Does papyrus prove Jesus was married? Here we go again

A newly released discovery in the form of a tiny piece of papyrus has people talking — again — about whether Jesus had a wife.

Sister Pamela Smith, SSCM, chuckles over the renewed debate, saying it baffles her why people are so eager to believe that Jesus was married, or had children.

The diocesan secretary of education and director of catechesis and Christian initiation has some advice for people who want to enter into the discussion.

First, know exactly what the discovery is:

Karen L. King, a historian of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School, identified a scrap of papyrus that she said was written in Coptic in the fourth century. The translation contains a phrase never seen in Scripture: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …’ ” Another phrase reads: “she will be able to be my disciple.”

You can almost hear the sighs of ‘here we go again.’

It’s an echo of “The Da Vinci Code,” a work of fiction, said Sister Pam, emphasizing the word fiction.

Still, if people are going to talk, there are three simple points that need to be made:

1. Reliability

2. Metaphoric language

3. Personal analogies

“Nobody even knows the authenticity of the manuscript,” Sister Pam said. The owner is anonymous, meaning experts have not validated key points such as origin, history, method of discovery or chain of custody. Also, the ink on the artifact has not been tested for carbon dating. Meaning, it could be a fake.

Let’s say the papyrus turns out to be genuine; that still leaves the issue of context.

Sister Pam noted that Jesus often spoke metaphorically, so the words ‘my wife’ may not be literal. Since the words all around those phrases are missing, no one actually knows what it says. What people do know is that the Gospels refer to the church as the spouse of Christ or the bride of Christ, and Jesus as the church’s bridegroom.
She said most people probably have examples of things that could be taken out of context.

For example, she said if her body was exhumed a 100 years from now, and her silver ring was discovered with the inscription, it could be taken as evidence that she had a husband.

And that, of course, would not be true.

“The long-standing church tradition is that Jesus was a single Jewish man,” Sister Pam said. “This piece of papyrus doesn’t prove anything different.”


Image: The Last Supper, ca. 1520, by Giampietrino (Giovanni Pietro Rizzoli)