In the News: Was Jesus Married? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Kris Brewer   
Thursday, 20 September 2012 18:13

There was an interesting article in the New York Times, September 18, 2012, entitled:  A Faded Piece of Papyrus Refers to Jesus’ Wife. The article begins by trying to establish a contradiction between scripture and history, bolstering the argument by citing an “expert” in the field. Here is the opening paragraph:


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…’”


Continuing to read the article, one discovers that this small fragment of papyrus is smaller than a business card, and has only eight lines of writing on one side, with the black ink legible under a magnifying glass. It also contains what is cited as a “second provocative clause” that says, “she will be able to be my disciple.” The article does relate the fact that the provenance of the papyrus fragment “is a mystery.” This means they do not really know the background of the scrap of papyrus, such as where it came from, or whether it is even authentic. It has been dated preliminarily to the 4th century.


The article continues to speculate:


“Even with many questions unsettled, the discovery could reignite the debate over whether Jesus was married, whether Mary Magdalene was his wife and whether he had a female disciple. These debates date to the early centuries of Christianity, scholars say. But they are relevant today, when global Christianity is roiling over the place of women in ministry and the boundaries of marriage.”

This type of speculation will no doubt stir up old controversies, giving new fuel to arguments surrounding the priesthood of the Roman Catholic Church, marriage in general, and the role of women in the church. However, looking at many of these problems, it is clear that there is no real problem and the contradictions only exist in the minds of those who want to reject the clear teaching of scriptures. It becomes imperative that we look at what is put forth as “evidence,” and have the cognitive ability to recognize what is fact and what is mere propaganda. Whether one wants to admit it or not, there is a clear agenda that is being set forth and Christians are the target of that agenda! The remainder of this article will focus on this real problem, and how the New York Times article is a representation of it.


Seeking Scriptural Contradiction… It is clear that there are many people who are looking for any piece of evidence, no matter how small, that contradicts what the scriptures have to say. It is sad to see that the Harvard Divinity School is among those who are so intent on looking for such contradictions that they put out such shoddy, unconfirmed information! The New York Times, as well, is an accomplice in pushing such a contradiction. It is not until about halfway through the article that the author mentions that Dr. King, the historian at the Harvard Divinity School, warned to be cautious in interpreting this information:


“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.”

This is a typical approach to take, leaving the supposition open that all the information given in the article has been factual, only later to mention almost in passing that there is a question concerning the account.


The fact of the matter is that this piece of writing, if it is indeed even found to be authentic, was penned some 300 years after the death of Christ! Even if the authenticity of the document can be proven, the accuracy of its factualness cannot. The article argues that the small piece of papyrus was copied into the Coptic language from a second century Greek text similar to the Gospel of Thomas, which has been discredited by most conservative scholars due to its many contradictions with canonized scripture. So, if this is the case, then the importance of the find is nothing more than an historical confirmation that false doctrine began early and spread quickly. There is certainly nothing new (at least as has been revealed by the owners/custodians of this document to the present time) in this document that would suggest that it impacts the factualness of the more solidly proven and accepted scriptures!


Misinterpretation of Scripture... The next problem that is prevalent in this article and is common in the attack in the agenda against biblical Christianity, is to misinterpret scripture. This is evident in the current example by the author suggesting that Jesus did not allow women to be His disciples.


First, it is evident from studying scripture that Jesus had female disciples. Throughout His ministry, He taught women just as He taught men. For example, Mary and Martha were both disciples that sat and listened to the teaching of Jesus. The problem arises when words such as disciple are extended beyond what they originally meant. The Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon defines the word disciple as:


3101 μαθητής [mathetes /math·ay·tes/] n m. From 3129; TDNT 4:415; TDNTA 552; GK 3412; 269 occurrences; AV translates as “disciple” 268 times, and “vr disciple” once. 1 a learner, pupil, disciple.

In the article, the idea is conveyed that one who is a disciple is one who is actively involved “in the ministry.” It is correct to note that in the New Testament all disciples were active in ministry, but the implication of the article is that being active in ministry necessarily means that one can and should take on leadership roles in the church. Thus, the argument swells that if Jesus had a female disciple, He was giving authority for women to be active in the public teaching of the gospel message, such as being evangelists and pastors. This abuse of the words chosen by the biblical authors is indicative of the greater problem: pushing a modernist agenda! Anyone who spends much time examining even the cultural circumstances of the first century would acknowledge that there was no place for women to take on such leadership roles, as they would not have been tolerated. That does not suggest that Jesus’ teachings were either designed to protect or be restrained to the cultural norms of His day. However, to base an argument on a document from the 4th century that purports to exhibit a right that was missing both in societal norms, as well as in all accepted scripture, is fallacious at best!


Dislike of Biblical Teaching... Perhaps the most telling issue in the agenda against Christianity is the desire to find evidence that would destroy clear biblical teaching. It is no secret that most of today’s scholars do not like the biblical teaching on the role of women in the church.


Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says. And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church. (1 Corinthians 14:34–35)

Passages like this are clear enough as to leave no interpretive problems, however the obvious conclusions are not popular even among Bible students today. For this reason, many will grasp onto any shred of evidence that they can find to dismiss these passages, and practice what they want to without consequence. A find, such as the one reported in the article under consideration, seems to support what people want to believe, rather than supporting what is clearly taught in the pages of God’s word. This is appealing to many, who have a desire to please themselves rather than submit to the will of God!


There will always be challenges that arise for Christians. Unfortunately, we live in a time when there is a full out attack against those who simply want to abide by what the scriptures have to say. The agenda is sometimes well disguised, but it is there. Attacks hidden behind intellectualism and academia are no less severe. In fact, these types of assaults on Christianity can be extremely damaging, as they appeal to the vanity of many people. The idea is presented that this is what “smart people” believe, and to be among that number you too need to accept it. It is the same approach that has been taken for many years to gain acceptance of issues like the Theory of Evolution and homosexuality.


We as Christians can continue to have confidence in the legitimacy of scripture. What we now have in the biblical canon has withstood the test of time and scrutiny. While it is always beneficial to consider evidence, it is also wise to realize that every time a troubling discovery is made, it does not bear the same weight of proof of that which has already been tested in the fire! Christians, with faith in the word of God, are not suddenly troubled by a scrap of paper that has yet to even be authenticated as coming from the 4th century, let alone authenticated as the words of our Lord. There certainly is no cause to call for changes in faith and practice based upon such flimsy evidence. As the apostle Paul often wrote, “Be not deceived...”

Last Updated on Thursday, 20 September 2012 18:21


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This is the personal page of Kris Brewer, who currently works with the Gallatin Valley church of Christ in Bozeman, Montana.

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