Did Jesus Have A Wife?
Yesterday a friend emailed me the following news story:
The word in question is hime, a spelling variation of shime (the "s" sound is pronounced separately "s-hime".) It means "woman" or "wife" or "wave on the ocean". It is followed "of" and the first letter of another word. The rest of the sentence has been lost but it probably modifies or comments on the word hime. (It would be nice to have it.)
We do not have a full chain of custody for this papyrus (i.e. we cannot follow who has owned it ever since it was found) nor do we know who found it, when, or where. (If it had been found in an archaeological dig we would likely have the rest of the book it came from and some context or further information about that book.)
It makes me nervous that this business card sized scrap of papyrus has not been tested in a lab or carbon dated. There are a small number of people who could have faked this but grammars and the main dictionary for this language are available for free online and every year a small number of universities train students in this language. I worry very slightly when a papyrus that seems to say 'Jesus had a wife' ends up in the hands of the one leading scholar most open to the idea. According to news reports, some specialists in Coptic Egyptian (the language of the papyrus) express unspecified doubts about the correctness (or authenticity?) of its grammar: Dr. King believes it is an ancient document because of its grammar, the wear to the ink and papyrus, and the presence of ink on the frayed edges of the scrap.
Dr. King does say that this is part of a later Christian conversation about marriage (a topic Christians argued about as early as the letters of Paul) and should not be taken as a record of an actual conversation between Jesus and his disciples. She thinks the "Mary" mentioned in the previous line (look for Mariam in the text: the Coptic letter r looks like p and the m looks like a blot on every copy of the photo I have been able to find) is "Mary Magdalene". There are 7 women named "Mary" in the New Testament (and more if you include all of early Christian literature) and I do not see any "Magdalene" in these 8 lines. (There are some words on the back of the scrap but they are almost too faint to read.)
Dr. King points to the Gnostic gospels the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Philip and the Gospel of Thomas as support for the idea that Mary may have been Jesus' wife. The Gospel of Mary casts Mary as Jesus' most trusted and loved disciples (like the Beloved Disciple in the Gospel of John or Thomas in the Gospel of Thomas) but what we have of the Gospel of Mary does not say they were married. The Gospel of Philip says "Jesus often kissed Mary on her [there is a hole in the text]": plausible options range from "foot" to "forehead". The Gospel of Thomas portrays Peter as wanting Jesus to expel Mary and Jesus declines; it does not say the two were married. (In the Gospel of Thomas it is Salome who says Jesus has laid down on her "bed" or perhaps "dining room couch" (think of a Roman banquet)). I have nothing against the idea that Jesus might have been married: most Jewish men who grew up in small villages in the Roman Empire were married by the time they were adults. However early Christian literature, Biblical and non-Biblical, mentions no wife (and no Jewish or Roman source does, either.)
This scrap of papyrus (dating from perhaps 220 years after Jesus' lifetime) may be the first exception: I would like to see the results of lab tests, first.