Whack-A-Mole

The New York Times has an article on a scrap of papyrus that they seem to think is significant. The lead:

A historian of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School has identified a scrap of papyrus that she says was written in Coptic in the fourth century and contains a phrase never seen in any piece of Scripture: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …’”

I titled this post “Whack-A-Mole” after the arcade game because these kind of things crop up now and again and are used to sell newspapers, magazines, and books. Worse still, just when the force of one has subsided, another one pops up.What follows is a rather off-the-cuff explanation of why I don’t think such “developments” in general and this one in particular deserve the ink.

1. It “contains a phrase never seen in any piece of Scripture,” a statement implying that it is scripture. But it’s not. Scripture didn’t get to be scripture just by being old or even ancient. 1600 years from now, The Davinci Code will still be bad fiction and not an authoritative source of Christian doctrine.

2. The New Testament Canon was put together by the church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.* A great many writings claiming to tell about Jesus were left out and they were left out for good reasons. That doesn’t mean the ancient church was unaware of them, it means that they were left out. There were alternative, non-canonical gospels that claimed to reveal secrets about Jesus, there were odd epistles that claimed to show the way. These were purposely left out of the canon. The best (and I do mean the best) that can be said about them is that “they are inspiring, but not inspired.”

3. Would the Christian faith really be undermined if it turned out to be an undeniable, historical fact that Jesus had a wife? Mine wouldn’t.

4. The article says “Dr. King first learned about what she calls ‘The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.'” That may be what she is calling it, but she doesn’t have the final say in such matters.

5. The fragment also reads “she will be able to be my disciple.” This is truly unremarkable. Disciple has various meanings in the new testament. Sometimes it’s used to refer to the twelve, sometimes to all followers of Jesus. The canonical gospels refer to female disciples, it is simply that the twelve were all male. An additional note: given that Jesus was male and that the 13 of them spent a great deal of time wandering around, I think there were plenty of reasons not to make that inner group a co-ed undertaking that don’t require us to believe that Jesus considered women inferior. In fact, there is ample canonical evidence to the contrary.

*The Old Testament cannon was established so long ago that we don’t know anything for certain about the process, though something similiar to the canonization of the New Testament seems likely.