As some of you may already know, a recent paper about a rather unknown scrap of papyrus, dating from the fourth century and allegedly containing text that might be from the second century, has made some news recently. I paste here a link to some criticism of this fragment and how it has been presented:
[Please note, this is not a plug for “Fox News” any more than I’d offer a plug for MSNBC, ok? Bill O-Reilly and Rachel Maddow deserve their own little island over which to fight, preferably an island no one else would ever think of populating. So please, don’t turn this post into politics. The Gospel cuts through both parties; it is not coterminous with either. Got it? Good, now read on.]
At issue is that we don’t know the provenance, forgeries abound, and other scholars of Coptic and early Coptic Christianity have sincere doubts. I’m not an expert in Coptic by any means. I have published a book on St. Sarapion, an early Egyptian bishop, but he predates the Council of Chalcedon and the turn from writing in Greek to Coptic. So, Greek, yes, I’ll tackle it. Copitc? Haven’t gotten to it yet (though perhaps some day I will).
What I thought was odd about this particular article is that it claimed if we could prove Jesus had a wife or female disciple, it could affect the role of women in the church. Look, there were women who followed Jesus. If you don’t think so, I would ask you to read or reread the Gospels. Second, if a fourth century fragment of a fringe group of Christians or Gnostics claim Jesus had a wife, that doesn’t make it so. One of the problems with much of this is being able to sift through evidence and weigh it out. Christmas is around the corner, so I may well return to this theme (as the History Channel will likely trot out stuff on Jesus closer to that time). All we can say IF this is genuine, is that a group of people, who were likely Gnostics, used this text and believed Jesus was married to a lady. That would be the most it could show. [And here I’m setting aside any symbolic meaning to “wife,” such as the Church.]
So, is this an important find? To the extent that it might show what a small contingency believed in the 2nd to 4th centuries, sure. Just remember always to assess such finds carefully and soberly. Grand sweeping statements about what it might or might not mean for women’s roles in the church (expanding or limiting) based on one mere fragment says more about our current debates and inability to avoid logical errors than it does historical inquiry.
[I begin traveling to the Orthodox Theological Society of America (OTSA) conference this afternoon. I’ll post more on that next week.]