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)