Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Did Jesus Have a Wife?

Well, here we go again! It was on the news when I woke up this morning and its been trending all day. The story says that a document has been found that states that Jesus had a wife. You can find a picture of the fragment here with a (possible) translation and some related Q&A.

The question has been raised numerous times in recent history, most notably surrounding the DaVinci Code craze. I dealt with it then, and still stand by what I wrote. 

So, what shall we say to the "new" report that Karen King has found a document which speaks to this issue again?

1. The document in question is tiny, very tiny, smaller than a business card. The Harvard link above plainly shows that only a few surviving words are found on each line. Therefore to draw ANY conclusion on such sparse evidence requires much reading between the lines, literally! I need to see more than "Jesus said to them, 'My wife ... '" to conclude that Jesus was married. Imagine that we found a similar fragment of John 4:34 that read, "Jesus said to them, 'My food ... '." Could we rightly fill in the blanks with no additional information? We might suggest that Jesus said, "My food consists of fruits and nuts," or "My food was delivered to me earlier today." But, in fact, the completion of that sentence reads, "My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me and to accomplish His work." Is it possible that Jesus could be saying (a la Ephesians 5 or Revelation 19), "My wife is My church"? Certainly, but we are jumping to an unnecessary conclusion, for this would assume that the document is authentic and reports something that Jesus actually said. Additionally, it probably does not escape the notice of those who look at the photograph of the document that there are no marks of punctuation. In fact, in the history of written language, punctuation marks are fairly new on the scene. Those who understand the document to say, "Jesus said to them, 'My wife ...'", have determined where they think the punctuation should go. But what if the words, "Jesus said to them," actually forms the end of the preceding sentence, and "My wife" forms the beginning of a new sentence? That changes things significantly, doesn't it?  

2. If I were to write, "Abraham Lincoln once said that Twitter is the most effective way to stay abreast of breaking news," would you assume from it that Twitter had actually existed in the 19th Century? No, but why not? Because we have plenty of verifiable, historical evidence to the contrary. But is it not possible that I could be referring to some other person named Abraham Lincoln who is alive and well in the 21st Century? Is it possible that there existed some other news source called "Twitter" in the 19th Century? There are more than one way to interpret the words. But, left to the most natural reading of the text, we would immediately discard the statement as false because we know that it does not correspond with actual facts. So, this document says that Jesus spoke of His wife. Is it not possible that someone, writing later, was writing something patently false? Is it not possible that some other "Jesus" is the subject of this sentence? Is it possible that some other translation or meaning of the word "wife" is intended? All of these are possibilities. But I want to focus now on the first of them.

3) This document is purportedly from the fourth century AD. Currently, scholars recognize that the oldest New Testament manuscript fragment available to us dates to the early second century AD. In fact, there are reports circulating presently that there is a newly discovered fragment of the Gospel According to Mark that dates to the first century. Internal and external evidence alike confirm that the four Gospels contained in our New Testament are early, eyewitness accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. There is no report of a married Jesus in any of these documents. So, do we discard these in favor of a fragment that may date three hundred years later than those documents? Beyond this, are we absolutely certain that Karen King's bombshell document is actually from the fourth century? It could be a forgery (dating from any era), or it could be actually quite later. But, suppose it came from the first century. Would that make the statement that Jesus had a wife undeniably true? Let me ask, "Do people write things about Barack Obama today that are not true?" Certainly, they do. So the true test is whether or not the information corresponds with historically verifiable documents. And if it says that the Jesus of Scripture and history was married, then it does not. Even Bart Ehrman, who is no friend of conservative evangelicals, admits, "It's certainly not reliable for saying anything about the historical Jesus."

In essence, this document is meaningless. It doesn't prove anything, it doesn't mean anything, if for no other reason than that it doesn't actually say anything! But there are always going to be folks like Karen King who are looking for what they want to see. As Ben Witherington noted, "She does have a dog in this hunt." She comes at the evidence with a bias, for how else can she draw any conclusion from such a small selection of sentence fragments. Apart from this kind of "tabloid scholarship," this document wouldn't gain a second glance. If the document contained more substance, then it might be useful to demonstrate what some people at some particular point in time believed (falsely) about Jesus, but it cannot be used in any way to prove or disprove something about the actual, historical, biblical Jesus Christ.

No, Jesus was not married. But one day He will be. Revelation 19:7-9 says, "Let us rejoice and be glad and give the glory to Him, for the marriage of the Lamb has come and His bride has made herself ready. ... Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb. ... These are true words of God." His bride will be His church, those who are pledged to Him by faith and sealed by the Spirit, whose covenant union with Him will be consummated for eternity when that day comes. You are cordially invited, not only to attend, but to be part of that marriage ceremony as one of His people, whom the Lord Jesus will take to Himself. 

Again, I would point the reader to my earlier work on this subject

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