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September 19th, 2012
06:05 PM ET

5 questions and answers about Jesus' 'wife'

By Eric Marrapodi, Co-Editor CNN's Belief Blog
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(CNN) - Since the news broke Tuesday about a scrap of papyrus containing the line in Coptic, "Jesus said, 'My wife..' " questions have rocketed across the world about what this means.

We put many of the big questions to leading scholars, pastors and people in the pews to find the answers.

1. Why is this just surfacing now?

The papyrus fragment is thought by Harvard Divinity School Professor Karen King to be from the 4th century but could be a copy of an early gospel from the 2nd century. King said a dealer, who wishes to remain anonymous, brought the fragment to her to be translated and analyzed in 2011. The New York Times reported the dealer hopes to give the fragment to Harvard if they buy a large portion of his collection.

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On Tuesday, King presented her findings on the fragment to a conference on Coptic texts held in Rome once every four years.

In some ways, texts like this are not uncommon.

Elaine Pagels, a professor from Princeton University who is an expert on gnostic writings such as this one, noted to CNN, "You can find boxes filled with Coptic fragments." But what makes this one significant is for the first time, it explicitly has Jesus referring to "my wife."

King posits it may have come from a complete gospel she and her research partners have dubbed "the Gospel of Jesus' Wife." If that were true, Pagels said "that could make the fragment much more valuable if it were part of a gospel, but we don’t know that.”

2. How do they know this isn't a fake?

Authenticating documents is equal parts art and science. What researchers are trying to rule out is if this is a modern forgery. To do that, they look at a variety of aspects, including the age of the paper, the chemical composition of the ink and text itself. The authentication won't confirm whether the text is true but only whether the physical item is true to the time frame researchers think it is.

The document was examined by the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University. Roger Bagnall, the institute's director and an expert on papyrus, examined it and determined it to be authentic, he confirmed to CNN. Ariel Shisha-Halevy, professor of linguistics at Hebrew University, Jerusalem, was asked to examine the authenticity, according to King. Shisha-Halevy said that based on the language and grammar, it was authentic.

Chemical tests on the ink are pending, King noted in a draft of her work set to be published in January in a peer reviewed journal.

Some experts in the field, including Pagels, suggest the fragment contains too little to be faked, suggesting that a forger would have included much more in the document to try and raise the value.

“We have to have more information about the fragment," said Douglas A. Campbell, an associate professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School. He points to recent history when discoveries turned out to be fakes. “The academic community has been badly burned,” he said, adding that there is still much to be learned about the provenance of the document, "the history of where it came from and how they got it.”

“The anonymous donor thing is very problematic,” he said.

3. Does this prove Jesus was really married?

Short answer: No.

King herself was quick to point out in interviews that this piece of papyrus does not prove that Jesus was married. "This fragment, this new piece of papyrus evidence, does not prove that (Jesus) was married, nor does it prove that he was not married. The earliest reliable historical tradition is completely silent on that. So we're in the same position we were before it was found. We don't know if he was married or not," King said in a conference call with reporters.

The early consensus of other scholars we spoke to about this agree this document does not prove Jesus was married.

"Let's not neglect the fact this was written 300 years after Jesus' death," Hellen Mardaga, an assistant professor of New Testament at The Catholic University of America, told CNN. Mardaga says "the text may be real and not a forgery, but that doesn’t mean it belongs in with the Gospels.”

There is nothing in the Gospel accounts in the Bible and the earliest Christian tradition that speaks to Jesus being married.

"This is an aberration; this is something totally outside of any biblical tradition," said Jerry Pattengale, the executive director of the Green Scholars Initiative, which helps oversee one of the largest private collections of biblical antiquities.

"We know that tradition, or anything passed down, has a huge story to tell and there is a lot that can be learned from tradition that is linked to history. There is just no solid tradition for Jesus being married, so this is certainly an aberration and an important find," he said.

4. Would Jesus being married change Christianity?

Yes. Probably. But we'll never know for sure (see above).

Without getting too into the weeds theologically, it raises lots of interesting questions about how Jesus lived on Earth and what is not known about his life. For married couples, it also adds a healthy doses of mirth to the idea of being married to someone fully human and fully God, as the Christian creeds say Jesus was.

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"Had Jesus had a wife, I have no doubt he would would have treated her with the same dignity, respect and affection with which he treated his female disciples like Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany and Martha," Christian author Rachel Held Evans said when we asked her about this.

"Though I confess I think it would be a little unfair for a woman to be married to God incarnate. Kinda makes it tough to win an argument," she joked. "On the plus side, he turns water into wine ... which would be nice!"

5. So can Catholic priests get married now ?

This discovery brought the issue of Catholic clergy and celibacy to the forefront and got a lot of people wondering whether this would prompt the church to shift on this issue.

“At the time this (fragment) was written, we had a married clergy," pointed out Rev. Tom Reese, a senior fellow at Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.

Reese said this discovery won't change Catholic teaching on the marital status of Catholic clergy.
"It has nothing to do with whether we have a married clergy or not. For the first thousand years, we had a married clergy. For the last thousand years, we’ve had a celibate clergy."

The celibacy requirement is based on church law, not doctrine, which is the core, unchanging beliefs of the faith. "The church can change this rule whenever it decides to change the law," he said.

For Reese, the Coptic papyrus fragment does not hold great weight for the future of the Catholic clergy.

"This is a nice academic footnote, but beyond that, it is not going to be all that important," he said.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Belief • Christianity • Jesus

soundoff (1,438 Responses)
  1. Bill

    There is this misconception that if Jesus was married, then priests surely would be able to marry. There is really no connection, since celibate priests was a more reason event for the church. One view is that the church made priests celibate in order to avoid any disputes with regards to estates. Gregorian reform (11th century) was the first real attempt by the church to stop priests, monks, and deacons, etc..., from marrying, but it was met with resistance. It lasted for hundreds of years until about the 16th century, were it was generally accepted.

    September 20, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      The notion of a celibate clergy is a noble experiment – given the idea that without the imperative obligation to fulfill the needs of an immediate family, the clergy can devote all their energies to serving the spiritual needs of the community.

      One can only wonder about the temptation foisted on protestant pastors of small congregations "please give generously today, little Johnny wants an X-Box, or my wife wants new curtains".

      Sadly the notion of celibacy is not workable for all the clergy – with horrible consequences.

      September 20, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
    • Rynomite

      Plus, not being married has the added advantage of being able to spend much more time with little boys!

      September 20, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • ChuckB

      St. Paul stated that the followers of Christ should remain celibate; however, he also stated that it was unreasonable to expect the average Joe and Jane to resist temptation. If a follower of Christ searched their soul and doubted they could remain chaste, then it would be better for them to marry to avoid fornicatin. This is paraphrased but you can read it form the source in 1 Corinthians 7. Where in scripture is it stated that the clergy must marry or is this just a tradition, with acting to the contrary not being a sin?

      September 20, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • Joe

      Bill, there is this misconception that Jesus was divine and that god exists.

      September 20, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Do the research, no connection between celibacy and pedophilia.

      September 20, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
    • Rynomite

      Then the connection must be Religion to Pedophilia. Or maybe just Xtianity.

      September 20, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
  2. Mike H.

    "Does this prove Jesus was really married?"
    Define "married".

    September 20, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
    • ChuckB

      Without Christ's existence being independently verifiable, this question is trivial.

      September 20, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
  3. thesaj

    The Catholic church needs to change the "law", to allow marriage for priests. Great time to do it. First thousand years it was allowed, 2nd thousand it was forbidden. Announce for the next thousand years priests can marry again, But that the 4th thousand they will be prohibited. Every other thousand...

    There you go Catholics.

    September 20, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
  4. skinnymulligan

    Thought for sure Jesus' wife would be a man. And when did Jesus of Nazareth become a white guy from Sweden?

    September 20, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
    • ChuckB

      Christianity would never have survived in Europe otherwise.

      September 20, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
  5. joesmith

    perhaps cnn could now do an expose about the great mohamad, and his wife..

    September 20, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
  6. Steve-o

    I'm just waiting to see how long it takes before they figure out this is a fake. Stuff like this mysteriously "turns up" all the time and its almost always a forgery. Look at the James Ossuary. Anonymous owner...mysteriously "turns up" hundreds of years after the fact...owner wants to sell...sounds like a load of bull to me.

    September 20, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
    • ChuckB

      Even if it could be proved to be authentic that wouldn't prove that it is true, i.e., an original work of fiction is still fiction.

      September 20, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • Joe

      ".sounds like a load of bull to me." -yep. The whole religion is.

      September 20, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
  7. chazzz

    ...THAT WAS NO LADY...THAT WAS...MY WIFE !!!!!

    September 20, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
  8. ReasonableXX

    If Jesus existed (which in and of itself is highly debatable regardless of what religious "scholars" claim), it would have been unheard of in that time/place for a man his age not to be married. If such a person existed, the likelihood of him being married is extremely high and should not be surprising.

    September 20, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
    • Dave

      I don't know why "it would be unheard of for him not to be married" is a valid argument. It was also unheard of to proclaim yourself the Son of God, to perform miracles, to lecture church elders as a child, to embrace foreigners, harlots, tax collectors, and diseased people over the Pharisees and Scribes, to travel the region gathering followers and telling them their religion is now obsolete, etc. If any of the rest of it is true (ignoring the miracles for a moment), he did not live according to many conventions of the time. Why would "being single" be out of character with that?

      September 20, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      You can't accept scholarship which ratifies your point and then deny that which doesn't. It's called intellectual dishonesty

      September 20, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
    • ChuckB

      Even accepting the claims of the gospels, very, very little is known about his life before his ministry. His life before being baptized by John at the age of approx. 30 was not the same as that of his ministry. We know of nothing that was out of the ordinary in his life prior to that, except the tale of his being found at the age of 12 in the temple astonishing the religious scholars with his knowledge. Given the average age at the time, it would have been odd for him not to have been married at 30. He probably would have gotten the “question” from his parents: "Son, is there anything you want to tell us? Don't worry, we love you and will understand."

      September 20, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
    • Dave

      I don't know if either of those replies are to me but neither respond to my point. As reported, even without the supernatural / divinity stuff, he was a complete non-conformist, and challenged many, many social norms of the day. So why would being a bachelor be out of character for such a non-conformist?

      September 20, 2012 at 3:09 pm |
  9. John Kay

    Common sense told us long ago that Jesus could not have been a rabbi (Teacher) without being married. Beyond that, Jesus married Mary the Magdala, the Celtic Princess from the Tribe of Benjamin with blue eyes and flaming red hair at Carmel, depicted as the wedding at Canaan which was their own.

    Let's keep it simple and honest.

    If only the church of Rome had done just that seventeen hundred years ago.

    September 20, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
  10. hubert39

    Remember Jesus was a common name back then and still today in some nations. If something came up and had John's name of the paper would it be, John the Baptist? Or Peter, Paul, Mark?
    This is like saying, George was our first president. George who?

    September 20, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
  11. winkler

    I think that Mary Magdalen and Jesus were married. She was the beloved diciple who rested her head on the shoulder of Jesus at the last supper. She was the one who was asked to take care of Mary, the mother of Jesus at the crucifiction. It was she whom Jesus first appeared after his resurrection.

    September 20, 2012 at 11:56 am |
    • ChuckB

      You do know that Michelangelo painted the "Last Supper," and that it isn't a photograph? Just wondering where you got the factoid that Mary Magdalene rested her head on Jesus' shoulder.

      September 20, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      Don't you see the massive implications that would have on Jesus' divinity? It would completely blow Christianity apart.

      September 20, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
    • LinSea

      Jesus asked His disciple John to care for His mother.

      September 20, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
  12. Nathan H

    Jesus (at least superhero version depicted in the bible) is a fictional character pieced together from tales of other fictional characters. So who really cares if he had a fictional wife? The Christian God is no more real than the Greek, Norse, Egyptian, or Roman Gods.

    September 20, 2012 at 11:53 am |
  13. Phillip Smith

    Jesus faced "all" temptations and was able to overcome them all. Therefore, it makes sense that he must have been married to a woman.

    September 20, 2012 at 11:49 am |
  14. Doc Vestibule

    Even if it turns out to be proven that Christ was married, it won't make a lick of difference.
    Any religion that can worhsip a Trinity and still consider itself monotheistic is capable of rationalizing anything.

    September 20, 2012 at 11:48 am |
  15. PraiseTheLard

    Does this mean he wasn't gay? (That is, if he existed at all...)

    September 20, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • ReasonableXX

      No historians are still confident that he was probably gay and this was just a sham marriage to "keep up appearances."

      September 20, 2012 at 11:56 am |
    • John Kay

      You may be referring to Clement of Alexandria's cryptic letter that breaks off, following his comments on just that.

      His oetter refers to Luke's Second Book Of Acts the church suppressed that deals with Jesus and his mother's Reincarnated lives that states emphatically (and gently) that Jesus had been Socrates in a past life, as well.

      The church is crumbling before our eyes.

      Karma.

      September 20, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
  16. NONO

    NO he was not because Jesus put his FATHERS WILL first and not his own.

    September 20, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • ReasonableXX

      How do you know anything about Jesus's thought process throughout his life?!?!? Aside for the early years and the later years, the majority of his life story was edited out of the bible long ago by people trying to conceal the sorrid details.

      September 20, 2012 at 11:59 am |
    • Bet

      I thought Jesus and the Father were one and the same god. How is it that they had differing "wills"? Was Jesus schizophrenic?

      September 20, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
  17. Ayatollah ben Dover

    Probably true, unless Jesus was gay. Rabbis were all married.

    September 20, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • ReasonableXX

      He was both gay and married. Living in the closet.

      September 20, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
  18. Michael

    Missing from the list: #6. Who the heck cares? You cannot possibly be both a person with a valid mind and a person who cares one way or another about silliness like this.

    September 20, 2012 at 11:45 am |
    • Rational Libertarian

      Of course you can. Whether he's a made up character, a preacher man or the son of god (he wasn't), you can't deny he's the most important figure in human history. It's interesting to find out more about him.

      September 20, 2012 at 11:49 am |
    • Ayatollah ben Dover

      "a person who cares one way or another about silliness like this" is the kind who flies a plane into a building. Are you kidding us? Christians will be killing each other in large groups over this in a year. Uganda will use it to justify genocide.

      September 20, 2012 at 11:58 am |
    • ReasonableXX

      I think Adam is most important man in history since he was the first and all of humanity is his direct descendant. This has been proven by the words of the bible itself.

      September 20, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      The book is true because it says so in the book. The ramblings of a retard.

      September 20, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
    • Inhumanist

      Dear humanists: These humans that you worship have never needed religion to justify cruelty or irrationality – from the Huns and the Mongols to the Khmer Rouge. Flying a plane into a building is really tame in comparison to the deeds of humankind's afore-mentioned predecessors.

      September 20, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      Sorry Reasonable, further posts point to you being facetious. It's just hard to tell sometimes.

      September 20, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      Inhumanist

      Do you actually know what humanism is?

      September 20, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
    • Rynomite

      " you can't deny he's the most important figure in human history". I'd argue that Gaius Julius Caesar was infinitly more important. Had he not secured the northern borders of the Republic, it is likely that barbarian migrations that were staved off for several hundred years occur much sooner. Perhaps we lose all the basis of Western Law and civilization without him. Heck... maybe noone ever hears about Jebus if Rome isn't around and strong.

      September 20, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
  19. steve

    Why speculate about whether Jesus had a wife or not if no one know one has been able to prove that he existed to begin with?

    September 20, 2012 at 11:44 am |
  20. Ed

    "For the last thousand years, we’ve had a celibate clergy."

    Oops! Not entirely....I seem to recall a more than a few lawsuits over the last couple of years...I can't help but wonder how many of them would not have happened had the clergy not been sworn to celibacy.

    September 20, 2012 at 11:42 am |
    • ChuckB

      History is replete with evidence of popes and lesser clergy fathering children, most often b@#$!@ds, but sometines legitimate, i.e., they also married.

      September 20, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.