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Jesus went to weddings (see John 2) and talked about marriage (see Matthew 5 and 19), but it is clear that Jesus was not married.  Yet secular writers (see Dan Brown) often argue that He was married.  And another such speculation has arisen in the past week.  A small Coptic manuscript was found that purports to have Jesus saying about His “wife” that, “She will be able to be my disciple” and in a later portion of the text, “I dwell with her.”

So was Jesus married?

There have been numerous helpful responses to this “finding,” including the following:

“This is sensationalism masquerading as scholarship. One British newspaper notes that the claims about a married Jesus seem more worthy of fans of Dan Brown’s fictional work, The Da Vinci Code, than “real-life Harvard professors.” If the fragment is authenticated, the existence of this little document will be of interest to historians of the era, but it is insanity to make the claims now running through the media.”

We believe this to be a largely reliable translation. But is it evidence that Jesus had a wife? The answer is an emphatic ‘no’. Not even Karen King is claiming that it is, though it’s inevitable that some of the news outlets will present it otherwise.

What we have here is a typical sort of text which arose after Christianity had become very popular and when derivatives of Christianity began to emerge. The language of the text is very similar to the Gospel of Thomas, sayings 101 and 114, and the Gospel of Thomas saying 101 shows influence of Luke 14:26, as the Gospel of Thomas does elsewhere. This way of speaking belongs to the mid-second century or later, in other words generations later than the books of the New Testament.

in Gnostic Christianity, there was a rite called the bridal chamber in which the church was seen as the bride of Christ. The whole thing could well be metaphorical with a disciple representing the place of the church. If that is the case, then it is not even a claim that Jesus was married in real life to a single person.

It is one speck of a fringe text in a sea of texts that say Jesus was single. It, if authentic, is the exception, to the rule of texts we have on Jesus. Thus, in the end, even if it says what people are suggesting, it tells us only about a fourth century group’s views, not anything about Jesus.

Dr. King is careful also to say this text likely tells us nothing about the real Jesus.

Everybody loves a good conspiracy theory. It would certainly be far more entertaining for our culture if one could show that apocryphal books were really the Scripture of the early church and that they have been suppressed by the political machinations of the later church (e.g., Constantine). But the truth is far less sensational. While apocryphal books were given some scriptural status from time to time, the overwhelming majority of early Christians preferred the books now in our New Testament canon. Thus, we are reminded again that the canon was not arbitrarily “created” by the church in the fourth or fifth century. The affirmations of the later church simply reflected what had already been the case for many, many years.

When it comes to these sorts of questions I like to remind my students of a simple—but often overlooked—fact: of all the gospels in early Christianity, only Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are dated to the first century.  Sure, there are minority attempts to put books like the Gospel of Thomas in the first century—but such attempts have not been well received by biblical scholars. Thus, if we really want to know what Jesus was like, our best bet is to rely on books that were at least written during the time period when eyewitnesses were still alive. And only four gospels meet that standard.

The important question is not, of course, whether these facts prove anything about Jesus’ actual marital status (obviously, when you think about it, they don’t). The important question is why “Jesus’ wife” has turned into such a big story in the media. In other words: Despite such flimsy evidence, why do so many people want Jesus to be married?

Maybe it’s because many of us are deeply suspicious of the organised, institutional “church”, so we’re predisposed to believe anyone who casts doubt on the writings of the New Testament and the Christian message, without properly checking it out.

UPDATE (9/24):  See also Justin Taylor’s compilation “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife: How a Fake Gospel-Fragment Was Composed,” in which he provides a link to research done by Francis Watson (University of Durham).  Watson concludes (PDF) that,

The text has been constructed out of small pieces – words or phrases – culled mostly from the Coptic Gospel of Thomas (GTh), Sayings 101 and 114, and set in new contexts.

This is most probably the compositional procedure of a modern author who is not a native speaker of Coptic.