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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. Jeff

    Who cares? Jesus is dead.

    September 20, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
    • Argh

      Was, but only for a few days.

      September 20, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
    • Secret Service

      Did the Vice-God assume his duties while he was under?

      September 20, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
    • What IF

      Secret Service,

      🙂

      September 20, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
    • sam stone

      "Was, but only for a few days."

      Jesus had a bad weekend for your sins

      September 20, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
  2. Reality

    Only for new members of this blog:

    JC's family and friends had it right 2000 years ago ( Mark 3: 21 "And when his friends heard of it, they went out to lay hold on him: for they said, He is beside himself.")

    Said passage is one of the few judged to be authentic by most contemporary NT scholars. e.g. See Professor Ludemann's conclusion in his book, Jesus After 2000 Years, p. 24 and p. 694.

    Actually, Jesus was a bit "touched". After all he thought he spoke to Satan, thought he changed water into wine, thought he raised Lazarus from the dead etc. In today's world, said Jesus would be declared legally insane.

    Or did P, M, M, L and J simply make him into a first century magic-man via their epistles and gospels of semi-fiction? Many contemporary NT experts after thorough analyses of all the scriptures go with the latter magic-man conclusion with J's gospel being mostly fiction.

    Obviously, today's followers of Paul et al's "magic-man" are also a bit on the odd side believing in all the Christian mumbo jumbo about bodies resurrecting, and exorcisms, and miracles, and "magic-man atonement, and infallible, old, European/Utah white men, and 24/7 body/blood sacrifices followed by consumption of said sacrifices. Yummy!!!!

    So why do we really care what a first century CE, illiterate, long-dead, preacher/magic man (married or not) would do or say?
    ===============================================================================================
    +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

    September 20, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
  3. Hoover23

    Hopefully Zeus will strike it down once more...

    September 20, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
  4. Suzanne Hennessy

    It would have been bizarre in the age of Jesus for a man NOT to have a wife so this is really no surprise. Seems to threaten the Church hierarchy and the tradition of celibacy and that sounds like a long overdue process.

    September 20, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
  5. CoNative

    The comment about Catholic priests being able to marry if Jesus was married is totally not relevant. The Catholic Church changed their original laws from married/family priests to celibacy because of material possessions and wealth. The Church did not want the wife/family of priests to inherit the property of the priest when he died... the Church wanted the property/wealth left to the Church.

    September 20, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
    • Sunflower

      Isn't GREED one of the seven deadly sins?

      September 20, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
    • CoNative

      lol, yes. The Catholic Church embraces of all seven deadly sins, imho!

      September 20, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • CoNative

      lol, yes Sunflower. The Catholic Church embraces of all seven deadly sins, imho!

      September 20, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      There is a little more to it than that. During the time priest and Bishops were allowed to marry and have children, many of them began to set up their own little personal empires and grant political and religious favors to family members. This led to corruption in the Church which culminated in the Calvinist and Lutheran Reformations. The Church (rightly) responded to the protestations of Luther by installing the proscription against married clergy. So, the accusation that the Church wanted to acquire the wealth of the clergy is kind of juicy, but the reality is that the hierarchy wanted to protect the Church from the encroachment of dynasties.

      September 20, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
    • HAVE MUD WILL TRAVEL

      Bill Deacon, Paul's letter to the Romans was addressed to gentiles. Peter was the circu mcision apostle. Do catholics claim a way more than a majority of jewish people in the earliest assemblies? (The pope thing) Why would jewish people have such irrational hate for their relatives?

      September 20, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      The 'celibate' clergy tradition grew along with the emergence of holy orders like one created by a radical son of a Perugian cloth merchant in 1210 where monks ultimately vowed poverty, chastity and obedience (1223).

      The idea of monks living free of personal possessions was quite novel at this point in the post-medieval church, though it had been done by many ascetics before and there are obvious scriptural justifications.

      The radical Perugian was from Assisi.

      September 20, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
  6. barfly

    jesus was a queeer

    September 20, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
  7. 4winston7

    In response to Cedar Rapids (& others), you're missing the point. Jesus' wife IS the church, just as the Bible says (e.g., when He talks about his "bride" which is the church). The church (his wife) is his disciple, but disciples do not have to be human beings. Of course, Jesus dwells with His wife (the church). Do yourself a favor & become more knowledgeable about the Bible & it's teachings, instead of presuming everything has to be "literal" & just because Jesus came to earth in human form, doesn't mean His "wife" was also in human form. Open your mind AND your heart, & you WILL understand what Jesus truly meant. Praying for your eyes to be opened!

    September 20, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
    • nope

      read the fragment

      September 20, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      i pray for you to actually read the fragment and then try to seriously argue he was talking about the church.
      really, must go and do it.

      September 20, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      *just

      September 20, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
    • Argh

      Jesus certainly used that analogy to teach a principle, but there is biblical context that would suggest he was literally married as well. For one, the wedding where Jesus turned water to wine was apparenty being supervised by Mary, Jesus' mother, because she was obviously monitoring the status of the food and refreshments. At that time, this was traditionally the role of the mother of the groom. This would indicate that it was either Jesus' own wedding, or the wedding of one of Mary's other children. But the fact that Mary approached Jesus with the problem is an indicator that Jesus was the groom, and ultimately in charge of the proceedings of the wedding.

      September 20, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • Sunflower

      Funny Winston, coz I'm praying for YOU!!

      September 20, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • doughnuts

      Whatever is written on this fragment is likely more accurate than what is any contemporary Bible, as it hasn't been translated and retranslated from Hebrew and Aramaic into Greek then Latin then English. Nor is it the end result of a thousand years of hand-copying with change and mistakes creeping in every time a new copy was made.

      September 20, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • Sunflower

      ARGH.... You are exactly correct! Not to mention that according to Jewish law, culture, and tradition, a man of Jesus' standing in the community and his chosen teaching profession, it would have been EXPECTED that he be married. It would have been SCANDALOUS at age 30 for him NOT to be married.

      September 20, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
    • Srsly

      It's Buffoons like you who misinterpret the bible that drives Normal people away from organized religion.

      September 20, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Are you saying Jesus wasn't scandalous?

      September 20, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
  8. Argh

    Evidence that Jesus was married might shock some christian creeds, but it would vindicate others like Mormonism, which maintains that Jesus was married.

    September 20, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • Aaron

      Been a Mormon for 38 years. Never in any church canon or from an pulpit or in any classroom have I ever heard the notion that Jesus was married. So... where exactly do you get your info?

      September 20, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
    • Argh

      Have you read Jesus the Christ by Talmage or anything by Hugh Nibley? It's not part of the Sunday School lessons, but if you study the doctrine, it's there. Also, the teaching that Jesus "fulfilled all righteousness" is extrapolated to include not only the ordinance of baptism, but of celestial marriage as well.

      September 20, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
    • Davis

      Sorry Aaron, but Argh is correct. If he fulfilled all righteousness then he had a temple marriage.

      September 20, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
  9. C'mon!

    was she hot?

    September 20, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
  10. Mike W

    Gnostic beliefs frequently argued that Jesus was married. The Gnostics were suppressed by the Church after Constatine made Christianity the state church of the Roman Empire and sided with those Christians who were what are now called "mainstream." Most Gnostic writings were destroyed by the followers of the Roman church. Probably, this scrap either came from one of those texts or a copy. It proves nothing theologically. What might be interesting is how it survived since the 2nd-4th centuries. Is there more of the text? Many Gnostics were treated the same way pagans were treated after the Roman Catholic version of Christianity became dominant. They either were forced to convert, run out of town, or killed. Sounds rather modern, doesn't it.

    September 20, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
  11. snowboarder

    apparently there were many purported messiahs during a time when the jews were wishing for someone to remove the brutal roman rule.

    September 20, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      'brutal Roman rule' (he he he)

      Do you know how relatively recent and uneven the Roman occupation of Judea really was?

      In Judea, Pompey intervened in the civil war between Hyrcanus II, who supported the Pharisee faction and Aristobulus II, who supported the Sadducees. The armies of Pompey and Hyrcanus II laid siege to Jerusalem. After three months, the city fell. (63BC)*

      But this appears not to have really stuck since ...

      (In 36BC) Herod (second son of Antipater the Idumaean, a high-ranked official under Ethnarch Hyrcanus II) and the Romans finally captured Jerusalem and executed Antigonus – Hyrcanus' nephew, who had taken his uncle's throne with Parthian help but was also elected "King of the Jews" by the Roman Senate (~40BC).*

      The history of the time of the Roman occupation of Judea is fraught with turmoil in the wake of the murder of Julius Caesar and local grasping internecine politics by people like Herod (the Great), a converted Jew, who murdered multiple members of his family to strengthen his grasp on power. I can't see how non-Roman rule by the Jewish Kings of that time would be any less "brutal".

      * sourced from wikipedia

      September 20, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
  12. snowboarder

    the only legitimate study of religion is anthropology.

    September 20, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
    • The Truth

      And the only legitimate way it should be studied is through autopsy...

      September 20, 2012 at 2:06 pm |
  13. Snow

    4 questions I get in mind about jesus' wife..

    really?
    who cares?
    so what?
    whats wrong with those idiot fundies?

    September 20, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
    • Doh!

      you forgot:

      "Why is this priest standing so close behind me and why does he keep bumping me with what I can only assume is the corner of his bible based on it's stiffness..."

      September 20, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
  14. aj0714

    in Jewish tradition, when the man came to ask for the hand of a woman, he made all the arrangement for the betrothal with her father. Once the agreement was reached, and the price set and paid for the bride, for all intents and purposes she would be his wife. he would then go back to his father's house to build a home for them and once completed he would return, unannounced to get his bride to take her into the bridal chamber where they would remain undisturbed for seven days. after that they would emerge for the wedding feast. i would think it possible that he and Magdalena were betrothed in that way....and love the idea that he paid the pirce - redeemed the bride - returned to his father's house to prepare a place for her - that he will return unannounced to get her -that the wedding feast is still to come as stated in Revelation. the only thing counting against all this is when she sees him in the tomb, in a beautiful, cry your eyes out scene, with love in her voice she refers to him as Rabboni...teacher. for me, this counts heavily against their betrothal having taken place. i for one think Mary the mother is also his wife....ergo, my mother and my wife. the woman, as he calls her. Eve. to his Adam.

    September 20, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
    • doughnuts

      Sounds like "Twilight" fanfic.

      September 20, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
  15. RTM

    Thank God (no pun intended) that this wasn't about Mohammed. Muslims around the world would be attacking our embassies again. Don't want to tick off the Muslims. America stood up to the USSR and faced nuclear annihilation but we are afraid of making Muslims angry? Can you imagine if Iran had a nuke? They will soon, then what? If we aren't willing to defend what America stands for then America stands for nothing. Might as well convert now.

    September 20, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
  16. Joebob

    Even if he had a wife many Christians will dismiss it since faith and belief are not fact based processes.

    September 20, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
    • alex

      He not "he"

      September 20, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
  17. checi

    Oh come on...everybody knows he had a wife and kids and after the Romans killed him, she got on a boat with her kids and went to France.

    September 20, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
    • Doh!

      where the Templars kept her briefly before shipping her and the grail to America, following her husbands footsetps of course since he apparently vacationed there after his death, at least according to Mitt Romney, and thus established the new new promised land to be given to the light skinned decentdants who would centuries later claim this land as promised since it was uninhabited, at least by anyone we light skinned persons considered human...

      September 20, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
  18. wawazat???

    I try to be a Christian and have failed MANY times. I think this article is pointless and stupid. It's just to arouse religious bashing, good going, CNN!

    September 20, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      "It's just to arouse religious bashing, good going, CNN!"

      uh huh, sure, of course it is, its reporting on the latest findings of a 1600 year old coptic fragment and what it says but its actually just a religious bashing exercise.
      Could you be any more of a victim?

      September 20, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
  19. Floodgate

    This fragment has the same standing as a single post on today's Twitter!

    September 20, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
  20. cedar rapids

    For those trying so hard to claim he was talking about the church being his wife, please please please do yourself a favor and go to the actual site where it shows what the rest of the translation says. It talks of Mary, it talks of his wfe being able to be his disciple (despite the other disciples likely claiming she wasnt worthy) and how he dwells with her.
    There is no doubt he is talking about a person and not the 'church'

    September 20, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
    • Sunflower

      thank you!!!

      September 20, 2012 at 2:27 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.