Wednesday 19 September 2012
The world’s media today splashed a story linking a newly discovered fragment of papyrus from the fourth century, with the possibility Jesus had a wife. The fragment contains the words: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …’ ” Historian and co-founder of the Centre of Public Christianity, John Dickson spoke to Eternity with his thoughts.
Joshua Maule: Would the fourth century be too late for an accurate new piece of information about the historical Jesus to emerge?
John Dickson: Definitely. Absolutely no doubt at all. The thing to clear up though is we’re talking about a copy that comes from the fourth century – maybe even late fourth century – but we don’t know when it was written. This text could have been written in the fourth century, or it could have been written in the third century. It could even have been written – and this is the absolute earliest – in the late second century. And this would be tying it to a number of documents like the gospel of Mary and the gospel of Philip that were written in the late second century. Because it has some affinity with those texts at least in outlook and debate, that would be the absolute earliest date. But even a date of late second century is 150 years after the historical Jesus and that would be far too late.
And given that we have a wealth of first century texts, that would relegate it even further. It’s sometimes possible for a late text to have some information for example our best source for Alexander the Great is Arrian several centuries after Alexander, but we don’t have plentiful texts before that, we just trust that Arrian is using earlier sources that are now lost. But in the case of the figure of Jesus, we have a wealth of first century texts, so relying on something that post dates those texts is dubious as any historian will tell you. Even the scholar at the centre of this debate is not using this new discovery as evidence of Jesus having a wife. She knows better.
JM: Is it just a bit of a media beat up then?
JD: It really is a media beat up probably because scholars are not immune to the attraction of getting media attention. Certainly the idea of Jesus having a wife is a very sensational, sexy idea and I can well imagine a kind of cooperation between scholars and the media to get biblical studies into the media. But I know for a fact that the scholar at the centre of the controversy, Karen King, is not claiming that this is evidence that Jesus had a wife. But that unfortunately is how the headlines are reporting it.
JM: It’s clear in the articles.
JD: Yeah if you dig down into the articles, it’s clear what she is and isn’t saying. The trouble is people tend to read the headlines and the first two paragraphs and ask the question: ‘Wow! Did Jesus have a wife? And why didn’t the gospels tell us so?’
JM: Do you think theologically it makes any difference if Jesus was married?
JD: Not the marriage itself. Personally I love the idea of Jesus having had a wife because I think it just feeds into the humanity of Jesus. And it’s such a wonderful part of our existence that it would be beautiful if he had shared that existence, and then shared the agony of knowing he was going to leave his wife. But that’s completely imaginary. Most historical Jesus scholars are convinced Jesus did not have a wife for the simple reason that the gospels are very pro marriage and don’t say he had a wife. Where as they happily talk about other family members, his mum, dad, brothers, sisters. We find elsewhere in the New Testament that Jesus’ brothers had wives, and Peter had a wife. Everyone was pro having a wife. But the silence in this case is significant because of the high view of marriage the early New Testament writers had.
JM: I think in one of the articles I read the scholar suggested that it wasn’t until 200 AD that claims started to surface that Jesus was single. But you’re saying the silence in the New Testament really is suggesting that he’s single.
JD: Yeah the silence is significant because it was normal for Jewish teachers to marry, the gospels have a high view of marriage, and they don’t mention anything about him having a wife. I think the claim that the first discussion of Jesus being celibate was 200 AD – it’s more like late second century early third century – that claim is a bit dubious. All that’s talking about is that arguments about whether celibacy is godly began in that period, and the argument used to support it by those who thought it was godly was that Jesus was single. It wasn’t that no one had thought Jesus was single before that. It’s just that that’s the first time it was raised in connection with our celibacy.
JM: So to make it sound like a conspiracy that was unearthed in 200 – or even later – is just plain wrong.
JD: Yeah – it’s plain wrong. There was no one so far as we can tell claiming Jesus did have a wife. And it’s far from clear that this text is claiming that. It could be claiming that. It’s too late to be taken as evidence for the historical Jesus, but it could actually indicate that the producers of this particular text thought Jesus was married. But that’s only one possible interpretation.
JM: So is the fragment useful in any way and, if so, what can it tell us?
JD: I think the discovery of any fragment from early Christianity is useful. But it doesn’t as yet tell us anything different. There’s going to be huge debates about what the quotation means. So many lines are missing from this manuscript that you certainly do get: “Jesus said, ‘My wife…’” and then what follows is completely gone. It could be him saying ‘My wife in truth is anyone who follows me…’ But we have no idea at all what follows. But it has to be considered as evidence only of whether second, third, fourth century Christians thought Jesus had a wife. That would be the only significance for the historian.
JM: And theologically do you think that would have any significance? That kind of discovery?
JD: If it could be shown – I can’t see how it could be shown other than the discovery of a first century text that said Jesus was married – but if it were shown that Jesus was married, the only theological problem that I can see is that it is most unusual that the gospels fail to mention it. And we might want to ask: what other things did they not tell us about Jesus? What other really important details did they not mention that you would expect them to mention? But in order to start asking that question, you’d really have to have a first century text. A second, third or fourth century text will not do as evidence.