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Media Hype Scrap of Papyrus Claiming Jesus Had a Wife

Ignores research interests of professor making claim, and basic factual evidence.

Does one fragment of papyrus “about the size of a small cellphone” contradict centuries of Christian tradition that hold that Jesus was not married? The credulous news media seem to think so – they are publishing stories with titles: “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife,’ “New Early Christian Text, Indicates Jesus May Have Been Married.”

The New York Times reported that a scrap of papyrus “smaller than a business card,” translated by Harvard professor Karen King, includes this phrase: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…’” The rest of the papyrus was cut off – but it was apparently enough for media outlets. CNN’s Belief Blog, the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, and numerous other outlets blared headlines questioning Jesus’ marital status, including: “Text Reignites Debate: Did Jesus have a Wife?”

These outlets downplayed the fact that the papyrus fragment in question (which some scholars have questioned the authenticity of), in King’s judgment, dates from the 4th century, and that Jesus lived in the 1st century. They also failed to mention that there are several places in the New Testament where the church is referred to as the bride of Christ.

Despite these inconvenient facts, media outlets trumpeted the fragment, which King brazenly called “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.” The Washington Post’s Jeannine Hunter wrote:The news reignited debate about scholarship focused on Jesus’s marital status and the veracity of early church documents.” The Huffington Post’s Jaweed Kaleem went even further, speculating: “A discovery by a Harvard researcher may shed light on a controversial aspect of the life of Jesus Christ.”

The New York Times reported King’s words: “This fragment suggests that some early Christians had a tradition that Jesus was married. There was, we already know, a controversy in the second century over whether Jesus was married, caught up with a debate about whether Christians should marry and have sex.”

But King appears to be confusing orthodox Christianity with Gnosticism, a loosely related group of sects which predated Christianity, fought against early Christians, and taught that “secret” knowledge was necessary for salvation. King failed to note that sects of Gnostics were the opponents of the institution of marriage, not Christians.

King’s conflation of early Christianity and Gnosticism is unsurprising, given the fact that her areas of expertise are heterodox forms of Christianity and “gender studies.” Her bio on the Harvard website states that “Her particular theoretical interests are in discourses of normativity (orthodoxy and heresy), gender studies, and religion and violence.”

Of course, media outlets weren’t quite as forthcoming about King’s research interests. The New York Times article touted King as “a historian who has published several books about new Gospel discoveries and is the first woman to hold the nation’s oldest endowed chair, the Hollis professor of divinity.” The piece also emphasized that King “has written books on the Gospel of Judas, the Gospel of Mary of Magdalan, Gnosticism and women in antiquity” – without making clear the fact that the two “gospels” mentioned were authored by the same Gnostics that opposed Christianity.

King’s has also written several books reflecting her interests in Gnosticism and feminist theology, as her bio notes: “Her books include The Secret Revelation of John; The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle; What Is Gnosticism?; Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity (with Elaine Pagels); and Revelation of the Unknowable God. Other publications include Images of the Feminine in Gnosticism (ed.) and Women and Goddess Traditions in Antiquity and Today (ed.).”

Perhaps willful blindness on the part of the media regarding the papyrus scrap is to be expected; after all, this is the same group that cited The Da Vinci Code to help bash Rush Limbaugh. It may be a deliberate media attempt to attack Catholic teachings, as Michael D’Antonio noted on the Huffington Post: “If Jesus was married, the main spiritual argument for male-only clergy and the celibacy of Roman Catholic priests falls into question.”

Whatever the case, a gullible media hostile to religion has desperately sought to hype two words on a scrap of papyrus in order to attack Christian tradition.