Thursday, September 27, 2012

Jesus' Wife

I have no dog in this fight, but ...

By now you're familiar with the news story about a 4th century papyrus fragment which has been translated as having Jesus say, "My wife ...."  Whatever he said about "his wife" is unknown, because it's just a papyrus fragment, and the rest of the document is probably dust now.

I've read quite a bit about the early years of Christianity, and I know enough to say there were all kinds of Christians who believed all kinds of stuff about Jesus in those days, quite a bit of it ridiculous. (And quite a bit of the ridiculous stuff got into the main narrative.) This papyrus fragment, if authentic, means no more than there was somebody in the 4th century who thought Jesus had a wife.  [It could mean less. See Jon Stewart's riff on that.] And that's all the scholar who announced it claimed.

So it seemed kind of silly to me that the Vatican has (predictably, I guess) overreacted to the story.

But there was a section of the Washington Post story about this brouhaha that caught my attention. I'll quote a long section of the article to put it in context:
[Harvard scholar Karen] King has said the fragment doesn’t prove Jesus was married, only that some early Christians thought he was. She has acknowledged the doubts raised by her colleagues and says the fragment’s ink will be tested to help determine when it was written.
Some scholars attending the conference questioned the authenticity of the fragment, noting its form and grammar looked unconvincing and suspicious. Others said it was impossible to deduce the meaning of it given the fragmented nature of the script.
Camplani, a professor at Rome’s La Sapienza university who helped organize the conference, cited those concerns and added his own, specifically over King’s interpretation of the text — assuming it is real.
Rather than taking the reference to a wife literally, he wrote, scholars routinely take such references in primitive Christian and biblical literature metaphorically, to symbolize the spiritual union between Jesus and his disciples.
The absence of any reference to Jesus being married in historic documents “seems more significant than the literal interpretation of a few expressions from the new text, which by my reading should be understood purely in a symbolic sense,” he wrote.
Camplani nevertheless praised King’s academic paper on the subject as scientific and objective.
Maybe, instead of routinely taking "such references in primitive Christian and biblical literature metaphorically,"  scholars should take such references on a case-by-case basis. It would make them better scholars.

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