#sermoneyes: the gospel of jesus’ wife

in response to those

who’ve been asking to read it, below is the transcript of the sermon that i preached last Sunday.

as always, comments welcome.

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Holy Innocents, Fallowfield
23rd Sep 2012 (16th after Trinity)

– Wisdom of Solomon 1:16-2:1, 12-22
– James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
– Mark 9:30-37

I wouldn’t want to suggest that the average week in the life of a biblical scholar is dull, but this past week certainly couldn’t be described that way. The standard mid-September routine – which usually consists of trying to forget all the things people said at the summer conferences that really annoyed you, trying to remember where you put that post-it note that you wrote yourself in July listing all the things that need to be done before the start of the new year and (unless your lucky enough to be on research leave) running round trying to make sure your students have all the course materials they need – was, this time round, bluntly and fascinatingly interrupted.

On Tuesday, as I’m sure many of you saw, the story broke that Karen King, a Professor of Early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School, had published a fragment of papyrus that appears to be part of an unknown text that has somewhat playfully been dubbed The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife. The fragment, which is around the size of a business card and thought by those who have published it to date from around the fourth century CE (c.275-425), has text written on both sides in Coptic, the language used in Egypt between the 2nd and 17th centuries CE. Among the eight lines of text the fragment contains, appear phrases that translate as something like: “Jesus said to them, “my wife”, followed on the next line by “she will be able to be my disciple”.

Somewhat tragically, this is exactly the kind of thing that puts a skip in the steps of biblical scholars and, more to the point, causes them to drop everything and take to emailing all their friends, composing blog posts and seeing if they can’t get themselves a slot as an ‘expert’ commentator somewhere. And then, as if scholars aren’t special and excitable enough, there is the media. The headline of the first article on the subject, published in the Boston Globe, read ‘Harvard Professor identifies scrap of papyrus suggesting some early Christians believed Jesus was married’. It wasn’t long, however, until outlets that prefer to run with shorter, less nuanced headlines containing fewer qualifications, got hold of the story and therefore sentiments more like “Academic claims Jesus had a wife” and “New Gospel proves Jesus was married” soon followed.

Aside from the somewhat tongue-in-cheek name she has given to the text, to her credit, King has courted very little of the tabloid sensationalism, having been very clear from the outset that she was not claiming that the fragment suggested anything about whether Jesus had actually been married, but only that, if genuine, it was evidence that a certain early Christian community understood him as having been. Now, as I’m sure many of you know, the difference between these two positions is huge, and is crucial to understanding both the history of early Christianity and the New Testament texts.

I remember as an undergraduate being involved in an outreach event whose goal was to present everyone on campus with a copy of Mark’s Gospel. It was a nationally coordinated mission, and the texts had been produced in their thousands, and looked like a 40-year-old-Christian’s perception of what the average 18 year old thinks is stylish, with ‘The Gospel of Mark’, having been replaced with the far more informative title ‘Identity’. I remember flicking open the embossed, silver cover and reading, on the first page, that the booklet contained “an eye-witness account of the life of Jesus”.

Hmm. As it turned out, the more questions I asked of those who were in charge of the campaign, the clearer it became that this idea of an eye-witness account was central to the mission’s message. I pointed out several times to various people that as far as scholars are concerned the Gospel of Mark is very unlikely to be either the work of a disciple, or based, as one tradition holds, on the preaching of Peter, and that even if it had been, the notion of an eye-witness account is a misleading description of what a Gospel is. None of that, however, seemed to sway anyone’s commitment to the agreed line.

Despite the scholarly consensus and the fact that the contents of the synoptic Gospels (that is Matthew, Mark and Luke) are very difficult to reconcile, many Christians seem to believe that rather than complex, theologically motivated pieces of literature dating from at least a generation after the life of Jesus, the Gospels are basically journalistic accounts which accurately record historical facts. What is more, despite that lovely note at the end of John’s Gospel that aptly demonstrates that by the early 2nd Century it was well acknowledged that only a small proportion of the events of Jesus’ life had ever been written about, there are some for whom if it’s not in the book, it couldn’t possibly have happened. Jesus, for these people, is an entirely known commodity, and anything that doesn’t fit their image is basis for a scandal.

And so, back to the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife. What perhaps amused me more than the over-excited scholars or ludicrous headlines, were the group emails, links to blog posts and Facebook group invitations that I started receiving from various Christian organisations or activists, the majority of which seemed concerned with making sure I knew how to combat the utterly false claim that Jesus had been married. Whereas for the skittish scholars this was (primarily) a matter of intellectual rigor – of making sure people had correctly understood the implications of the finding and had not overstepped the evidence, for these groups it seemed more like a matter of quashing heresy, or even blasphemy. The tone of the many of messages painted the whole thing as a bit like an attack, in the face of which ‘we’ all simply needed to remember our training.

One seminarian from Kentucky pointed out in an interview that the Coptic word hime, which King translated, following convention, as ‘wife’, might simply mean ‘a woman that cooks and cleans for a man’ and might not connote anything sexual at all. However, as Simon Jenkins wryly pointed out this week in his otherwise relatively dull Guardian article, that statement probably tells us more about the Kentuckian seminarian than it does about Jesus.

The assumption, in many of the responses that I read was that ‘we’, as Christians, would be horrified by the idea that people might suddenly be incorrectly believing that it had been proven that Jesus had a wife. Now, while I am slightly amused that some people have managed to reach that conclusion on the basis of Prof. King’s research, what I’m definitely not is horrified. After all, Jesus may well have been married. In fact, as has been pointed out many times, it would have been very unusual for someone of his age, cultural heritage, religious affiliations and social status not to have been.

Here, then, is the crux – if we wish to believe and argue that Jesus did not have a wife, we must bear in mind that we do so not from evidence, but from a lack thereof. There is nothing in any of the accounts that we have that either clearly states or clearly denies that before, during or after his ministry Jesus got married. And the same could be said for all kinds of other aspects of his experience. Of course, it’s very easy to fill in the gaps in the texts with our own ideas or those we have inherited, and that’s not necessary wrong – after all, tradition and experience are perfectly valid sources for theological enterprise. However, if the notion of an historical Jesus is to be of any use to us, then we need to remember which ideas are based on what. If we are wise, I suggest, we should not aggressively defend the historical truth of a concept of Jesus that has been constructed at least partly in a-historical terms.

The early Christian communities, it seems, were well aware of this danger of co-opting a figure like Jesus for this or that theological agenda. We heard in last week’s and today’s gospels of how, when Jesus told the disciples that the Son of Man must suffer, be rejected, die and be raised, they were confused, or offended – Peter even taking Jesus aside and attempting to correct him. It seems that the disciples thought they knew well what they messiah would and wouldn’t do, and if they were going to follow Jesus, they needed him to conform to their preconceptions. When Jesus rejected Peter’s correction and continued talking about death and resurrection, it seems that the group simply could not understand what he meant, and were afraid to ask. Maybe, like those that the writer of the Wisdom of Solomon calls ‘ungodly’ in today’s first lesson, they assumed that a truly righteous person would be spared the indignity of rejection, torture and death? Perhaps they thought dying was too weak, too human a fate for God’s chosen one?

And yet, as we know, the key theological innovation of the faith that developed in the wake of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection was the idea that God could, and did, become truly human. We know that in the early centuries that idea proved very difficult to come to terms with, but I think it still has the power to shock and disturb people, even those of us who confess it aloud every week.

Of course, those early gentiles who were attempting to harmonise the fledgling Christian faith with the fundamental principles of classical Greek theology – i.e. that God was eternal, ever-present, all-knowing, all-powerful and utterly unchangeable, in other words thoroughly incapable of becoming human – well, let’s just say that they especially struggled. But they were not the only ones, and that was not the only sticky issue. As it became clear that the end of the world, as preached by Jesus’ followers and mentioned in several New Testament texts, was not as imminent as had first been thought, difficult decisions had to be made about how Christian communities should live: who could join? Who should lead the communities? What was the status of women? Should Christians get married? Where did sex fit in? What about children?

Perhaps this new fragment is genuine, perhaps it will turn out not to be – there are already articles circulating that argue, on the basis of a seeming reliance on a particular version of the Gospel of Thomas, that it is probably a modern hoax. In a sense, however, it really doesn’t matter. Either way, I think we do well to note and learn from other people’s and our own reactions to the mere possibility that it might be an authentic indication of what a certain early community thought about Jesus. How much variation in terms of belief about Jesus are we willing to acknowledge in the early Church? Indeed, how human are we prepared for Jesus to have been? How many of the gaps in the Gospel texts do we need to be filled in with inferences, suppositions or possibly-outmoded traditions?

The essence of Prof. King’s argument is that, if genuine, this fragment, and the longer text to which it once belonged, are just a small part of a section of early Christian history that is often ignored, or even wilfully obscured – a history that witnesses to far more diversity in terms of belief and practice than many modern Christians are comfortable with, but also a history that demonstrates how the early communities grappled with many of the issues with which we’re still struggling.

Perhaps Jesus had a wife, perhaps he did not, but I think attending to whether or not we’re open to the idea of him having shared that particular human experience can highlight important things about how we are reading, interpreting and engaging the scriptures, the traditions of the Church and our individual and collective experience.

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