September 19th, 2012
06:05 PM ET

5 questions and answers about Jesus' 'wife'

By Eric Marrapodi, Co-Editor CNN's Belief Blog
[twitter-follow screen_name='EricCNNBelief']

(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.

Follow the CNN Belief Blog on Twitter

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.

CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories

"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. John Kaufman, Oceanside, CA

    This is just all wild speculation and conjecture! Anythng to sell news. Wait until all the facts, testings, and reserarch are done and in before going off on this wild tangent.

    September 20, 2012 at 6:44 am |
  2. Stopthemadness

    Anyone heard the story of the last scion of Christ? That story alone says Jesus had kids. Which means he was married. Which as far as I am concerned has no bearing on if he was a profit or not. Plenty of baptist and Lutheran ministers are married with children. So is it really that hard to grasp that a man may have had a wife?

    September 20, 2012 at 6:37 am |
  3. Indygal46

    I think it makes sense that Jesus would have a wife. He was made in human form just like the rest of us. It would also make sense that Mary Magdalene would have been his wife. They evidently spend much time together and traveled together. During that time wouldn't it have been appropriate to be married to the woman he was hanging around with much of the time. Wouldn't it have been considered sinful if he was not married to her. I don't know. I live in this day and time and was not there, but it makes me feel better as a woman to think it is a possiibility and that Jesus considered this woman a very important part of his life and an equal.

    September 20, 2012 at 6:36 am |
  4. dahlimama

    to those who think the bible is the only truth- why are there several version of it? Why were books left out or included at the whim of the person in charge at that particular time. The whole thing stinks to high heaven( pun intended) it is just a mass of stuff different political factions wanted to use to control people and it is no wonder it craps all over women when you look at the time period when they were written. Men will always see women as less than them and try to control them. It is all they have, they can't actually bring life into this world all they can do is destroy it with war and weapons and that fact will forever pi$$ them off!

    September 20, 2012 at 6:30 am |
  5. laststonecarver

    IIn Aramaic, is the name Jesus even valid? I was under the impression that the J character was pronounced like a Y?
    So in this Grecian script, on papyri, from hundreds of years later it says Jesus?

    September 20, 2012 at 6:19 am |
    • Ashok

      Officially there was no J until about 600 years ago.

      September 20, 2012 at 7:00 am |
  6. lostisland

    This can't be true because too many catholic priests would freak out and roll over in their graves over the whole misguided un-human celibacy thing...

    September 20, 2012 at 6:10 am |
  7. Larry Peebles

    Here's a Jesus video. But first, a message from one of our sponsors. Money, money, money. *facepalm*

    September 20, 2012 at 6:08 am |
  8. Larry Peebles

    Since when is "celibate" the opposite of "married"? So little of religion is logical. It's just another form of big business, power and greed; the only reason a priest is not allowed to marry is so that the church, not a spouse, will inherit any assets "left behind" upon his death. (Pun intended.) I love this part: "The church can change this rule whenever it decides to change the law." 'Nuf said.

    September 20, 2012 at 6:03 am |
  9. worldcares


    September 20, 2012 at 5:40 am |
  10. brian

    The main reason christianity has a problem with jesus being married is not really the marriage part but what comes from it i.e. children. Then you have literally children who are half god and that's all sorts of problems.

    September 20, 2012 at 5:29 am |
    • truth be told

      People in the first century A. D.wrote all sorts of things regarding Jesus. The Truth is found in the Bible, all other writings are suspect and should be considered no more relevant than the drivel posted by so called atheists on these blogs.

      September 20, 2012 at 5:35 am |
    • lostisland

      We should believe the Bible? You really don't understand the history of how your Bible came to say what it says or you wouldn't say 'believe the bible'...Challenge yourself, checkout the history of the Bible as we know it today. I dare you.

      September 20, 2012 at 6:21 am |
    • Ashok

      You mean like when they cross a lake, they have to hop.

      September 20, 2012 at 7:04 am |
    • Ashok

      Excuse me TRUTH, Emperpr Constantine decided what went in the bible the rest he burned or had burned. So, what is in the bible is what he liked of the stories he had to choose from.

      September 20, 2012 at 7:08 am |
  11. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things.

    September 20, 2012 at 5:26 am |
    • kkd1013

      Really? Or maybe, just maybe, actually doing something changes things. I never heard of someone or something changing just because someone prayed about it. Maybe if I pray hard enough, I'll become rich. Nope, that hasn't worked yet. And please don't say that prayer gives me the strength to work hard so I can become rich. No, working hard and choosing a profession that will make me rich will do that. Not prayer. And FYI, not being a christian does not make someone an atheist. There are more beliefs than just christianity and atheism.

      September 20, 2012 at 6:03 am |
    • lostisland

      Oh, it changes things allright. It's phase one of the zombie formula.

      September 20, 2012 at 6:23 am |
  12. Bill

    Well Jesus was born as a man, therefore he would have had manly needs, what is the problem?

    September 20, 2012 at 4:53 am |
  13. faithnotdoubt

    Jesus does have a wife. His bride. The church.

    September 20, 2012 at 4:42 am |
    • Greg C.

      Concur; if this is indeed authentic and it indeed is Jesus Christ, his reference to wife would be him referring to his people, The Church, which we know from the Bible to be His Bride.

      September 20, 2012 at 6:41 am |
    • IrishinToronto

      Who's his father-in-law? The bingo hall?

      September 20, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  14. The real story of Jesus' wife

    Jesus did indeed have a wife named Edna. Edna hard a real tough time of it. You see, Jesus got into a barfight, and to help him she yanked the other guy's Magic Johnson, and of course Jesus was forced by law to cut her hand off. For God's law is infallible.

    But then again, women are so inferior in the Bible, can't speak and that sort of thing, and the source of wickedness according to Eccliastes. So she had it coming.

    September 20, 2012 at 4:30 am |
    • fail

      fail. just.............fail...........

      September 20, 2012 at 4:37 am |
    • The real story of Jesus' wife

      The Bible is indeed a fail. Thank you for reminding us.

      September 20, 2012 at 4:45 am |
    • nope

      @the real...

      September 20, 2012 at 5:42 am |
  15. atheistjoe

    Im sure he beat her real good if she didnt walk the straight and narrow, just like his followers do to their kids and wives. Stupid ignorant Christians how long will you beleive in your criminal god.

    September 20, 2012 at 4:16 am |
  16. mary

    It would actually be a good thing.. If it were true that he had a wife..
    Which then leaves us to wonder if he had any children..

    September 20, 2012 at 4:13 am |
  17. The_Mick

    Our Holy Land tour included a ride on a large sailboat on the Sea of Galilee, which is actually a Lake perhaps 5-7 miles wide by 10-15 long. As we left from a dock at Capernaum and passed towns on the shore, our Israeli guide would say, "There's Bethsaida," and we'd say, "Saint Peter's hometown!" etc. But when he said, "There's Magdala," we all went blank. "You know," he said, "famous for Mary of Magdala." It took a moment, then we finally realized: "Mary Magdalene!" If she was Jesus' wife, his hometown of Nazareth is just several miles East, on the other side of the hill/mountain rising above Magdala on the Northeast side of the Sea of Galilee and Magdala is just several miles to the North of where he preached in the synagogue at Capernaum. So their families could have easily known each other since their childhoods or at least well before Jesus became a public figure.

    September 20, 2012 at 4:12 am |
  18. Yeah right

    Was Jesus married? That's exactly as relevant as whether Sniffy Bob the Dancing Unicorn was married.

    September 20, 2012 at 4:08 am |
  19. Terry Brookman

    It will not make a difference, in fact under Jewish law Mary would have to be his wife and in regards to the disciples view and disposition toward her; which is evident in all the New Testament they were jealous of her and her relationship with Christ. A man his age would also be married. Historically wives of that time would be expected to be quiet and sit in the corner only good enough to bring food and drink on order yet his relationship included her in everything. The church of Rome has twisted everything and are renowned to be woman haters, excluding them from almost everything. This should be empowering news for women, the true son of God taking a wife and treating as equal to any man.

    September 20, 2012 at 4:00 am |
  20. Kenchandammit

    @ Donnel – I dig your humor! what remarks do you have regarding Mormonism?

    September 20, 2012 at 3:33 am |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20
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.