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Jeff Walton September 28, 2012
A controversial fragment of parchment indicating Jesus Christ may have been married reveals nothing about the historic person of Jesus, but does help Christians to see their tradition differently, according to two New Testament professors at the oldest seminary of the Episcopal Church.
“We start to see that there were perhaps even fights about sex, marriage and gender,” observed Professor Katherine Shaner about the early Christian church. “Conversations we are having today were had in antiquity as well.”
Shaner spoke September 25 alongside fellow New Testament professor Deirdre Good in an online seminar hosted by the Episcopal Church’s General Theological Seminary (GTS) in Manhattan. The seminar attracted over 150 participants, and had the two seminary professors translating Coptic, examining pen strokes and fielding questions for over an hour.
A Sensational Claim
The text fragment, written in a fourth century dialect of the Coptic language of Egypt, surfaced in Berlin in 1982 alongside a scrap of the Gospel of John, but was only recently unveiled to widespread media attention by Professor Karen L. King of Harvard Divinity School. King has proposed that the text is originally from the second century.
Shaner and Good observed that the piece of papyrus seems to have been torn or cut from a larger book, with both sides of the text cut, so it in unclear how the lines are connected. That clipping may have been done in such a way as to make the text appear sensational, Shaner cautioned.
According to Shaner, the eight lines of the 1½-by-3-inch papyrus fragment include the words “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife….” and also indicates this woman would become a disciple. Good proposed that the text raised questions about what early Christians believed about Jesus. “The fragment is intriguing both for what it says and for what it does not say,” Good wrote in comments preceding the seminar.
Conservative theologians have pointed out that Christ is frequently referred to as a bridegroom in scripture, with his bride being the church. Shaner observed that the text fragment uses a first person singular possessive of “my wife” rather than just “woman”.
“This appears to be flesh and blood discussion about a woman,” Good proposed, not metaphor about the church. “I don’t think there is any doubt that this text opens up marriage and discipleship.”
Written in the Character of Jesus?
According to Shaner, early Christians wrote about Jesus' life in character in order to demonstrate his importance. The GTS professor likened the apparent dialogue between Christ and his disciples in the fragment to the letter of 1 Timothy. That epistle, Shaner asserted, was not actually Paul writing to Timothy.
“1 Timothy is writing to Timothy in Paul’s voice, but it isn’t actually Paul writing and Timothy reading,” Shaner proposed, echoing a liberal-critical view of the Pauline Epistles taught in some mainline Protestant seminaries. “This [fragment] is the same thing – early Christians are thinking with the character of Jesus.”
Shaner noted that scripture often showed conversations of who was worthy to be a disciple, and suggested these were just part of many conversations about marriage and women in leadership.
“The question about women’s discipleship is up for grabs in this document,” Shaner assessed. While she flatly stated that the fragment could not prove Jesus’s marital status, Shaner called it “another piece of evidence that we get to add on” in a map where only a few disconnected puzzle pieces were available.
“What are the bound of the imagination in who Jesus was in the world?” Shaner asked. “Talking about Jesus as a sexual being makes people uncomfortable, but he was fully human.”
“Part of our job as public Christians is to talk about this stuff not just inside the church but outside of it as well,” Shaner added.
“In the midst of debates about sex, marriage, and women's leadership, thinking with Jesus's life story was one way to remember and revere him,” Shaner proposed in her comments preceding the seminar. “Those who wrote these texts were trying to be faithful followers of Jesus, just like we are. They were trying to figure out who Jesus was and how his message transformed their lives, just like we are.”
Questions of Authenticity Linger
The GTS professors claimed early evidence indicated the fragment was genuine, but other scholars have charged it is a fake. The U.K. newspaper The Guardian reported September 25 that Professor Francis Watson of Durham University says the papyrus fragment is a patchwork of texts from the genuine Coptic-language Gospel of Thomas, which have been copied and reassembled out of order to make a suggestive new whole.
Similarly, Helmut Koester, a professor emeritus of Harvard Divinity School and a former 25-year editor of the Harvard Theological Review, said in a Huffington Post interview that "they did not want to publish because of doubts from two respected scholars." Kevin Madigan, the journal's co-editor, told the Associated Press that King's paper had only been "provisionally" accepted for a January publication.
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