The writing prompt in this week’s digest to State of Formation scholars asked, “Does it matter that Jesus may have had a wife?”
I was surprised by the strength of my own response: a gray, hard-as-nails voice that answered, It matters to me.
It matters to me has been running through my head since the existence of this controversial fragment of parchment was made public in mid-September. Hooked as I am on social media, my first inkling of the news was on Facebook. At first it seemed like a joke, maybe an Onion article, and most of the status updates reflected a lighthearted take on the breaking news story: “I’m going to find it hard not to start my next prayer to Jesus with, you dog, you!”
But the story persisted and spread, and I looked up the news articles and had just started to get excited about it when another Facebook friend posted something along the lines of, “So they found an ancient reference to Jesus’ wife. Why doesn’t it matter? Because it was written at least three centuries after Jesus or anyone who knew him personally had lived and died.”
That’s when I felt some bile stirring, and a voice retorted, It matters to me.
It matters to me because I’m a woman in seminary. It matters to me because no matter how many papers I write that use gender-inclusive language and expansive imagery for God, I was raised thinking that God was a man with a white beard, Jesus was a man with a brown beard, and the Holy Spirit was an “it” and occasionally, a dove—and old habits are hard to break. It matters to me because despite the best efforts of feminist theologians, both men and women, it’s still a struggle in Christianity to talk about the relationship between the feminine and the divine—much more of one to talk about it in positive terms. So it matters to me because if Jesus, fully divine and fully human, had chosen to enter into a marriage covenant with a woman, then that’s an inroad into a vision of the divine that includes a female as a chosen partner in a way that the virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, and the long and often unnamed stream of women religious who have come after them in Christianity have not been permitted to fulfill.
And when I say “permitted to fulfill,” I mean it. Take this quote from Tertullian (155-225 CE), an early church father who lived at about the time the text appearing in the recently discovered papyrus is thought to have been composed: “Do you not know that you are each an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the Devil’s gateway: You are the unsealer of the forbidden tree: You are the first deserter of the divine law: You are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your desert even the Son of God had to die.“ (From On the Apparel of Women, Chapter 1, Book 1.)
Or try Augustine (354-430 CE), another venerable church father, who wrote the following in a letter to a friend at about the time to which the papyrus fragment is dated: “What is the difference whether it is in a wife or a mother, it is still Eve the temptress that we must beware of in any woman….I fail to see what use woman can be to man, if one excludes the function of bearing children.“
Over and over again in Christian history, the importance of women has been denigrated and downplayed, most frequently by assaulting their sexual integrity. We see evidence of this even in the way tradition thinks of the women of the New Testament: many Catholics do not believe that the Virgin Mary ever had sex, despite scriptural references to Jesus’ brothers and sisters. Mary Magdalene is portrayed as a whore. So is the anonymous(!) Samarian women at the well in John. Jesus compares the Syro-phoenician woman to a dog. The apostle Junia named in Romans is transformed in many translations to Junias.
So this scrap of papyrus matters to me. I’m not even saying that Jesus actually had a wife (and nor is Karen King, the scholar who published her findings regarding the papyrus). I am saying that, if this fragment is authentic, then it suggests that there was a tradition in the early church that held that Jesus was married.
And if that tradition existed, then it provides another voice among the chorus of the voices that form the early Christian church: a choir that has traditionally been dominated by men, whose song is heavily patriarchal and often misogynistic, and whose harmonies continue to form the basis of most Christian dialogue today. This voice would stand in contrast. This voice would affirm that the institution of marriage is not for those simply not strong enough for celibacy, which has been historically held up as the superior choice. This voice would affirm that there were Christians in the early church who celebrated at least one woman as well as twelve apostles as the intimate companions of Christ.
This voice matters to me. Whatever comes out of this small piece of papyrus, I hope it matters to you to. Whether you are a man or a woman, whether you are Christian or not, whatever or however you think of marriage. Because we are all people, and because we are all equal, and because we are all beloved children of God, I hope that such a voice would speak to you, too.
Image source: James Preston; attribution via Flickr Commons.