Today the Boston Globe and New York Times shared a new discovery online. It is a small piece of papyrus, about the size of a business card, that seems to date to fourth century Egypt. On it are printed words attributed Jesus Christ: he speaks of his "wife" and says "she will be able to be my disciple." In the text Jesus also refers to his mother who "gave to me life" and he uses the name "Mary." Because the artifact is fragmentary, it is unclear if "Mary" is used in reference to his mother or wife (possibly Mary Magdalene). The context of the fragment is unknown.
It was in 2010 that the anonymous owner of the papyrus contacted Prof. Karen L. King, of Harvard Divinity School, and asked her to study it. She is now presenting initial results of her work at a conference in Rome. Although authentication continues, it is believed that the papyrus is ancient and the grammar seems consistent with early Coptic texts (the form of Egyptian language first used during the time of the Roman Empire). If proven authentic, it will be the earliest known document to suggest that Jesus of Nazareth was married.
Dr. King has titled the fragment The Gospel of Jesus' Wife. She believes that the artifact may be a hand-written copy of an earlier work from the second century, given its similarity to other texts of that era. By contrast, the canonical gospels included in the Christian Bible date to the first century. The earliest is the Gospel of Mark, probably written about the year AD 70.
Does this discovery prove that Jesus was married as some, like Dan Brown of The Da Vinci Code fame, have suggested? No. It doesn't and it can't. The gospels included in the Bible are more ancient, much more reliable, and remain entirely silent on the question of Jesus' marital status. For whatever reason, this apparently was not a concern for the earliest Christians. However, if this text is as ancient as believed, it testifies to the fact that within segments of the (later) early church community some followers of Jesus had come to believe that he was married and that women could be considered disciples. Other, more dominant early Christians did not share this belief, or at least they did not write about it.
Besides being of historical interest, this discovery is relevant today as churches grapple with the issue of women serving in leadership positions. For some, like the Episcopal Church, as well as the larger Lutheran, Methodist, and Presbyterian denominations in the United States, the issue is settled and women serve in all capacities (although, debate continues among our international partners). In fact, many of my own mentors in ministry have been women priests and I was ordained to the priesthood by a woman bishop. But in other denominations, ordained ministry is limited to men, usually on the grounds that Jesus only called male disciples. Furthermore, the tradition of a celibate priesthood is often supported by the belief that Jesus himself was not married. Thus, this discovery has the potential to spark new debate about the place of women in Christian discipleship and leadership, both in the ancient world and today. However, given its still uncertain authenticity and fragmentary nature it is unlikely to influence policy any time soon. Nor probably should it, except as a small part of much broader conversations about the diversity of the church's practices and beliefs, both historically and now.
The fact is, we do not need a tiny fragment of papyrus to know that women have always played a central role in the Christian community, whether ordained, called "disciples," or not. In reading the Bible we learn that women supported the ministries of Jesus and the early church financially. More importantly, we read that while Jesus' male disciples often failed to understand his teaching and abandoned him as he was crucified, the women who followed him were steadfast, keeping vigil at the foot of the cross. What's more, it was they who first discovered the empty tomb on Easter morning and proclaimed the resurrection to the male disciples. Women became the apostles to the apostles: preaching, teaching, and sharing the Good News. Countless women, both lay and ordained, undertake that same apostolic ministry today. For their faith, witness, and discipleship I am very thankful.
© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell