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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. Tom Cruise

    Jesus was clearly married people. Who ever made the story that Jesus was not married is a dope.

    September 20, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
  2. Nazxul

    So someone with no proof of existing in the historical record had a wife. Maybe they should find evidence of Jesus being a real person first. He was just a Sun God with many of the same traits as those before him such as Horus, Attis, Krishna, Dionysus, Mithra..ect.

    September 20, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
    • NUMBNUT

      Didn't they all share the same birthdate, too? Dec. 25th.

      September 20, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
    • silly!

      It's called Prefiguration. Bummer for all the dupes before AD 1.

      September 20, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
  3. Ted

    Perhaps I'm putting myself way out on a limb here, but is it possible that there could have been more than one person named Jesus, at the time that papyrus was written.

    September 20, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
    • glad you could make it

      read the... fragment

      September 20, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
    • Interesting

      I've read that the Bible Jesus is a construct of the Niscea Council of Constantine. There were most likely 2. One from Nazareth and the other that did different things. One went East and the other West. Most of the Jesus Myth is in other writings. I think there was one that was crucified and rose from the dead. The Catholic Church knows for sure since they were responsible for the fabrication.

      September 20, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
  4. Bremmer

    Funny how science is trying to prove anything about religion

    September 20, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
    • come again

      re-reading the article... which scientist tried to prove what thing about religion?

      September 20, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
  5. joe duncan

    The fact that your pushing such tripe only shows your more entertainment than news. as for evidence that Jesus was unmarrired you need only sourse the Holy Bible. If the state of Israel can justifity statehood because of this text (Tora) then you should accept the sourse also, or does CNN now deny the right of Israel to exist?

    September 20, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
    • CNN

      Ummmm.....Yes.

      September 20, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
    • sam stone

      What has Israel to do with this article, Joey?

      September 21, 2012 at 11:31 am |
  6. Matt

    "There is something feeble and a little contemptible about a man who cannot face the perils of life without the help of comfortable myths. Almost inevitably some part of him is aware that they are myths and that he believes them only because they are comforting. But he dare not face this thought! Moreover, since he is aware, however dimly, that his opinions are not rational, he becomes furious when they are disputed" – Betrand Russell

    September 20, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      There is no reason to believe that we will ever be able to harness energy from atomic power – Albert Einstein

      September 20, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
    • yikes

      sorry, there is no atomic power or did I miss that in the Bible

      September 20, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      I think we call it nuclear these days

      September 20, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
    • RandyM

      What myth are you referring to?

      September 20, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
    • noocleer

      @Deacon Bill. Right you are. Nukes are iin Deuterium? Hydrogenesis? Wait that's fusion not fission never mind.

      September 20, 2012 at 5:26 pm |
  7. High Way

    The real reason why the catholic church changed their rule and prevented priests from getting married, it was for monetary reasons. There was less money going to the vatican if every priest had a family to feed. Do a research on the subject and you will be amazed to discover much more interesting information that are eye opening.

    September 20, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      No the real reason is that some Bishops in the early Church were beginning to establish family dynasties that threatened the Apostolic succession of the pope.

      September 20, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
  8. High Way

    I wonder how many catholic boys wanted to become priests when they became adults only to find out they could not marry? The number of catholic church priests is on the decline because of it.

    September 20, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
    • Ran

      There are many Catholic priest who are married. The Latin rite of the Catholic Church is the only rite that forbids priest to marry.

      September 20, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
    • ME II

      @Ran,
      It was my understanding that the only way a Catholic priest can be married is if he was married before he became a priest. Many ex-Anglican Catholic priests fall in this category.

      September 20, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      It's interesting though that the decline in vocations coincides with the Vatican II mandate to revitalize the laity. So while the clergy has diminished, the flock has prospered.

      September 20, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
    • breathless

      Actually BD that's not that interesting

      September 20, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
  9. SB

    so big deal..he had a wife

    September 20, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
  10. Geoffrey Law

    Here's what I hope, I hope this leads uber-religious people to start thinking about how the Bible came to be. Maybe start wondering about the 4 canonized gospels or Acts. Then maybe they'll realize that the earliest written gospel was Mark, in 70AD. Which is 40 years after Jesus allegedly died and 15 years before Matthew was written(85AD), with Luke, John and Acts coming decades later. Maybe they're realize that all the gospels were written anonymously. Maybe the uber-religious would also begin to learn about all the changes that were done by scribes over the following centuries. I hope that maybe, just maybe, a light bulb will light up right above their head and they'll see the elephant in the room.

    September 20, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
    • aj0714

      and perhaps you'll see one day, that it's all Divine - a magnificent love story start to finish - just the way it happened.

      September 20, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
    • Geoffrey Law

      LOL, aj0714

      September 20, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
    • Robert Boose

      Jesus allegedly died where do you come up with this?

      September 20, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
    • Geoffrey Law

      Hey, Robert. I'll try my best to decipher that question of yours. It appears to be two questions. The first being, "Jesus allegedly died?" This one seems to be a rhetorical question or it could possibly be that you never read the Bible to the end and if this is the case, then I'm sorry for ruining the ending. Either way, I'll skip that one and move on to the next, or as you may refer to it; The Question: Part 2.

      I'll assume the term "Textual Criticism" isn't one you're accustomed to. Biblical scholars have known the time frames and regions where gospels originated from for a long time. They've known they were originally written in Greek, even though Jesus' followers actually would have spoken in Aramaic. In fact, people who go to seminary or divinity schools are taught this stuff. If you're really interested, you should study the facts and evidence for yourself. Professor Bart Ehrman and many others have written volumes upon volumes of books on this subject. I hope you enjoy checking them out!

      September 20, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
  11. babs

    "Take my wife . . . please."

    September 20, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
  12. Joshua

    I think Sam Kinison just rose from the grave.

    September 20, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
    • harry potter

      totally headless Sam

      September 20, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
  13. Chris

    Did anyone ever consider that this might be a typo?

    September 20, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
    • yeah

      my whiff? wafer?

      September 20, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
    • Argh

      The writer definitely could have mis-heard what Jesus said. "Blessed are the cheese makers? What's so special about them?"

      September 20, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
    • Geoffrey Law

      It's because Jesus only loves people in Wisconsin.

      September 20, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
  14. eyesalve

    CNN continues to fulfill prophecy - 1 John 4:3 "And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world."

    September 20, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
    • ME II

      Did your shoe tell you that CNN was the spirit of the Anti Christ? Because all shoes are liars and should not be trusted.

      September 20, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
    • Robert Boose

      good point about anti christ there is many, but there will be one to rule the world for a season, then Jesus will return.

      September 20, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
  15. Mitt Romney

    As a mormon , I know that when jesus rose from the dead and moved himself and his wife to the Missouri area , he fell in love again with a young squall woman . Therefore just as my grandad had 5 wives , it is ok to "spread the wealth " or line them all up for a "trickle down effect" .

    September 20, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
    • Oscar Pitchfork

      Are you trying to say "Squaw' woman, moron?

      September 20, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
    • ME II

      I don't know. Some women I've known might qualify as a squall. : )

      September 20, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
  16. James

    Jesus referred to his "church" as his bride. He could have been saying "My wife is my church" for all anyone knows if this scrap of paper has any value at all in the first place. Who wrote it? When was it written? This shred of paper is no more valid than is I were to say "Jesus said feed my chipmunks" Would that mean Jesus had pet chipmunks?

    September 20, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
    • so confused

      which scrap are you asking about? The Bible?

      September 20, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
    • old ben

      Hey – waste not, want not. All paper has some value. TP is pricey these days, so I've resorted to using some old bibles. The book of Psalms is the most like Charmin, by the way.

      September 20, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
    • jbrasco

      Not to mention, Jesus was a very, very common name back then. How does anyone know it's talking about the Jesus? I mean, it is only a scrap, not a full text.

      September 20, 2012 at 4:25 pm |
    • getting up to speed

      ...read...the...fragment...

      September 20, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
    • Robert Boose

      good point about Jesus and the church as his bride. in heaven Jesus is the husband and there is no more man or woman, we are his bride. I think I spelled bride wrong for give me I am disabled and I am in a lot of pain now.

      September 20, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
    • ouch

      @Robert Boose: sorry to hear it. Do you miind sharing what ails you? I ask because I heard on NPR about a joint/muscle ailment (hypermotor...?) that's painful and debilitating but basically invisible. A young woman with it was spat upon for sitting in the blue seat on the bus.... She was exhausted and had hurt her knee (a likely result of that ailment)

      September 20, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
  17. James

    Jesus did not have any female disciples. Even when Judas killed himself, he was replaced with a male. There were 12 disciples of Jesus and NONE were female.
    Why would I listen or accept any of this drivel when the person does not even know the fundamental basics of Christ's mission?

    September 20, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
    • Rick Shultz

      What makes you believe that Dr. King knows nothing about the basics of Jesus' mission here? She IS, after all, a Doctor of
      Divinity and you DON'T BUY degrees from HArvard.

      September 20, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
    • old ben

      I'm still thinking the one that Jesus loved was a hermaphrodite. You know, the one in Leo's picture that looks rather feminine.

      September 20, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
    • nik green

      For Jewish boys at that time, it was customary for them to marry and start a family from a young age, in order to maintain the population. Jesus' mission only lasted for the final 3 years of his life, most of which is not accounted in the Bible. For Jesus *NOT* to have been married would be the anomaly, not the other way around.

      September 20, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
    • Southern Celt

      Jesus Christ did (and does) have female disciples, e.g Mary Magdelene, but no female Apostles. Big difference. All of us, both male and female, are called to be His disciples. As for the scrap of paper, there was more than one boy named Jesus at the start of the Common Era. Many Hispanic men are also named Jesus so it is not a unique name at all.

      September 20, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
    • Patti

      Since there is no secular proof that a Jesus really existed, he didn't have any male disciples either.

      September 20, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
    • W

      Dad bought my degree from Yale

      September 20, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
  18. Michael

    Even if this had been smoking gun proof that Jesus was married (I realize that it isn't), most Christians wouldn't have cared. They care a lot more about tradition than facts... their beliefs were voted upon centuries ago by men that most Christians know nothing about. Yet they're willing to accept the decisions of those guys as being inspired by God because....? Because of wishful thinking, pretty much.

    September 20, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
    • old ben

      I believe you are correct. Paul had to survive and had a lot of bills to pay to allow his little roving carnival show to keep afloat.

      September 20, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
    • Southern Celt

      Jesus was an only child, and he never married (Tradition). It is usually the Protestant Crowd (Sola Sciptura) that rejects Tradition, which was all there was until the Bible bound up the Apostles letters some 400 years after the Resurrection. .

      September 20, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
    • Ron

      John 2:12 , 12 After this he and his mother and brothers and his disciples went down to Ca·per′na·um, but they did not stay there many days.
      Mark 6:3 , 3 This is the carpenter the son of Mary and the brother of James and Joseph and Judas and Simon, is it not? And his sisters are here with us, are they not?”

      September 20, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
    • Really?

      Michael,
      If you read the bible, pay attention to the prophets (Isaiah, Daniel, Ezekiel, Haggai, Hosea, Jeremiah, Micah, Zechariah). Jesus fulfilled their prophecies. I bashed Chrisitians for 20 years....... And now I will defend HIS Name with my life. You're on deck!

      September 20, 2012 at 6:09 pm |
  19. palintwit

    His wife was also his sister. Or his cousin. Or both. Which makes jesus a teabagger who probably watched nascar and drank Everclear.

    September 20, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
    • Rick Shultz

      There is really no need to be insulting to those of us who do believe in Jesus' divinity. If we do this then we really can't criticize the Muslims who react badly to insults to the Prophet. It opens us to the charge of hypocrisy from them if nothing else.

      September 20, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
    • between a rock and hard place

      yeah just watch your step

      September 20, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
    • donna

      Rick Shultz, you should explain your comment. There's nothing hypocritical about making fun of Christianity just because we think the rioting Muslims are wrong. You would be wrong too if you responding to people making fun of you by rioting and murder- so that's the opposite of hypocrisy.

      September 20, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
    • steve

      Be careful you may incite riots and the burning of the flag and over turning of cars all through Dixie.

      September 20, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
    • old ben

      Lol steve. and people would be saying "what did the poor cows do to deserve to be tipped" as well.

      September 20, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
    • ME II

      @palintwit,
      Perhaps you've confused "teabagging" with incest. Go ask your brother-boyfriend to demonstrate them again.

      September 20, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
    • Ron

      2 Timothy 3:16,17 , . 16 All Scripture is inspired of God and beneficial for teaching, for reproving, for setting things straight, for disciplining in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be fully competent, completely equipped for every good work.
      The BIBLE says to correct the wrong .

      September 20, 2012 at 6:19 pm |
  20. Moishe Feldstein

    Jewish conspiracy...
    Jesus was a magician, stop worshiping him.
    Come worship the wall of bricks we do in Israel.

    September 20, 2012 at 3:39 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.