A Harvard professor recently announced what she called evidence that the early church, or at least sectors of it, believed that Jesus was married. Not surprisingly, a question about this came to the web site within hours. The question and answer are below.
I read this article and wondering is it true?? Here is the link:
The article is “true” in the sense that a fourth century papyrus with seven partial lines of script in the Coptic language was found. It is also true in the sense that the papyrus manuscript has a phrase “Jesus said to them, ‘my wife…’ What is not true is that this papyrus gives good evidence that Christians in the fourth century or earlier seriously considered the possibility that Jesus was married. There are several reasons that this is not the case.
1. This document is in Coptic (the language of Egyptian Christians from the third century onward). There is no evidence that there was a Greek version of this document, which pushes it, most likely, outside the main stream of Christianity.
2. The document has been tentatively dated to the fourth century (the 300’s AD) which is three hundred years after the death of Christ. Three hundred years is a long time. Three hundred years ago the American colonists were not to achieve their independence for another 65 years. A lot can happen in three hundred years. To infer a belief in the first century from a document from the fourth is a stretch.
3. When spinning theories about the interpretation of a tiny portion of a larger manuscript, we should begin with the most likely interpretation. Because the church is described as the “bride of Christ” in the New Testament (Ephesians 5:25-33), it is perfectly reasonable to conclude that this little manuscript is speaking of a metaphorical “wife” of Jesus: the Church. To create a highly speculative theory, based on virtually no information, that this manuscript implies that early Christians actually took it seriously that Jesus was married is irresponsible scholarship, given that we have a MUCH more likely explanation of this little Coptic passage. It is much more likely that the writer was referring to the spiritual relationship between Jesus and his church than to an actual marriage to an unknown Jewish woman (which would have been covered up in a massive conspiracy by the early church!).
4. Let us grant for a moment something which I believe is extremely unlikely, but which cannot absolutely be ruled out. Let us, for the sake of argument, grant at least the possibility that someone wrote a document claiming that Jesus had a wife, and that theory was still bouncing around in the fourth century in Egypt. If so, then we can conclude that this document would be coming from a group with some sort of theological agenda which caused it to invent this theory. The reason this is true is that we have thousands of documents for the early church fathers, and we have the New Testament documents. It is absurd to propose that Jesus actually had a secret wife and that the apostles and all the other close associates of Jesus hid this fact from the church. This theory is completely inconsistent with everything we know about the character of the apostles. It also flies in the face with all the information we have. There is no evidence that this bogus claim that Jesus had a wife was even mentioned in the first two centuries after his death. To speculate that this theory existed but was somehow suppressed is to argue without evidence, which is a very weak argument.
5. It is my opinion that this Harvard scholar is a publicity hound who is going to get a lot more publicity from this extremely unlikely theory than a much more boring but also much more believable interpretation of the find. I do not know her personally, obviously, so should be cautious about stating this opinion. However, given the facts at hand, it is the only reasonable explanation I can come up with to explain why she has put forward this theory. Of course, she is being cautious and only saying it is a possibility, but even to say this is a reasonable possibility is to fly in the face of every single piece of information we have on the life of Jesus and the history of his early church.
What is possible is that there was a group which claimed that Jesus was married. What is not possible is that the mainstream Christian church accepted this idea in the first two centuries. If the Harvard professor wants to propose that some sort of heretical group such as the Gnostics might have produced this document and that it reflects their philosophy that is not a completely unreasonable hypothesis. However 1. It is not the most reasonable hypothesis (the hypothesis that the writer has Jesus speaking metaphorically of the church is more likely) and 2. In any case, to extrapolate from this hypothesis to imply that the Christian Church in general accepted that Jesus was married is absurd.