Yep, that’s the line that has the theological nerd world all a buzz. Of course it probably also has caused no small amount of questioning and consternation among the faithful as well as gloating among the skeptics. It all stems from a scrap of 4th century paper about the size of a business card on which those words appear. Of course the paper is just a fragment and doesn’t include what Jesus said to his wife or even the identity of the wife. Christianity Today has a very helpful article on this.
So what are we to make of this find? For some it is seen as vindication that Jesus really was married and that the early church, in the worlds longest running conspiracy/cover-up, was embarrassed by the fact of Jesus marriage and has destroyed and denied evidence ever since. But let’s deal in reality and what we do know. It is a long-standing tradition, from the very earliest generations of the church, that Jesus was never married. That tradition existed centuries before the creation of this 4th century fragment. Some argue that there is no historical evidence to back up the claim that Jesus was married, as if that is somehow significant . The fact that we have so much written about the life of Jesus with never a hint of a wife is what should be taken as being significant. The reverse should be where the burden of proof lies. If there is a 2,000 year old tradition of something, then those who deny it are the ones who need to show some proof that the tradition has no basis in reality and needs to be changed.
Some will claim that this fragment is proof that Jesus was married. Really? One thing I find amusing is that some of the same people who will deny the reliability of the Bible will assume the reliability of this fragment. The argument has been that since we do not have the original manuscripts of the New Testament authors and the earliest copies are from possibly the late 1st and certainly the early 2nd century, they are not reliable. Well if that is the case, why would anyone put stock in a business card sized fragment from the 4th century? I can only assume that it is because one was already predisposed to believe what they thought it said, no matter what logic or evidence said to the contrary.
But let’s assume there is some authenticity to the fragment. What then? Well there are a couple of options. First, the Bible refers to the Church as The Bride of Christ. Context is crucial to understand any statement. Given the fact that we have no context for the fragment, no idea what Jesus said to “his wife” in the missing pieces, and that we have no identification of the wife, it is certainly reasonable that Jesus may have been referring to His Bride, the Church. Without the missing pieces of the document we will never know. Secondly, let’s suppose Jesus was in fact married. Then what? Well my answer is, so what? You see, our ultimate authority is not tradition, as important and helpful as it may be. Our ultimate authority is the Bible and nowhere in the Bible does it ever address the marital status of Jesus, one way or the other. We know that Peter was married, and that Paul was not, because the Bible speaks directly to that. But it says nothing about Jesus. Which again I stress is significant. We have so much more written about the life of Jesus than we do about Peter or Paul, yet we know their marital status, one married, one not. It must be stated very clearly there is no Christian doctrine built on the marital status of Jesus. No matter of faith, theology, or accepted biblical interpretation is effected by it one way or the other. In fact, one could make the case that if Jesus was married this could fit rather nicely with Hebrews 2:14-18. That passage makes it clear that in order to be the perfect sacrifice for sin Jesus became like us in all ways, with the one exception that he never sinned. Now I don’t think the author of Hebrews was making the point that Jesus had to be like us in every single detail of life, as if the had to eat the same food we all eat, or dress the same way we all dress or listen to the same music we listen to. But if one wanted to push the thought to an extreme application, if you are single and Jesus was single, that could be a point of identification with you just as it would be if he was married and you are also married. However, in neither case is it a doctrinal issue that Jesus must have been one or the other.
In the final analysis, finding a 4th century fragment that has the phrase “and Jesus said to them, my wife”, is much ado about nothing. Although I am sure that for the next 40 years there will be untold numbers of television documentaries, books, blogs, and podcasts about this “incredible” find and how it revolutionizes our understanding of Jesus and proves a massive cover-up.