Thursday, September 20, 2012

Mrs. Jesus?

The story, of course, is made for sensational headlines: an ancient fragment of papyrus is revealed with Coptic text containing the phrase, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife ...’ ” Enigmatically the sentence breaks off there. Debate about whether Jesus was married has occurred throughout church history, revived most recently by Dan Brown’s fictional bestseller The Da Vinci Code.  Does this discovery help resolve that question?

While journalists had to raise the issue, the stories I read all dutifully reported the judgment of the eminent Harvard scholar, Karen King, who disclosed the finding: No. The fragment does tell us interesting things, however. It comes from a time almost certainly two or more centuries after the time of Jesus. It is a testimony, therefore, to a debate still going on in the church over the role of women. It also shows that at a fairly late date the story of Jesus’ life was still fluid, making it possible for writers to creatively build upon the Jesus’ tradition.

The reporting of the story, however, illustrates again how we are culturally programmed to chase after the wrong bus. A century after Albert Schweitzer coined the phrase we are still in our quest for the historical Jesus, a Jesus we will never find. Was Jesus married? Did he have children? Did he go to India? Was he really a space alien? Pick any scenario you like or make up your own; we will never be able to say what is true and what isn’t.

The reason for this is that there simply is no reliable evidence with which to make such judgments. Jesus (like all other the ancient founders of the world’s great religions) is like the Big Bang of contemporary cosmology. He is the beginning point of the Christian “universe,” the place where its historical lines of development converge. Yet while historical Christianity is real, we can only infer Jesus as its origin. Or rather, “Jesus” is the name we give that starting point. As to reliable witnesses to that event and his life, we simply have none. No one saw it; no one knew him. All the testimony we have is after the fact and with an ax to grind.

In trying to shape the story that would be told about her revelation, Prof King told reporters, “At least, don’t say this proves Dan Brown was right.” Which is true, of course, yet also misunderstands what Brown was about. For what he was doing is really no different than what the anonymous creator of this fragmentary tale was up to, or all the other ancient creators of the Christian tradition were up to: telling a story with a character named Jesus.

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