Was Jesus Married? A Short Lesson on Textual Criticism

EDIT 4.10.14: This fragment has been verified as authentic since this post was originally written. This does not, of course, mean that Jesus was married. I just thought I should update since I originally said it may be a fake.

Last week a fragment of a Coptic text was released that quotes Jesus as saying, “My wife . . .” It has gotten a lot of attention and has even been referred to as The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife. Even though Karen King, the scholar who first presented the fragment, stated that this is not evidence that Jesus had a wife, the Internet has taken to using the fragment to reignite the debate about whether or not Jesus was married. King is right; this is not evidence in that debate. But the reaction to it is evidence that people need a crash course on textual criticism and why the Bible includes what it concludes.

First, a few facts about the fragment:

  • It is owned by a private collector and, if authentic, was presumably found in Egypt.
  • Is estimated to be from the second half of the 4th century
  • The fragment is 1.5 inches tall and 3 inches wide. A little bigger than the paper from a fortune cookie.
  • The handwriting is messy, not the work of a literary or documentary (edit: trained) scribe.
  • It appears to have been cut from a larger document by an antiquities dealer to have more pieces to sell.
  • The sides are cut off, leaving incomplete sentences. What is on the document translates as:

[1] “not [to] me. My mother gave to me life…”
[2] The disciples said to Jesus, “.
[3] deny. Mary is worthy of it
[4]……” Jesus said to them, “My wife . . .
[5]… she will be able to be my disciple . . .
[6] Let wicked people swell up …
[7] As for me, I dwell with her in order to .
[8] an image

If the fragment is authentic, which there is debate about, it is clear that Jesus is indeed speaking of his wife. Context may be important here to clarify the meaning of Jesus’ statement, but in the end, this text is ultimately meaningless because of its uniqueness. It is not news because it means anything, it is news because it is sensational.

There are over 25,000 ancient documents used to compile the New Testament; 5,800 in Greek, 10,000 in Latin and 9,300 in a variety of other languages. While most of these date from a later period, the earliest of them date to AD 125. A near complete copy of John, known as P66, has been dated to around AD 200. P45, which contains 30 of the 110 original pages of the Four Gospels, is dated at AD 250. P46 contains the last 8 chapters of romans, all of Hebrews, most of 1 and 2 Corinthians, all of Ephesians, Galatians, Philippians, Colossians and 2 chapters of 1 Thessalonians has been dated anywhere between AD 175-225. So, clearly there is a lot of pretty early copies of the New Testament.

Not all of these 25,000 texts say the exact same thing. Because they are handwritten there are mistakes in them, called variants. Variants take two forms: the intentional and the unintentional. Unintentional variants are things like duplication or omission from reading the same line twice or skipping a line in the copying process. Intentional variants are censorship or to harmonize the text with other Biblical texts. Sometimes something just wasn’t clear, so a scribe would add words for clarification. All of these things created a bit of variety in the texts of the New Testament.

This is where textual criticism comes in. We know these things and so we are able to look at the huge amount of texts we have and compare them to come up with a reconstruction what the original manuscript of Biblical books looked like. Since variants tend to accumulate, scholars prefer the older texts. Because scribes had a tendency to clarify difficult texts by adding words, the shorter more difficult reading is usually taken to be more accurate. Also, the most geographically diverse texts, meaning similar texts found in a greater number of places, are preferred as more accurate. Comparing all the texts, classifying them, and dating them has allowed us to generate a critical copy of the Greek New Testament that is very near perfect.

This kind of work has made it possible to recognize interpolations in the New Testament. An interpolation is an addition to a text that was likely not written by the original author. These are the ending of Mark 16, Luke 22:43-44, the story of the woman caught in adultery, and 1 John 5:7. We know the support for these texts is questionable which is why your Bible probably has an asterisk by them and a footnote telling you that they are not found in the earliest texts.

Rather than allow these interpolations to make us question the accuracy of our Greek text we should use them to restore our confidence in the text. When we are able to identify interpolations we are able to know what IS NOT an interpolation. In the end the New Testament is incredibly accurate textually, the interpolations are the exceptions that prove the rule.

Take into consideration that there are only 7 manuscripts of Plato’s Republic, the earliest of which dates around AD 1000 when Plato himself died in 347. That is about a 1300-year difference, but these 7 manuscripts are sufficient for us to reconstruct an accurate representation of what Plato wrote. One variant reading among those seven is rightly dismissed because it is in the minority. Textual critics really can do some amazing things.

So then, lets return to the Coptic fragment. We have one 3 inch scrap of papyrus that is 200 years younger than the oldest copies of the Gospels in which Jesus says “My wife . . .” with no context. It is one among twenty-five-thousand.

To put this in context, Abraham Lincoln died only 150 years ago. We are closer in time to Abraham Lincoln than this fragment is to P46. This summer a movie was made that depicted Abraham Lincoln as a ruthless vampire hunter. Perhaps 1700 years from now scholars will find a clip of that film and the news will be filled with headlines about how ancient America was over run by vampires and we elected Presidents by their ability to kill them.

 

Of course, that won’t be true, but nobody will care because it is sensational. That is what is happening here. Scholars are interested in this because it has something to say about what a group of people may have believed at a certain point in time in a certain place. It is a cultural phenomenon, much like our current obsession with vampires, not a historical fact.

Nobody really believes this proves Jesus was married. It doesn’t prove anything other than that it exists because somebody wrote it. That’s not news. No vast da Vinci Code conspiracy is at play here. Rest assured that your New Testament is accurate and has the information the authors wanted you to have.