Friday, September 21, 2012

Jesus' Wife?

Karen King of Harvard has had an academic paper accepted for publication in the Harvard Theological Review which claims that a fourth century Coptic manuscript fragment (seen left) contains a passage that refers to “Jesus’ wife.” For New Testament scholars, that is not news. However, for the popular media, it’s big news!


It’s not news for New Testament scholars because Dr. King is well known for her “neo-Gnostic” views, popularized in Dan Brown’s novel and movie, The DaVinci Code, which assert that Jesus was married to Mary of Magdala and that the “orthodox Church” conspired to keep that a secret from the masses. The argument, chiefly, is built on two pillars: (1) it was unthinkable for a Jewish man to be unmarried in that culture; (2) there is “evidence” (albeit non-canonical) that Jesus had a relationship with Mary Magdalene which exceeded the bounds of platonism and suggest that he was actually married to Mary. Prior to the publication of this manuscript, the “evidence” was both indirect and allusive. This document purports to be significant because it is explicit and unequivocal; namely, that Jesus had a “wife.”

In response, celibacy and singleness, while unusual in that culture, were not unknown in Jesus' day. One entire Jewish religious community, the Essenes of Qumran (who gave us the Dead Sea Scrolls) appear to have been celibate. Moreover, there is a scholarly opinion that at least some of Jesus’ followers may have been Essenes, at least in part because they shared some affinity and commonality with his messianic Judaism. Of course, there may have been other affinities as well, such as celibacy.

But the chief reason I find these “claims” dubious is that the documents adduced as “evidence” all date from a period significantly later than the New Testament Gospels, and they all have a bias and an “agenda” (Gnostic) to promote.

Our chief witness to Gnosticism (which the Church declared to be a heresy; that is, a distortion and perversion of Christianity) comes from the second and third century Nag Hammadi Library discovered in Egypt in 1945, significantly later than the canonical Gospels which all date from the first century. The most notable document from that collection is the so-called “Gospel of Thomas” which presents a “Jesus” quite different from the Jesus one experiences in the four canonical Gospels. These writings generally reflect a neo-platonic, discarnational version of Christianity unlike the kind of Christianity one experiences in the canonical New Testament and which was, consequently, roundly attacked by the early Church Fathers. The chief characteristics of Gnostic Christianity are these:

  • It promoted an elitist, secret knowledge (Greek, gnosis) as the key to “salvation” understood chiefly as “spiritual release” from the material world.
  • It promoted a Platonic-style spirit/matter dualism, understanding God to have a dual nature as well: both androgynous and spiritual.
  • It advocated a non-moral view of salvation. Salvation was about material, not moral, liberation.
  • It was characterized by a distrust of all external authority, believing that authority was located “within.”

The “neo-Gnostics” of the 21st century (which would include Karen King, Elaine Pagels, and the former Catholic priest, Matthew Fox, to name a few) argue that Gnostic Christianity, far from being a heresy or perversion of Christianity, was actually the authentic expression of historical Christianity but was the victim of “historical revisionism” by the male-dominated Catholic church that marginalized and then expunged all record and references to this “authentic” Gnostic Christianity. Their fundamental values grow organically from those second, third, and fourth century Gnostic writings: salvation as “self-discovery;” a sort of New Age, cost nothing, feel-good, cross-less “spirituality;” and an epistemology that is pluralistic, pantheistic, syncretistic, and revisionistic. Moreover, it is also a thinly-veiled apologetic for a contemporary “goddess cult.” As such, it obscures the fact that historical Christianity is far from the misogynistic religion that Brown and the neo-Gnostics portray it to be! Just compare The Gospel of Thomas, Logion 114 to Luke 8:1-3!

Logion 114 says: “Simon Peter said to them, ‘Mary should leave us, for females are not worthy of life.’ Jesus said, ‘See, I am going to attract her to make her male so that she too might become living spirit that resembles you males. For every female (element) that makes itself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.’” Whereas the Gospel of Luke, chapter 8, verses 1-3, clearly and unapologetically declares that Jesus had women followers (disciples?) numbered among his associates!

In brief, this deconstructionist version of Christianity is so remote and removed from what most people know as “Christianity,” and what can be reconstructed from the historical record, as to be almost complete alien. Indeed, had it not been for Dan Brown’s popularity, we probably wouldn’t be talking about!

But we are talking about it because the media is talking about it. Indeed, one news outlet suggested that pastors are prepping this weekend for a barrage of questions from parishioners related to the story and the allegation that Jesus was married and had a wife, irrespective of the fact that the historical credibility of the claim is dubious at best. The story goes on to say that because the publication of this article by Karen King challenges what most have come to understand as Christianity, and which many will view as an “attack” on the Jesus of the canonical Gospels, pastors had better brace for some pretty hard-hitting questions this weekend. I observe that the story did not suggest that Christians would likely take to the streets to attack those who made such claims. Just saying.

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