Monday, September 24, 2012

Public Reactions To the Gospel of Jesus' Wife

"Even tiny fragments of papyrus can offer surprises with the potential to significantly enrich our historical reconstruction of the range of ancient Christian theological imagination and practice."

That is the conclusion of a paper, Jesus said to them, My wife… A New Coptic Gospel Papyrus, written by Harvard Professor Karen L. King, with contributions by Princeton professor AnneMarie Luijendijk, concerning a recently-discovered papyrus manuscript which, King says, appears to have been made in the 4th century, with a Coptic text copying and/or translating a text from the 2nd century in which Jesus refers to his wife. There had been some hints before in other New Testament apocrypha that Jesus might have been married, but this would be the first text in which Jesus himself says so. I say "would be," because the manuscript has yet to undergo some tests to make sure it isn't a modern forgery. I would be surprised if it is found not to be as old as King estimates. This is not like that "1500 year old" Syriac gospel of Barnabas recently discovered on a shelf in a Turkish courthouse, which rapidly turned out to bee 500 years old or younger; nor like the now-infamous "James Ossuary," purported for a short time to have originally stored the bones of the brother of Jesus, which furthered the career of a fake archaeologist who has his own TV show, while tarnishing the reputations of a few archaeologists who were either taken in or incorrectly cited by the fake archaeologist as believing that the things had not been crudely tampered with by someone whose knowledge of 1st century Jews in general and the state of the art of research into Jesus' life in particular had several serious deficiencies. This Coptic manuscript is either real, or an exceptionally good forgery.

The reactions from the general public have been many, varied and interesting. Not surprisingly, many people have been turned off by things like the "1500 year old" Gospel of Barnabas and the "James Ossuary" and other frauds, and assume that this is just another fraud. Others are confused about the dates of the manuscript and of the original text. Mainstream media outlets, as usual in stories about finds or possible finds of ancient artifacts, are contributing to this confusion with stories by laypeople full of inaccuracies -- although I must draw the reader's attention to one great exception among the mainstream media in this case: the Washington Post has published at least one story by an actual scholar, with competence in related fields, about King's discovery. Nice! Dare one hope that this is the start of a trend?

Many fundamentalists and other strictly traditionalistic Christians are rejecting this story out of hand, often without even noticing that Prof King is very careful to point out that she is making no claims about Jesus himself, but merely saying that this manuscript, if authenticated -- she's careful to include that reservation as well -- would shed some light on what some 2nd century Christians believed. A surprising number of others, on the other hand, both Chrisitna and non-, say that they had already assumed that Jesus was married, because, they say, all Jewish men of that time were married.

Say what?! Where did this meme come from? I labor mightily to put down one widely-held misconception after another, such as that the Old Testament was written in the Bronze age or that the New Testament was written at the Council of Nicea by Constantine and the Pope, only to see other ones pop up. Of course not all Jewish men were married. In some cases the misconception is limited to thinking that all Jewish men who had devoted their lives to religion were required to marry, but of course this was not the case either. For example, many of the Essenes were celibate.

Another common reaction to the news of the discovery of this Coptic manuscript wherein Jesus says, "My wife[...]" is, "Ah, so Dan Brown was right after all!" Well, one, a stopped clock is right twice a day, and if ever anyone was due to be right about something completely by accident, it's Dan Brown; and two, to parrot Professor King, this manuscript says something about the beliefs of some 2nd century Christians, and not necessarily anything at all of substance about Jesus himself.

As faithful readers of this blog know, I'd much rather see an old manuscript by Livy turn up than yet another old Christian manuscript, but still, I'm fascinated by textual transmission and old manuscripts to the point that any newly-discovered 4th century manuscript at all, or even a reasonably well-made forgery of one, regardless of its contents, will interest me greatly. (Not, let me make this perfectly clear, that I sympathize with forgers in the slightest. On the contrary: forgers are the natural enemies of people such as myself. They are The Right Monkeys.) My interest leads many people who are not paying close attention at the moment, or who do not ever pay close attention to anything, to assume, judging from my reaction when the conversation turns to old Christian manuscripts, that I must be Christian. These people also tend to assume that Professors of Religious Studies and biblical archaeologists must be religious. I'm getting used to such reactions. Whaddayagonnado? They're not paying attention. Anyway, by all means, read Professor King's paper, linked at the beginning of the 2nd paragraph above! It's good stuff!

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