An alleged fourth century Coptic papyrus fragment announced by Professor Karen L. King in 2012 contains the words, “Jesus said to them, ‘my wife…’” Recently the fragment, dubbed “The Gospel of Jesus Wife” was declared authentic, which renewed the question whether Jesus actually had a wife.
I think there is a much larger question in play here, and in other instances (remember the Gospel of Judas?) and that is the question of how the Bible became the Bible, or, put another way, where does the Bible get its authority?
For many Christians the question is moot. God is the source of authority for the Bible. Period. And for many the authentic translation of the Bible is the King James Version. Period. And they might be right. It might be true that there really wasn’t an authentic Bible until the early 17th Century when King James 1 authorized its translation. And it may be true that God patiently waited centuries for all of this to happen so Christians would finally have an authentic, authoritative Bible.
But, what if that is not the case?
What if an oral tradition begun five thousand years ago, a tradition of storytelling about a Creator-God that eventually became a community with a particular identity “Children of God?” And what if the stories that were now being written down were written down over a period of a thousand years? And what if those writings went through several editions? And, since there were no printing presses until the 15th Century, were then copied over and over again and even the best copyists made only one error in copying. That is, one error per page.
What if the hundreds of copies of scripture have word choice and grammar differences? And none of these copies were in English?
All of this is true about how the Bible came to be. It’s also true that there are at least 16 other Gospels besides Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Probably more than those as we see with the discovery of the Gospel of Judas and The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.
Which brings me back to the question of Biblical authority. Where does it come from? For me these things are clear. The Bible (what was originally called the “Canon” meaning the “Rule of Faith”) is truly inspired by God. But I would argue most things are inspired by God. That is to say God-who-is-creator brings all things to life. That is another way of talking about inspiration, to “breathe in.” It’s also true that the debate over what constituted the Canon of Scripture for Christians raged for almost 400 years. Then, in 367 c.e., Athanatius declared the 27 book of the New Testament Canon. Along with the already named Canon of the Old Testament we now had a Bible. In Greek. Or Latin. Or Coptic. And eventually in English and hundreds of other languages throughout the world.
It is also clear that the authority of the Bible was given through the human exercise of determining what would be authoritative. With many more choices than what became the Canon it was left to humans to make the determination what constituted Biblical authority.
I’m sure God’s Spirit was right there providing inspiration along the way, but the decision was a ultimately a human one. And humans have recognized the authority of the Bible ever since.
So the question of whether Jesus had a wife, while it might be intriguing or sensational is not something I will get worked up about. Even if it is authentic it is not authoritative. It might help stretch my understanding of how early Christians wrestled with various questions about Jesus and his life, but it doesn’t change that truth that we Christians are called to love God, neighbor and self in ways that reveal God’s life-giving forgiving, reconciling presence in the world.