Last week, the Vatican published a declaration that the Coptic fragment whose discovery had been announced by Professor Karen King and that seemed to refer to the wife of Jesus was a forgery. The discovery has generated some debate, both among scholars and newspaper readers: 1522 readers commented on one of the NYT articles alone!
This document, a piece of papyrus that appeared on the market years ago and was only this year identified as a fourth century text, refers to ““Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …’ ” It’s small, only about the size of a large business card, but it made huge waves. Was Jesus married? Or not? Was he perhaps married to Mary Magdalen? This discussion, while entertaining, misses the point.
The New Testament discusses the question of marriage and celibacy repeatedly. But, since the early Jesus community was expecting the return of Christ at any moment, this was not a pressing question. Paul seems to indicate that it was preferable to remain single, but if you were married already–tant pis–that was fine, too. It is only in about 150, that Christians began to debate these ideas in earnest, and the Coptic fragment documents this process.
As an institution, the Catholic Church has a particularly vested interest in the question and has stressed the celibacy of its clergy for many centuries now. The discovery of this text does not change this, the contemporary discussions among liberal Catholics, the Church’s stand or the scholarly debate. But the document adds an important voice to the many stands that the Church has taken towards celibacy throughout its history. Fourth century Copts, it seems, or at least some of them, had no problem with the idea that Jesus might have been married.
The Catholic Church, by rejecting this text as a forgery, is missing the point: this text does not claim that Jesus was married, but it shows that celibacy was not universally accepted (not that anyone needed support for this). Alberto Camplani and other writers of the Vatican would do well to welcome the discovery of an additional Christian voice, even if it does not agree with their own opinion. Instead of displaying an almost allergic reaction, the Vatican could have welcomed the find, while still (humbly) insisting on their own, increasingly unpopular, position.
But perhaps there is more going on here.The discussion fits well into the long reclaiming of Jesus as a Jew that has been underway for close to two centuries now. Many Christians are comfortable with the notion of Jesus as a Jew. Where I live, in the Deep South, Christians keep the local Jewish gift shops alive. They purchase tallitot (prayer shawls), and seder plates for their Seder. But just how Jewish could this Jesus be in order to remain Christian, that is, relevant, recognizable, relateable to Christians?
On Tony Jones’s blog, you can find a guest post by Rabbi Joseph Edelheit who suggests that this discovery might open up a new opportunity for dialogue between Jews and Christians. Since many Jews, living as a minority in a Christian (American) environment, describe their religious identity as “not believing in Jesus as the Messiah,” Rabbi Edelheit feels that Jews and Christians might be able to bond in new ways over this discovery. He suggests to stress the bifurcated nature of Jesus in the eyes of many Christians: the human Jesus and the Risen Christ. Christians then could explain to Jews that at the heart of their faith was the Risen Christ, not the human first-century Jesus. And since the former couldn’t be married, neither could the first: “Christians might feel ambivalent about giving up their Jewish roots, but for the sake of honest dialogue it is important to explain that the risen Christ is their salvation and the human Jesus while mysteriously linked to the Messiah/Christ can’t be married according to later doctrine!”
Yet, I agree with Daniel Joslyn-Siemiatkoski that is by no far obvious that Christian faith requires a celibate Jesus. Like Dan, I believe that the ramifications of the Leben-Jesu-Forschung are only now reaching theologians and Christians. Many churches have made great strides in rejecting anti-Jewish teachings and ideas, not least the Catholic Church, and many are rediscovering the first-century Jesus. This is true for scholars of Jewish antiquity, too, of course, and the New Testament has become a source for Jewish practices of the time. But how and whether Christians can harmonize the living human Jesus with the Risen Christ is far from certain, in my eyes. Many ideas are caught up in this: Who is the New Israel? If the Church constitutes a new covenant, what happened to the old one? What is the role of Jesus in this? Is he a great teacher, a redeemer, a redeemer for Christians, or for all, including the Jews? What then happens to those Jews who reject the Risen Christ but have no problem with the living Jesus?
Moreover, I suspect that the debate is so complex because many Jews are uneasy with the growing Christian reclaiming of Jesus the Jew. A Risen Christ is one thing, Christians claiming that Jesus was Jewish another. Moreover, messianic Judaism is a growing religious movement in this country, and most Jews view this development with growing unease and horror. After two millenia in which Jews, as individuals and communities, experienced at times grave disadvantages or were even persecuted for not believing in Jesus, the idea that a Jew might accept Jesus as the messiah is problematic, to put it mildly. If Christians are grappling with the theological notions of Jesus as a Jew, they also have to consider what this rediscovery, exciting as it might be for them, means for Jews.