18 September 2012


Being an atheist, I rarely find much in the world of religion of sufficient interest to comment on.  In today's NYTimes, however, there was an intriguing report fleshing out the findings of Harvard Divinity School professor Karen L. King, who "has identified a scrap of papyrus that she says was written in Coptic in the fourth century and contains a phrase never seen in any piece of Scripture:  "Jesus said to them, 'My wife ... '

"The faded papyrus fragment is smaller than a business card (see image above), wth eight lines on one side, in black ink legible under a magnifying glass.  Just below the line about Jesus having a wife, the papyrus includes a second provocative clause that purportedly says 'she will be able to be my disciple.'

"Even with many questions unsettled, the discovery could reignite the debate over whether Jesus was married, whether Mary Magdalene was his wife, and whether he had a female disciple.  These debates date to the early centuries of Christianity, scholars say.  But they are relevant today, when global Christianity is roiling over the place of women in ministry and the boundaries of marriage."

Indeed.  My own view has long been that Jesus existed as a man, apparently a very good man, but not the son of a deity.  It is a myth which wasn't even written down for several centuries, relying on word of mouth.  Once begun, the writing continued over a period of centuries, undergoing the distortions and internal contradictions inherent in translation from Aramaic to Greek to Latin to several revisions among modern languages.  Like Beowulf and The Iliad, the Bible in general and the Christ story in particular are subject to a wide range of interpretations.  Not the least of the questions raised is whether the events described took place at all, or whether they belong among the lexicon of other mythologies.  (We know that The Iliad, at least, is Homer's telling of a historical event, the Trojan War ~ we remain unsure of the details Homer weaves in.)

All of which raises an interesting thought ~ is novelist Dan Brown's presentation of Jesus's life in the book and the 2006 movie The Da Vinci Code more realistic than audiences imagined?  He posits that Jesus was not only married to Mary Magdalene, she was also one of his disciples, and they parented a family whose descendants are living today.  The tale of The Da Vinci Code is part thriller and part historical detective story.  In the light of Dr. King's papyrus findings, Brown's book and the movie might have more credibility.

There was an even earlier hint at this scenario.  The 1953 novel and the 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ, included a sequence in which Jesus is married.  It turns out to be a dream or a vision, however.  Perhaps writer Nikos Kazantzakis thought the concept too threatening to the religious establishment at the time, and had to content himself with merely hinting at such a radical alternative to the standard narrative.

Being a non-believer, I have no particular investment in the question of Christ being married or not, beyond historical curiosity.  But for many who do believe, the implications of a married Christ on their assumptions about divinity, family, and the accuracy of holy text, are potentially profound.  After all, if the Bible got this simple, fundamental relationship wrong (or if it was intentionally suppressed at some point), what else might be cast into doubt?

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