A compelling article in the New York Times tells of a Harvard professor of divinity who has found a snippet of an ancient manuscript that quotes Jesus as saying, “My wife….”. What makes this so intriguing is that the piece of paper containing these words is torn and the rest of the sentence is lost. The piece of papyrus is small (about the size of a business card) and also contains another equally compelling fragment: “she will be able to be my disciple.”
Karen L. King, the professor who has revealed information about the text, says that it has been verified by “experts in papyrology and Coptic linguistics” to be most likely legitimate, although the manuscript has not undergone carbon testing because it damages the material, but it will be submitted for spectroscopy which can be used to approximate its age.
Besides the tantalizing fragments about this mystery woman, what struck King as significant were other words in the text about Mary, Christ’s mother: “My mother gave to me life,” and “Mary is worthy of it.”
It would seem that this small piece of material was cut up from a much larger document and sold in pieces. As the writing in Coptic appears to come from a few centuries after Jesus lived, it was perhaps copied from some other earlier text. It does seem to the small group of experts to be authentic, and they base this on the supposition that “it would be impossible to forge,” according to AnneMarie Luijendijk, an associate professor of religion at Princeton University.
Dr. Roger Bagnall, director of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, at New York University, said, “It’s hard to construct a scenario that is at all plausible in which somebody fakes something like this. The world is not really crawling with crooked papyrologists.”
So, if this is a valid artifact, what are its implications regarding Jesus? I believe it shows a distinct possibility of a more dynamic and pertinent role for women in the church as foreseen by the founder of Christianity, Jesus Christ himself. It has long been debated about the nature of celibacy and the exclusion of women from the priesthood, but this little snippet of material opens the conversation once again.
In a discussion I had once with a rabbi about Jesus, the man observed, “Jesus was a good Jewish boy.” In retrospect that comment may have been on target more than the rabbi realized. Jesus did embrace his faith, loved his mother, and one would suspect lived his life faithfully according to the scriptures he knew so well. Consider this quotation from the Book of Sirach 1:4 in the Old Testament:
Blessed the husband of a good wife,
twice-lengthened are his days;
A worthy wife brings joy to her husband,
peaceful and full is his life.
The scriptures as Jesus knew them were filled with directions to marry, beginning with Adam and Eve, whom God told to be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 1:28). Is it so incongruous for us to believe that Jesus, a man so filled with love in every way, would not have loved (and wanted to love) a woman fully as his wife, fulfilling the scripture as his Father would have all men do?
In a romantic, and perhaps silly notion, one may suspect that he married Mary Magdalene (though King disregards this theory outright). The film Jesus Christ Superstar certainly made an impression on me as a boy, and who could not believe that this Mary did not love Jesus fully and as a woman should love a husband after seeing and hearing Yvonne Elliman sing, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”?
As someone who was raised Catholic, I have long seen the power of women in the church. Sometimes, where a man could not or would not tread, a woman blazed a trail that brought faith and hope to people (think Mother Teresa). But even in less celebrated ways, I have seen many nuns (and other women) doing extraordinary work, much of it difficult, demanding, and sometimes dangerous. They were not only saving lives but carrying on the work of Jesus himself, the same exact work one would expect of priests as direct followers of the first Apostles.
It is hard to believe that Jesus would not have valued the contribution of women to his church. We do not question his love for his mother, and the church itself has glorified Mary beyond humanity into being known as “the Mother of God.” In keeping with that scenario, how and why women could not celebrate Mass and become priests is a mystery to me, since a woman gave birth to one of the Trinity in human form.
Perhaps this fragmentary document attests to a different early church that was closer to what Jesus envisioned. What if the twelve Apostles were not the only ones present at the last supper? What if Mary Magdalene, his mother Mary, and other women whom Jesus loved were also there? Would not this truly first Communion be meant for them all to go out and share?
Of course, even more compelling is the idea of Jesus having a wife. We know from the scriptures that Simon Peter was married, and that did not preclude Jesus from making Peter the Rock, on which he would build his church. Perhaps this is more understandable if Jesus had a wife of his own and knew full well that his ministry could be attended to by married men from personal knowledge.
When Jesus is being led to the his death, what is most salient is that his male followers are almost nowhere to be found. Peter denies him three times, and the rest are all off hiding, except for John. Who are the people who show their support, who lines the streets crying for Jesus: the women of Jerusalem. The traditional Stations of the Cross remind us of the weeping women, of Veronica who wipes his face, and his mother and Mary and Mary (wife of Clopas) who are there at his feet as he dies on the cross. This is a powerful indication that these women were not only brave and loyal but also an integral part of his ministry.
I am not certain about this found fragment, and we always have to be skeptical about things like this; however, its very existence opens up possibilities that are there to be studied and questioned. What true role did women play in Jesus’s plans? If more can be revealed about their importance to Jesus in his vision for the church, and even if eventually it can be known for certain that he took a wife and intended for her to be one of his “priests,” modern church leaders will have to confront the nature of women in the church from the very beginning. They will also have to reevaluate the dominance of males in a church that just may have been intended to have power equally distributed among men and women.
If all of this can lead to the eventual ordination of female priests, and the permission for priests male and female to marry, it may not just be the start of a new era in the church, but a returning to what may have been the essence of the first century Christians who endured everything for their faith in Jesus. It may also open up the church to a whole new constituency, one that will embrace it as fervently and passionately as those early Christians who went out and literally changed the world.
Photo Credit: Karen L. King