Coptic Fragment Says Jesus had a Wife, Everyone Yawns

If you have a few minutes to waste, go over to the Huffington Post and read this article. I’ll wait.

Admittedly, HuffPo does a better job with this than the sensationalistic CNN piece I read earlier today. Several things stand out about this that I think are important.

1. This fragment is dated to the 6th to 9th C of this era, which is a fancy way of saying it dates to between 600 and 900 years after Christ and the apostles. Even if it was as early as the 4th C, it can hardly be considered a reliable historical document. We wouldn’t accept a biography of George Washington written in the present day with no research and based solely on oral tradition and that’s half this time (if we accept the earliest possible dating. The date of 6th to 9th C would be 3 to 4 ½ times that long. So again, it’s not reliable as a source for the historical Jesus. (Note also Karen King’s quote at the beginning of the third paragraph in this regard.)

2. It’s written in Coptic, which is notoriously difficult to translate and, on top of that, it’s a fragment, so we have no idea of what we’re missing and no way to reliably figure out what may be missing. In New Testament textual criticism, when we’re missing a piece of a manuscript, we can usually find the missing piece in another manuscript. In this case, there are so few documents written in Coptic that the chance of filling in the blanks are slim if there is a chance at all.

(Incidentally, we have around 6,000 manuscripts of the NT, and the earliest ones date to within a generation of the deaths of the apostles, so it’s pretty easy to know what the text originally said (if you can read Greek and read what’s called a “critical apparatus”), which, incidentally, is why I get irritated when people say things like, “The Bible has changed over the centuries,” because (a) we know, for a fact, that such is not true, and (b) when I hear that I know that the person saying it doesn’t know what they’re talking about. They may not like what it says, and they don’t have to believe what it says, but it says what it says and we can know what it says with a pretty high degree of certainty based on the manuscript tradition alone.)

In addition, while there are many scholars who can read Greek (for example, I had 13 Greek classes, 8 undergrad, 5 grad-level, won a Greek scholar’s award, and am about to be published in a biblical original language project, and I’m not even considered a scholar) so there are many people who can look at a translation, compare it to the original, and say whether it’s accurate or just plain ridiculous (even I am competent enough to do that and I’m just a dumb redneck). With Coptic, however, so few people can actually translate it, and even fewer who can actually read it, that we’re pretty much at the mercy of those few who can. Who is to say that someone else wouldn’t take issue with certain crucial elements of the translation?

And I note that the article itself points out the lack of scholarly consensus with regard to the fragment.

3. If indeed this takes from the Coptic Gospel of Thomas we have even more reason (as if we don’t have enough already) to doubt what it says precisely because Thomas is a Gnostic Gospel. The Gnostics believed that they received special, secret knowledge directly from God. The Gnostics themselves would not have believed that what they wrote was an accurate historical account. The Gnostics took pride in receiving “revelation” that no one else had.

4. Even if this document is dated properly and is authentic, it still doesn’t mean much for the historical Jesus. One key fact that many non-Christians, and even nominal Christians who are non-theologians, overlook in evaluating these texts is that the New Testament repeatedly refers to the church as “the bride of Christ” (just as the Old Testament referred to Yahweh as Israel’s “husband”). So even if we assume that this fragment is authentic, since we don’t have any other reliable extant document at all anywhere, whether sympathetic or unsympathetic to Christianity, that even implies that the historical Jesus had a wife, our default interpretive position would have to be that Jesus was talking about the church rather than a historical wife.

5. Having said that, the Catholic Church’s claims that Jesus did not have a wife and therefore priests should not have wives is merely dogma based on medieval tradition. We know for a fact that Peter (supposedly the first pope) had a wife because he had a mother-in-law. Other apostles had wives and Paul refers to them. If Jesus had actually had a wife, so what? We know that he had no descendants (despite all the nonsense conspiracy theories in Holy Blood, Holy Grail and The Da Vinci Code) because, while Jesus’ mother is mentioned in early Christian writings (including the NT), as well as his brothers (one of whom wrote an epistle in the New Testament), there is no mention of any children. If this were authentic we still have to remember that it dates from a time when Christian theology was rife with superstition and where some church leaders used less-than-honorable means to defend their theological positions. King’s comment in paragraph four alludes to as much.

But this may be more than you wanted to know. You may go back to YouTube now.



About Michael R. Jones

Pastor and PhD candidate writing on Paul's theology of suffering.
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5 Responses to Coptic Fragment Says Jesus had a Wife, Everyone Yawns

  1. mrandrewrod says:

    I remember when news of this fragment first hit. I found it pretty laughable myself, equivalent to taking a random 3-inch segment out of a page of a book that’s 8 inches across. I’m sure if we made a habit of doing that to everything we read, we all would arrive at conclusions completely inconsistent with the author’s intention.

    What bothers me is all the discussion these things spark in the comments thread about how the idea of Jesus’ celibacy must be a Vatican conspiracy because it was so unusual for 30-year-old men to be celibate in that culture and time. Well, Jesus didn’t live like everyone else. And my concern for him being celibate is not that it made him holier–he would still be God in the flesh either way–but that he would have been demonstrating an extreme form of favoritism. And if he were married, there would be no reason to believe he didn’t have children, and what reason would there be for us to not conclude that his descendants would be more special than everyone else. Plus, his ministry lifestyle was not conducive to raising a family, and one could argue that it wouldn’t be very loving of him to have children knowing way in advance that he would soon have to sacrifice his life and not be there to raise his children.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting! I think your arguments are spot on. As an itinerant preacher there would have been little time for raising a family. Arguments from what was customary fail on two levels: they not only fail to account for exceptions but they also idealize life too much and it seems from the historical accounts that life was as messy back then as it is now.

  2. Anna E says:

    Where did you find the Catholic argument “Jesus did not have a wife and therefore priests should not have wives”? I have never come across this in any of the Catholic Church’s writings on the subject, at least none that could be considered official. The most common I have heard are that the law of celibacy was to prevent abuse of Church property (priests willing it to their families) and the freeing from household affairs to better serve the Church (also quoted is “a bishop should be the husband of one wife”, taken by some to mean the Church).

    Totally unrelated to the topic: you are a fan of Kierkegaard. Do you consider yourself a Neo-Orthodox?

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