If you’ve been watching the news lately, you’ve probably seen the news about the recent papyrus discovery that has been used to support the notion that Jesus had a wife. (See the NY Times article for more information) Unsurprisingly, this has created an uproar in the media with many of those outside the orthodox Christian community saying “See! We told you Jesus has a wife! Now we have proof!”
Not so fast. I will not take the time to fully rebut the outlandish notion that Jesus had a wife nor will I here address the Gnostic Gospels, from which much of this idea has spawned. (Maybe in a later post?) Those are complex issues which are either best left to scholars much smarter than I, or to those who have the time to research it. But, this particular papyrus will be easy enough to address briefly using a little common sense (which, as the saying goes, is not so common!).
Here are a few observations about this papyrus that should help to dispel some of the sensationalism surrounding it:
1) The supporting evidence is out of context and incomplete. The piece of papyrus in question is very small and has been torn from a larger piece. The phrases cited as evidence for this “Mrs. Jesus” theory are cut off and have no context around them. One line simply says, ‘Jesus said to them, “My wife…”‘ and another says, “…she will be able to be my disciple.” We have no idea what the rest of these sentences are, nor what the context of these statements is. One could take Revelation 21:9 out of context as biblical support for this theory as well: “…’Come here, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.'” (NASB) Taken out of context, one might say, “See! Even the Bible acknowledges that Jesus (aka–the “Lamb”) had a wife!” But who is this wife? Well, the context of Revelation 21:2 makes this more clear: “And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. (NASB) The “wife” of Christ is none other than the “New Jerusalem,” or as elsewhere stated in the Bible, the Church. Unfortunately, we do not have the context of this piece of papyrus, so we don’t even know for sure that it does claim that Jesus had a wife.
2) The claims of this papyrus are irrelevant and untrustworthy. Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that the rest of this piece of papyrus does go on to claim that Jesus had a wife. So what? If I, claiming to be a Christian, write on a piece of paper that I’ve received a “New Revelation” that the world is going to end at precisely 12:15 pm on October 3, 2012, does that make it true? Does the fact that I claim to be a Christian automatically make my writings canonical (i.e., part of the Bible)? Of course not. There is no evidence that any substantial portion of the early church, founded by Jesus’ followers and contemporaries, believed that Jesus had a wife, nor that they accepted anything as the inspired Word of God other than the 27 books that comprise our New Testament. In fact, there is plenty of evidence to the contrary! While the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) were written within decades of Jesus’ death, this piece of papyrus dates to hundreds of years later. Those who lived contemporaneously with Jesus accepted the accounts of these four gospels. By analogy, if someone claimed that it wasn’t commercial airliners that hit the World Trade Centers on 9/11 but Russian missiles, how likely is it that such a story would be widely accepted? Indeed, it would be very unlikely. Why? Because there are numerous eye-witnesses who could testify otherwise. The gospels were “published” and widely accepted as accurate when thousands of eye-witnesses were still living, giving credence to their claims. In short, even if this piece of papyrus claims that Jesus had a wife, that doesn’t prove that he did. To the contrary, all widely accepted accounts of Jesus’ life were written within a short period of time after his death and they all unanimously imply that he was unmarried.
In conclusion, to echo the words of Albert Mohler, such hype over this piece of papyrus does not reflect genuine scholarship, but “sensationalism masquerading as scholarship.” To those in my audience who remain skeptical or unconvinced, let me challenge you to apply the same skepticism that you have toward the widely accepted, historically reliable biblical texts to this small, fragmentary, historically-questionable piece of papyrus. Are you willing to believe that some Christians would be willing to conspire to cover up the truth of Jesus’ life? Then let me challenge you to be willing to believe that some non-Christians might be willing to conspire to denigrate his life and slander the truths purported in the Bible. Let’s apply our skepticism equally.
Lastly, I am troubled by the trend I see in many non-Christians to be quick to dismiss the Bible as being “full of errors” and “not telling the whole story” (and, therefore, to be quick to jump on the conspiracy wagon), and yet being unwilling to read it for themselves. Do you think the Bible is in error, that it contains contradictions? Read it and see for yourself and find out. Let’s not judge a book we’ve not read, and let’s not jump to premature conclusions about an incomplete piece of papyrus of unknown origin.