followers should choose) which is found in Clement, is certainly true, but that does not therefore imply the former assertion. (active discussion about Jesus’ marital status.) The only mention we get from Clement is that people were choosing celibacy or marriage within the understanding that Jesus was not married. 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.

That is not substantially different from the sort of argument Clement is addressing more than a century later. True, the mode of argumentation is more subtle, but the underlying logic is the same: for those who forbid it/think it is evil, the reason is because of the sinfulness of the material world.


Walking down the aisle

But, to be fair, one might ask if a text wherein Jesus mentions having a wife might not actually suggest this despite no corroboration elsewhere. One of the difficulties is that the fragment itself is tiny and devoid of nearly any other context. The full text is as follows:

1. ] not [to] me. My mother gave to me li[fe]
2. ] The disciples said to jesus, “.[
3. ] deny. mary is worthy go it* [ (*alternate: mary is n{to} worthy of it.)
4. ] ……” Jesus said to them, “My wife..[
5. ] … she will be able to be my disciple.. [
6. [ Let wicked people swell up… [
7. As for me, I dwell with her in order to . [
8. [ an image [

Yes, this comprises the contents of something so devastating to Christianity that everything will have to be rethought and retooled.

Back to the context. many gnostic writings were nothing if not cryptic- the whole point of gnosis as a specialized form of knowledge is that only those who have it, well, know it. Notwithstanding the similarities to the Gospel of Thomas that are obvious to anyone familiar with it, these sorts of statements could really be about anything. There is little in here which merits the fanfare this discovery has received. From the moment I saw the headlines I knew this was going to end up being a yawner.

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.

Coming this Easter: Jesus the polygamist!

From the earliest Christian writings it is fairly evident that marital imagery was used to describe Christ’s relationship to the church. (This itself had precedence from the same sort of imagery employed in describing the relationship between God and Israel.) There is thus a fairly robust familiarity and comfortability with using this kind of language in a non-literal way when speaking about Jesus. As such, the assumption that this text fragment must be understood literally when similar language is used differently seems presumptuous, especially when the complete ambiguity and lack of context of the text is considered. Given the similarity to the Gospel of Thomas and Thomas’ generally esoteric and ahistorical nature, one might be more inclined to assume this text fragment is operating under a similar method.

Whatever this text fragment was meant to say, there is as strong a likelihood that it was meant allegorically as it was historically, even if only to anachronistically make a theological point. Gnostic writers had a tendency to use abstract terms as placeholders for their theological imaginings. Tertullian, writing in the late 2nd century, has a bit of fun with the Valentinians nomenclature:

For, behold, when the second Tetrad— Sermo and Vita, Homo and Ecclesia — had borne fruit to the Father’s glory, having an intense desire of themselves to present to the Father something similar of their own, they bring other issue into being — conjugal of course, as the others were — by the union of the twofold nature. On the one hand, Sermo and Vita pour out at a birth a half-score of Æons; on the other hand, Homo and Ecclesia produce a couple more, so furnishing an equipoise to their parents, since this pair with the other ten make up just as many as they did themselves procreate. I now give the names of the half-score whom I have mentioned: Bythios (Profound) and Mixis (Mixture), Ageratos (Never old) and Henosis (Union), Autophyes (Essential nature) and Hedone (Pleasure), Acinetos (Immoveable) and Syncrasis (Commixture,) Monogenes (Only-begotten) and Macaria (Happiness). On the other hand, these will make up the number twelve (to which I have also referred): Paracletus (Comforter) and Pistis (Faith), Patricas (Paternal) and Elpis (Hope), Metricos (Maternal) and Agape (Love), Ainos (Praise) and Synesis (Intelligence), Ecclesiasticus (Son of Ecclesia) and Macariotes (Blessedness), Theletus (Perfect) and Sophia (Wisdom).

I cannot help here quoting from a like example what may serve to show the import of these names. In the schools of Carthage there was once a certain Latin rhetorician, an excessively cool fellow, whose name was Phosphorus. He was personating a man of valour, and wound up with saying, “I come to you, excellent citizens, from battle, with victory for myself, with happiness for you, full of honour, covered with glory, the favourite of fortune, the greatest of men, decked with triumph.” And immediately his scholars begin to shout for the school of Phosphorus, φεῦ (ah!). Are you a believer in Fortunata, and Hedone, and Acinetus, and Theletus? Then shout out your φεῦ for the school of Ptolemy. This must be that mystery of the Pleroma, the fullness of the thirty-fold divinity.

Given this tendency, why might wife not be a stand-in for something other than an actual, flesh-and-blood wife? Here’s a nugget from Ireneaus describing what some gnostic sects predicated of Jesus:

He maintains, therefore, that Jesus is the name of that man formed by a special dispensation, and that He was formed after the likeness and form of that [heavenly] Anthropos, who was about to descend upon Him. After He had received that Æon, He possessed Anthropos himself, and Logos himself, and Pater, and Arrhetus, and Sige, and Aletheia, and Ecclesia, and Zoe.

So if Jesus possesses Ecclesia in this procession and possession of Aeons, and if the scriptures makes mention of how the ecclesia is the bride of Christ, it seems at least plausible to suggest that this fragment with absolutely no context might have something like this in mind, since these are the sorts of interpretations that some gnostics gave to these types of things, even if it’s clad in the quasi-historical stylings of gnostic gospels. At the very least, one thing we’d have to say for Mrs. Jesus: it’s getting a bit crowded in here.


Wake me when it’s interesting

Of course, none of this is terribly interesting if the text fragment is a modern forgery, which it probably is. However, what if it isn’t? What does it tell us?

Not much, actually. As has already been seen, in any debates that invoked Jesus’ marital status the presumption by both parties was that he was not married. This fragment is potentially evidence that some sect somewhere modified the Gospel of Thomas in some respect so that Jesus says something wherein the phrase ‘my wife’ appears.

Shocking and earth-shattering, I know.

One thing that stands out in this whole non-issue (which is usually not raised) is that it brings into relief the nature of these sorts of announcements and how they all invariably become ultimately yawn-inducing. There is very good reason for this.

Brace yourself: There aren’t going to be any earth-shattering discoveries about Christianity that will require complete re-evaluation.

This might seem hubris, but its actually quite simple. As we see merely from the isolated quotes from Tertullian and Clement and Irenaeus, the sort of things that so captivate and intrigue us (as well as providing link-bait for news outlets and research funding for academics) are not really hidden or lost things being uncovered, but rather writings and thoughts that were both fairly well-known and ultimately rejected when they were current.

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.

Writers such as Irenaeus wrote entire books cataloging and confronting the aberrant theologies and philosophical systems that had attached themselves to Christianity. To be sure, they probably did not know of them all and could not have responded to them all, but then again, most sects were quite small and merited little attention. Much of what we find in the gnostic gospels is pretty close to what we see described in Christian polemicists of the first few centuries. The sheer variety of different gnostic-ish sects that existed (Hippolytus lists at least 30) covers a wide berth of speculation and theology. The difficulty with such a catch-all term like gnosticism is that it can give the impression of a monolith, when actually the various sects were quite diverse.

Within such a situation, one might reasonably ask how an obscure text fragment that has no corroboration anywhere else suggests the sort of active discussion predicated of it? If this discussion was so active, why does no one else even mention it in passing? Perhaps it really is an emanation of Sige… (silence)

But then we are brought back to the grand narrative. Is this not itself evidence of the oppressive nature of the orthodox party, stamping out dissent wherever it is found? No doubt some measure of oppression occurred somewhere at some time, but there is little evidence of a wide-spread system of stamping out dissent. After all, during the height of gnosticism the church was hardly in a position to orchestrate any wide ranging eradication of conflicting doctrine. The world in which Christianity sprang up was a hodge-podge of religious and philosophical systems- not even those with the means to have some measure of control over religion or thought could effectively carry it out. (Although that didn’t stop parts of the Empire from trying from time to time.)

A simpler yet less-sexy narrative is more likely- the gnostic sects died out because their ideas/beliefs/doctrines/whatever were substandard and couldn’t be sustained over generations. Sure, it is tantalizing to imagine crooked and power-hungry old sex-starved bishops beating poor gnostics in the streets with their croziers, gleefully tossing their tomes into the purifying fires of dogmatic absolution.

But in reality, parchment and papyrus was expensive. Neither lasted very long if there was no one to preserve it, unless you lucked out and died in a cave in the desert. (Look at you, lucky one!) Actually, your best bet was to write something that would catch the attention of someone who would preserve your thoughts while simultaneously rebutting them in his own writing.

Hmmm… death in ignominy or a drubbing for the ages?

But what about the book burnings? Sure, no doubt some orthodox Christians somewhere heaped books into the fire. But unless we presume the gnostics to have been absolute idiots who put their writings in display cases emblazoned with its contents and a placard taunting someone to burn it, one might give them the benefit of the doubt and suspect they had the intelligence to store them someplace less accessible/known/obvious. And lo and behold, a lot of their writings have been found in caves and other such places, so fortunate to escape the evidently omnipresent orthodox who clearly made systematic sweeps of the entire world to burn every book that wasn’t approved. Except for missing those damn caves! No doubt one of St. Peter’s successors continually did the face-palm when his minions failed to search out such obvious and accessible locations.

Again, a simpler and less sexy approach may be in order. As we see from the account in Acts regarding the conversion of some people in Ephesus, sometimes people burn their own books. Such an act during conversion was not uncommon, since it symbolized turning one’s back on the mystical and spiritual underpinnings one had once been bound to. The same even happened with Christians during the persecutions; sometimes when they went to sacrifice to Caesar they would bring along their copies of the sacred texts to burn. Why might this not have happened with some gnostics who converted/reverted?

Sure, our modern sensibilities might bristle against ever burning a book, but then again we have our own absurdities to deal with.

Of course, the simplest explanation is just time. Parchment and papyrus wear out and decay. If a sect dwindles in numbers and eventually dies out, its literature doesn’t have much chance of surviving. Thus, in the supreme irony, much of what we know about the gnostic sects thus comes from their orthodox detractors.

And as sexy as the gnostics might seem, most of us would probably find them astonishingly dull. The popular conception that is often presented is of quasi-hippies of antiquity, embracing egalitarianism and freedom and openness to new ideas and exploring new horizons of thought. However, many of the sects were rigid ascetics, which naturally flows from perceiving the material world to be fundamentally evil. To be sure, there were some who were outright libertines, but most shunned pleasure and sex and all the things we moderns find oh-so-appealing. Reading through their texts is usually abject drudgery, as the pedantic nonsense is out of reach not for its profundity but rather for its asininity. Valentinus was probably the only really interesting one, and his hymn (preserved by Hippolytus) is actually pretty striking.

All things whirled on by spirit, I see
Flesh from soul depending,
And soul from air forth flashing,
And air from aether hanging,
And fruits from Bythus streaming,
And from womb the infant growing.

No wonder he is one of the only gnostics (more accurately, Valentinians) who merits mention by name.


Get on with it

All of this is to say that, no, there really aren’t any gnostic zombies. While the artifacts and scraps of parchment we are bound still to find may shed light on a particular sect’s beliefs/practices/etc., there is no Mrs. Jesus to be found.

In an inversion of the saying, everything new is old again.


Leave a Reply to Andy Cancel reply

  • “As we see merely from the isolated quotes from Tertullian and Clement and Irenaeus, the sort of things that so captivate and intrigue us (as well as providing link-bait for news outlets and research funding for academics) are not really hidden or lost things being uncovered, but rather writings and thoughts that were both fairly well-known and ultimately rejected when they were current.”

    Great point, and one that I wish was understood by more people, but alas, it is, as you point out, less sexy.

    “Sure, it is tantalizing to imagine crooked and power-hungry old sex-starved bishops beating poor gnostics in the streets with their croziers, gleefully tossing their tomes into the purifying fires of dogmatic absolution.”

    Strange how close this is to the mission statement of the school of theology at Harvard…

    • Great point, and one that I wish was understood by more people, but alas, it is, as you point out, less sexy.

      My entire life mission is to say things in as non-sexy a way as possible. 🙂

      These sorts of subjects remind me of the Lewis quote you mentioned in a different post about ‘chronological snobbery’, which is now something forever embedded in my head. Thanks 🙂

      Strange how close this is to the mission statement of the school of theology at Harvard…

      lol! Delicious.

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