By Kate Cooper –
In the scrap of papyrus recently unveiled, Jesus speaks of his own wife and appears to confirm her role as a recognised disciple, Harvard Professor Karen King has suggested.
This document, known as the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife”, shows how a single fragment can change our understanding of the early Christian world.
The 4th Century papyrus contains a fragment of a lost gospel which Professor King dates to the 2nd Century, showing how at least some 2nd Century Christians remembered the 1st Century teacher.
A family man
The new Jesus is a family man, willing to stick up for his wife and mother with his male disciples.
The Gospel recounts a debate between Jesus and his disciples about the role of women, with Jesus taking the side of the women. He honours his mother by saying that she gave him life. He speaks also of his wife, naming her as a disciple and making her special role clear: “I will dwell with her”.
The idea of Jesus confirming a female disciple will generate controversy, especially as it comes just weeks before the Church of England’s crucial vote on women bishops.
A married Jesus would have seemed less surprising to the early churches than to modern Christians.
Married missionary couples were well known in the early Christian communities. It would have seemed logical to a 2nd Century reader to think of Jesus as having been part of a husband-wife partnership, similar to that of Prisca and Aquila in the letters of the Apostle Paul.
An ascetic teacher
In later centuries, Jesus began to be remembered as an ascetic teacher, but in fact, the canonical New Testament sources do not comment on his marital status.
Since the late 2nd Century, Christians have debated the theological significance of Jesus’s close relationships with women. Did his female followers have the ability to “speak for Jesus” after his death, in the way that Peter and other male disciples claimed?
As the Christian churches evolved from informal communities that gathered in the homes of individuals toward a more institutional structure, the debate over whether women’s voices should carry authority became more and more heated.
Different communities remembered different stories about Jesus and his disciples. It is possible the early disciples themselves disagreed over whether Jesus would want a formal role for women if the Church were to become established in a way that it was not in his own day.
The Gospel of Mary
Another non-canonical gospel from the second century, the Gospel of Mary, shows the male disciples Peter, Andrew, and Levi arguing about a female disciple named Mary, who has told them of teachings which Jesus had revealed to her in private. The question is whether these teachings can carry authority for the wider Church. Scholars have debated whether this Mary is Mary Magdalene, Mary the sister of Martha, or Jesus’s mother.
In 4th Century Egypt, when the book that included the new fragment was made, bishops were still debating which texts would carry authority as part of the ‘Canon’ (literally, ‘measuring-stick’), the standard against which new ideas and teachings would be judged.
A thousand years before the rise of print, each new book had to be hand-copied by a scribe, and this meant books were rare and expensive. Each church made its own collection of individual gospels and letters. The New Testament did not exist as a single bound collection until the fourth century.
In the early centuries, many communities accepted stories which were later classed as non-canonical or even heretical. But the new fragment is far too brief to allow assessment of its theological point of view.
* Kate Cooper – Prof Ancient History, University of Manchester, Courtesy BBC