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.