Perhaps for the first time in recent history, the Vatican and a majority of academics are in agreement. The Vatican raised doubts this week about the now well-known papyrus that alludes to Jesus having a wife, describing it as a fake. Meanwhile, scholars have also expressed concerns about the fragment's authenticity, noting its form and grammar look suspicious, as well as the fact that it was purchased on the market without a clear origin.
But this is nothing new. Attempts to link Jesus to a wife (and therefore make him totally human) are perennial. Around AD 300 the church leader Arius started teaching that Jesus was created by God, and thus not divine. His teachings became known as Arianism, and giving Jesus a wife would further advance this theory. Arius lived in Alexandria, Egypt – ironically the same general area where the Gnostic gospels were found at Nag Hammadi as well as the papyrus now in question.
Arianism was the main topic of debate at the Council of Nicea in AD 325, attended by the emperor Constantine, and was decisively rejected by the majority of church leaders. But like any teaching, some continued to believe it (for example, Mormonism has an Arian view of Jesus as an exalted man). So it should not be surprising that the so-called Gospel of Mary Magdalene, Gospel of Philip, Gospel of Thomas, and this new fragment have similar theological underpinnings. But we have solid proof to the contrary:
- People who knew Jesus and spent time with him – his disciples, apostles, and the authors of the New Testament books – regarded him as both human and divine. Based on his life and death he was truly human. He also claimed to be God (e.g., “I and the father are one”). If he was not divine, then his sacrifice on the cross would not have been sufficient payment and therefore useless. The early church leaders also carefully considered the dual nature of Christ and the apostle Paul wrote about it, so the issue was settled long before Arius came on the scene.
- Arianism and the Gnostic “gospels” came much later (approximately AD 140 – 400) after all of primary accounts were dead. There were a number of groups with their own philosophies/theologies often quite different from actual Christianity, and each group had their own axe to grind. Therefore, it is not at all surprising that someone would speculate that Jesus had been married.
- If Jesus had a wife, the apostles would certainly have known about it because he lived and spent a lot of time with them during his 3+ years of ministry. Jewish writers tended to be euphemistic about sex, but they certainly didn’t hide it, and if it were true it would have come out. Jesus did meet and interact with women, which was very unusual for a Rabbi of his day, but there are no hints of any actual relationships in the New Testament or any other writings from that time.
- Finally, Jesus had serious enemies who sought any and all possible grounds to denounce him. The only thing they came up with was a charge of blasphemy for claiming to be God. After Jesus' death and resurrection, his enemies felt threatened by the Christian movement, and could have sought to discredit it by providing evidence that Jesus was a womanizer or adulterer. But there was no hint of this.
In fact, the only other documentary support for a woman having an intimate relationship with Jesus is a confusing statement from the Gnostic Gospel of Philip (written long after Philip’s death), which says the following: “The companion of the Savior is Mary Magdalene. Christ loved her more than all the disciples and used to kiss her often on her mouth. The rest of the disciples were offended by this and expressed disapproval. They said to him, ‘Why do you love her more than all of us?’”
Most assume that the above account, taken from a Gnostic writing, amounts to religious fiction. However, some have taken it literally and alleged from the above quote that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ spouse or consort – this is the same line of thinking put forth in The Da Vinci Code. If that were the case, then why would the disciples, who were married men with their own wives, object to him kissing her and “loving her more than them?” Even the Gnostic writings never claim that Jesus and Mary were married, nor do they claim that there was any sexual relationship or that any children were born to them.
If you’re still skeptical, consider this: if you read a contemporary book about Abraham Lincoln, written by the descendants of John Wilkes Booth, claiming that Mary Todd Lincoln was not the president’s wife, would you find that a trustworthy source? The Vatican and many historians believe this document is a fake. At best, the papyrus only offers us proof that one person who lived several hundred years later believed something that was widely believed to be untrue.
Richard Sorensen is the author of Unholy Grail, a new speculative fiction series that links Judas to Mary Magdalene and turns The Holy Grail debate made popular by The Da Vinci Code on its head. Sorensen is a member of Cranston Christian Fellowship in Rhode Island, where he lives with his wife. For more information, visit www.unholygrail.net.