Fill in the blank: “Jesus said to them, “My wife ________________________ .”
- Looks like Mary Magdalene.
- Keeps complaining that I gave up my carpentry job.
- Made dinner for 12 again. Come join us!
- Is smokin’ hot.
Last week, every media outlet was abuzz with news of the discovery by Professor Karen King of Harvard University of a scrap of papyrus containing the phrase: “Jesus said to them, ‘my wife.’” This week, more questions than answers have been provided regarding the origins and credibility of this document, questionably dubbed The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife. While the dust continues to settle on this brouhaha, scholarly consensus appears to be emerging that this document will be categorized alongside the sensationalistic claims of The Gospel of Judas, The Jesus Tomb and – yes – even The DaVinci Code. It’s still within the realm of possibility that the papyrus could turn out to be one of the greatest hoaxes of all time. If nothing else, the announcement of the discovery of The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife has made for some pretty good humor. On a more serious note, the announcement of The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife has served to expose a streak of shameless sensationalism within mainstream Biblical scholarship.
Where is the sensationalism in The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife? Well … Someone at Harvard University did entitle the papyrus as The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife. Some basic challenges exist to that title. First, a business card sized scrap of papyrus does not make a Gospel. King argues for the Gospel label because the document contains a discussion between Jesus and His disciples about discipleship. However, it’s difficult to truly ascertain that classification when you have a scant 30 words from various disjointed sentences to go by. Second (and more importantly), there’s still no proof that Jesus has a wife. While Harvard University surrogates repeatedly admit that this particular document provides no proof whatsoever that Jesus was married, they do openly espouse a whale of a theory that many second century Christians did believe that Jesus was married – perhaps to Mary Magdalene.
So if this document does not prove in any conceivable manner that Jesus had a wife, then why name it The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife?!? Here’s why: If it was entitled “Papyrus #42859237,” it would have been lovingly placed in a dusty archive with other Gnostic discoveries and quickly forgotten. Certainly, the field of textual criticism has enough existing (and perfectly boring) nomenclature to use for strange papyri originating from ancient Egyptian trash heaps. But we don’t even have to speculate about this issue: The Q&A on Harvard University’s website about the document freely fesses up to the juicy naming of the document: “The title refers to the fragment’s most distinctive claim (that Jesus was married).”
So let me get this straight: Harvard University simultaneously denies that there’s any actual proof of Jesus being married but uses the provocative idea to promote the finding. Hmmmm … Something smells rotten.
Adding to the palpable heartburn over the document is the fact that significant questions and “red flags” seem to have been overridden in an effort to get The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife out to the public. There are serious questions about whether the papyrus can be accurately dated to the 4th century. There are more serious questions about whether the neat square shape of the papyrus indicate that the document has been intentionally clipped to make it more alluring. There are theories that the papyrus is just a retread of The Gospel of Thomas. Questions upon questions … Theories upon theories …
But the biggest unanswered question is the document’s origin. Unlike other major credible discoveries like the Nag Hammadi documents, this document was provided to Harvard by an anonymous source. There is only a residual, second-hand tale about how the anonymous owner acquired it from a German-American fellow who somehow acquired it from somewhere in East Germany. No one outside of Harvard University has had the opportunity to “kick the tires” (so to speak) and probe the uncertain background of the document. While certain assumptions can be made from the fact that the material is papyrus and the writing is Coptic (assuming it is authentic), there is no verifiable “chain of ownership” to provide any illumination whatsoever to the document’s origins. There’s something unsettling about the imagery of shady anonymous collectors in trench coats peddling ancient papyri to openly salivating institutions of higher education. (Boy … That sounds like a Monty Python line.)
The unfortunate fact of the matter is a market has emerged for making sensational claims about Jesus. After every reported new discovery about the historical Jesus, there seems to be the accompanying best-selling book, major-league television special and media outlet tour (see: The Gospel of Judas; The Jesus Tomb). To no surprise whatsoever, the Smithsonian Network is conducting a television special next week about The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife discovery. Somewhere someone must already be working on Jesus’ wife t-shirts and baby “onesies.” Stories about Vatican conspiracies and a “naughty” Jesus sell big in print and on the big screen. And as long as the latest crackpot theory about Jesus continues topping the New York Times bestseller list, sensationalism disguised as scholarship will keep on back to fill the void. Ultimately, it’s the second coming of Al Capone’s Vaults … A bunch of flash about a pile of dust that will make no mark upon history.
In response to the flashy announcement of The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, Smithsonian Magazine bit hard onto the hype by claiming that the discovery “is sure to send shockwaves through the Christian world.” Meanwhile, the Christian world collectively responds with a yawn. After year upon nauseating year of the James ossuary, The DaVinci Code, the Jesus family tomb, Mary Magdalene-centric feminist revisionism and the regurgitated re-hashed re-discovery of supposedly “lost” gospels (i.e. the Gospel of Jesus’ Brother’s Wife’s Hairdresser’s Dog Walker), the reality is that most practicing Christians just don’t pay attention anymore. You can almost hear the collective eye-roll of the evangelical community every time the next sensational discovery about the “really, really real historical Jesus” comes to light.
Oddly enough, Jesus’s provocative question to the disciples of “Who do you say that I am?” seems to resonate more in the world of academia than evangelicalism. To evangelicals, Jesus is the Christ, Son of God. The issue of Jesus’ identity has been settled by the collective testimony of the apostles. In the halls of higher education and the echo chamber of cable network street barkers, Jesus is an ever-expanding, ever-evolving jigsaw puzzle where the philosophical tail perpetually wags the dog. And that’s why The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife doesn’t rock the world of evangelicals. While most of the academic world is ever-searching for the identity of the “real Jesus,” evangelicals are fully content that they’re intimately known by the real Jesus (1 John 4:6-7). With the advent of The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, the quest for the historical Jesus has become a bizarre chase for the elusive white rabbit leading to Wonderland.
Without the clarity and conviction of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:6-16), Jesus’ ultimate question to the disciples will echo on throughout history: “Who do you say that I am?”