But I’m excited by the news that a small rectangular piece of papyrus, seemingly from the writings of early Christians, has come to light which includes the phrase, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…’ ”
Historian Karen King of Harvard Divinity School, who translated the eight lines from the ancient Coptic language, thinks it’s authentic, and so do several of her colleagues.
But, either way, real or fake, I’m excited. Here’s why:
If scientific examination determines that these words were really written by an early follower of Jesus in the first centuries of Christianity, then the papyrus means that the idea of a married Christ wasn’t ridiculous or unthinkable for at least some of those first believers.
Remember, the Bible never says Jesus wasn’t married. It doesn’t mention his marital status. It does indicate that Peter, who eventually became the first Pope, had a wife. In fact, at one point, Jesus cures Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever.
Matthew 8: 14-15: “When Jesus came into Peter’s house, he saw Peter’s mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever. He touched her hand and the fever left her, and she got up and began to wait on him.” The gospels of Mark and Luke tell the same story.
Even if it’s legit
Let me hasten to say that, even if the papyrus is legit, it doesn’t mean that, in fact, Jesus had a wife.
The people who wrote and used the papyrus may have gotten wrong information, or they may have misunderstood or mistranslated the stories and words that had been handed down from Peter, Paul and the other apostles. After all, Christian tradition and teaching has long been that the man who died on the cross and then rose from the dead — the Son of God — was single and a virgin.
The scrap of papyrus, if authenticated, would mean only that this idea of a married Christ would have to be considered by theologians and biblical scholars. Those experts would have to figure out, if possible, when and where this fragment came from, and try to determine how it fits into the context of other lessons, beliefs and accounts from the early church.
Okay, so what if it’s fake?
In that case, King has a bit of egg on her face, but not much. She’s been exceedingly careful in her comments about the papyrus. She seems to have been cautious in selecting her words to describe the fragment and its contents. She certainly hasn’t tried to sensationalize the discovery or cash in on it.
A good thing
Yet, real or false, this papyrus is a good thing. That’s because it will get Christians and non-Christians to talk about idea of a married Jesus.
And anyone engaging in that talk will quickly come to the realization that the marital status of the Messiah really doesn’t matter.
The Sermon on the Mount is the same whether Jesus was a bachelor or a husband. The parable of the Good Samaritan, and all of the other parables, are the same regardless of whether Jesus ran them past a wife in a private chat before trotting them out in public.
The cure of the ten lepers, and all the other cures and all the other miracles, are the same. So is the agony in the garden of Gethsemane. So is the crucifixion on Calvary and, for believers, the resurrection.
The moral teachings and example of Jesus, married or unmarried, would be the same.
That’s what’s exciting about the news. If we come to recognize more clearly that it really makes no difference whether Jesus had a wife or not, why should it make a difference for those who follow in his footsteps as priests today in the Catholic Church?
Most other Christian faiths have acknowledged this, permitting their clergy to marry. Why not Catholic priests as well?
Although Catholic leaders have been requiring celibacy since around 300 A.D., the Vatican has permitted married Anglican priests who convert to Catholicism to serve as pastors and remain married. And, in 1993, Pope John Paul II acknowledged that celibacy “doesn’t belong to the essence of priesthood.”
So, maybe, the papyrus will spark enough discussion and thought to cause a shift in this church policy. And perhaps in another one as well.
In addition to the words “my wife,” the tiny scrap also has the clause, “she will be able to be my disciple.”
Is this a reference to women as priests? Talk about exciting.
This essay was published September 20, 2012 in the Chicago Tribune.