Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The “Jesus Wife” Coptic Fragment: Facts and Understanding

The “Jesus Wife” Coptic Fragment: Facts and Understanding

by Deacon Rick Bauer, ThM, Harvard Divinity School; MA Theology, The Augustine Institute

1: Coptic Text Fragment (enlarged from Boston;
see below for further reference graphics)

This week the newspapers and television news featured Professor Karen King of Harvard Divinity School and her release of a Sahidic Coptic textual fragment she has entitled “Jesus’ wife.” No small amount of discussion has ensued about the value of the information regarding this textual fragment and how it speaks to the question of Jesus’ being married. How does this discovery speak to this question?

Facts about this Coptic Fragment
  • The fragment is smaller than a standard business card. It has eight lines on one side, and about 4 words per line. Its text is comparatively small in size, making translation even more difficult (best viewed under a magnifying glass or microscope).
  • This fragment is from a larger text, so there is no sense of where or how these words fit in the overall text, or what its purpose was.
  • In no place on the fragment is the word “gospel” found.
  • Preliminary dating (not scientific, but by the best guess of Dr. King) places this fragment in the late 4th century A.D. The ink and fading patterns of the fragment is consistent with the time period in terms of aging.
  • The fragment is written in an Egyptian language–Coptic, and is thought to be a translation of a 2nd century document. This has not yet been verified by any reputable textual authorities (even at Harvard divinity or its Museum of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations departments), and there is no reference document in existence.
Facts about Professor Karen King
  • Dr. Karen King, Hollis Professor of Divinity, holds the oldest endowed chair in the United States (1721) at Harvard Divinity School. Full disclosure: I did not take any classes with Dr. King at HDS (she came to Harvard after I received my Th.M. degree), but was familiar with the course offerings in the Women’s Studies program at HDS, and had several conflicts and discussions with the leaders in the feminist agenda during my student days at HDS. As a conservative Christian studying to be a biblical scholar, I found myself in a decided minority; as a white male with a Southern accent (Virginia), I was often viewed as an evil oppressor in several conflicts with these groups.
  • Her books include “The Secret Revelation of John; The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle; What Is Gnosticism?; Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity; Revelation of the Unknowable God, Images of the Feminine in Gnosticism (ed.) and Women and Goddess Traditions in Antiquity and Today (ed.).
  • King has named this fragment a “gospel” of which she asserts is a part of a larger text (nonexistent) she has entitled “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.” Dr. King has stated that this text is somehow connected to The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Mary, and The Gospel of Philip, but she has yet to publish anything backing her assertion that can be independently verified. In most conservative scholarly circles, this is considered quite unusual, and speaking more to an effort to advance an agenda than to forward independent scholarly inquiry. Her methods and ideology have been questioned by several of her own faculty at HDS, in private conversations I have had to date about this matter.
My Thoughts and Preliminary Assessment

The fragment is small, and lacks enough text to support the weight of the assertions that Dr. King is putting forward. The document dates too late to have impact. The Gospels have authenticity because of the date of their writing, their connection to an eye witness or Christ or Apostolic companion, and overall consistency with the rule of faith. Any fragment too far removed from Jesus’ time loses credibility because of the distance from Jesus’ life, and we can’t know who wrote it or what agenda that person may have had. At best, this document tells us what people were thinking in the second or fourth century. Yes, it is interesting, but no, it does not change anything. From a marketing standpoint, if the fragment was released in tandem with The DaVinci Code, it would have had a greater impact, regardless of the unreliability of the assertions.

In my opinion, it is important to recognize any bias or agenda with these “discoveries.” The naming of the fragment (as compared with a more scientific numbering that is consistent with the Qumran (Dead Sea) fragments, for example) is a hint that a conclusion is being drawn to advance a radical feminist agenda against tradition Christian understandings. The field of “unknown gospels” is filled with such assertions, usually to breathless coverage in the media, but with little context. In most cases, what is not mentioned is that many of these so-called “gospels” were tested, evaluated, and compared during the times in which they were circulating, and were found lacking. While King may be considered a fine academic scholar, she has an agenda and your people need to know it.

Furthermore, the fact that Dr. King has not released any validated information about the source of her discovery causes great concern among papyrological experts. In more than a few cases, unscrupulous dealers in these antiquities destroy whole texts and break them into smaller fragments so that they can sell them at a greater price, which was a problem with some of the earliest fragments of the Qumran (Dead Sea Scrolls) materials. The entire mode, means, and forum under which this "discovery" was made by Dr. King causes more questions than it answers, and the silence by the more experienced and renowned textual scholars at Harvard (or any leading university) is even more troubling. This process of not vetting, identifying, or clearly giving context to a manuscript fragment is the kind of activity that most biblical scholars, antiquities experts, and responsible textual critics teach their graduate students to avoid. Unless, that is, one wants to make a splash in the mainstream media.  

Was Jesus married? The New Testament never says so. We would expect to find this information in the Gospels if Jesus had a wife. St. Paul addressed the subject of marriage in 1 Corinthians 9. Since Paul was defending his “right to be married” which he did not assert, he would have stated that Jesus was also married to make his point, but he doesn’t. Most theories of Jesus’ wife have him married to Mary Magdalene. Even King says it is unlikely that Mary was Jesus’ wife because she is known by the area of her birth, and if she were married, she would be known by her husband. The fact that the scriptures and early sources continually called her “Mary of Magdala” reinforces the biblical record of her being unattached during her following of Christ during his earthly ministry.

On another part of the text, on the so-called “Jesus Wife” fragment there are words that say a woman could be called “disciple.” What should we conclude about women being called disciples? We should recognize that this is hardly earth-shattering, since Jesus treated women who followed him, or who were active in the early church, better than most religions or cultures of the Ancient Near East and in the Roman Empire. There were groups of women who followed Jesus in his ministry, and who assisted and contributed throughout the history of the Church. Jesus even chose women as his first witnesses of his resurrection. So if “disciple” means “follower” (from the Greek mathetes) which it likely does in the second or fourth century, then there is not an earthshaking issue here. Women are regarded as an equal expression of the Imago Dei and are equal in being (Galatians 3:28). Again, there may be an agenda here, since the New Testament clearly lists both the 12 Apostles and the first 7 Deacons as men.

Based on my own assessments of Dr. King’s writings and the general tendency of feminist biblical scholarship, this fragment is being awkwardly leveraged to fit into an agenda that would see the removal of any male/female differences in the Christian church, especially in the Apostolic ranks or the ordained clergy.  

In conclusion, this unverified fourth century Coptic fragment from an unknown source written by an unknown author doesn’t compare to the rich New Testament record. We could build an entire New Testament from the over 16,000 textual fragments and citations available from the first few centuries of the Church’s existence. None of the “gospels” mentioned by Dr. King have ever been included in any canonical documents or record of the deliberations of the early Church councils, and many other candidates for inclusion in the New Testament canon were judged by the people who knew their value best—those of the very age in which they were written—and found thoroughly wanting. It is an act of considerable hubris to assert a greater level of wisdom and insight than our brothers and sisters in the faith so long ago.

Rick Bauer, ThM, MA
Deacon, Diocese of Colorado Springs
Instructor, Permanent Diaconate Formation Program

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Misunderestimating Jesus

Misunderestimating Jesus
26th Sunday of Ordinary Time
16 September 2012

Mark 8:27-38
Jesus went out, along with His disciples, to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way He questioned His disciples, saying to them, “Who do people say that I am?”
  They told Him, saying, “John the Baptist; and others say Elijah; but others, one of the prophets.”
  And He continued by questioning them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered and said to Him, “You are the Christ.”
 And He warned them to tell no one about Him.
 And He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.
 And He was stating the matter plainly. And Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him.
 But turning around and seeing His disciples, He rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind Me, Satan; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.”
 And He summoned the crowd with His disciples, and said to them, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.
 “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it.
  36   “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?
  37   “For what will a man give in exchange for his soul?
  38   “For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.”

One of the key themes of this gospel reading is a failure to communicate. 

Miscommunication and misunderstanding play a key role in understanding this encounter with Jesus and his disciples. He has to correct their assumptions about his identity, and then his role, and then his purpose. His disciples seem no further clued in at the end of this encounter than at the beginning. It would take witnessing the crucifixion and the resurrection for these truths to sink in. sometimes people read this encounter, and they are confused. Was Jesus really not into telling people he was the Christ? Why did he warn his followers to explicitly NOT tell anyone this major truth? This is the idea behind the musical Jesus Christ Superstar (and I won’t sing it): “If you’d come today you would have ruled the whole nation; Israel in 4BC had no mass communication.” In other words, Jesus needed better marketing spin and product placement. No, that’s not the reason, and Jesus doesn’t need our marketing help. Because so many people had the concept that the Jewish Messiah, the Christ, would be a military priest, a combination of Rambo and Moses, any mention of this before the cross would have caused a riot. Riots start pretty easy in the Middle East, and Jesus wisely calms down that expectation. Only after his death on a cross and his resurrection can the message be told. Even then, it caused some problems. 

Miscommunications plague this encounter. Misunderstandings. Who do people say I am? Well, some people think this, some that. What about you….we’ll, you’re the Christ. In Matthew’s Gospel in chapter 16, we see Peter gets the keys after this good confession. In Mark’s gospel, he gets called Satan after that, because Jesus starts talking about the Christ and a cross, and Peter definitely did not get the memo….and Peter starts to rebuke him….
Wow, talk about misunderstanding, miscommunication….

Reminds me of that Baptist guy who had a gambling problem…
Mitch, a hard-shell Southern Baptist, loved to sneak away to the race track. One day he was there betting on the ponies and nearly losing his shirt when he noticed this priest who stepped out onto the track and blessed the forehead of one of the horses lining up for the 4th race. Lo and behold, this horse - a very long shot - won the race.
Mitch was most interested to see what the priest did the next race. Sure enough, he watched the priest step out onto the track as the 5th race horses lined up, and placed this blessing on the forehead of one of the horses. Mitch made a beeline for the window and placed a small bet on the horse. Again, even though another long shot, the horse the priest had blessed won the race. Mitch collected his winning and anxiously waited to see which horse the priest bestowed his blessing on for the 6th race.
The priest showed, blessed a horse, Mitch bet on it, and it won! Mitch was elated! As the day went on, the priest continued blessing one of the horses, and it always came in first. Mitch began to pull in some serious money, and by the last race, he knew his wildest dreams were going to come true. He made a quick stop at the ATM, withdrew big money and awaited the priest's blessing that would tell him which horse to bet on.
True to his pattern, the priest stepped out onto the track before the last race and blessed the forehead, eyes, ears and hooves of one of the horses. Mitchell bet every cent, and watched the horse come in dead last. Mitchell was dumbfounded. He made his way to the track and when he found the priest, he demanded, "What happened, Father? All day you blessed horses and they won. The last race, you blessed a horse and he lost. Now I've lost my savings, thanks to you!!"
The priest nodded wisely and said, "That's the problem with you Protestants... you can't tell the difference between a simple blessing and the last Rites." 

Miscommunication: it’s costly….

In the Mark’s gospel, we have two problems with the disciples, and that’s why I call this homily “Misunderestimating Jesus.” You remember that our former President, George W. Bush, had a funny habit of conflating words together, and this one was one of his favorite. I used to think that was a sing of a deficient intellect, but now, I think it’s the sign of Jesus.

I learned that one Sunday 4 years ago, when I was reading the 2nd reading as a Lector at Our Lady of the Pines. Reading from the New American Bible, the version we use at all our masses, I read, or tried to read, Hebrews 10:23, where the writer urges us to “hold unwaveringly to our faith, for he who promised is faithful.” Unfortunately, I has some serious sector seek issues with my brain and tongue, because in my mind I recognized a favorite verse, one I had memorized, from the New International Version, a bible version I had preached for well nigh 12 years. In that version, the writer urges us, not to hold unwaveringly, but he said, “let us hold unswervingly to our faith.” And those of you who were there at that 8am mass know that I, Deacon Rick Bauer, created an ecumenical moment worthy of our former President when I got up there and read, not unwaveringly, not unswervingly, but unswaveringly—a brand new word. Unswaveringly—it really should be a word, right—not wavering, and not swerving—it’s gonna be a word someday!

Well, misunderestimating is the right word for this gospel, too.

A conflation of misunderstanding, and underestimating…and that’s what his disciples do, and that’s what we do.

They misunderstood what being the Messiah mean for Christ. They thought it was parades and being the chosen people and whoopin’ up on the Romans, but Jesus said this meant a cross of suffering, it mean rejection, it meant loneliness (just like the first reading this morning). And it would mean the same to his followers. 

The also underestimated what being a follower of Christ meant. In v 34-35:

“If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it.”

The price of discipleship will always include a cross. Jesus speaks clearly so that we cannot misunderstand this—anyone, must, take up a cross, whoever, whoever, lose life, save life. You have to be a theologian to misunderestimate this!

And people back then understood something we don’t today. Crosses back then were made for only one thing—they were meant for dying.

Rob Frazier, a contemporary Christian artist wrote a song titled, "He doesn’t want you better, He wants you deader" I love the lines here…

Dead people don’t mind the pain, Don’t get offended so they never complain

They’re not concerned about personal gain, Does that sound like me or you?
The truth is rising from the mist And the word is this;
That when Jesus calls a man He calls him to come and die!
He doesn’t want you better, He wants you deader.

The mark of a saint is not perfection, but consecration. A saint is not a person without faults, but a person who has given himself without reservation to Christ...As we close, there’s a remedy for misunderestimating Jesus. We have to Understand him, and we have to change our estimate of the cost. We understand him through his Word, and so we have to feed on that word, study it every day, make it a part of our lives. We have to discover again that the price of discipleship has not been discounted by Ben Bernanke, that Moody’s has not dropped the credit rating for selling all you have, and living a sold-out life. The price is high, it’s intrusive—Jesus seems to want to own every area of our life—it costs you everything you have. But the gospel today is that all of us can afford that price. Salvation is free, ... but discipleship will cost you your life. A religion that gives nothing, costs nothing, and suffers nothing, is worth nothing. No discount, no frequent mass-flier affinity programs, no group rates—he wants us to perfectly understand the price, the cost, and not misunderstand, or underestimate, or misunderestimate.

May God bless us we wrestle with the implications of a Christ with a cross with our name on it.