“It is an embarrassing insight into human nature that the more fantastic the scenario, the more sensational is the promotion it receives and the more intense the faddish interest it attracts,” Roman Catholic scholar Raymond Brown wrote nearly three decades ago. “People who would never bother reading a responsible analysis of the traditions about how Jesus was crucified, died, was buried, and rose from the dead are fascinated by the report of some ‘new insight’ to the effect he was not crucified or did not die, especially if his subsequent career involved running off with Mary Magdalene to India.”
This week, this embarrassing aspect of human nature has been on full display once again on television screens and news headlines. A scholar from Harvard University has presented a fragment of papyrus, allegedly copied about three centuries after the days when Jesus walked on the earth, that includes this clause: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife.’” The news media reacted as if the five Coptic words underlying this clause had suddenly reset the entire field of biblical studies.
public radio international suggested that this fragment might “challenge hundreds of years of religious belief” by re-igniting “a centuries-old debate about the role of women in the Christian faith.” (Never mind that the fragment tells us little, if anything, about the role of women in Christian faith or that this debate isn’t exactly in need of re-ignition—it’s remained fairly well-ignited for a long time.) According to bloomberg business week, “evidence pointing to whether Jesus was married or had a female disciple could have ripple effects in current debates over the role of women.” (Never mind that the new testament is filled with examples of female disciples and that their existence has never been in question.) The washington post claimed the papyrus had renewed debates “about scholarship focused on Jesus’s marital status and the veracity of early church documents.” (What the text has to do with the truthfulness of early Christian texts, I am not sure; what it has to do with the marital status of the historical Jesus is, as it turns out, practically nothing.)
Dr. Karen King—the scholar presenting this fragment at International Congress on Coptic Studies—did admit, to her credit, that the fragment “does not … provide evidence that the historical Jesus was married.” At the same time, her decision to name the fragment “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” didn’t exactly lend itself to reasonable discussion and consideration.
Other scholars have already raised valid questions about the fragment’s authenticity as well as pointing out the irregularities in how the research was publicized. All of this kerfuffle will soon die down, quite possibly with the revelation that the fragment was a forgery in the first place.