The short answer is: no. The slightly longer answer is: there is absolutely no reliable evidence that this was the case, and if Jesus was married, then we would see at least some indication of that in the New Testament documents—just as we know that Paul was not married, and Peter was, from a throw-away comment about the rights of an apostle (1 Cor 9.5). More to the point, there is some awkwardness in Jesus not being married. It was not unknown, but normally taking a wife and having children would be expected of a rabbi, and Jesus was at least unusual in not being married. It is one of several awkward things that, had the early ‘church’ (i.e. the Jesus movement) been making up stories about Jesus, they would have ironed this out, along with other embarrassing awkwardnesses:
- Jesus apparently not knowing things, even though he was claimed to be the Son of God—sufficiently awkward that early copyists of Matt 24.36 ‘corrected’ it
- Jesus not having the power to heal when people did not believe (Mark 6.5)
- Jesus making ‘Son of Man’ his favourite title for self-designation, which Christians have struggled to interpret ever since.
- Jesus failing to make any really clear pronouncements on the burning questions of food laws and circumcision.
So we can be confident that Jesus was indeed single. Does it matter? Most observers suggest that the chief problem of a married Jesus for the Church would be the justification of celibacy for the Catholic priesthood, but that derives at least as much from Paul’s example and teaching in 1 Cor 7 anyway (and mistakenly). If Jesus was married, the metaphor of the people of God as bride to the bridegroom Messiah might look odd—but then we are called ‘brothers [and sisters]’ when Jesus had actual brothers. And Orthodox Jews don’t have a problem doing a bridal dance with a Torah scroll, their true love, when they are married. Such things are not always subject to rational analysis. The more significant issue, which is beyond the general media, is that in being single, Jesus displaces the centrality of the command to ‘Go forth and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it’ (Gen 1.28) with ‘Go and make disciples of all nations’ (Matt 28.19). Evangelism is now the primary way to be fruitful, rather than procreation.
But why am I mentioning this at all? Because, at the end of the August silly season, the so-called Gospel of Jesus’ Wife (pictured above) is receiving publicity again.
New tests on a highly controversial papyrus fragment may add credence to evidence suggesting Jesus had a wife.
The so-called “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” is a fragment of Coptic text no bigger than a business card, in which a translated line refers to Jesus saying the words “my wife”, as well as referencing a disciple called “Mary”.
(Note use of the terms ‘controversial’ and ‘may’.) The most remarkable thing about this document was not, in fact, what it claimed, but the way it provoked the academic community to collaborate very quickly in demonstrating, from every angle, why this was clearly a fake when it first appeared in 2012. Mark Goodacre, of Duke University (formerly in Birmingham) took a lead; from the beginning he thought that the piece looked odd:
I am not a papyrologist but I can’t get over how amateurish and blotchy the fragment’s text looks. It is clearly written by someone using a thick nibbed pen and it looks weird. Several letters are particularly bold, as if someone has written over them them for emphasis, including TA, the “my” in “my wife”.
Quite soon after that, Francis Watson of Durham University offered an in-depth analysis, demonstrating that it was a poor forgery copied from some text of the Gospel of Thomas.
Of the three articles, the first is for the non-specialist and the other two include discussion of the language. The second here is the main piece:
INTRODUCTION AND SUMMARY Francis Watson
Addendum: The End of the Line? Francis Watson
- The fragment came with another fragment, from the Gospel of John, which was even more clearly faked.
- Carbon dating showed that the piece of papyrus was 8th century—but the style of writing used had died out 500 years earlier.
- The text appears to match a text available on the internet—including a mistake in the writing.
- The fragment has no clear origin; no archeological origin has been given, and the donor has remained anonymous.
- The ideas in the text tie in rather well with the current vogue following Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code.
It is no longer that the finger of suspicion points in the direction of a forgery. Leaving aside the circumstantial evidence, each of the three main pieces of evidence mentioned above would be enough to disprove claims that the fragment is truly ancient. As a result, like other curiosities like the Tibetan Life of Issa, the so-called “Archaic Mark” manuscript, and Jesus’ saying about dental provision, the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife should be consigned to the filing cabinet under F for fakes, frauds, forgeries, and fabrications.
In one sense, as an evangelical scholar, it could be argued that Gathercole has a vested interest in this view. But the latest edition of New Testament Studies, perhaps the most prestigious journal in the subject, is devoted to this document, and the consensus is that it is not genuine. The contents are, unusually, available free, and Larry Hurtado of Edinburgh gives a summary of each of the papers. He comments:
The articles in the new issue of New Testament Studies…collectively give interested readers a rather full presentation of reasons why the GJW fragment is now widely regarded a hoax, Prof. King [of Harvard, who first publicised the fragment] perhaps the scholar most seriously and cruelly the victim of it. It appears that surely now, however, the appeals of various scholars for a candid response to the collective judgment that the fragment is a hoax must be heeded, and (unless the combined judgments of the aforementioned scholars can be shown to be erroneous) an effort should be made to trace (and disclose) the process by which it was attempted.
- Someone is hosting a conference on the fragment, and this looks like good free publicity.
- Anything that ‘could have a significant impact on the origins of Christianity’ (the headline on the Indendent Facebook link) looks like a good way to boost circulation in a post DaVinci Code age.
- Money. In an age where there is increasing interest in origins, but artefacts are being destroyed on a daily basis, the poverty resulting from the chaos of war makes the financial appeal of fakes almost irresistible.
- You might have noticed the different general response to questioning the integrity of Mohammed and the Qur’an to questioning the origins of Christian belief.
- It is cool to be sceptical of everything, except the idea of being sceptical.
- In an age of post-modern uncertainty, it is simple to assert that ‘there is no evidence for anything, in particular Jesus’ when actually there is good historical evidence—better in many ways than for other comparable ancient figures.
Despite appeals for closure—and despite all the evidence—this story is likely to run and run.
I do not think it is unreasonable at this time to call for closure with respect to the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife. “[T]he piles of evidence suggesting that the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife is a forgery” mentioned by Joel Baden and Candida Moss in The Atlantic have now been systematically presented in detail in the most recent issue of New Testament Studies (Cambridge University Press). And as I have explained above, it seems quite clear to me that the person who brought the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife to Karen King has some serious explaining to do.
In the meantime, arm yourself with the facts!
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