When I took a class at Harvard Divinity School, I remember students referring to Professor Karen King as an expert on early Christianity and Gnosticism. She had recently arrived as Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History (1998 – 2008) before succeeding Harvey Cox in 2009 to become the first woman appointed to the Hollis Chair, the oldest endowed chair in the United States (since 1721).
These days Karen King is probably most famous for her discovery of a papyrus from a fourth-century dialogue between Jesus and his disciples. In it, Jesus speaks of “my wife.” According to Professor King in a video posted to Harvard’s YouTube channel, “The most exciting line in the whole fragment…is the sentence ‘Jesus said to them [his disciples], my wife…” The next line of text reads, “She will be able to be my disciple.”
King has emphasized that the new discovery “does not provide evidence that the historical Jesus was married.” However, she writes, “the fragment does provide direct evidence that claims about Jesus’ marital status first arose over a century after the death of Jesus in the context of intra-Christian controversies over sexuality, marriage, and discipleship.”
I want to be careful here. In my limited experience doing research, I have sensed the joy of discovering an unexpected piece of evidence. It’s a rush. I also want to show proper respect to Miss King. But there is something about the above picture that is deeply troubling. If I blur my eyes, it appears to be a woman looking affectionately into the face of a baby, perhaps a grandchild. But it’s nothing of the sort. It’s a piece of Coptic writing that purports that Jesus had a wife.
All of us have awkward photos. And in this election year, we are keenly aware of how such images can be used as weapons. I don’t want to perpetuate the trend, so let me take the focus off of Professor King and put it on myself. I am challenged to look soberly into my own soul and consider what I’m holding up before my eyes to gaze upon with affection. Where have I supplanted the supremacy of Jesus in exchange for some part of his creation? The words of Greg Beale come to mind at this point: “Whatever we revere we will resemble, either for restoration or for ruin.” God help us.
The snippet contains only a few words. It could just as easily be a section from a larger text describing why Jesus had not, or could not, take a wife. I watched an interview with an expert in the field who was highly sceptical of the fragments age and origin. Given that Jesus knew what he had become incarnate to accomplish, it is highly unlikely that he would have purposefully left a widow and orphan behind. It simply makes no sense at all.
I like this quote from Sibbs, it is a very Catholic view:
“The Lord’s supper is a sacrament of union and communion. Hence it hath its name; and by receiving the sacrament, our communion and union with Christ is strengthened. What a comfort then is it to think, if I have fellowship with Christ it is sealed by the sacrament! When I take the bread and wine, at the same time I have communion with the body and blood of Christ shed for my sins; and as Christ himself was freed from my sins imputed to him, and by his resurrection declared that he was freed, so surely shall I be freed from my sins. So that this communion, taking the bread and wine, it seals to us our communion and fellowship with Christ, and thereupon our freedom from sin and from the law, and sets us in a blessed and happy estate. We should labour therefore by all means to strengthen our union and communion with Christ; and amongst the rest, reverently and carefully attend upon this blessed ordinance of God, for the body of Christ broken doth quicken us, because it is the body of the Son of God. ‘My flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed,’ John 6:55. And he calls his body broken the bread of life.’ Why? Because it was the body of the Son of God, ‘who is life,’ John 6:35. “
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