By Micah Kiel
Last week, the New York Times and other major newspapers published a story about a fascinating scrap of papyrus. It garnered headlines because of what the text written on it said. In the ancient language of Coptic, it contains references to an unnamed female disciple of Jesus, and also records Jesus as saying “My wife . . .” First, we should know the specifics of what this text is, and then we can turn to understanding its implications.
This is a very small fragment of papyrus (a type of ancient paper made from pressed reeds). It appears to have been cut or ripped into its current shape, perhaps by its original discoverer, who thought he could make more money selling it in pieces rather than as a whole document. Coptic is a language that was spoken in ancient Egypt, and we have many important documents from early Christianity in that language. Unfortunately, we do not know where this fragment came from (its provenance). Karen King, a professor at Harvard, was approached by an anonymous individual who wanted her to translate and publish it. Not knowing a manuscript’s origin makes it much harder to determine its authenticity and date. While its lack of known provenance has led some scholars to call it a forgery or fake, in this case it seems to be genuine. The papyrus itself, the faded ink, and the style of the handwriting make the possibility of it being a fake highly unlikely. (Dr. King plans to do further scientific analysis to help confirm its authenticity.)
The text is in all likelihood Gnostic, a segment of early Christianity with certain theological beliefs that caused it to be deemed heretical in the first centuries of the Church. We know of many ancient Gnostic texts, and many of them say curious things that, on first blush, seem surprising. (Although, to be fair, so could many of the things in our own canonical Gospels if they were taken out of context.) About five years ago National Geographic published the Gospel of Judas, which depicted Jesus telling Judas to betray him, and it garnered some publicity. Anyone who read or watched The DaVinci Code also has some glancing familiarity with these Gnostic texts.
Some of the coverage of this fragment has been very responsible. The New York Times article was very careful to point out that the fragment in question about Jesus’ wife tells us no information about the actual historical Jesus. It was written in the fourth century and most likely has no historical core in it at all. Some of the headlines have been less responsible and lead the casual reader to conclude that it provides evidence that Jesus really was married.
But, if this fragment really does not tell us anything about the historical Jesus himself, why, then, is there so much interest in it? I would suggest that people find it interesting because most people fundamentally misunderstand the diversity of the New Testament and early Christianity.
This document is very significant only if it provides an unexpected glimpse at a diverse perspective. It only shocks if one starts with the erroneous assumption that early Christianity and the New Testament itself are monolithic, homogenous entities that dropped into the world straight from the lips of God. Nothing could be farther from the truth. From its very beginning, Christianity was diverse.
The New Testament has four Gospels with different depictions and interpretations of Jesus, just to give one example. The New Testament also varies in its depiction of the role of women. The Gospel of Luke mentions women as followers of Jesus who are his patrons and monetarily support his mission. The apostle Paul singles out a woman, named Junia, as being “prominent among the apostles.” In later letters, New Testament authors say that women should not have leadership roles in Church structures. These things are at odds with one another — they testify to the diversity of Christianity from its very earliest days and years.
When seen in this light, the Coptic fragment about Jesus’ wife shouldn’t really surprise us at all. The early Church argued about things, and humans were involved in the ongoing process of revelation that produced for us both Scripture and tradition. These things do not drop into our laps like manna from heaven, but are hammered out in the smithy of our souls and our communities.
Does this Coptic fragment testify in some way to ongoing diversity in early Christianity? Absolutely. Should this surprise us? Absolutely not!
(Micah Kiel is an assistant professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)