Friday, September 21, 2012

The Wife of Jesus

It was the faith-o-tainment news of the week this week.

A fragment of papyrus which was part of a fourth century Coptic story of the life of Jesus included the following phrase:  "Jesus said to them, 'My wife...'"

The fragment itself appears to be genuinely as ancient as it is claimed to be, but the Harvard Divinity professor who unveiled it has been remarkably circumspect about what it means.   What it means is that we've found a piece of paper produced by a Christian sect in the 4th century.   Nothing more.  Nothing less.  And that, in and of itself, is historically impressive, in the way that finding stuff that's over fifteen hundred years old tends to be pretty awesome.

For some, this will be taken as yet more evidence of the Truth About Jesus They Don't Want You To Know.   It may spur some "Did Jesus Have a Wife" articles in magazines hoping for a few extra sales.   But honestly, it's no more authoritative as a truth claim than something you might find in a Dan Brown novel.

That's not to say that the whole did-Jesus-have-a-wife thing isn't entirely fair game for speculation.   My own crackpot theory on that subject, drawn entirely from the fourth Gospel, is that if Jesus had a wife, it was most likely Mary.   Not Magdalene, but Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus.   I tend to think, with only spotty evidence to support my position, that the oral tradition that gives us the Gospel of John arises from her.   John's Gospel is remarkably coy about the actual identity of its author, naming them only as the "Beloved Disciple."  It also tells us that:
  • That disciple was present at the cross, where the other three Gospels concur only women were present.
  • In the Gospel of John, three individuals are singled out as being loved by Jesus: Martha, Mary, and Lazarus.  So when we hear about the disciple that Jesus loved, well, I figure thats a clue.
  • The relationship Mary has with Jesus is more emotive and more intimate than Martha's or Lazarus's.  She sits at his feet and listens, where Martha lets herself be consumed by busyness.  She weeps with him, and he with her.  She washes his feet with oil and her hair.  Given the intimacy of John's Gospel and its focus on the personal identity of Jesus, she seems a likely source.
  • John's Gospel remembers the stories and influence of women, perhaps even more deeply than the egalitarian Luke.  From the Samaritan woman at the well to Mother Mary asking for her son for some miracle Cabernet to Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb, this Gospel takes their voices seriously.
Despite the consistently male language used to describe that nameless disciple, I often find myself reading it as Mary.   But that I consider that possibility means diddly to the actual day to day practice of my Christian faith.   It doesn't mean anything.  It's just an interesting thought exercise, one that I recognize is only a construct of my own speculation, just as we tend to knit together our very own FrankenJesus out of the dead matter of our political and social prejudices.

The theological danger in this does not lie in considering the concept, but rather in assuming that a familial relationship with Jesus would confer any meaning or particular authority within the faith.   It doesn't, and for good reason.   Passing down authority in faith genetically tends to create a squabbling, unpleasant mess of power dynamics.  It certainly hasn't worked well for either Islam or Billy Graham.

What Jesus taught flies in the face of that.   What matters is what he taught, how he lived, and how he asked us to share in the same relationship with God that he had.  The ties of blood and nation and culture are irrelevant.

So what does this nifty little scrap of paper mean?  Not very much.

It is cool, though.