Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Jesus and the Mary Chain: On Jesus' "Wife"

Both how COD is living and his nose is large.
This used to just be the name of a band, and one which Crusty Old Dean listened to back in the day when he thought he was on the edge (it once used to be about the music, even for COD) -- but given the cloudburst of media stories in the past few days, the whole relationship between Jesus and Mary seems to have been thrust back into the spotlight.  Karen King, a solid and renowned scholar of early Christianity, announced her translation of an ancient Coptic text in which Jesus utters the words "my wife"; these words, in conjunction with the fact the fragment also mentions Mary, has put the pop religion sphere into a tizzy, with headlines all over the place on "Was Jesus Married?"

Before he was a Crusty Old Dean, when he was Hungry Poorly Dressed Graduate Student (the night he met the future CODW, Crusty Old Dean's Wife, he was wearing a plaid shirt, striped shorts, and white socks with sandals, a testament to CODW to see inner beauty), he toiled away getting a PhD in the History and Theology of the Early Church.  COD viewed anything written past 451 pretty much not to be worth reading, everything had been done by then and Christianity has more or less repeated a dozen or so theological issues endlessly since then, with only the context changing.  In particular, COD focused on the interaction between "heresy" and "orthodoxy" in early Christianity, and knows the difference between a homoian and a homoiousian and a homoousian, between Arians and Neo-Arians,  between Sabellianism and Modalism and Samosatism, and precisely what is meant by Commisariat (look it up:  COD's dark secret is he likes light opera).  Many if not most Christian expressions like to believe they best represent the Christianity taught by Jesus and exemplified in the formative and authoritative early centuries, from Roman Catholics (Jesus appointed Peter as his successor!) to Baptists (Jesus argued for believers baptism!) and so on and so on.  The reality, as anyone who sits down and actually reads the Bible or studies the first 300 years of Christianity, is that the movement was complex, diffuse, and extraordinarily diverse, and marked by localism and regionalism.  The reality is also how precious little we can actually know:  what we know is defined by whatever sources we have, and many of these sources are fragmentary.  One of COD's professors once refused to refer to the "Dead Sea Scrolls" and instead regularly referred to them as "Dead Sea Scraps" since a good portion of them are bits and fragments.

So COD knows a thing or two about early Christianity.  His response to Dr King's announcement was, more or less, "Meh."  COD gives it a "meh" for a couple of reasons.

1.  In situ.  There's a fancy archaeological expression called "in situ" which means "in place" or "in position" and which describes where any given item has been found.  This is enormously important.  Finding an inscription that says "Jesus' mother wears army boots" would mean a lot more if found in an excavation dating to 1st century Jerusalem rather than an excavation of, say, 10th century Spain.  This is why the Dead Sea Scraps were so important:  we know where they were found, meaning we can know they are more or less from a certain community in a certain time.

We know nothing about this fragment, where it came from, where it was found.  COD is extremely suspicious when mystery patrons suddenly produce spectacular finds but we know nothing about who they are or where the object came from.  The same folderol surrounded the supposed box which contained the bones of James, the brother of Jesus -- it appeared out of nowhere and was a mini-sensation in 2002, and later its owner was convicted of forging the inscription.  COD is not accusing anyone of forgery, only making two points:

--Without the in situ knowledge of this piece, we are extremely limited in what we can say about it.
--Mysterious origins do not have a good track record in archaeology, and can be linked with forgery and theft.

2.  Then there's fragmentary nature of the text itself. 
 Here is the actual translation, from the Harvard Divinity School website, with "..." indicating the gaps both between the words and where other parts of the text have been ripped away over the centuries, since this is just a small piece of a larger document:  
         Not [to] me. My mother gave to me life...The disciples said to Jesus...deny...Mary is worthy of      it.    Jesus said to them, “My wife....she will be able to be my disciple...Let wicked people swell up...As for me, I dwell with her in order to...

Given the fragmentary nature, this lends itself towards projection of meaning.  Jesus could very well say something along the lines of, "Since my wife is not Mary she will be able to be my disciple", drawing an explicit contrast to the fact Mary is worthy of something precisely because she is not related to Jesus (the guy loved to set up rhetorical contrasts and contradictions and use hyperbole to make a point).  The actual meaning could be the exact opposite, or completely different, from what we could conjecture from this scrap.

3.  Perhaps more importantly, Who cares if he does say Mary is his wife?  Friends, Christians said some crazy s**t in the early church.  We have copies and fragments of numerous Christian communities who wrote all sorts of stuff.  One text likens the creation of this broken, fallen world as not being the product of a good and loving God but a miscarriage by an inept, secondary divine being.  Another has the empty Cross talk to the disciples.  Another has an infant Jesus strike one of his playmates dead, and then curse the child's parents with blindness when they complain to Jesus' parents.  And not just Christians!  In an anti-Christian Jewish text, Judas is a hero who debunks Jesus as a quack and charlatan, and both fly into the air and engage in aerial combat, and Judas defeats Jesus by either urinating or ejaculating on him (I am not making this up).  

If, in the rest of this fragment we can't see, Jesus busts out a verse from The Humpty Dance and says, "I once got busy in a Burger King Bath room" -- so what?  It means nothing other than a fragment of a Coptic text in the fourth century by a group we know nothing about put words in Jesus' mouth centuries after he actually lived and had Jesus say something like this.  It would only tell us what a certain community at a certain time said.

4.  In the end, like most popular forays into the early church, the interest and reaction to this will be a cipher that tells us more about ourselves and our contemporary society, and what we project back into the past, than anything else.  This is a business-card sized scrap of a document, with significant gaps, and we have no knowledge of the context of its finding -- essentially rendering the context or meaning almost intelligible.  The sheer amount of energy expended on it in popular media will be more a reflection of our religious culture wars (egg headed academic attacking the faith!  a war on Christianity!) or distrust of institutional authority (see! they are hiding something!) or a Dan Brown hangover. 


  1. Thank you COD. Given what the canonical texts have Jesus say about family relations, including the fact that once can become his sister, brother, or mother, the blanks in this scrap could be filled with just about anything, including, for example, "My wife [is she who does my will] and she can be my disciple."

    "Dead Sea Scraps" is very good...

  2. Truly delightful exposition of the situation! And I love the aerial combat scene and now await Hollywood's latest Jesus film.

    Thank you for the calm exposition.

  3. This was my reaction as well, for the same reasons. Unless we found the rest of the document, we have zero context for the scrap in which to interpret it.

    But it also helps that whether or not Jesus had a wife doesn't matter to me, so I'm cool either way.

  4. Great post! I want to check out the aerial combat text. What is it?

  5. It's called The Toledot Jeshu. Couldn't believe what I was reading for time I came across it in a doctoral seminar on Christian-Jewish Relations.


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