The case of Jesus’ wife, and why it matters (or not)

Yesterday and today we learnt of some revelation that Jesus Christ was married. This despite any Biblical proof or the overwhelming body of authoritative teaching that He never married. Or did we?

It all started with the conclusions of Dr. Karen King about a small piece of 4th century papyrus which seems to feature a text in which Jesus speaks of His wife. Various media outlets have grabbed on to this to announce that Dr. King had presented evidence that Jesus was married. But the fact is that she did no such thing.

A reading of the outline of her work shows that she limits her conclusions to the existence of some debate in the fourth century about the marital status of Christ:

“Does this fragment constitute evidence that Jesus was married? In our opinion, the late date of the Coptic papyrus (c. fourth century), and even of the possible date of composition in the second half of the second century, argues against its value as evidence for the life of the historical Jesus.”

The fact that there was debate and that differing opinions and belief existed, even in the first centuries of the Church, should be no surprise.  But debate does not validate certain ideas, it doesn’t make them somehow true. And this research does not come out in favour for or against a single idea; it merely describes the contents of the shred of papyrus and draws conclusions from it. Not conclusions about Jesus, but about what certain people wrote about Him several centuries after His death and resurrection.

But would it matter if Jesus was married? The validity of His teachings would certainly not change, but our sense of His historical presence among us would. It would also raise questions. For example, who was His wife, and where did she go? We still venerate His mother and His twelve closest Apostles are rightly considered saints, as are many of His other contemporaries, not least His foster father. Why would His theoretical wife be missing among these?

Christ was not hostile to marriage. He would have had no reason to hide a marriage. The fact that He, and His contemporaries as well, have never claimed that Christ was married would indicate that He wasn’t. We know where and how Christ was born and died, we know where He lived, we know about His social interactions and His reputation among the people, but His marriage would have remained a closely kept secret? That doesn’t make much sense.

And, returning to Dr. King’s work, it seems that debates about this supposed marriage of Christ and some unknown woman flow forth from ideas about the ideal way of life (celibacy or marriage), and not from any lost knowledge.