“The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” is a fourth-century papyrus fragment that includes among its 33 words the phrase, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife . . . ‘” This sentence fragment has sparked one of the most controversial theological debates in years. Dr. Karen L. King, a professor at Harvard Divinity School, announced its existence two weeks ago. In her paper, she explicitly states that the fragment “does not . . . provide evidence that the historical Jesus was married.” But she does believe that it reflects debate about Jesus’ marital status at an early stage in Christian history.
Several scholars in the field immediately dismissed the fragment as a probable forgery. King obtained it from a private collector who claims to know little about its origins, a fact that causes many experts to doubt its historicity. World-famous New Testament theologian N. T. Wright said of the fragment, “No serious scholar, whether Christian, Jewish or atheist, will give it more than a sad smile.”
Despite such skepticism, the Smithsonian Channel has been promoting the fragment as “one of the most significant discoveries of all time.” Now we’re learning that their documentary on the subject has been delayed. After further tests are done, the channel plans to revise its show to include the results and academic response.
When the papyrus was first announced I chose not to address it, as it seemed more a subject for biblical interpretation than cultural commentary. But interest in the fragment has persisted now for weeks. What does this ongoing fascination with an ancient document say about us?
It’s a reminder that our society is still fascinated by the figure of Jesus. Think about it: more books have been written about him—more songs have been sung in his worship—more buildings have been named for him and his disciples—more people have been influenced by his teachings than by any other person in human history. Muslims consider him one of the six most important prophets of all time; Buddhists and Hindus respect him; even many atheists and agnostics admire his teachings. There’s something about Jesus that calls to us across 20 centuries of history, whatever our religious beliefs. Could this be evidence for the “God-shaped emptiness” Pascal described?
On another level, however, interest in Jesus’ “wife” shows that many people want evidence to refute Scripture and Christian tradition. His teachings we claim to admire make us uncomfortable when they state that he is the only way to the Father (John 14:6); when they call us to take up our cross daily and follow him (Luke 9:23); when they proclaim that he is the King of the universe and that we must repent and follow him (Matthew 4:17).
Many of us admire Jesus. When last did it cost you something significant to serve him?