““Ancient document refers to Jesus’ wife…” While there is nothing patently untrue about this statement, news stories such as this prey on people who rely on sound bites as sources of truth. Provocative, unsubstantiated and unexplained statements such as these are very misleading. Yet, you will discover stories just like this muscling their way into the headlines with steady and undaunted force.
So, what’s the real story? Harvard Professor, Karen L. King who is credited with announcing this discovery says this:
This is the only extant ancient text which explicitly portrays Jesus as referring to a wife. It does not, however, provide evidence that the historical Jesus was married, given the late date of the fragment and the probable date of original composition only in the second half of the second century.
The fact that this provides NO historical evidence for anything about Jesus is something that was continually affirmed by Dr. King. Yet, ABC news did not feel it relevant to mention this in their coverage of this story which is negligible.
Why would Dr. King, the one announcing this discovery, say that this does not provide evidence that the historical Jesus was married? In short, the document is too late, there are no other copies of this document (which, among other things, assumes it is insignificant historically) and there is no other evidence to support it as a reliable document. This document (which is 1.5 X 3 inches) is merely a fragment of a larger unknown document and the only copy of it’s kind. It is dated around 400 A.D. and is believed to be a copy of a text that was written no earlier than 150 A.D. which is more than 100 years after Jesus.
These are problems the New Testament manuscript do not have. There are several thousand copies which are supported by various historical tests and whose date is so close to the original it is very difficult to calculate accurately. It is by these criteria that we determine the reliability of an historical document. You can click here for a great, up-to-date article on this.
While this new discovery is an ancient document and does claim that Jesus had a wife, we have no reason to believe that this is historically reliable as evidence. The only significance of this discovery is (in Dr. King’s words) “direct evidence that claims about Jesus’ marital status first arose over a century after the death of Jesus in the context of intra-Christian (which she would consider Gnosticism) controversies over sexuality, marriage, and discipleship.” So, while not evidence that Jesus had a wife, it is evidence that some people were writing and thinking about the issue. And, at this point we can assume that this “controversy” was either non-existent or considered insignificant since there are no other copies in existence.
Not only does Dr. King admit that this is not evidence for Jesus having a wife, there is reason to believe that this document does not refer to wife the same way we might interpret today. Biblical Scholar Ben Witherington III of Asbury Seminary claims that this finding is in keeping with the spurious Gnostic texts (used as support for the same claims made famous by the Da Vinci Code) that popped on the literary scene as much as 100-300 years after Jesus. “What we hear from the Gnostic is this practice called the sister-wife texts, where they carried around a female believer with them who cooks for them and cleans for them and does the usual domestic chores, but they have no sexual relationship whatsoever.” Further, Dr. Witherington says, “In other words, this is no confirmation of the Da Vinci Code or even of the idea that the Gnostics thought Jesus was married in the normal sense of the word.
While this document is relatively specious and trivial in terms of historical evidence for Jesus, this is a great opportunity for Christians think carefully and critically about the news. I find these types of stories, while virtually nonsensical, to be a good apologetic and critical thinking exercise. Also, this provides an excellent avenue to engage in discussions on issues related to Jesus and Historical Reliability. If we really take a look at evidence for Jesus, it is pretty overwhelming. This is knowledge that people need to know, particularly in contrast to findings such as these. While I lament stories such as these, I am thankful that they push us to be better thinkers, careful with the evidence we have about Jesus, and to refresh my mind on the knowledge we have.