Did Jesus have a wife? According to Karen L. King, an academic from Harvard, the answer might exist in the fragment of an ancient Coptic manuscript. On this slip of papyrus, Jesus is quoted as saying “my wife,” and because of that, King notes, “this fragment seems to be the first case where we have a married Jesus who appears to be affirming that women who are mothers and wives can be his disciples.”
This story broke in 2012 and was immediately qualified by protests from other academics, who claimed the textual fragment King cited was likely a forgery. These protests arose not because King asserted that Jesus had a wife or that mothers and wives could be disciples but because the text King cited was likely bogus.
However, just in time for Holy Week this year, the pesky “Jesus wife” fragment has reemerged, this time with a verification of the fragment’s authenticity and, with it, a possible vindication for King’s claims. At least that’s what the headlines suggest.
Excited newspapers and websites speculate that if the text is actually authentic, might King’s claims about a married Jesus also be true? Before answering that question, we should add some qualifiers. First, King herself clarified that she never intended to present the fragment as evidence that Jesus was married, but merely as evidence that some Christians may have believed that he was. Second, the fragment’s authenticity, even if it were established, would not mean its provenance is the same as that of the canonical Gospels. King claims her tests show it was written four to eight hundred years after the New Testament texts.
One would think these qualifiers would defuse any controversy, but that hasn’t been the case. Sensational stories have incessantly raved that Jesus had a wife, meaning he likely had sex, thus presenting us with a juxtaposition of two realities that perennially vex and stimulate the culture: religion and human sexuality.
To add more heat to the fire, observers have insinuated that if Jesus was married, it proves he was not who the Church claims him to be. The Church’s privileged authority to interpret Christ’s identity and mission therefore collapses. The Church must have been either misguided about Jesus or, worse, guilty of an intentional hoax. This last possibility has fueled pulp-fiction dreams for decades, from Irving Wallace’s The Word to Hugh Schonfield’s The Passover Plot to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. You would have thought the culture had exhausted this pipe dream by now, but evidently not. The rabbit hole only grows longer.
All of that said, what’s most problematic about this controversy is that it centers on an uncontroversial question. Christians readily agree that Jesus was and is married, and the Church has always presented him this way. However, the real controversy is about who, precisely, his spouse is — and that question has nothing to do with a papyrus fragment.
The texts of the New Testament, which are far older than the “Jesus wife” fragment, make the extraordinary claim that Jesus of Nazareth speaks and acts in the person of the God of Israel. This is the reason the Gospel of Mark testifies that those who encountered Christ were “amazed and afraid,” and it was for this reason that the charges of blasphemy were leveled against him, accusations that led to his torture and execution. The New Testament authors suggest that Jesus’ claim to divinity was vindicated by the extraordinary event of his resurrection from the dead. Jesus of Nazareth simply is the God of Israel, who has come to his people in a manner that took all of Israel, indeed all of the world, by surprise.
The purpose of this extraordinary revelation was to effect reconciliation between God and the people he had chosen as his own. This relationship is identified in the Old Testament as that of a covenant, and the best way to understand this covenant is to look at it as a kind of marriage between God and his people. Or to say it another way, God’s purpose throughout history was to marry his people.
We see this intention throughout the Biblical narrative. It’s evident in the erotic poetry of the Old Testament Song of Songs. It’s clear in the prophecies of the Book of Hosea, in which God desires reconciliation with an estranged wife. The New Testament uses nuptial imagery in presenting Christ as the long-anticipated bridegroom and the Church as a transformed bride, reconciled to her spouse. Finally, in the Book of Revelation, all things come to their fulfillment in the wedding feast of Christ and the Church.
In other words, Jesus, the God of Israel, has a wife. She is just not the kind of wife we might expect. Her identity becomes clear only once we understand who Jesus of Nazareth was and is. Only then do we see that he married the Church, the people of God.
We don’t need a centuries-old fragment to reveal Jesus’ wife, for we can meet her today wherever the Church resides.
— Father Stephen Grunow is the CEO of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.
Editor’s note: This text has been amended since posting.