By now, most people have probably read or heard about a mysterious fragment of papyrus that has been tentatively dated to the fourth century, and that cites Jesus as speaking the words “my wife.” (See, for example, Lisa Wangsness’s article in the Boston Globe).
I’m neither a papyrus expert nor a Coptic scholar, so I have no judgment concerning the fragment’s authenticity. Instead, I want to sift through the reactions to this discovery and make a few simple observations.
First, although the fragment does seem to refer to Jesus’ wife, it can tell us nothing about whether Jesus was married or single in his lifetime. For this point, I follow Mark Goodacre’s thoughtful response on his blog (see especially his point #3).
On the other hand, the fragment may reveal something about a minority Christian opinion around the fourth century that Jesus had a wife. (I say “minority” because to this point we have very little textual evidence that supports this position, and a wealth of material that affirms Jesus’ life as a single man.) Now, even this suggestion is tentative, because it is exceedingly difficult to tell what the truncated lines in the fragment actually mean in the absence of wider context. For example, the term “wife” can obviously be used metaphorically in the Christian tradition – e.g., the church as the bride of Christ. (Elaine Pagels rightly makes this point in a 9/19 interview on NPR). The possibility that this papyrus demonstrates that some early Christians believed Jesus had a wife, then, is merely that – a possibility. The fragment may be from a “lost gospel” or it may be from a writing designed to undermine traditional Christian teaching (as some scholars take the Gospel of Judas to be): without further evidence, it is almost impossible to tell.
Finally, I think it is worth stepping back and considering the general level of excitement and disdain that tends to be elicited by discoveries of so-called lost gospels or secret gospels. The Da Vinci Code tapped very successfully into a deep suspicion of the church and its traditional teachings, which includes a view of the canonical gospels as ideological products of a church intent on stamping out difference. The canon, however, is a defensible historical and theological entity. This is not to say that canonization was a smooth or magical process. It is to say that the Gospel of Thomas should not be afforded a more charitable treatment than the Gospel of Luke simply because Thomas was excluded from the canon.
For the church, and for scholars attempting to work in that tensive space between academy and church, the canon is not simply a given, it is a gift from a gracious God who has given his people all that they need to live – indeed, more than enough. But we Christians should not fear or disdain fourth-century papyrus fragments any more than we fear the Gospel of Judas. They may not have the words of life for us, but if they reveal more to us about the hopes and struggles of our brothers and sisters in earlier times, than that is a good thing. And if this tiny scrap of papyrus prompts thoughtful reflection in both church and public sphere about Christian approaches to marriage, singleness, celibacy, and our identity as sexual beings, then that, too, is a good thing.