A few years ago, an anonymous collector contacted Karen L. King about a fragment of papyrus he had that dated to the fourth century.
When King saw the fragment, she was intrigued by the Coptic writing on it:
“Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …
… she will be able to be my disciple …’ ”
“As for me, I dwell with her in order to …”
The words that appear on the fragment are a long way from proving that Jesus was married. But, says King, Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School, the fragment is noteworthy in that it suggests at least some early Christians believed Jesus was married.
It’s a subtle but important distinction, and King notes that the fragment — and it is, she stresses, merely a fragment, and a tiny, context-bereft fragment at that — raises intriguing questions about Jesus, his early followers, the development of Christianity and Christian attitudes toward marriage, family, women and sexuality.
Thursday evening, King — whose books include “The Gospel of Mary of Magdala” and “Reading Judas” — will join two other biblical scholars to discuss what has come to be called the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife during a program at UNLV’s Doc Rando Recital Hall in the Beam Music Center, 4505 S. Maryland Parkway.
The free program, “Does It Matter If Jesus was Married?” is scheduled at 7 p.m. and is sponsored by the Black Mountain Institute.
Also scheduled to appear are Bart D. Ehrman, James A. Gray Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of the New York Times Best-Sellers “Misquoting Jesus” and “Forged,” and Mark D. Jordan, professor of religion and politics at Washington University in St. Louis and author of “Recruiting Young Love: How Christians Talk about Homosexuality.”
Little is known about the papyrus fragment or its provenance. According to a fact sheet on the Harvard Divinity School website (hds.harvard.edu/faculty-research/research-projects/the-gospel-of-Jesuss-wife), King was contacted about four years ago by the private collector seeking help in determining what it was.
It’s believed that the papyrus fragment itself dates from at least the fourth century, although the words recorded on it could have been copied from an older document that dates back to the latter half of the second century.
The potential significance of the fragment is that it may indicate early Christians debated Jesus’ marital status, perhaps as part of a broader discussion about sexuality, marriage and celibacy.
But Jesus’ marital status remains just as intriguing — and potentially just as heated — a question for modern-day people, Christian, non-Christian and everyone in between.
“I think people have lots of different reasons for why they are interested in this, why they are upset about it, why they are happy with it, why it’s a nonstarter,” King notes during a recent phone interview.
“Some people email me and say, ‘Of course Jesus was married. He was a Jew, and Jews got married, so this is just proving that Jesus was Jewish,’ and how important it was to affirm Jesus’ Jewishness matters to some people.”
For others, a celibate Jesus lies at the foundation of the concept that “priests are the image of a celibate Jesus, that he had no sexual relations at all,” King says. “So people will say to me, ‘Jesus was without sin, so he can’t be married.’ ”
That’s particularly interesting, she adds, given “this sensibility in our culture that there is something shadily sinful about sex, even in marriage, even between husband and wife.”
That, in turn, can influence even modern-day attitudes toward women, promoting a belief that women, as wives and mothers, are somehow “lesser” than men in their ability to serve spiritually.
Also, King says, “the question of the sanctity of marriage and Christian views and attitudes toward marriage are very much part of the discussion that’s going on in our own country: Who gets to be married and what marriage is.”
Whether Jesus was married is a question that long has been discussed among scholars. In fact, King says, “the questions about who Jesus was, what did he say, what did he do has been on the agenda of New Testament scholars for about 150 years or so. There’s been a lot of work done on historical Jesus.”
Fueling more widespread public interest in the life of Jesus has been the work of the Jesus Seminar beginning in the 1980s and even Dan Brown’s novel, “The Da Vinci Code,” which revolves around the notion of Jesus and Mary Magdalene having had a child, King says.
“I think (the novel) was for many people the first time they had been asked to think about the question: Was Jesus married or not? People have said to me, ‘That never really came up. We never talked about it in church.’ ”
The reality is that “we don’t actually know,” King says.
The four canonical gospels, as well as the remaining books of the Christian New Testament, are silent on the matter, offering no evidence toward either view. But the fragment does seem to offer one piece of evidence that at least some of Jesus’ earlier followers believed that he was married.
Even among scholars, “it takes some time to sort through that, and say: ‘Let’s stop here. What is the evidence?’ ” King says. “For scholars, we don’t know if Jesus was married or not is the thinking. We still don’t know, and that’s right. That’s me. We still don’t know.”
Regardless, King’s presentation in 2012 of her research about the fragment created a global hubbub.
The so-called Gospel of Jesus’ Wife is outside the New Testament, she explains. “I’m used to us finding new things. That’s what I’ve kind of done my whole career.
“So, for me, it’s, ‘Oh, we’ve found another one. Here we go again.’ The surprise is not there. It’s more a question of: Does this contribute anything? What does it say? What does it give us that we didn’t know? Does it give us anything we didn’t know before?”
Others with, perhaps, less scholarly inclinations went beyond the careful nuance in which King cloaked her research, prompting both criticism of her work and headlines that depicted the fragment as stronger proof that Jesus was married than reality warranted.
What was that like?
“It wasn’t so much that any particular reaction surprised me,” King says.
“Oh, there were a couple. But, mostly, what was surprising to me was the size of the reaction, that it was global. That was utterly unexpected. I didn’t expect it to be so global.
“My students would tell me their small-town newspapers had a piece on it. I got mail from Korean students of mine being called by journalists of their country.”
Has all of that subsided?
“Yes,” King answers with a laugh, “I think it has gotten much less crazy.”
And not to give away anything from today’s presentation, but: Does it matter if Jesus was married?
“It’s interesting,” King answers. “A couple of years ago, I’d probably have said it’s not really important. Now, I would say exactly the opposite. This question is embedded in so many values and so many ways of thinking about being human, it does make a difference in how we talk about that.”
Contact reporter John Przybys at jprzybys@review journal.com or 702-383-0280.