On September 18th, Harvard Divinity School professor Karen King presented a paper in Rome in which she discusses a papyrus framgent in her possession that seems to suggest that Jesus had a wife. Since then, there have been a number of news stories making claims like: "Proof Jesus was Married," or asking the question "Did Jesus Have a Wife?" From time to time, there will be articles like this that surface which seem to suggest something shocking that would shake the very foundations of Christianity. In the 1990's, the Jesus Seminar (which Harvard Divinity School fueled) suggested that many statements attributed in the New Testament are not authentically those of Jesus. This got otherwise obscure Bible scholars lots of TV time and even cover issues on Time and Newsweek at pretty regular intervals through the 90's. It seemed like every year or other year, Jesus would make the cover of Time with some provocative kind of question: "Who was Jesus Really?"
At the time, Oxford University New Testament Scholar N.T. Wright predicted that the Jesus Seminar would be a footnote in history. And indeed, that has been the case for some time now. In the 2000's, Dan Brown's "Da Vinci Code" (poor writing, but great story--Jamie and I loved it) claimed to a be a realistic novel about the secrets about Christianity and Jesus that the Christian church has been hiding for centuries. The Christian history, the Biblical knowledge, and the art history was riddled with errors and made-up materials but Brown (as a literary device) framed it as real and then declined all interviews.
Now we have Karen King raising the possibility that this is a lost Gospel that claims Jesus was married. To be fair to Mrs. King, she is NOT claiming Jesus was married even if the press is reporting it like that. She knows that she is far away from proving that so she has framed this find in a way that garners the most attention, but which doesn't commit her to declaring it authentic proof of a historical fact: Jesus was married.
A few things believers and non-Believers should know about this:
*This is a very, very small piece of papyrus that we are talking about that has been cut into a perfect square (not a good sign in that it's missing the text around it that would put it into context--and usually pieces like this are not cut into a perfect square).
*The most intriguing part of the papyrus is a comment that reads "Jesus said to them, "My wife." Other phrases are, for instance "deny. Mary is worthy of it...." "The Disciples said to Jesus..." "She will be able to be my disciple." Other sections are even more broken up: "three", "forth which", "my mother."
*The person who owns the fragment and who gave it to Professor King wants to remain nameless. That's not necessarily a deal-breaker but it's not a great sign either. the unidentified owner seems to have purchased it from a collector in Berlin many years ago.
*Professor King's paper got a cool reception from the International Association of Coptic Studies in Rome with the vast majority of scholars doubting its authenticity. There were questions about the handwriting and the grammar by scholars there and beyond the meeting.
*Those who have dated the papyrus suggest it is from a fourth or fifth century text--perhaps a 4th century copy of a 2nd century text. That is quite removed from the time when the Gospels in the New Testament and Paul's letters were written between AD 64 to AD 95 a continuation of the oral stories passed on by witnesses. Those early manuscripts were then defended from new heretical gospels by early Church Fathers such a Irenaeus of Lyon who lived in the early 2nd century---a safeguard against heresy as the original disciples and oral stories and written texts were passed on through time.
*The papyrus has been deemed authentic by a few tests, but it has not been subjected to the latest/best technology for dating.
*There is not enough information in this papyrus to tell us whether this is from a Gnostic text, from a more orthodox group, or from some other non-traditional group.
*Regardless, the papyrus seems to have come from a Century in which many heretical or non-orthodox texts were created.
*Professor King already has pointed out that this papyrus will not tell us information about the historical Jesus rather it is more about bringing to light issues of sexuality and gender in the 2nd Century (This is key!).
*It is most likely excerpts from a gnostic gospel like "the Gospel of Thomas" that we have long known about.
Giving Professor King the benefit of the doubt, it's possible that she was given an ancient papyrus that does contain a section of an alternate Gospel not linked to the historic Christian church. And she did the right thing by letting us examine more in-depth the variety of gnostic expressions that existed in the 2-4th century. By giving her paper the admittedly wrong title of "The Gospel of Jesus's Wife" (there is no Gospel of Jesus's Wife and this is certainly not proof that it's even part of a well-known gnostic Gospel yet), it garnered her (and the papyrus) a lot of attention and raises the profile of Biblical Studies looking into Early Christianity.
Another possibility however, is that Professor King, like the Jesus Seminar, and Dan Brown, has a more political agenda which is to use "scholarship" to raise questions about the institutional church's teachings on orthodox Christian theology and gender and sexuality issues. In other words, "let's not worry too much about authenticity if it can be used to question traditional Christianity's beliefs about itself."
Christians shouldn't fear moments like the Jesus Seminar, the Da Vinci Code, or "the Gospel of Jesus' Wife." At the same time, we need to be aware that our faith is a very well-examined faith and that the burden of proof (in disproving historic Christian teachings about Jesus) is long and steep. At least considerably more difficult than the general media may think.