The Huffington Post is persisting in cluttering up my facebook newsfeed with tidbits designed to tantalize people into tearing out their hair over the marital status of Jesus.
I am finding it difficult to get as over-excited as they would seem to like: haven’t we been here before? Still, I am sufficiently engaged to give some sort of an inexpert opinion as to the significance of what has happened this past week with the introduction of a “new” piece of papyrus which appears to give credence to the idea that Jesus was a married man.
To recap: on Tuesday, a Harvard Divinity School professor, Karen King, introduced the world to a fragment of papyrus dating from the early few centuries following the life of Jesus which contained the words, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …'”
It’s worth noting that she, in the same presentation, argued that this does not constitute evidence that Jesus was married, and that there is a lot of context missing from this fragment, because of its fragmentary nature.
A flurry of commentary followed. Dan Brown’s name came up numerous times. Predictions of mass wailing and gnashing of teeth among the communities of the religiously celibate were offered. And the Huffington Post insists and persists in trying to flog new life into this horse via facebook and, presumably, other outlets to which I am not privy.
(No offence to Huffpost Religion, whose feed I actually rather enjoy from time to time, and which provides a convenient snapshot of what’s “out there” on any given day.)
But the fact is that there are already a lot of fragments, large and small, from the early centuries of Christianity which reflect the conflicting and conflicted views of early Christians regarding sex, marriage, women, and the celibacy or otherwise of the saviour and other perfect beings.
In Marvin Meyer’s book, The Gospels of Mary, a number of Gnostic texts are set side by side with their stories about and attitudes towards Mary Magdalene exposed in all of their contrast and confusion. Among these readings, the Gospel of Thomas, for example, seems pretty negative with regard to womanliness, gender and sexuality, and Jesus answers Peter’s jealous questioning of Mary (Magdalene?)’s worthiness to join the disciples of Christ by promising to make a man of her. On the other hand, in the Gospel of Philip the mystical union of male and female will undo death, the marital bedchamber is the harbinger of light, Mary Magdalene is the one who sees the light, and Jesus kisses her often and loves her the most of all…
(Marvin Meyer, The Gospels of Mary: the secret tradition of Mary Magdalene, the companion of Jesus, with Esther A. De Boer (HarperOne, 2004))
In other words, the Christians of the earlier centuries may have been just as confused, screwed up and fascinated by sex and how it works within our spirituality, and how it applied to Jesus, our saviour, as the current century of Christians. There is nothing new under the sun.
Or, to quote a certain seminary dean with plenty of expert opinion to offer, “In the end, like most popular forays into the early church, the interest and reaction to this will be a cipher that tells us more about ourselves and our contemporary society, and what we project back into the past, than anything else.”
In the end, even if we knew whether or not Jesus was married, I suspect that it would not determine whether or not we as individuals should, or will, or won’t marry; that seems to have carried on regardless, in different ways and with varying norms throughout many more than the Christian centuries and in many more than the Christian cultures of the world.
Whether or not Jesus was married will not change the relationship of creation to its Creator, the nature of the Incarnation itself, or the fact of our salvation.
So really, isn’t it just a very, very old piece of gossip?