Did Jesus have a wife?

I have been exploring the creation and fall of man and Lucifer in this series of posts. I plan to continue but some recent headlines in newsites around the world are beckoning a side post. A professor at Harvard University has announced the discovery of a business card-sized papyrus fragment dating from the 4th Century (300’s AD). The fragment (in Coptic) contains the phrase ”Jesus said to them, ‘my wife’”. Here is a smattering of headlines about this:

“An ancient scrap of papyrus makes explicit reference to Jesus having a wife, according to a renowned expert in Christian history.” BBC

“Papyrus fragment quoting ‘wife’ of Jesus raises questions for Christianity” – The Australian

“Was Jesus married? Papyrus fragment fuels debate” – Jerusalem Post

So what are we to make of this? Is this neo-narrative of Jesus really up for consideration? Well, let’s look first at the proximity of this ‘witness’ to Jesus life. The headlines and articles tell us it is ‘ancient’ and it is at that, but is it close to the time of Jesus? The articles themselves report the date of the fragment as 4th century, putting it about 300 years after the death of Jesus. Could such a document even be close to being a ‘primary source’? Well, just two hundred years ago, the war of 1812 raged between Canada and the US. I live  in Canada and if I claimed by my own authority to have a revision of events that transpired back then and have the ‘real story’ that has been kept hidden these two hundred years by our governments bent on keeping us in the dark – would you believe me? Of course not! How could I, two hundred years after the fact have any credibility as a source to set the record straight about what happened back then? It is so ludicrous an idea that it is beyond even contemplating. So how can a source, 300 years after the fact, be headlined in websites and Harvard professors as setting the real record – hidden all these years – straight? The websites continually refer to ‘church doctrine’ as standing in dogmatic opposition to this idea (that Jesus was married). For example the BBC article states

“Christian tradition holds that Jesus did not marry – but Prof King said in early years it was subject to debate. The provocative find could spark debate over celibacy and the role of women within Christianity, she added. But the announcement sparked scepticism from some theologians. “

The Jerusalem Post article opines that

Despite the Catholic Church’s insistence that Jesus was not married, the idea resurfaces on a regular basis, notably with the 2003 publication of Dan Brown’s best-seller “The Da Vinci Code,” which angered many Christians because it was based on the idea that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and had children.

King (the Harvard Prof announcing the discovery) said the fragment, unveiled at the Tenth International Congress of Coptic Studies, provided the first evidence that some early Christians believed Jesus had been married.

AsiaOne informs us that

Contacted by AFP, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi refused to call into question King’s competence as a historian but said that “we do not really know where this little scrap of parchment came from.”

“This does not change anything in the position of the Church which rests on an enormous tradition, which is very clear and unanimous” that Jesus Christ was not married, he said.

“This changes nothing in the portrayal of Christ and the gospels. This is not an event that has any influence on Catholic doctrine,” he said.

So is this a case of ‘narrow-minded’ churchmen blindly clinging to ‘tradition and doctrine’ in the face of contrary evidence? That is the impression one gets from these statements. But in point of fact ‘church doctrine’ has nothing to do with it. The gospels were written by three eyewitnesses and one investigative reporter (the Gospel of Luke) mere decades after the crucifixion of Jesus. And they are not found today on one business card fragment. I have a reference the size of an encyclopedia book that contains the transcripts of the many manuscripts of the New Testament that exist today that come before the Council of Nicaea (325 AD). That would put all these manuscripts earlier than mid-4th century. An encyclopedia-size of extant manuscripts written by primary source eyewitnesses vs. one business card size anonymous sentence 300 years after the fact! Why is it even making any news, let alone world headlines?

Gospel of Judas

But this is just the latest twist in a bizarre drama that is sweeping the world. It reminds me of the media attention paid a few years ago with the Gospel of Judas. The BBC opening sentence (bolded) was

Judas Iscariot’s reputation as one of the most notorious villains in history has been thrown into doubt with the translation of an ancient text.

But did the Gospel of Judas have any historical credibility? Further in their article the BBC informed us it also was a ‘4th century manuscript’ so we know that it was also 300 years removed from the events of Jesus. So it was not, for example, written by the ‘real’ Judas as his version of historical events. And there is only one extant Gospel of Judas manuscript, against the many manuscripts that claim primary eye-witness source testimony. Yet the BBC article would have us believe that it ‘throws into doubt’ what really happened. And it leaves you with the impression that it is more ‘progressive’ and ‘educated’ to have this doubt whereas it is ‘doctrine’ and ‘tradition’ that keeps the ‘credulous’ within the oppressive shackles of ‘church orthodoxy’.

Da Vinci Code

Then there was the Da Vinci Code book and movie, which were based off “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” – a self-proclaimed work of investigative journalism – that concluded that Jesus went off to France with Mary Magdalene and sired a ‘secret’ bloodline there. It is not necessary to examine all the claims of these books. Some are so easy to disprove that their lack of credibility should be as apparent as the sun rising before our eyes every morning. For example, the Da Vinci Code claimed that the Roman Emperor Constantine forced a vote of church Bishops to make Jesus ‘Divine’ as the Son of God. Really? So why does the Roman historian Pliny the Younger, writing to the pagan emperor of his day in 112 AD, – 200 years before Constantine – tell him this about the Christians?

“They also declare the sum total of their guilt or error amounted to no more than this: they had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately amongst themselves in honor of Christ as if to a god, and also to bind themselves by oath, not for any criminal purpose, but to abstain from theft, robbery and adultery …” Letters 10.6

The arch anti-Christian Lucian, writing satire against the gospel in 170 AD tells us that

The Christians you know worship a man to this day – the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account … it was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers … worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws.    The Death of Peregrine 11-13

Constantine in 325AD could not influence what happened two hundred years before his time, so the controversy of the divinity of Jesus definitely was not invented by him and thus one of the main ‘historical’ claims of this whole revisionary history is shown to be smoke and mirrors. Yet it was once again mentioned with a tone of plausibility in the Jerusalem Post article above as well as with this new 4th century Coptic reference to Jesus’ ‘wife’.

We live in an age when we claim that we are scientifically inclined – less prone to believe things unless compelling rational evidence is presented. I am not so sure. I meet many who tell me that the evidence to believe in Jesus is not compelling. Fair enough. But then I find many of these same folk embracing fantasies and beliefs that are far, far less substantiated than the Gospel. Why? Probably many factors are at play. Today many of us have not bothered to develop a baseline of historical understanding about the Bible so we are not in a position to have an informed perspective on the latest headlines that will greet us.

But at even a deeper level, perhaps ‘rational evidence’ is not our main metric in determining what we will believe.  Because behind our mind stands a more difficult beast to tame – our will.  Implicit in believing the Gospel Story is following it – and that is something we instinctively and desperately fight against. The Gospel Story demands our allegiance while these neo-narrative stories merely tickle our fancies – requiring no surrender to our deeply instinctive need for autonomy.  So deep down it is whether the story is preferable, rather than rational, that often drives our beliefs.   As the man famous for his wisdom, Solomon, wrote so long ago

“This only have I found: God made mankind upright, but men have gone in search of many schemes.” (Ecclesiastes 7:29)

Addressing objections to the Signs of Abraham & Moses

In my previous post I noted that a really good comment had been submitted on the External Evidence Session, basically questioning the value of external evidence.  The comment noted that external evidence does not tell us whether or not the gospel stories were legendary extrapolations built around a historical kernel of events.  I agreed, but submitted that at the very minimum external evidence can be used to weed out pretenders from contenders, similar to how first-year university courses are often designed to weed out students with insufficient motivation or aptitude.

First-year courses also serve as the foundational prerequisites upon which the more useful upper-year courses are built – the ones that give the knowledge and information that we really use.  In a similar way we are now in a position to integrate the External Evidence Session with that of Session 5 – where we opened a case to see if there is a Divine Mind behind the biblical account.

Abraham sacrifices his Son

In that 5th Session we looked at two very important stories in the earliest section of the Old Testament – in the Pentateuch of the books ascribed to Moses.  We first looked at the account of Abraham being willing to sacrifice his son on Mount Moriah, which (though many are not aware of it) we showed to be the place where the city of Jerusalem was eventually established.  And we saw that there are allusions in this account of Abraham that have fascinating parallels with, and point to, Jesus’ crucifixion in Jerusalem.  It is the fact that the allusion predates the event it alludes to by thousands of years that makes it so especially intriguing.  It points to a drama/literary mind, but since no human mind can coordinate events far into the future it opens the possibility that there is indeed a Divine Mind coordinating these events.

Tacitus: External Evidence Corroborating where Jesus was crucified

Now the first (and most obvious) rebuttal to this is that the gospel writers simply made up the ‘detail’ of Jesus’crucifixion being in Jerusalem to make it ‘fit’ that Abrahamic allusion.  But now we know from external evidence that Tacitus (a historian not at all sympathetic to the gospel) places that event in Judea.  He says:

Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, … but the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time broke out again, not only through Judea, where the mischief originated…(Annals XV. 44)

Josephus: External Evidence Corroborating Jesus

Josephus, the Jewish historian from the same period agrees with Tacitus in saying that:

At this time there was a wise man … Jesus. … good, and … virtuous. Many people among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned Him to be crucified and to die.  (Antiquities Book XVIII, III)

And Josephus tells us in his Antiquities in the two paragraphs just preceding this quote that:

But now Pilate, the procurator of Judea, removed the army from Cesarea to Jerusalem, to take their winter quarters there …Pilate was the first who brought these [pagan] images to Jerusalem and set them there …But Pilate undertook to bring a current of water to Jerusalem (Antiquities Book XVIII, III)

In other words, though the Roman center had previously been in Cesarea, Pilate was in Jerusalem when Jesus was executed.  So we have two external sources with unbiased or negative motives that corroborate the crucifixion of Jesus being under Pilate in Jerusalem.  Thus we know that the Gospel writers did not fabricate this detail to make it ‘fit’ the allusion from Abraham.

Moses’ Passover Account

Similarly with the Mosaic Passover story we saw allusions pointing to the Passover as the time of year when Jesus was to be executed.  For Jesus’ death to fall on that same festival by chance is slim indeed.  Adding to that is that the Mosaic account tells us that this festival is a ‘sign for us’ and it comes with so many parallels to Jesus crucifixion.  Did the Gospel writers fabricate this link to the Passover to make it ‘fit’ the allusion from Moses?

Jewish Talmud: External Evidence

We did not cover this particular item in the External Evidence session, but in the Jewish Talmud is preserved this statement about the execution of Jesus.

“Jesus was hanged on Passover Eve.  Forty days previously the herald had cried, ‘He is being led out for stoning because he has practised sorcery and led Israel astray and enticed them into apostasy.  Whosoever has anything to say in his defence let him come and declare it’.  As nothing was brought forward in his defence he was hanged on Passover Eve” cited in FF Bruce,  Jesus and Christian Origins outside the New Testament. 1974 p.56

So we have, once again, hostile witnesses, that though disagreeing on the meaning of Jesus, place Jesus’ crucifixion (ie hanging) at Passover.  They would be the last people to have any motive to do so because it strengthens the meaning of Jesus that they are vehemently at odds with.

So we cannot simply dismiss the fulfillment of these allusions that we looked at in Session 5 as simply fabrications on the part of the gospel writers.  We have to take it seriously as history.

And that does partially address an issue that was raised when Justin asked:

The main issue at hand, I think, is the apparent impossibility of Jesus’ miracles and resurrection…can that really be addressed in this way?

In other words, how can one verify the miraculous?  And we here are confronted with a strengthening case for a Divine Mind in these accounts since, using external evidence, we cannot dismiss their fulfillment simply by saying that the gospel writers made it up.  These particular details are verifiable.  And if there is a Divine Mind, i.e. God, then certainly miracles are possible.  Now, I titled Session 5 as an ‘opening case’ because I think if there are only these two allusions it is certainly conceivable that coincidence could explain them.  But it does open up a possibility that surely warrants further investigation.  Are there more, even ones that are more explicit?  Here is a good place to start to investigate.

Religious Evidence: From Flying Spaghetti Monsters to Mormons and Miracles

Justin, your comments in my Introduction to External Evidence were so insightful I thought conversation should continue around them with a post.  You summarized my intent by surmising

I guess your main aim was to convince us that the Bible’s content is not ‘mythical’ in the sense that it was not entirely made up, and I agree with that (except in the case of the creation story)…

And that indeed was my aim.  I was not trying to prove or state that the Biblical account is true, proven or inspired, but that it sits on a tight historical framework.  So why do I think that to be significant?  Permit me to draw upon my university experience to illustrate.

When I started out in Forest Engineering I took courses like statics, dynamics, physics and mathematics.  They were rather tough courses for us first year students so the failure rate was high.  “Why are they loading us down with so many hard assignments and killer tests?” we would complain to each other.  The word spread that in fact the professors intentionally structured things this way to ‘weed out’ students.  And in fact that is what happened.  We ended that year with about half the number of students that started.  Those of us who remained were still not ready to graduate and get our engineering rings – other difficulties lay ahead and not all would make it – but now the professors would continue our education with smaller, more focused classes.

Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster

This illustrates my first reason for looking at external evidence – it ‘weeds out’ many spurious candidates.  And you will find that there are many contestants in this ‘class’.  There are enough to make us wonder if we can make any sense of it.

For example, if you google ‘flying spaghetti monster’ you will find that the FSM (to use the acronym) is touted by some as a deity.  Now they do so in parody and satire (they are pastafarians of the church of the FSM!).  By their satire they are asking a very pointed question: “Why should anyone take a biblical account more seriously than how you take the FSM deity (which you dismiss)?  If you dismiss the FSM out-of-hand why not dismiss the Bible out-of-hand?”  Applying external evidence is my ‘first cut’ by which I rationally weed out pretenders from contenders.  Why do I dismiss the FSM?  There is not one shred of evidence that the FSM has interacted through history in any way.  This is not the case for the Bible.  FSMers, however, in their mockery, have never informed themselves enough of the Bible to see the difference.  Their scorn for the Bible has kept them in ignorance of its historical evidence.

Similarly, I have friends who claim that Jesus never existed.  External evidence shouts that this is nonsense.  Historical writers outside the Bible, living in the first century (ex. Josephus) , affirm Jesus’ existence.  I know others who worship pagan deities such as Thor.  External evidence allows me to ask, “Has this god/figure ever intersected with humanity in a historical way?”  External evidence allows me to dismiss Thor and accept Jesus at a purely historical level.  External Evidence is a great way to make a ‘first cut’.

The Mormon Claim

External evidence is also useful in assessing the claims of those who have added or interpret the Bible in an unusual way.  Mormons are a good example of that.  When I was a university student, Mormon missionaries met with me over multiple weeks to explain their message.  I learned that their founding prophet, Joseph Smith, had discovered scriptures in the early 19th century buried in the ground in New York State that told the history of a clash of civilizations in North America.  These civilizations stemmed from a small Jewish community that left Jerusalem around the time of its first fall (586 BC) and emigrated to North America.  This discovery by Smith was written in a book made from golden plates in a language of ‘Reformed Egyptian hieroglyphics’.

External evidence allowed me to ask and assess some basic questions.  Why would Jewish people write in ‘Reformed Egyptian hieroglyphics’ when in all their other (numerous) writings they used Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek?  In fact, there is not one shred of one historical document in existence anywhere in the world today written in ‘Reformed Egyptian Hieroglyphics’ (the gold-plated original that Smith discovered was ‘lost’ just after he translated it into English), so there is no external evidence, within a sea of data from that era, that even such a language ever existed, let alone that this gold-plated document existed.  All other writings from that era were written on scrolls made from animal skins or papyrus plants.  Why would these Jews start using gold plates?  No other gold plate documents from any culture in that era exist.  There is no archeological evidence of any civilization in North America having a Jewish distinctive (and remember that Jewish people have been dispersed throughout the world for millennia and have always maintained their Jewish distinctive customs and scriptures).  The lack of external evidence starts to scream against these claims.

Jews have existed in various countries around the world, living distinctive from the native population for thousands of years.  Whether religious or not they have always maintained the ritual of circumcision.  Mormons claim that the indigenous natives of North & South America are the descendants of these first Jews who came from Jerusalem in 586 BC.  Yet not one Native American tribe or civilization maintains in their culture any circumcision ritual.  Jews in India, Tunisia, Jamaica, Turkey, Morocco, Spain etc. have maintained the circumcision ritual.  Yet all the ‘Jewish’ Native American forgot it?  That makes no sense.  The Native Americans were not Jewish, and the whole Mormon story falls apart for this lack of external corroborating evidence.

Krishna and External Evidence

The significance of the external evidence supporting the Gospel may perhaps be better appreciated by comparing it with a non-Western scripture.  The central figure in Hinduism is Krishna who is the incarnation of the Hindu God Vishnu.  The pivotal event in his incarnate life was when he was a charioteer in the Kurukshetra War, and he gave wise advice and indispensable aid to one of the armies in this war.  So historically, when did this pivotal war for the central figure in Hinduism happen?  Wiki sums it up well:

The Kurukshetra War is believed to date variously from 6000 BCE to 500 BCE, based on the astronomical and literary information from Mahābhārata…. The historicity of the Kurukshetra War is unclear… The reconstruction of the history of Vedic India is based on text-internal details.

There is no external evidence at all to help us find this most important event of the Hindu scriptures in history, and thus there is about a 5000 year range in (basically) guessing when this may have happened.  In comparison with this, the external evidence from both extra-biblical writers and archeological artefacts concerning the Gospel, as we saw in Session 4, is stunning.

Substantiating miracles in the Biblical record?

But perhaps you have already done your ‘weeding’ and have your ‘short-list’ and you are perhaps feeling stuck because external evidence does not help you further at this point.  In particular you are asking whether the biblical account is a “distortion of the truth, rather than ‘mythical’”, and whether (or not) the Gospel writers fabricated details around a historically verifiable kernel of truth.  I think you wonder about this because the Bible contains accounts of miracles.  As you ask:

The main issue at hand, I think, is the apparent impossibility of Jesus’ miracles and resurrection…can that really be addressed in this way?

It is at this point that the Bible itself introduces a specific and impossible-to-fake test to determine whether there is a supernatural or miraculous Mind behind it or not.  The test is to make precise long-range predictions about the future and see if they were fulfilled or not.  The reasoning is that though some humans may be clever or charismatic enough to draw a following (eg. Joseph Smith founder of Mormons) no human knows the future.  If there is a God, only He does.  So verifiable prophetic predictions inked out in black and white for all to evaluate provides an objective test to determine if there is a Miracle-working God or not.

Whether you approach the Bible and God with scorn as the Flying Spaghetti Monster people do, or whether you come from a biblical offshoot sect like Mormons do, or from another ancient religion with a different scripture, or just wonder if there is anyway to know, it certainly is worthwhile to be informed of the prophetic credentials of the Bible so that you can make an informed opinion.  My article here will introduce you to the basics.

Archaeological Discovery of Ancient Temple Announced

The Jerusalem Post, on Christmas Day, announced the discovery of a seal used in the Temple worship in Jerusalem has been discovered.  The article, which includes a video of the artefact Continue reading

Hold the Eggnog Christmas is in trouble: Considering Dawkins’ claims against the Gospel story

One of the ways I assess the robustness of a controversial viewpoint (eg the Gospel) is to hear the informed arguments against it.  In other words, I want to see its weak or vulnerable points.  This gives me a handle on its overall reliability.

Session 4 gave an overview of external evidences in support of the historical reliability of the Bible.  But are there external evidences that are problems for the Biblical account?   Well-known critic of the Gospel, Richard Dawkins, in his best-seller The God Delusion dismisses the historicity of the account of the birth of Jesus.  He brings up an issue that is considered to be one of the most difficult and serious problems in squaring away the Gospel account of the birth of Jesus and what we know from external evidence.

The issue is that the Gospel of Luke places the birth of Jesus at the time when Quirinius was governor of Syria. (“This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.” – Luke 2:1)    Josephus places the time of a census while Quirinius was governor of Syria at 6-7 AD.  This places Luke’s time for the census far too late compared with other aspects of the birth narrative.  So this is considered a serious problem and Dawkins chose it as his example par excellence to illustrate errors in the Bible.  Looking at a problem will allow a good overall assessment of the viability of its historicity.  So let us examine this in some more detail in this 7 minute video.

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