So it appears Jesus may have had a wife. This new discovery, or possibly unlikely discovery, came a few days ago out of the academic studies of one Karen King, divinity professor, possessor of the Hollis Chair (first woman ever) at Harvard Divinity School. Dr. King has discovered a tiny piece of papyrus, a minute fragment, from a Coptic Christian (Egyptian) document in which Jesus is portrayed as offering the words, “my wife…”. King has stated that this is absolutely not proof that Jesus had a wife. Rather the text demonstrates what some early Christians may have believed about Jesus being married or shows that these Christians may have used the symbol of Jesus’ wife for some other meaning.
How does this new discovery, or better said new possibility, affect your own faith? Very likely some Christians will recoil in horror at such a blasphemous claim. Their response? “It can’t be true!” Others will embrace this possibility as another means of relating more meaningfully to Jesus, no longer aloof but “normal”, an everyday guy who, as was portrayed in Martin Scorcese’s controversial film “The Last Temptation of Christ” (based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis), was maybe a part-time Messiah but a full-time husband, dad, and granddad (although in the movie this was actually a dream Jesus has while on the Cross). Still others, I suspect, will give little attention to this announcement, for various reasons. Where do you come down? Does it matter, one way or the other, whether or not Jesus had a wife?
That question concerns me less than what I perceive to be an increasing desire among the elite members of North American academia (in the categories of Bible scholarship and Church history) to want to demythologize Jesus more and more, to the point where we may ask, as Mary Magdalene did at the sight of Jesus’ empty tomb, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they have put him. (John 20:13) The practice of demythologizing Jesus is not a new thing. It could be said to have begun with Albert Schweitzer in 1910 and his The Quest for the Historical Jesus. Rudolph Bultmann then continued the trend in scholarship, which other major academics have followed. Scholars of the liberal stream have continued this research right up to today, and the Karen Kings, Elaine Pagels, Karen Amstrongs, and John Dominic Crossans, just to name a few, have taken up the torch. But why? In eliminating many of those nasty divine or quasi-divine attributes of Jesus, he is brought down to our level, way down. Does that make him easier to worship or harder? If Jesus was just a regular guy with some keen insights into life and God, does that make him any different from the spiritually-attuned friend who offers life-counselling tips over a pint of Guinness and a burger? Do we want a Jesus who is completely demythologized, completely human, with no trace of divinity? Is there a hunger out there for a Jesus who argued with his beloved spouse about taking out the garbage? Who perhaps pretended to enjoy two hours of shopping at HomeSense? O.k., pardon my attempt at a little sarcastic humour.
A few years back, would-be archaeologist Simca Jacobivici made the monumental announcement, during Holy Week I believe, that he and his team had uncovered the burial box (ossuary) of Jesus himself! What would this mean for Christians everywhere who accept, heart and soul, the fact of Resurrection? But more to the point, why make the (as it turned out) unsubstantiated announcement in the first place, and why during Holy Week?
In the academic world a peculiar phrase has come to be widely known over past decades – “publish or perish”. The notion stresses the practical importance for academics to publish, make new discoveries, proffer new theories, get lots of press, bring wanted attention to their institutions, raise the profile of their schools, etc., and to do this or fall to the bottom of the academic heap, perhaps lose tenure, or lose one’s job! Can we assume the scholars of seminaries and theological colleges are somehow exempt from such pressures simply by the fact of their being academic leaders at places of learning where God or faith or religion is the focus? I’ve been reading John Dominic Crossan’s books since 1989. Appearing in magazines, on t.v. programs, excessively published, overly quoted by “Da Vinci Code” enthusiasts, he is the media darling of modern Bible scholarship. His prime cause over decades now has been to demythologize Jesus, erase virtually any divine qualities or claims which the Church has attached to Jesus since the very beginning, the earliest days of Church! Has Crossan aided the mission and cause of Christianity in our time, or has he done irreparable damage to the place of the Church in society today. By proffering his theories (and they are theories) as fact, he has fueled the very real hunger there seems to be in our culture to “take Jesus down”, bring him down to our level.
Did Jesus have a wife? I think not, but I don’t care. Were the remains of Jesus found in Jerusalem in an obscure burial box by a self-proclaimed expert in archaeology? I think not, but I don’t care. Was the Shroud of Turin the actual burial cloth of Jesus? I think not, but I don’t care.
There’s a reason so many “Gospels”, writings, and letters from ancient times didn’t make it into the Canon of scripture, and the reason is not conspiracy. Whether a bizarre phrase from a Gnostic Gospel or an equally bizarre, obscure phrase from a corner of an old Egyptian Coptic document, these diverse texts and writings were determined to be less in accord with the memories and experiences of Jesus passed on orally from generation to generation, than those writings which made it in. And then, as now, in coming to such decisions, in discerning such matters, the reliance on the guidance of the Holy Spirit was and is first and foremost in the whole endeavour.
We worship the living God. We trust the witness of scripture. We celebrate the Sacraments because Jesus told us to. We engage in service to the world because Jesus told us to, and showed us the Way. And in some unfathomable way we believe the Spirit of Christ is present with us, among us, within us.
Ours is a faith for today, and while discussions of ancient, familial, remote possibilities surrounding Jesus may prove interesting, ultimately are they not distracting from the work and ministries we are to be about as followers of Jesus today? Situations of injustice await our attention. Areas where compassion can create new tomorrows for suffering peoples await our service. People enslaved to a variety of oppressors, both corporate and personal, await our advocating for release. Those who are lost all around us await a gentle word of hope, of grace, of peace, of God.
Jesus’ wife… Maybe. Jesus’ disciples… Most definitely.
May we give over our gifts, ministries, indeed our lives to things that matter most – loving, witnessing, serving in Jesus’ name right now! Today! Where we live!
The Peace of Christ be with you!