Wednesday, September 19, 2012

If Jesus got married, did all 12 disciples get to be in the wedding party?

A new debate about whether Jesus was a single guy has begun based on a scrap of papyrus dating from around the 4th century AD.  On it are written the words, "Jesus then said to them, my wife".  The papyrus fragment, written in ancient Coptic, is about the size of a business card and contains 6 lines on one side and 8 on the other.  If you read this article online, you can watch a Harvard professor of divinity discussing the find.  She concludes that it is not evidence for Jesus being married.  Instead it is evidence for a debate about marriage springing up about 150 years after Jesus death.  The guess is that people were trying to argue that marriage and sexuality is okay by suggesting Jesus might also have been married.  So then an alternative gospel is written up by a 4th century author who chooses to insert a line in which Jesus says something about "my wife".

And predictably, the newspaper article does a lovely job of beating the story up.  My favourite quote is this one:

"Christian tradition has long held that Jesus was not married, even though no reliable historical evidence exists to support that claim," King said in a statement released by Harvard."
 
Let's for a moment go on in that vein.  What else could we say about Jesus for which there is no historical evidence to disprove it?

Christian tradition has long held that Jesus did not travel to Rome, even though no reliable historical evidence exists to support that claim.

Christian tradition has long held that Jesus did not kill his father, even though no reliable historical evidence exists to support that claim.

Christian tradition has long held that Jesus did not steal from rich widows, even though no reliable historical evidence exists to support that claim.

Christian tradition has long held that Jesus did not invent an ancient form of icecream, even though no reliable historical evidence exists to support that claim.

In other words, you can claim that a lot of things might have happened and then shift the burden of proof to the other person and require them to prove that it didn't.

Despite eyewitness accounts describing Jesus' adult life in quite a lot of detail, none of the gospel accounts mention a wife or family. Neither do the non-Christian Roman or Jewish historians who mention the existence and death of a man named Jesus from Nazareth.

I suspect that this particular bit of Christian scholarship is interesting to the rest of the world because (a) it involves sexuality and people have some funny idea that Christians are really against this and (b) it sounds like a cover-up or conspiracy by the early church.

Lately, the Catholic church seems to be managing to hit both targets with their utterly reprehensible record on dealing with paedophilia and abuse by clergy.  So religious instituations are understandably lacking a fair bit of credibility at the present.

On one hand, I hate it when the media package up a story to make it more tasty and in doing so make it very hard to reasonably discern the key facts and conclusions.  On the other hand, I like that people want to think about evidence for our understanding of Jesus.  Who wrote those ancient documents?  How do we know if they are reliable?  Is there evidence of an early church cover up and were the gospels changed over time like Chinese whispers?  I think those are really excellent questions to ask.  If you'd like to follow that up further, try the centre for public Christianity.

2 comments:

Ben McLaughlin said...

Great post, Deb, completely agree.

'ancient form of ice cream' heh!

Laetitia :-) said...

Well, we could argue the ice-cream one on the basis of John 1:3. ;-)