Who Would Jesus Marry?

Newly discovered papyrus fragment is not historical evidence of Jesus’ marital status—but it reminds us that the status of women in the church has been subject to a lot of flim-flammery

I’m in the process of developing a new course on women and ministry at the Jesuit university where I teach. It almost goes without saying that I’ve been anticipating a slow, deliberate walk through the minefield of history, theology, and emotion related to the role of women in ministry roles in the Roman Catholic Church and other Christian traditions and the ways in which the Church Catholic/catholic has ministered to women. From longstanding debates about women’s access to ordained ministry and questions of conscience-driven choice with regard to contraception and abortion, to the Vatican rebuke of American women religious and the “Nuns on the Bus” tour this summer—which reached something of a crescendo with Sister Simone Campbell’s address to the Democratic National Convention—I’ve been working on ways to guide students over rocky terrain.

Into that fraught landscape came the news earlier this week that Karen L. King, a Harvard Divinity School church historian and expert on the controversial biblical figure, Mary Magdalene, had been given access to a papyrus fragment held by a private collector. The fragment includes the provocative phrases, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…’” and “…she will be my disciple.” What King has called the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” on generic rather than theological grounds, was extensively studied by experts on papyrus and the Coptic language in which it is written to assess its authenticity and date the fragment before King presented preliminary findings this week in Rome at a conference on Coptic studies. More testing is forthcoming, but there is a reasonable scholarly consensus that the papyrus, an apparent artifact of a late second-century Christian community somewhere in Egypt, merits further study.

These are among the salient facts of the discovery at this point, and scholars quickly began queuing up to weigh in on whether or not the fragment is authentic. But the more popular conversation has swirled around an issue to which King herself made clear the fragment was not able to speak: Was Jesus married? Was his wife the historically confused Mary Magdalene? Was she a full-fledged disciple? This historical questions cannot, of course, be answered on the basis of a tiny, incomplete scrap of text out of the context of a complete document and a community of authorship and reception.

But why let that stop us from speculating.

Read on at Religion Dispatches.

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