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

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