Thursday, 20 September 2012

Jesus’ wife: clicks, facts and ‘children in a marketplace’

King jesus wife

I wasn’t going to write about this, but then I received a direct (and very welcome) requests by my bestie PM, and with his help realized that there was a much more interesting angle to this story than the obvious (and not all that exciting) one.

Let’s start with the facts of the matter: a fragment of Coptic script on papyrus that may date from the 4th century AD and that consists of 49.5 words in its English translation (see the top of this post) was presented at the International Congress of Coptic Studies on 18th September. The fragment contains no complete sentences and the sole reason for its overnight fame are the following words it contains:
Jesus said to them, “My wife
Looking at reports in the media, the following picture emerges:
“Even with many questions unsettled, the discovery could reignite the debate over whether Jesus was married, whether Mary Magdalene was his wife and whether he had a female disciple.” (New York Times)
“The discovery that some ancient Christians thought Jesus had a wife could shake up centuries-old Christian traditions” (Washington Post)
“A discovery by a Harvard researcher may shed light on a controversial aspect of the life of Jesus Christ.” (Huffington Post)
“A Harvard Divinity School professor’s interpretation of a scrap of fourth-century Egyptian papyrus that quotes Jesus Christ making reference to a wife could stoke new debates to the role of women in Christianity, theologians say.” (Boston Herald)
“An 4th century papyrus fragment could call centuries of celibacy into question.” (Time)
The message is clear: this is a major discovery that could alter that very foundations of Christianity in one fell swoop. As much fun as it would be to debunk statements like the above, it would be falling for a textbook straw man argument (as some have, while others, like Fr. James Martin, haven’t). Instead, let me defer any comment on the matter, until we see Dr. Karen L. King, the scholar who presented the fragment at the Congress, speak for herself. And what better way to do that than to refer to a draft of her peer-reviewed journal paper, to be published in the Harvard Theological Review (link courtesy of Harvard Magazine):
“This is the only extant ancient text which explicitly portrays Jesus as referring to a wife. It does not, however, provide evidence that the historical Jesus was married, given the late date of the fragment and the probable date of original composition only in the second half of the second century. Nevertheless, if the second century date of composition is correct, the fragment does provide direct evidence that claims about Jesus’s marital status first arose over a century after the death of Jesus in the context of intra-Christian controversies over sexuality, marriage, and discipleship.
The use of the term “gospel” here regards the probable genre of the work to which this fragment belonged (see below, “Genre”) and makes absolutely no claim to canonical status nor to the historical accuracy of the content as such. This invented reference in no way means to imply that this was the title in antiquity, or that “Jesus’s wife” is the “author” of this work, is a major character in it, or is even a significant topic of discussion—none of that can be known from such a tiny fragment. Rather the title references the fragment’s most distinctive claim (that Jesus was married), and serves therefore as a kind of short-hand reference to the fragment.”
Wait, what?! Unlike the cat-among-pigeons reaction of the media, Dr. King’s words (maybe with a little help from the journal’s reviewers :) sound rational, factual and well representative of what this fragment may be: a text recorded probably in the 4th century AD that may be a copy of a 2nd century one, situated among the ’intra-Christian controversies’ of the day. No “Christianity 2.0”, no “we have had it all wrong for 2000 years” and no “shake up.”

In this (hopefully) more complete picture, Dr. King (who, after all was speaking at the Institutum Patristicum Augustinianum, which is part of the Pontifical Lateran University – i.e., popularly known as the “Pope’s University”!) comes up smelling of roses, while the various media reports happen to fit the topic that I actually wanted to talk about today like a glove! Namely, yesterday’s Gospel reading, in which Jesus vents his frustration with childish attitudes. In Luke 7:31-35 he is reported as saying the following:
“To what shall I compare the people of this generation?
What are they like?
They are like children who sit in the marketplace and call to one another,

‘We played the flute for you, but you did not dance.
We sang a dirge, but you did not weep.’

For John the Baptist came neither eating food nor drinking wine,
and you said, ‘He is possessed by a demon.’
The Son of Man came eating and drinking and you said,
‘Look, he is a glutton and a drunkard,
a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’
But wisdom is vindicated by all her children.”
When I read this, I could picture Jesus’ disbelief in the face of his contemporaries’ conduct (“What are they like?!”), who thought of John the Baptist as a nutter and of Jesus himself as a pig [my own words :] and who jumped at anything to push their own agendas. How little has changed in 2000 years!

Let me not finish on a negative note though as I do see this episode as positive overall. That a new fragment from the early days of Christianity has come to light is great (the more we know the better, since knowledge is power and the truth will set us free [apologies for this fragment–peddling - it just seemed fitting :]) and so is the scholarly integrity of Dr. King and her fellow coptologists, who can shed light on the history of this find and its place within the overall corpus of early Christian writings.

I know the media reports are a straw man, but a very juicy and tempting one, so let me just take one slash at it: Assuming the fragment’s authenticity (which I am in no position to question or believe in) places it into the 4th century. Taking it as a record of events from the first century is like someone discovering the following fragment from this post in the 38th century: “Newton wrote: ‘This quantity I designate by the name of aura” and considering it as a record of Newton’s words from 1687 …

On an entirely separate and unrelated note, let me just share what I found out about the following words that Jesus speaks in Luke’s Gospel: ‘We played the flute for you, but you did not dance. We sang a dirge, but you did not weep.’ This intrigued me straightaway and I first though that it may come from one of the Psalms or another part of the Bible. It seems instead that they were just part of a game that kids played at the time. Two groups would be formed - one playing jolly music and another a wailing funereal tune and they’d compete in who’d gather more followers as they moved through the streets. What a bizarre (but great :) game! Thanks to St. Cyril of Alexandria for the tip!