A few days ago, news flooded the media about a newly discovered ancient manuscript that says Jesus had a wife. Such a finding—if genuine—would of course overturn some things we thought about Jesus and various practices that stem from His celibate life (e.g., the celibacy of Catholic priests). But before you go and throw away your New Testaments, we should understand a bit more about this manuscript.
In size, “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife,” which is what scholars are calling it, is about the size of a credit card and contains just a few words on front and back. In all, here’s what the text says:
1 ] “not [to] me. My mother gave to me li[fe…”
2 ] The disciples said to Jesus, “.[
3 ] deny. Mary is worthy of it[
4 ]……” Jesus said to them, “My wife . .[
5 ]… she will be able to be my disciple . . [
6 ] Let wicked people swell up … [
7] As for me, I dwell with her in order to . [
8] an image [
1 ] my moth[er
2 ] three [
3 ] … [
4 ] forth which … [
5 ] (illegible ink traces)
Of course, line 4, which says: “Jesus said to them, “My wife…” is what’s stirring the pot. Now, I’m not sure if this is a slam-dunk for you, but my initial reaction was that I thought it was a bit anti-climactic. There’s no context, no explanation, not even a complete sentence. In fact, we don’t even know if Jesus went on to say, “My wife is the Church,” or “My wife, if I had one, would pay closer attention to the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, rather than small little manuscript fragments!” We just don’t know what Jesus went on to say.
Okay, so you think these alternative endings to the sentence are a bit far fetched. Perhaps. So let’s ask the question about whether or not this manuscript reflects the actual words of Jesus. Now, this is something you may not hear from the armchair theologians who have read too many Dan Brown novels, but most scholars—even more liberal ones—don’t think this manuscript records the actual words of Jesus. Harvard Professor Karen King, not your poster child for Evangelicalism, was the one who translated the manuscript and even she said that, “this [manuscript] does not say anything about the historical Jesus.” In fact, the manuscript is written in Coptic (an Egyptian form of Greek with a few extra letters) and Coptic wasn’t around until the 3rd century A.D. But based on the type of Coptic it was written in, scholars who specialize in this sort of thing say the manuscript dates to about the 4th century A.D.
4th century! That’s 300 years after Christ. If we were in the court of law, I think the judge would deem more accurate the 4 gospels written within decades of Jesus’ death than a fragment of a manuscript written over 300 years after Christ died. Now, of course this fragment could have been a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of a much older original manuscript that was written closer to Jesus’ time. But this is pure speculation. All we know is that what we have in our hands is a fragment that dates to the 300’s.
Moreover, its language (Coptic), the location where it was found (Egypt, no doubt), and the bits of information we have in the text, all show that “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” belongs to the corpus of literature penned by the Gnostics—a heretical sect of Christianity, whose teachings are far from what we find in the New Testament.
Did Jesus have a wife? No. Or at least, there’s nothing in the most reliable accounts of Him (the four gospels) that say He did. Did a Gnostic sect living hundreds of years after Christ, who deviated from several fundamental truths about Jesus (e.g., His genuine humanity), think Jesus had a wife? Perhaps they did. It’s this belief that was discovered a few days ago. Nothing more.
For more on the so-called “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife,” see the following: