A recently discovered writing fragment about 1,700 years old is causing a stir. It says Jesus may have been married. The Bible doesn’t say a word about Jesus having a wife, although the popular novel, The Da Vinci Code, proposed that man from Galilee may have been wed to Mary Magdalena.
|This piece of papyrus has created religious controversy.|
The latest tidbit was discovered by Harvard professor Karen L. King, who identified the 14 lines of writing as a dialogue written by Coptic Christians in the 4th century. It contains the comment ‘Jesus said to them [his disciples], my wife…will be able to be my disciple.”
The Roman Catholic Church is supposedly quaking over the idea that the fragment could erase the reason for celibate priests – imitating Jesus’ supposed lack of a wedding ring -- and open the door for women clergy as well as increased female roles in the religion.
Authenticating that small bit of writing would prove only one thing: it’s old.
We seem to have some kind of fetish for old documents. People pay tons of money for antique books. There’s only one good reason for that: they are rare. Not a lot of old documents have survived the ravages of weather, insects and time. Besides, there weren’t that many texts centuries ago: they were expensive to produce, most people couldn’t afford them, and the bulk of the population couldn’t read anyway.
No one buys an old book based on the accuracy of its content. Old books aren’t accurate; they are just old.
Today, we insist on documented history. Yet, even with supporting data, multiple authors form different views of a single event, even though they all rely on the same information. In the distant past, however, people didn’t bother with a lot of research or verifying sources. They wrote what they heard, saw, read and/or imagined, regardless of actual truth. That’s why they were sure the sun went around the Earth, for example. After all, that’s what appears to be happening.
That’s also why the Bible cannot be an accurate accounting of anything. It was written long before anyone thought about finding the true facts. As the Roman Catholic Church agrees, the texts represent “the belief of the authors.”
This fragment is no different. Some writer created a dialogue, a common method of debating on paper. The writer supports his own views by making the debate opponent look ridiculous. Claims are easily countered that way. Many early Christian writers took this approach to undermine the arguments of pagan philosophers against the fledgling faith.
|Jesus and Mary Magdalene in a Scottish church window|
That doesn’t mean a single quote in any ancient document accurately captures what Jesus said or did. It doesn’t even reflect what the pagans or other philosophers felt. This fragment does help us understand what people in that time period were thinking. They thought Jesus was married. That claim has no relationship to actual history any more than Mitt Romney has a connection to everyday Americans.
The fragment cannot be accurate under the best of circumstances anyway. Jesus had to have died around 30 CE. This was written at least 300 years later. That’s quite a time lapse. Of course, the dialogue could have been a copy of an earlier one, but Christianity needed time to develop. Even at its earliest, the fragment must have been written at least several generations after Jesus was crucified.
In addition, little to nothing is known about the historical Jesus despite extensive research and endless speculation. About 100 years ago, biblical scholar Albert Schweitzer could report after a massive study of extant literature on Jesus that if all the mythology were removed from the New Testament, nothing would be left.
We don’t know any more about Jesus today than Schweitzer did then. We don’t know any more than the Gospel writers did when they sat down, took stylus in hand, dipped it into ink, and began to write their books.
We may find more ancient books. We may find additional writings about Jesus. Not that long ago, the Gospel of Judas was discovered and translated. In it, Judas said he was obeying Jesus’ orders.
Was that true?
In fact, we will never know the truth. That’s what belief and faith are all about. If you believe it, it’s true. Some document, no matter how old, is going to change that. Facts have never really done a lick of damage to a single religion. This fragment is equally impotent.
Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history. He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida. You can reach him at www.williamplazarus.net. He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion. His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers. He can also be followed on Twitter.
You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at http://www.udemy.com/comparative-religion-for-dummies/?promote=1