I had the privilege on May 6, 2016 of moderating a panel discussion at the Lanier Theological Library. Mark Lanier, owner and namesake of the library, was out in California and made a surprise appearance at the end. I guess the winds were in his favor.
The topics were diverse: The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife and the notion of substitutionary atonement in Paul. Those two topics were related only in that our special guest, Simon Gathercole, had written on them recently. We rounded up some usual and unusual suspects for the afternoon’s discussion. Here are the key contributors:
David Capes (Moderator – Dean, Professor of New Testament, Houston Graduate School of Theology, Houston, TX)
Graham Cole (Dean, Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, IL)
Craig Evans (Dean, School of Christian Thought, John Bisagno Distinguished Professor of Christian Origins, Houston Baptist University, Houston, TX)
Simon Gathercole (New Testament Scholar/Teacher, University of Cambridge, England)
David Moessner (Professor, A. A. Bradford Chair of Religion, Texas Christian University, Fort Worth, TX)
The video lasts for 90 minutes but contains a lot of great information on topics related to the New Testament. I’m grateful to Charles Mickey and Brent Johnson for their help that day. Mark Lanier took a big chance getting a non-lawyer to moderate, but I hope he wasn’t too disappointed. I thought it was a good discussion.
Here is a link to the discussion:
Two recent articles appeared in The Atlantic which appear to put the nail in the coffin of the badly named Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.
The first article shows the dodgy provenance (chain of custody) of the piece. It is a bit long but worth the read. You can read it here or here’s the URL to that article:
The second article may be the most important, because in it Karen King, the Harvard scholar who brought the fragment too light and has defended its authenticity, now concedes it is probably a fake. You can read it here or here is the URL:
As Simon Gathercole said to me, now we don’t have to worry about that text. The forged text and our response to it tell us more about ourselves than about the ancient church.
Anthony Le Donne is a young scholar who has tackled some tough subjects. In this particular book he addresses the question recently on a lot of minds: Was Jesus married? The book is entitled: The Wife of Jesus: Ancient Texts and Modern Scandals. It is published by Oneworld Publications in London. The first copyright is 2013 so I’m a bit late telling you about it.
Although the question whether Jesus was married has been around a long time, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code certainly kindled everyone’s imagination. If you’re prone to sensational readings of history and wish to see conspiracies under every rock, then Brown is your guy. More recently ,the announcement and publication of the badly named Gospel of Jesus’ Wife made it a matter of scholarly concern. I’ll have more to say about that later, but what Le Donne has done is to take a controversial subject and make sense out of it historically and socially. Perceptively, he notes that the modern response to the question—whether excitement or repulsion—has more to say about us than it does the historical Jesus. In many ways the question of whether Jesus was married and how we respond to it provide a mirror of ourselves and our times. In the final chapter he writes: “This book, in large part, has been about ancient and modern attempts to project sexual identities onto Jesus” (p. 147).
Le Donne examines a wide variety of texts from the ancient world, accounts about the asceticism of John the Immerser in the NT Gospels to non-canonical accounts which some people take to describe an intimate relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene in the Gospel of Philip. Le Donne reads widely in Greek and Jewish sources contemporaneous with Jesus and in the first half of the Christian century. He seems to be able to argue for it—yes, it is likely Jesus was married as was typical of most Jewish men—and against it—no, there is no solid historical evidence he was married. As a historian, Le Donne knows the difficulty of arguing from the general to the particular. What is true of most people is not necessarily true of a particular person. Though most Jewish men married between the ages of 20 and 30, not everyone did. There was already an impulse toward asceticism and self- denial in Jesus’ day. John the Immerser and the desert covenanters of Qumran appear to offer contemporaneous examples.
Le Donne offers a helpful construct for what was typical of Jewish males in the first century. The term he uses is “civic masculinity”; it represents the gender role most Jewish men would play in their day. It would include things like marriage and having children, working a trade and taking responsibility for one’s economic well-being, passing the faith along, seeking to own and work the land, etc. Jesus, according to Le Donne, may have been raised to accept this role, but he may have subverted it in his public ministry. Jesus , he says, “invested in the two-sided coin of economic disobligation and celibacy.” Such a lifestyle was probably considered “crazy” by ancient standards and “anti-family” by modern.
Mark Goodacre, NT Professor at Duke University, says it well: Le Donne’s book is “a crystal-clear, compelling yet historically robust account of what we can and can’t know about the wife of Jesus.”
Once again the claim is being made that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, and together they had two children. This time the claim is made in a book by the self-described “Naked Archaeologist,” Simcha Jacobovici, and Barrie Wilson, professor of religious studies at York University in Toronto. The book is entitled The Lost Gospel: Decoding the Ancient Text that Reveals Jesus’ Marriage to Mary the Magdalene (HarperCollins, 2014). First, this document has not been lost. The “lost Gospel” is actually a well known novella from the first 500 years of the common era known as Joseph and Aseneth. It has been the subject of hundreds of scholarly articles. It is found in every standard collection of Jewish documents known as the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. Only the Dead Sea Scrolls have been studied more than this collection of Jewish writings. Mark Goodacre, professor at Duke University, hosts a website dedicated to the story. Here is a link to the story:
Here is a link to the Aseneth home page:
Joseph and Aseneth is a story inspired by the Joseph narratives in Genesis (chs 36-50). It’s a story of a Jewish boy who made good because God was with him. On his way to becoming vicegerent of Egypt (that is, second-in-command) he was given many gifts including the beautiful Aseneth. The story of Joseph and Asenath is an account of how they met, how he wooed her, and how they eventually fell in love, married, and had two children, Ephraim and Manasseh. Like Daniel it is a story to inspire Jews to remain faithful to the One, True God when surrounded by hostile forces and “pagans.” Like Ruth it is story that celebrates the conversion of a woman to the faith of Israel. So let’s be clear. It is not a Gospel. It doesn’t claim to be a Gospel or Jesus book of any kind. Simcha and Barrie want us to read it as an allegory. So every time you see Joseph (wink, wink) think of Jesus. Every time the text reads Aseneth (wink, wink) it’s really talking about Mary Magdalene. That’s a load of rubbish or as Diarmaid MacCulloch, an Oxford University professor told the Sunday Times: “it sounds like the deepest bilge.”
There is no credible evidence from contemporary sources that Jesus was ever married. But let us suppose there was married. There is no shame in marriage. The Hebrew and Christian tradition affirm the goodness of marriage as an institution ordained by God. Being married is no sin nor does it disqualify a person from God’s service. Likewise there is no shame in having children. Again, both Hebrew and Christian traditions affirm that children are a blessing from the Almighty! I am no systematic theologian, so I don’t mind being corrected on this, but I see no point of doctrine that would be compromised if it could be proven that Jesus of Nazareth married. Still there simply is no evidence from historical sources that he was.
Scholars have been weighing in on the badly named “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” fragment since Harvard University’s Karen King announced it about 20 months ago. Now after publication in the Harvard Theological Review, closer scrutiny by scholars has almost certainly determined the fragment is a forgery. By whom we do not know?
Fragment containing phrase reference to Jesus’ wife alongside a Coptic fragment (also forged) of GJohn
The most up-to-date presentation of the details can be found on Mark Goodacre’s blog on May 5, 2014. Here is the link:
Forgeries of antiquities are nothing new. A lot of money has been made by creating fake relics and smuggling them out of their supposed countries of origin. Likewise, careers have been made (and sometimes broken) by scholars who discover and argue for the authenticity of new documents, particularly when those documents present information which goes against the prevailing knowledge of a field.
Let’s not be too hard on Dr. Karen King and Harvard University. This is exactly how scholarship is supposed to work. Research is conducted and ideas are put forward by a scholar in a publication. Those ideas are tested and examined by another group of scholars. Over time–it sometimes takes several years–the truth comes out.