Sunday, April 13, 2014

Discipleship of Women: Jesus's Wife

A small fragment of papyrus with Coptic (Egyptian) writing referring to Jesus Christ and his wife, Mary, dates authentically back to at least the sixth to ninth centuries, and perhaps as early as the fourth, Harvard University announced after two years of study and scientific testing. Although by no means evidence or proof that Jesus was married and recognized his wife as one of his disciples, the text can give us moderns a glimpse of the diversity of Christian thought even in the early Middle Age (i.e., between Augustine and Aquinas). The sheer variety discovered by now of the various "schools" of historical Christian thought (e.g., The Gospel of Thomas, The Book of Q, etc.) may seem odd to the extent that a "one size fits all" status quo has been set as the default for "Christian." Accordingly, the more we discover of an antiquated perspective in the history of Christianity, the more we discover about the religion in our own day, and even our world itself.

(Image Source: The Huffington Post)

As it survives, the fragment is a bit of a puzzle. In quotes in the first line is the statement, “My mother gave to me li[fe.”  The next line, “the disciples said to Jesus, “ presumably includes the next line’s content, “Mary is worthy of it.“ Worthy of what? Lest we automatically assume the Mary here is Jesus’s mother, the reference could also be to Mary Magdalene.

Firstly, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene contains the line,  “Jesus kissed her on her . . .”). Second, accidentally discovered in Jerusalem in 1980, a tomb contained ossuaries (small coffins for bones) having inscriptions including “Jesus, son of Joseph,” two Marys, James, Joseph, James, Matthew, and “Judah, son of Jesus.”[1] In spite of James Cameron’s documentary detailing the scientific studies of the scant surviving DNA matter, the world seemed not to notice. Third, the next two lines in the fragment have Jesus saying “to them” (i.e., the disciples), “My wife” and “she will be able to be my disciple.”[2] Presumably Jesus is saying his wife is able to be one of his disciples, and his mother was worthy of it too.
As with many of the theological shifts through the ages of Christian thought, the fragment here may reflect the Church in the context (i.e., time and place) in which the text was written. The place of women in the Coptic Church centuries after Christ may have needed some support out of the mouth of Jesus himself—vicariously, that is.

Similarly, our reading of the cryptic Coptic words cannot but be colored by our context in which women have been clawing their way back into clerical positions. The force of the Vatican’s initial reaction to the fragment—that it is a forgery—is itself an indication our times, and specifically how differently the fragment plays today than in the context of the author.

In short, the shifting sands of historical Christian thought, including its various uses of Jesus as a mouthpiece, should not be confused with historical evidence concerning those uses. Faith seeking understanding morphs into something else entirely once it seeks to capture empirical history for its own.

[1] Simcha Jacobovici and Charles Pellegrino, “The Jesus Family Tomb: The Evidence Behind the Discovery No One Wanted to Find” (New York: Harper Collins, 2007).
[2] Jaweed Kaleem, “’Gospel of Jesus’ Wife’ Papyrus Is Ancient, Not Fake, Scientists and Scholars Say,” The Huffington Post, April 10, 2014.