Sep. 18, 2012 at 8:18 PM ET
A fourth-century fragment of papyrus that quotes Jesus telling his disciples about "my wife" has set off a buzz among scriptural scholars — but this is no "Da Vinci Code" come true. Rather, the "Gospel of Jesus' Wife" is just the latest discovery to suggest how the early Christian church took shape.
Fans of the Dan Brown thriller are already familiar with the theory that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a husband-and-wife relationship. The basis for such speculation lies in Gnostic gospels that came out in the second, third and fourth centuries, but were left out of the standardized scriptures — texts such as the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Mary and the recently reconstructed Gospel of Judas.
Even though only a few phrases can be read on the papyrus fragment that's just come to light, those phrases are consistent with the Gnostic view of early Christianity — which tended to give a more prominent role to women, and particularly to Mary Magdalene. The text, written in the Sahidic Coptic dialect, includes the phrase "Jesus said to them, 'My wife...'" as well as references to a woman named Mary being "worthy of it," and to a woman who "will be able to be my disciple."
The marriage debate
Karen L. King, the Harvard Divinity School professor who received the fragment from an anonymous owner, emphasized that the discovery does not serve as evidence that Jesus was married. Rather, it suggests that there was a debate within the early Christian church on the status of women, and that Jesus' relationship with women figured into the discussion. Revisiting that debate may be unsettling to some believers, but to scriptural scholars, it just comes with the territory.
"Christian tradition has long held that Jesus was not married, even though no reliable historical evidence exists to support that claim," King said in a news release from Harvard Divinity School. "This new gospel doesn't prove that Jesus was married, but it tells us that the whole question only came up as part of vociferous debates about sexuality and marriage. From the very beginning, Christians disagreed about whether it was better not to marry, but it was over a century after Jesus' death before they began appealing to Jesus' marital status to support their positions."
Ben Witherington, a New Testament scholar at the Asbury Theological Seminary, noted that the latest find fits King's perspective on scriptural scholarship. "She does have a dog in this hunt," he told me. "She's an advocate for the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Judas, telling us of early Christian experiences of various kinds, particularly of the Gnostic kind."
The fragment that King calls the Gospel of Jesus' Wife could well contribute to the study of Gnosticism in the second or fourth century, but Witherington said it's not a game-changer for our view of the first-century Jesus. "While this fragment is interesting, if you are interested in the historical Jesus, this is much ado about not very much," Witherington said via email.
Witherington noted that experts who have gotten a close look at the papyrus say it's genuine, but he cautioned that "we cannot be absolutely sure of its authenticity or origins" as long as scholars can't track down the details surrounding how, when and where it was discovered.
Bart Ehrman, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, voiced similar caution. However, if the document proves authentic, it would represent an important advance in scriptural scholarship, he said.
"It's certainly not reliable for saying anything about the historical Jesus," Ehrman told me. "But what it is important for is that this would be the first time we have any Christian authority or Christian group indicating that, in their opinion, Jesus was married." Like King, Ehrman suggested that such claims might have figured into early Christian debates over the comparative merits of marriage vs. celibacy.
Monks and 'sister-wives'
Witherington said the text could be open to alternate interpretations. "In view of the largely ascetic character of Gnosticism, it is likely that we are dealing with the 'sister-wife' phenomenon, and the reference is to a strictly spiritual relationship, which is close but does not involve sexual intimacy," Witherington said.
During a follow-up phone call, he explained that "during the rise of the monastic movement, you had quite a lot of monk-type folks and evangelists who traveled in the company of a sister-wife." The fellow travelers looked after each other, but celibacy was part of the deal, he said.
"The other question about this is ... were these 'fractured fairy tales' that helped monks in the desert while away the time, or were they serious religious texts?" Witherington said.
Gnostic works proliferated in Egypt's Christian monasteries until Athanasius of Alexandria drew up what became the "official" list of books in the New Testament and condemned the rest in the year 367. Scholars believe that the best-known collection of Gnostic texts, the Nag Hammadi library, was bundled up and buried in the desert as a result.
The debate over the papyrus fragment's authenticity and the meaning of the Gospel of Jesus' Wife is likely to play out for a long time among scriptural scholars — and among "Da Vinci Code" fans as well. For now, here are links to background material and the initial blog reactions:
Update for 9 p.m. ET: Some observers have pointed out that the New Testament contains multiple allusions to Jesus as a bridegroom, and the church or the collective people of God as his bride. This report from The Atlantic catalogs the references. However, Witherington said the Coptic papyrus appears to refer to a different kind of relationship. "A bride is one thing, and a wife is another," he told me. The fragment's additional references to "Mary" and a prospective woman disciple also argue against attaching a purely metaphorical meaning to the word "wife."
For what it's worth, here are all the translated bits from the papyrus:
"'... not [to] me. My mother gave to me li[fe] ...'"
"The disciples said to Jesus, '..."
"deny. Mary is worthy of it" (Or: "deny. Mary is n[ot] worthy of it")
"...' Jesus said to them, 'My wife...'"
"... she will be able to be my disciple ..."
"Let wicked people swell up ..."
"As for me, I dwell with her in order to ..."
"forth which ..."
More about scripture and history:
Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.