Harvard professor Karen King is publishing her findings on an ancient papyrus that mentions Jesus’ “wife.” What to think? Here are four items that should shape our perspective.
a) According to the New York Times article, “the provenance of the papyrus fragment is a mystery, and its owner has asked to remain anonymous.” The collector claims he “acquired it in a batch of papyri in 1997 from the previous owner, a German. It came with a handwritten note in German that names a professor of Egyptology in Berlin, now deceased, and cited him calling the fragment ‘the sole example’ of a text in which Jesus claims a wife.”
Great. We don’t even know where it came from. Did a now-deceased German Egyptologist study this “sole example” of a Jesus-wife without publishing anything on it? That’s odd. What’s more, the previous German owner is no longer around to clear things up. Do we just have to accept the (anonymous) current owner’s word? Most scholars rightly view unprovenanced finds with suspicion. A number of these “discoveries” have turned out to be forgeries. The consensus among the few scholars who have personally examined this papyrus is that it’s not a forgery, but we still don’t know the circumstances or context of its discovery. Those details greatly shape the way we understand and interpret finds.
b) When was this papyrus written? According to Dr. King, “The text was probably written centuries after Jesus lived.” As to Jesus being married, she acknowledges that “all other early, historically reliable Christian literature is silent on the question.” So this “sole example” dates to, at best, generations after Jesus and all of the original Christian literature. How would someone who lived so much later, (and in Egypt or Syria, to boot) know something different about Jesus’ marital status than all the previous writers?
But maybe Jesus was married unbeknownst to the first several generations of disciples. It’s certainly plausible. Here is a recent example of another historical figure’s previously-unknown-but-recently-discovered side.
c) The header to the NYT article shows a magnified view of the fragment along with a translation. The text is broken. Some suggest the “Mary” could be Mary Magdalene (Jesus’ wife?? Remember The Da Vinci Code?) but in my opinion this more easily refers to Jesus’ mother who is mentioned in the first line. The reference to Jesus’ wife could be a New Testament-esque reference to his followers (see next point). Or it could refer to a spouse who is as historically genuine as Lincoln the Vampire Hunter.
d) The New Testament does in fact speak of Jesus having a wife. Jesus alludes to himself as a “bridegroom” in Matthew 9:14-15. (Also in Mark 2:18-20 and Luke 5:33-35) Paul taught that the husband-wife relationship is analogous to that of Christ and the Church. (Ephesians 5:31-32) The book of Revelation presents Jesus as a lamb in its 5th chapter and later reveals “the Bride, the wife of the Lamb” in Revelation 21. The “Bride” is a city whose gates are the tribes of Israel and whose foundations are the apostles. In short, New Testament writings present Jesus as the “husband” of His people. Ephesians 5:21-33 expounds on this relationship.
Dr. King’s article on this newly-announced papyrus is slated to appear in January. The fragment probably provides insights into various things and I’m curious to see scholars’ conclusions. Whatever its historical value, the papyrus does not provide anything substantive for those seeking to get Jesus hitched.