Overcoming the anxieties of various vested interests, the fragment of the recently uncovered Gospel of Jesus’ Wife now stands in the limelight it deserves. Thanks to the careful scholarship and insightful handling of Harvard Professor Karen King, this tiny, yet juicy, document has been validated by carbon testing as coming from the ancient Mediterranean world. Now the real work can begin.
This work that this ancient fragment occasions needs to be done by both skilled scholars and regular people. With the charges of forgery now behind them, scholars can follow Professor King’s initial wisdom about what the significance of this document is, assess it, and elaborate upon it. This will involve when it may have been originally written, what audience and authorship it may have had, and how it fits into the complex understanding of Christian beginnings.
If it wants, the public can get in on some heavy lifting too. The very significant issues this fragment poses turn out to resemble much that is at stake in our own world right now. Genuine, thoughtful, and heartfelt engagement by all kinds of people can help make sense of the fragment, especially in terms of sexuality issues facing all of us.
First, however, the public needs to navigate the shallow waters around whether the historical Jesus was actually married or not. As Professor King has insisted from the beginning, this stunning fragment which includes Jesus calling a woman “my wife” and “able to be my disciple” will not solve the historical question about Jesus’ possible marriage. The fragment is too small and the question is too complicated to get farther than the many-sided speculations already in play.
For the record, when People Magazine interviewed me and other scholars in 2006 about whether Jesus was married, I suggested strongly that he probably was. I based this on the obvious historical facts about Galilee in the early first century CE. Almost every man was married then. Ancient writers about recognized figures (like Jesus) assumed that everyone had a wife, but almost never mentioned it. There is nothing from first century gospels that says Jesus was not married. And Jesus (in contrast to Paul) never taught that it was better not to be married.
But neither I nor other scholars or novelists will be able to settle this question. And The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, as Professor King has made clear, probably wasn’t all that interested in recording history. Rather this new fragment was “thinking with” the picture of Jesus as married to help its readers deal with particular burning questions of their day.
In her Harvard Theological Review article released this Thursday, King assesses the fragment’s portrait of Jesus having a wife this way: “the main point…is simply to affirm that women who are wives and mothers can be Jesus’s disciples.” King’s generosity and open-mindedness quickly adds that there may be other ways of interpreting the fragment and at this point much is still “tantalizingly open.”
As a scholar of the New Testament and early Christianity, I encourage ordinary people to help in understanding this new portrait of Jesus married to a woman who is able to be his disciple as well. There are two issues where regular people’s experience can help.
First, how do our experiences as women and men today inform and help understand whether women are able to be leaders in the Jesus movements of our day? Or, for that matter, in other important parts of our lives? We, of course, know that this is a raging question in world-wide Christianity, since there are already many women bishops, tens of thousands of women pastors, and millions of other kinds of women leaders in churches around the globe. On the other hand, a number of large and important denominations still forbid women to be bishops and pastors. The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife now accompanies the many different portraits of women in Christendom. Can it also help us think about women as leaders in other parts of our lives?
Second, how do our experiences of marriage and sexuality inform and help understand how to lead? Here too, societies around the world are embroiled in contestation about how our sexual experiences and relationships intersect with capacities to be responsible leaders. Do child-bearing, celibate, heterosexually married, female, same-sex married, male, transgender, and sexually active single people all have the same or somewhat different gifts of leadership? What do our sexualities and gendered relationships contribute to our abilities to lead? The fragment’s picture of Jesus’s mother, Jesus’s wife, and this new Jesus now join us in our unfolding longing for good leaders.
Indeed, this fragment now joins the other fragments of our lives. The tenuousness of marriage and celibacy, the brokenness of family and city, the fragile filaments of government and nation, and many other shards form a very incomplete mosaic. May we not shy away from meaning and inspiration in the fragments in our lives.