|Anyone who has ever watched “Jeopardy” knows that the list of categories is seemingly endless: from “Starts With ‘M’ ” to that audience favorite, “Potent Potables.”
Well, today I’d like to add “Gnostic Myths for $400, Alex.”
By now, you’ve certainly heard about the fourth-century papyrus fragment in which Jesus purportedly refers to “my wife.” The discovery, which is the subject of an upcoming Smithsonian Channel special, was announced by professor Karen L. King of Harvard.
The papyrus, written in ancient Coptic, is about the size of an ATM card and contains “33 words, scattered across 14 incomplete lines.” The ones that have gotten all the attention, of course, read, “She will be able to be my disciple,” and then “I will dwell with her.”
As “Smithsonian” magazine acknowledges, the fragment “leave[s] a good deal to interpretation.” Uh, no kidding. And as King admits, the fragment doesn’t prove that Jesus was married or anything of the sort. At most, it proves that some people in the ancient Near East may have believed that Jesus was married.
I say “may have” for two reasons: one, the fragment would have to be a copy of an older text and King’s interpretation of “I will dwell with her” as meaning “I am married to her” would have to be correct. But that’s not a gimme, either. New Testament scholar Ben Witherington has pointed out that, for Gnostics, “wife” often refers to a female companion in a platonic, chaste relationship.
Of course, as some suspect, the fragment could also be a modern forgery. It wouldn’t be the first time something like that has happened.
Nor is this the first time that the media has trumpeted a discovery that, in their telling, will “shake the foundations of Christianity.” Mollie Hemmingway at GetReligion.org rightly calls these kinds of stories a “mainstream media holiday tradition.” The only thing different in this instance is that the announcement came in September instead of at Easter or Christmas.
Like the so-called “Gospel of Judas,” there is very little here, and what’s here is the stuff of Dan Brown novels.
Scholars hate it when people draw this kind of connection, but in some sense it’s their own fault. More than any other text, the Gospels are subjected to what the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur called the “hermeneutics of suspicion.”
For most academics, the gap between what the Gospels say about Jesus and what they really mean is virtually unbridgeable. At most, they provide us with insights about the early Christian communities that produced them. What they don’t do, these Academics say, is tell us anything about Jesus’ life, death and physical resurrection. And that, of course, is nonsense.
A similar story line is at work with regard to Church history. In this view, what we call “Christianity” is really the result of a second-through-fourth century power play in which authentic variations of the faith were suppressed by what would become the Catholic and Orthodox churches.
This way of thinking almost requires that every fragment or scrap of paper be imbued with a world-shaking authority. It doesn’t matter that they were written centuries after the Gospels and present a Jesus who is not Jewish in any way, shape or form. All that matters is that they tell a different story from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
The irony is that Christians do believe that Jesus had a wife: Her name is “the Church.” But for many in academia and the media, she is at best, a suspicious witness.
So I’m sticking with my Jeopardy proposal: “Gnostic myths for $400, Alex.”