Stop the presses! Jesus was married! Oh no!

The Da Vinci Code may have come and gone, but the same dubious “scholarship”, breathless “gotcha!” tactics, and general, sloppy silliness lives on—in the New York Times:

A Faded Piece of Papyrus Refers to Jesus’ Wife

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — 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 …’”

The faded papyrus fragment is smaller than a business card, with eight lines on one side, in black ink legible under a magnifying glass. Just below the line about Jesus having a wife, the papyrus includes a second provocative clause that purportedly says, “she will be able to be my disciple.”

The finding was made public in Rome on Tuesday at an international meeting of Coptic scholars by the historian Karen L. King, who has published several books about new Gospel discoveries and is the first woman to hold the nation’s oldest endowed chair, the Hollis professor of divinity.

Let’s be clear: I don’t have a problem with a news story about this fourth-century scrap of gnostic text that has little or nothing to do with the historical Jesus described in the four Gospels and testified to by first-century Christian witnesses. I do have a problem with how the story is presented, as it is simply misleading. First, the headline: “…Refers to Jesus’ Wife”. Sure, it may refer to “Jesus’ wife”, but that is akin to me writing a note with reference to George Washington’s harem or mention of Thomas Jefferson’s homosexual lover. Saying it doesn’t make it so, especially many decades, or even centuries, after the fact.

The article is backloaded, if you will, so that some proper historical context isn’t really provided until the eighth paragraph, which states:

[King] 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.

Oh. Huh. So, in other words, this is just another Dan Brown-like tempest in a teapot? To a large degree, yes, although the discovery of such ancient texts is always of interest to scholars (as they should be), even if they don’t prove what the New York Times wishes it did. Consider that prior to paragraph #8, reporter Laurie Goodstien works her readership over with all of the subtlety of a desperate cage-fighting promoter:

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.

The discussion is particularly animated in the Roman Catholic Church, where despite calls for change, the Vatican has reiterated the teaching that the priesthood cannot be opened to women and married men because of the model set by Jesus.

Dr. King gave an interview and showed the papyrus fragment, encased in glass, to reporters from The New York Times, The Boston Globe and Harvard Magazine in her garret office in the tower at Harvard Divinity School last Thursday. She left the next day for Rome to deliver her paper on the find on Tuesday at the International Congress of Coptic Studies.

Wow, what a wealth of wishful thinking: “…the discovery could reignite the debate…”, “But they are relevant today,…”, “Roman Catholic Church … despite calls for change…” Nope, there’s no agenda or naked bias here—just good, old-fashioned reporting about Jesus and his lovely wife! I also like how Goodstein is so keen on reminding readers at least three times that Prof. King teaches at (make proper bowing motion now) Harvard. That seals the deal! Except, alas, King herself isn’t nearly as carried away as the earnest reporter:

The notion that Jesus had a wife was the central conceit of the best seller and movie “The Da Vinci Code.” But Dr. King said she wants nothing to do with the Code or its author: “At least, don’t say this proves Dan Brown was right.”

No need to say it: just imply it every which possible and hope readers aren’t paying close attention.

For more about gnosticism and the “gnostic gospels”, see these excerpts from The Da Vinci Hoax, as well as this lengthy discussion of things gnostic.

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About Carl E. Olson 1197 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.