Welcome to our Wednesday “Ask Beau” post. The purpose of this weekly feature is to provide you, our readers, with biblical responses to questions you have about practical issues that you face.
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On Tuesday the 18th, The New York Times published a story on a Harvard scholar’s discovery of an ancient Coptic papyrus fragment. Though most people don’t really comb the newspapers looking for stories about ancient Coptic texts, this one has garnered much attention because the text in question has Jesus uttering the words, “My wife.” There has been a lot of talk about the story, not all of it constructive. How should we digest this information?
When one looks at the fragment, which is certainly intriguing from a scholarly standpoint, it is important to remember a general principle: knowing a statement’s source and context has much value in determining its accuracy and relevance.
We instinctively apply this principle, though we may have atrophied a bit in its use. If Joe Buckeye posts a chat room statement about the injury status of Carlos Hyde, we appropriately grant the statement less weight than if it had been uttered by Urban Meyer.
Likewise, if we read a Web site about 9/11 written by a fringe group (or Rashard Mendenhall), we recognize that the group, by virtue of being on the margins of opinion, would have to clear a relatively high bar to get us to even consider their arguments seriously.
The problem here is that most people do not have any sense of the source and context of this papyrus fragment. Darrel Bock, a prominent New Testament scholar, offers some very helpful thoughts on the subject in a recent blog post. Let me summarize here some of the most important considerations, in my opinion.
First of all, the New Testament is silent on the issue of Jesus’ marital status, but it is not a neutral silence. Given Jesus’ centrality to the New Testament, it is unlikely that we would have a number of descriptions of Jesus’ relationships, as we do, and yet have no mention of his wife—if He had one. Consider also Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9:5, in which the omission of Jesus’ marital status would be quite curious if He had indeed been married:
Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? (ESV).
Early church tradition and literature stands decidedly against the notion of Jesus having had a wife, also. Bock writes, “[The fragment] is one speck of a fringe text in a sea of texts that say that Jesus was single. It, if authentic, is the exception to the rule of the texts we have about Jesus.”
In reference to the publication of the so-called Judas Gospel some years ago, John DelHousaye, my New Testament professor at Phoenix Seminary, suggested that it might be significant that the text had lain unaccounted for in a desert for centuries. I think that same common-sense test applies here as well. If there really were credible evidence that Jesus had a wife, why are we only now reading about it on a scrap of paper written three hundred years after the time of Christ? This feels a bit like an ancient version of a chat room comment about Carlos Hyde’s knee.
To be fair, the fragment, if shown to be authentic (and assuming that a metaphorical meaning of “wife” was not in use), shows what a fourth-century A.D. group believed about Jesus. It says little if anything, though, about the historical Jesus.
It’s helpful to remember that the Bible, particularly the book of Proverbs, associates wisdom with cool-headedness and thinking before we speak or act. If we are inclined to criticize people for making sensational claims based on a Coptic fragment, let us also turn the mirror on ourselves. Do we speak before thinking? Are we patient enough to evaluate information and not simply Tweet our knee-jerk reactions?
What are your thoughts on this?