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God Squad: Did Jesus have a wife?

I'm sure you've been following the story about a papyrus claiming that Jesus had a wife. What is your opinion?

-- M, via email

In the midst of my intense Jewish immersion in the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it is spiritually balancing to me this week to address the question of whether or not Jesus had a wife.

This high-profile story has surfaced in the normally theologically indifferent general secular press because Karen King of Harvard's Divinity School recently revealed the existence of a papyrus fragment that supposedly quotes Jesus directly as referring to his wife, whom he identifies as "Mary." It is written in Coptic, which was the ancient language of Egyptian Christians and remained so until Egyptian Arabic supplanted it in the modern period. The text in question was supposedly translated from a second century Greek text. This explosive discovery may or may not be authentic. Some scholars think it is and some think it isn't. If it is real, it would cast doubt on the idea that Jesus was celibate and, among other things, would provide scholarly support for Dan Brown's fictional account in "The Da Vinci Code."

In such high-profile stories I think it is often a good thing to have a sympathetic non-Christian weigh in. For Christians to defend Christian beliefs -- like Jews defending Jewish beliefs or Muslims defending Muslim beliefs -- is both expected and unconvincing. I am an outsider to all this, but I have strong opinions that the reaction to this discovery, if not the discovery itself, reveals some serious anti-Christian prejudice.

Leaving aside for the moment the main reason to doubt the authenticity of this papyrus, which is the all-too-common habit of antiquities dealers passing off forgeries as authentic to make a buck, the main problem with the text of this papyrus is that it is simply not supported by the entire New Testament. If Jesus were indeed married, it would have been inconceivable for this fact not to have been mentioned somewhere in the Gospel accounts. James Martin, a Jesuit priest, made this point succinctly in a recent newspaper article: "If I make it to heaven and Jesus introduces me to his wife, I'll be happy for him (and her). But then I'll track down Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, who wrote so soon after the time of Jesus, and ask them why they left out something so important."

I agree. I encounter this very same problem when I engage certain Christians who believe that the coming of Jesus is prophesied in the Hebrew Bible. If that were true, one might expect a definitive reference to Jesus in many places in Hebrew scripture and this also is not so. The suffering servant texts in Isaiah chapter 53 are about the people not a person. The virgin birth of Isaiah 7:14 is, about the birth of a child to a young woman not a virgin.

I understand why some Christians want Judaism to be just chapter one of God's revelation, but that is not how we Jews understand it, and we ought to be able to understand our texts as they are, not as some outside our faith want them to be. For people who want Jesus to be just a person and not God incarnate, it is also understandable but lamentable that they would seize on every opportunity to emphasize his personhood, and thereby diminish his divinity. Perhaps Jesus was just a person, and even I who believe this also believe that Jesus was such a luminous and loving person that he pushed the definition of personhood to its highest limits.

So let us all allow Christians to believe in a Jesus who is also the Christ. They have earned that right over two millennia, and no scrap of pounded-out sea grass can or ought to change that sacred commitment of their faith. Faith emerges from history but it then transcends history. Accepting the faith of Christianity is not an empirical act. It is not like accepting the fact that there is a glass of water on my desk. Faith is a matter of belief, and belief is ultimately a matter of hope -- the hope that we are not alone in an empty, unfeeling amoral cosmos -- the hope that we are loved by a loving God who created all that we know. The claims about Jesus are life-altering articles of faith for Christians. They are not refutable by pieces of paper that will in time just blow away in a cold wind.

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