IN THE NEWS: Wives – Silent, Hidden, and Unnamed

“Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…’”

It is now public news that there is a fragment of ancient text in which Jesus makes reference to a wife. Based on testing of the papyrus fragment the text is calculated to have been from 150 years after Jesus died, a time when Jesus followers are still discerning how they should live and what practices they will keep. Though scholars all agree that this does not prove Jesus actually had a wife, it does reflect the liveliness of the debate nonetheless: Karen King explains, “This fragment suggests that some early Christians had a tradition that Jesus was married…There was, we already know, a controversy in the second century over whether Jesus was married, caught up with a debate about whether Christians should marry and have sex.”

The fragment also makes reference to a female disciple.

Is this a theology-altering discovery or “a nice academic footnote,” as Rev. Tom Reese, a senior fellow at Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University,  states? What implications might this have for the Catholic Church’s rule on celibacy for priests…the ordination of women? Of course, for some from non-Catholic Christian denominations, it won’t make a significant difference theologically or in practice and can simply be considered an interesting discovery unworthy of the History Channel.

On the other hand, might a married Jesus be a huge disappointment simply serving to  “indicate utter and complete failure of a vision beyond patriarchy and oppressive gender structures,” as expressed by Susanne Scholz on the Feminist Studies in Religion blog?

On a separate but related note. Rev. Jeanne Favreau-Sorvillo is a D.Min. candidate working on a dissertation, Peter’s Wives, inspired by the disciple Peter’s unnamed wife. References are made in the Gospels to Peter’s mother-in-law indicating the existence of a wife but making no direct reference to her – like many other unnamed Biblical women’s stories, hers is untold. For this reason Rev. Favreau-Sorvillo is calling for the stories of other unnamed women whose stories remain untold – those of women who are now or have been in a relationship with a Roman Catholic priest in order to bring this side of the Roman Catholic Church’s reality and history to light.

What further theological implications might the stories of these unnamed ‘wives’ have on Christianity today?

For more information:
“Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…’” A New Coptic Gospel Papyrus by Karen L. King with contributions by AnneMarie Luijendijk
Karen King on YouTube
Did Jesus Have a Wife? Newly Discovered Ancient Text Reignites Debate
Peter’s Wives flyer.

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Categories: Bible, Catholic Church, Christianity, General, In the News, Jesus, Textual Interpretation

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13 replies

  1. It’s interesting for sure and of interest to those who base their lives or institutions on what Jesus did or didn’t do, but “frankly, my dear, I don’t give a ****.”

  2. If you read Greek and Roman mythology (and maybe other mythologies, too), you learn that Hera and Juno were Great Goddesses long before Zeus and Jupiter–those old rapacious storm and thunder gods–arrived and “married” them. Cleopatra was a great queen before, as Dryden says in All for Love, she “dwindled into wife.” Jesus was a rabbi. Why shouldn’t he have been married like nearly every other rabbi in history?

  3. @Carol: I feel differently–just as a point of interest; your feeling is not wrong. But I’m not really a Christian anymore either and I don’t base my life on what Jesus did or didn’t do. But I am still very much engaged with the Judeo-Christian tradition and still like the idea of telling the story differently. It seems important not because whether Jesus had a wife or not makes a difference to how I’m going to live day to day but because the Judeo-Christian tradition is so far reaching and so formative for Western Culture I think it is well worth finding ways to tell the story better or tell the story in a way that deconstructs the dominant narrative. Next time I tell a Jesus story, he’ll for sure be married . . . or have a committed partner at least. I like it!

  4. Actually, I’d rather say that a wife had Jesus. :)

  5. Yeah, frankly my dear squared. Honestly, are we stuck in the Da Vinci Code of scholarship or what?

  6. I agree, fleurdeleah, the tradition is so far reaching, these new ideas about Jesus are crucial and can have a massive impact. That being said, I also want to note that I saw a friend post on FB that she thought Jesus being married could be problematic because then Mary Magdalene would become nothing more than Jesus’ wife!

  7. As Karen King said on NPR, “These documents do not mean she was his wife!”

    I fee, we are reading a lot that might not be here.

  8. I’m afraid this post makes a number of over-stated claims; some have not yet been substantiated, and some probably simply cannot.
    (1) We do not know the date of the text. We know Prof. King’s view that it reflects a late second-century text (not CE 150, but 150-200). However, as she also says, the papyrus itself has been dated to the fourth century. Her positing of a prior text is an hypothesis, not a proven fact.
    (2) Given the unknown provenance and pedigree of this fragment, the question of a forgery is acute. K is persuaded it is authentic. Maybe she’s right; maybe she’s not. Right now we do not have enough data to definitively answer that question—and the loss of provenance means that we likely never will. I have not seen it up close, so I cannot comment on the text. At a distance, I am suspicious of the too-neat shape of the fragment. It’s not impossible, but I’ve never seen any other fragment with such regular, square edges.

    More to the point of this blog, I find the hype about this possible ancient text disturbing because it is feeding the same kinds of strictly gendered thought-patterns that we are trying to overcome. Whether or not Jesus had a wife, frankly I don’t really care too much. I DO care that every time this idea hits the press the speculation turns to Mary of Magdala, the historical figure of which is grossly misunderstood by the public. The talk makes Magdalene important *because* she may have been Jesus’ wife. No; Magdalene is important in her own right as a leader among Jesus’ disciples. Her significance is eroded or even eliminated by the way popular opinion jumps to put her into this neat little “wife” box. So great, we “recover” the women of the early Jesus movement precisely so we can control their image and make them safe, rather than letting them rattle the cages of those who still, after fifty years of feminism, cannot imagine a woman without a man.

  9. Sheila, your comments are great – thank you. I hadn’t heard anything yet about people making the connection with Mary of Magdala, but if so, I agree with your comments indeed; to use this text as another way to ‘box’ Mary of Magdala would be disappointing and definitely more of the same old gendered thought patterns. The article in the Feminist Studies in Religion blog, that is linked in this article, expresses some similar concerns.

    On another note – I was fascinated by Rev. Jeanne Favreau-Sorvillo’s research (also linked above) ! I’ve wondered how hard it will be for women to actually come forward and share their story, even with all the confidentiality. I will be curious to see the results of this work…

    • Thanks, Xochitl! I, too, will be interested to see what comes of Rev. F-S’s project. I’m sure many could speak to this question, if they are brave enough to come forward.

  10. I’ll have to read the links because as many of you say, more research needs to be done. However, coming off the top of my theological head, I would say that, certainly Coptic papyri are usually dated later than the Gospels and, therefore, once or twice removed from the Canon, not unlike the Gospel of Thomas and Mary. This one was probably written for a specific audience of followers and perhaps the story has now morphed into a different way of telling it.
    Thoughtfully, I agree, we should not fall into the ‘wife’ trap, but the idea that Jesus had some significant relationship — sexual or non-sexual — with a woman, is what counts here. Do we doubt this at all? We should not! Women have had a voice in the early Church, in the Church for all time, whether or not it was recorded. We must never deny our strength because it will always be there. Witness this website!!!
    We are half, or more of our world and nothing can take that away from us.

Trackbacks

  1. Hype about a “Wife” « The Bible According to McGinn
  2. Validating the Gospel of “Jesus’ Wife” is not Necessary to Prove Female Discipleship by Michele Stopera Freyhauf « Feminism and Religion

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