NOTABLE WOMAN STATS:
Name: ??? (aka “Jesus’ wife”)
Birthplace and date: Palestine, allegedly the first century CE
Occupation/Claim to Fame: Being married to the Man. (Or is that the Son of Man? Or God Himself?)
Her particular importance to Waldorf teachers: Early Christian debates about whether Jesus had a wife are a great way to show our students: a) how diverse the early Church was; and b) how questions and issues from ancient times continue to be pertinent today.
Where she fits into the Waldorf curriculum: Bible as Literature, 10th grade Ancient History, History of Rome (or Middle Ages–whenever you address early Christianity)
If you are going to read only one article about this issue, read: The NPR interview with noted Gnosticism scholar and author Elaine Pagels.
Jesus Just Got Hitched
So, I hadn’t planned on writing about news events in this blog, but come on! Jesus’ wife? That’s too good to pass up.
In case you haven’t already heard the news: the New York Times ran a piece yesterday stating that a piece of papyrus from the 4th century CE describes Jesus as saying the phrase, “my wife.” Unfortunately, the piece of papyrus, identified by Harvard Divinity School Professor Karen King, is a tiny fragment that cuts off the words that came immediately after “wife.” Luckily, there are some surrounding phrases on the lines above and below that might give us an idea of the context for this whole thing. But before I launch into talking about the actual papyrus, let me back up and make a few things clear, most notably, what this discovery does and doesn’t mean, as well as why you as a Waldorf teacher (and/or person interested in women’s history) should care about this news. (1)
First of all, as Karen King herself has pointed out, this does NOT necessarily mean that Jesus was actually married. The papyrus in question was written 350 years after Jesus’ death in a language (Coptic) and cultural context (Egypt) far removed from the Palestine of Jesus’ time. (A quick point of comparison–it’s roughly parallel to someone today in say, France, writing about the Jamestown settlement in Virginia, or Oliver Cromwell’s England.) None of the earliest Christian texts refer to a wife, despite several references to Jesus’ other relatives (mother, sisters, brothers) and references to the various wives/mother-in-laws, etc. of Jesus’ disciples. Of course, we can’t completely rule out that Jesus was married. And it would be pretty cool if we ever did find evidence that Jesus was shacked up. But we simply don’t have that evidence now, even after finding the papyrus. (Sorry, Dan Brown fans.)
However, what this discovery DOES mean is that we now have definitive evidence not just that the question of women in the church was actively debated by early Christians (that, we knew already), but also that the issue of marriage was contested as well. In other words, it is further proof that the roles of women in the early church were much more diverse (and hotly contested) than most people think.
THIS is the point that should interest us as teachers–the variety of standpoints early Christians held on a number of issues that still remain controversial today: whether priests should marry, whether women should be ordained, what women’s roles in and out of the home should be, the role of lower-class people (and even slaves) within the Christian community. For us, the exciting thing about this find is that it gives us more chances to talk about the varied roles of women in the ancient church, and to relate ancient history to contemporary “hot topics.”
OK, now back to the papyrus in question.
The Papyrus: Part of a Gnostic Tradition
The NYTimes article has a wonderful, magnifiable image of the papyrus, along with a literal translation of the legible words. Among these words are a reference to “my mother,” “Mary” (which, obviously, could refer to either Jesus’ mother or to any one of his many female disciples named Mary), “The disciples said to Jesus,” “she will be able to be my disciple,” and “I dwell with her in order to…” Tantalizing, but not enough to really nail down what exactly is going on. Professor King rightly notes that the likelihood is that this papyrus forms a part of a Christian Gnostic tradition that was arguing for greater involvement of women in community life, over and against other communities (including those which eventually gave rise to what we now know as the Catholic church). (2)
Gnosticism is an umbrella term we use to describe a whole range of early communities and texts that eventually wound up outside the mainstream church. (And were, in many cases, brutally suppressed by opposing clergy and bishops once Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.) Gnostics held a whole variety of opinions on everything from who Jesus was, who his closest disciples were, what Jesus taught, whether women should be teachers and prophets, whether God was male, female, or both, and on and on. For a long time we only knew what these alternate versions of Christianity taught by looking at the charges the orthodox bishops leveled against them. (So, for instance, a bishop might say, “And so and so preaches that women should get up and prophesy in the churches! This is terrible for the following reasons….” And that was all we knew about what the alleged “heretic” had said.)
But since 1945, when the Nag Hammadi library (a trove of ancient codices) was discovered in the Egyptian desert, we’ve had access to a number of texts written by the “heretic” Gnostics themselves. Many are fascinating–the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, for example, or the Gospel of Thomas. Many are really tedious (endless catalogues of the different emanations of God as they unfolded at the beginning of time). And many are truly mind-blowing. (If you ever want to trip yourself out sometime, put on some psychedelic music and read the Gnostic text “Thunder, Perfect Mind.” Or go here, to the YouTube video that puts it all together for you, complete with mesmerizing New Age graphics. Or, if you prefer to mix your sublime and ridiculous, you might like this version, in which Prada appropriates some of the most profound and paradoxical theological poetry ever written to sell perfume.)
So in a way, given the diversity of viewpoints contained within the full spectrum of early Christianity (and not just those communities that eventually triumphed to become the church as we know it), it’s perhaps surprising that until now there hasn’t been anything that indicated the existence of a group who thought Jesus was married. The fact that we now have proof that some early-ish Christians thought it was important that Jesus was married, and apparently were making an argument in favor of women’s greater inclusion in worship and positions of authority–all this just reinforces what we were first able to confirm over the course of the 20th century as we began to examine the Nag Hammadi documents. And based on the tiny fragment we have, we can’t rule out (as Elaine Pagels has pointed out) that the word “wife” here is used metaphorically, as is the case in numerous other Jewish, Christian, and Gnostic texts of the time. We simply don’t know enough to make the call.
The Bottom Line for Teachers
Here’s the skinny: Jesus’ wife is likely to remain an enigmatic figure. She is unlikely to have actually existed (though we can’t 100% rule it out, there’s a preponderance of textual and circumstantial evidence suggesting Jesus was unmarried). But what is most interesting about this discovery is how much it resonates with issues that concern us today: the celibate priesthood, the ordination of women, the way in which questions of gender and sexuality can tear apart communities of faith. The wife of Jesus could be a fabulous starting point for discussion of these issues in the classroom. And for those of us who teach the Bible as Literature or Roman History, it’s a good reminder for us to include at least some discussion of non-canonical gospels when we talk about early Christian literature. Many of the gnostic texts, including those that address the issue of Jesus’ wife and female disciples, make a good counterpoint to the sometimes oppressively male characters, stories, and rhetoric of the Old and New Testaments. (3)
Now, just for fun: click here for a running list of the funniest Twitter hashtag posts #IfJesusHadAWife for what Jesus’ wife might have said to Him. My favorite: “Sweetheart, stop ending the meals with, ‘One of you will betray me.’ You’re scaring the kids!”
(1) You may well ask me at this point, who are you to pontificate thus about ancient Christian papyri? Well, let me first give a very large caveat that I’m not in any way an expert in papyrology, and do not intend to weigh in on the authenticity of the papyrus itself. There are others who have done that (and so far, the most scholars who are in a position to judge agree that it IS genuine). However, papyrology aside, I did have the good fortune to do a few years of grad work in early Christianity and gnosticism with Elaine Pagels and John Gager (scholars of Gnosticism and the Greek magical papyri, respectively). So though I’m not a papyrologist, I am generally familiar with the types of documents and communities (early Christian, gnostic groups) that were involved in these early debates about women and marriage.
(2) There are other Gnostic texts (most notably, chapter 9 of the Gospel According to Mary Magdalene) that contain scenes where the disciples are arguing with each other about whether or not Mary is a real disciple and authorized to teach. (For the record, the disciple Levi stands up for her.) And the Gospel of Philip contains a passage that says, “Great is the mystery of marriage!” and also the provocative (even scandalous) assertion that Jesus loved Mary and often “used to kiss her often on the…” (the text breaks off, leaving one’s imagination to imagine exactly which body part they were talking about). Which is all a long way of saying that it’s not unreasonable to suppose that this new fragment might belong to within a larger tradition of Gnostic gospels that address issues of gender and women’s role in community life.
(3) A good starting point for anyone wishing to explore Gnosticism further is Elaine Pagels’ seminal book The Gnostic Gospels. It’s a good sensible look at a whole spectrum of Gnostic texts, and makes an excellent background for further understanding this exciting new discovery.