No, People, a 4th Century Scrap Doesn’t Prove Jesus Had a Wife
So calm yourselves. First, what’s the provenance of the fragment? Was it discovered in a controlled scientific dig? Who are the excavators? Where are the photos of the artifact’s discovery in situ? Who deciphered it? What is its date?
A historian of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School has identified a scrap of papyrus that she says was written in Coptic in the fourth century and contains a phrase never seen in any piece of Scripture: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …’”
Again, what are the answers to the questions above. King isn’t an archaeologist so how did she come into possession of the piece? Furthermore, a statement on a papyrus fragment isn’t proof of anything. It’s nothing more than a statement ‘in thin air’, without substantial context. For all King knows (and those panting after the papyrus like it was a gold inscribed tablet dug up in Illinois and interpreted by the angel Morono) the full context is a joke of a letter written by one pagan to another.
The provenance of the papyrus fragment is a mystery, and its owner has asked to remain anonymous. Until Tuesday, Dr. King had shown the fragment to only a small circle of experts in papyrology and Coptic linguistics, who concluded that it is most likely not a forgery. But she and her collaborators say they are eager for more scholars to weigh in and perhaps upend their conclusions.
Ah, so it’s provenance is a mystery. That means, so far as real historians and biblical scholars are concerned, it’s rubbish. No provenance, no usefulness. The only people who accept unprovenanced artifacts are people who do shows for the Discovery Channel. Anyway I think the first thing that King needs to answer is where and when she got it and from whom and how. And then that person needs to turn over the chain of custody so that the piece can be understood properly. It may well not be a ‘forgery’ but without more context, both historically and archaeologically, the snippet is valueless.
She repeatedly cautioned that this fragment should not be taken as proof that Jesus, the historical person, was actually married. The text was probably written centuries after Jesus lived, and all other early, historically reliable Christian literature is silent on the question, she said.
Well that’s sensible. Taking a fragmentary statement in a fragmentary document and building a theory from it has already been done- and it resulted in miserable failure and widespread rejection (Panthera, father of Jesus, whatever happened to you?)
But the discovery is exciting, Dr. King said, because it is the first known statement from antiquity that refers to Jesus speaking of a wife. It provides further evidence that there was an active discussion among early Christians about whether Jesus was celibate or married, and which path his followers should choose. “This fragment suggests that some early Christians had a tradition that Jesus was married,” Dr. King said. “There was, we already know, a controversy in the second century over whether Jesus was married, caught up with a debate about whether Christians should marry and have sex.”
Actually the only thing it shows is that one (potential) Christian writing in Coptic in a document that is incomplete may or may not have been referring to a tradition concerning Jesus that was held by only himself or perhaps a handful of others.
In short, what it shows is that even now, when people should know better, they still are more than willing to say more than can honestly and confidently be said. I’m not accusing King of that- but those who will now run with her slight comment and slim evidence and produce mockumentaries from studios in Canada featuring talking heads and various ‘authorities’ keen to see themselves on TV.
UPDATE: A few other observations and news reports are available here, here (NBC), here, here (BBC) and most recently here and here in The Guardian. Simon Gathercole of Cambridge chimes in here. A new video completely ignores the question of provenance, but it seems that there are still those pretending that – even without provenance- this discovery is meaningful. Finally, Francis Watson shows that, beyond a doubt, the fragment is a fake (in three essays), and most recently in a more popularly aimed essay on B&I which includes even further information and an appendix by Stephen Carlson which is must reading.