“Jesus’ wife”: Nothing to fear, something to learn
Trying to do ancient history is like assembling an enormous jigsaw puzzle—but we only have a small percentage of the pieces, these are mostly middle pieces, and there is no box lid to provide a model of the completed puzzle. Every once in a while, a new piece comes along with such a clear, vivid picture that we are able to reorient the puzzle and gain a new perspective on the whole.
This is not one of those moments.
The newly published Coptic papyrus does not fundamentally change what we historians of early Christianity are doing. So let’s not overestimate it.
But let’s not underestimate it either. When trying to complete the puzzle of early Christian history, every new piece is a godsend. The international guild of papyrologists, of which I am a part, hones its linguistic skills and sifts through bins and bins of cartonnage (small scraps of reused papyrus) in order to prepare for moments such as these. The Coptic papyrus is especially welcome because it’s a connector piece in our puzzle: its content shares enough similarities with existing pieces that we know roughly where on the table to put it. But it also offers a new detail: “Jesus said to them, ‘my wife…’”
Professor Karen King, who will be publishing the papyrus, has been abundantly clear that this text does not mean Jesus was married; rather, it tells us a bit about some Christians in the second or third century who either thought Jesus was married or used the symbol of Jesus’ wife for some other meaning. Her forthcoming article speaks well and clearly to its intended audience of historians.
I would like to offer a complementary viewpoint: Christians have nothing to fear from this text, but always something to learn.
Some contemporary Christians have been outright dismissive of non-canonical texts from early Christianity, as if their very existence is dangerous or even diabolical. Many early Christian leaders from the beginning, though, did not maintain such a strong canonical boundary. Even Athanasius of Alexandria, the fourth-century bishop and champion of orthodoxy, encouraged Christians to engage with a wide range of scriptures, including those from outside the emerging New Testament. [More]