Yesterday the New York Times reported on a scrap of papyrus, “smaller than a business card,” which “contains a phrase never seen in any piece of Scripture.” That phrase, cut off on the torn parchment after just a few words, is, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…’ ”
The scholar who has researched the document is Karen L. King, who, coincidentally, is “the first woman to hold the nation’s oldest endowed chair, the Hollis professor of divinity” at Harvard. King’s academic article about the finding can be read in full online, and Harvard has posted a quick primer on the document as well. Meanwhile, Smithsonian Magazine has the full story of how the apparently 1,600-year-old text came to light.
King is quick to point out that, even if her interpretation of the parchment is correct, this would only prove that some early Christians believed that Jesus was married. The papyrus would thus be an enormously valuable contribution to the study of early Christianity, but it would not radically change the academic understanding of the religion. While the Da Vinci Code has popularized the idea that Jesus’s marriage is a dark secret that, if discovered, would unlock the secrets of the universe—or something; I didn’t read it—Christians have in fact argued about the matter for centuries. That’s because the Bible doesn’t provide any definitive evidence either way.
Certainly some of the people I went to church with growing up believed that Jesus was married. That’s because I grew up Mormon. And while the LDS Church does not have any official doctrine regarding Jesus’s marital state—he may or may not have been married, as far as Mormonism is concerned—some high-profile early Mormons believed that he was. And, judging from my personal experience, at least some Mormons today believe this as well. Those who do are probably nodding their heads at the news of this finding.
For the rest of us, though, the parchment serves primarily as a reminder that this question about the historical Jesus has never been settled, and that confident assertions on the matter tend to be fraught with social and political implications. As the article in the Times points out, the debate about whether Jesus was married still matters today, as “global Christianity is roiling over the place of women in ministry and the boundaries of marriage.” If this text helps those pushing for more authority for women in their denominations, and a broader idea of marriage, so much the better. But they don’t need a scrap of 4th-century papyrus to prove them right.