Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Did Jesus have a Wife?

Did Jesus Have a Wife?

A papyrus fragment has recently been discovered which contains reference to Jesus' wife. The fragment is in Coptic and is very small (8x4 cm) and very damaged, but the following is an English translation provided by Prof Karen King of Harvard:

1 ] “not [to] me. My mother gave to me li[fe…” 
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 [

1 ] my moth[er 
2 ] three [ 
3 ] … [ 
4 ] forth which … [ 
5 ] (illegible ink traces)

As you might imagine, speculation in the press has gone wild, claiming that this fragment from 'The Gospel of Jesus' Wife' (as Prof King, rather problematically, names it) is direct evidence that Jesus was married - and, most likely, to Mary Magdalene.

However, there are serious difficulties with this conclusion. In the first place, it is still not certain that the papyrus fragment is genuine. Nothing is known of its discovery or even its current owner who, apparently, wishes to remain anonymous. 

Secondly, if it is genuine, the dating is later than the canonical Gospels (which were all written in  the first century AD). King dates the papyrus fragment to the fourth century, although she speculates that it might be a translation of a Greek Gospel from the second century AD. Even the earlier date would place this fragment among other apocryphal Gospels of the second century, which give little, if any, access to the historical Jesus, as King herself points out.

Later tradition from the late second to early third centuries (Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian), believed that Jesus was celibate, a view that has persisted in church tradition. The canonical Gospels, however, are completely silent on the issue of whether or not Jesus was married: they say nothing to support or deny this view. 

Thirdly, the fragment itself is so full of gaps that it is difficult to be certain of its meaning. It is not clear whether the 'Mary' referred to is Jesus' mother or Mary Magdalene. Magdalene herself was not confused with the sinful woman of Luke 7:36-50 until later (Gregory the Great in the sixth century), but was seen simply as a disciple of Jesus and a primary witness to the resurrection. The discussion in the papyrus fragment, apparently between Jesus and his disciples, centres around the worthiness of this Mary. Second century Gospels do speak of a close relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, but it is never quite clear whether this language is literal (explicitly sexual) or metaphorical (discipleship) - or both.

What is possible, as King argues, is that the papyrus fragment is part of an ongoing Christian debate on the significance of marriage vs celibacy from the second century onwards. It may be that, in fourth century Egypt, where celibacy was gaining such ground, this fragment offers an alternative view, based on a tradition, among some Christians, that  Jesus himself was married. 

There is little to conclude. The papyrus is too late and too fragmented to say anything about Jesus' own life. What it can offer is an insight into early Christian debate, suggesting that, whereas the majority believed Jesus was unmarried, a minority of Christians may have believed otherwise. 

What the papyrus cannot do, however, is offer support for the view that Jesus was married. It would not, of course, be a problem for Christians if Jesus had been married. What is a problem is speculation beyond the dignified silence of the canonical texts that quickly turns into probability then fact (Dan Brown is a grim warning here!). For the four evangelists, the issue of whether or not Jesus was married was irrelevant to their purpose.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Husbandly Love

I've been thinking about some of the implications of the Sydney Diocese proposal for the marriage liturgy, including some of the remarks made by Archbishop Peter Jensen on Q&A.

I should say that there were points where I found myself in agreement with the Archbishop. His critique of secular individualism was spot on, and I appreciated his compassion towards refugees and his overall composure and refusal to resort to abuse. I valued too his call for open, respectful dialogue.

In that spirit, I have respectfully to disagree with the Archbishop on the gender and marriage question - although not, I hope, from the perspective of liberal individualism. I can't accept the theological reasoning that wives should be the only ones submitting in marriage. In my view, submission is mutual in marriage and not just for wives.

Indeed, I find the argument for wifely submission deeply inconsistent. Men, we are told, have the more difficult deal in this arrangement. Whereas wives are required only to submit (or obey), husbands are required to give their lives.

But what, I wonder, does that actually mean? Well, it means, of course, that in a terrorist attack, husbands should act self-sacrificially and protectively of their wives, even if it means the loss of their own; each is to put his wife's safety before his own. Here the model is that of Christ's love for the church, evidenced in his sacrificial death.

That's all very well. But, truth to tell, in our context it's hardly a likely scenario. How many husbands will be called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice for their wives?

So, if the literal meaning is so unlikely, what about the metaphorical? The husband, we're told by Archbishop Jensen, will have his natural masculine arrogance and bossiness challenged and softened by the vows he makes in marriage; no recipe, this, for domestic violence which the Archbishop regards (rightly) as a very serious sin.

But in what way will the husband metaphorically give his life for his wife? Will he support her career? Will he look after the children so that her work will thrive? Will he share the housework with her, if not do the bulk of it when required? Will he be prepared to give up his career for hers? Will he ensure she has regular time for herself and her own development, spiritual, intellectual, emotional?

Or will he expect her to surrender her life to his, her career for his? Will he expect her to serve him, day after day, supporting his career or vocation, placing her gifts at the disposable of his, feeding him, taking care of him, supporting him emotionally, taking the lion's share of the work for the children and the domestic chores?

In this model - by far the most likely scenario in such marriages - it's the wife who is taking the burden of self-sacrifice, not the husband; she is the one giving her life for his, not the other way round.

The truth is, I just don't get the (theo-)logic. I'm bemused at the conclusion that women are less capable of leadership than men by reason of their God-given biology. I'm dismayed at the implication that men are deemed more Christ-like in marriage than women. I'm cynical of the self-evident chasm between the rhetoric and the reality.

Friday, 7 September 2012

Proposed Form of Marriage Vows Problematical, TMS

Proposed form of marriage vows problematical
To replace ‘obey’ with ‘submit to’ in a proposed change to the wedding vows by a Sydney diocesan panel is to misunderstand the context of submission in the ancient world of the Bible, argues New Testament scholar Dorothy Lee.
In a recent article in The Sydney Morning Herald (‘To live and to submit: a marriage made in 2012,’ 25/8), the liturgical panel of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney is reported as proposing a new form of the marriage vows that would ask brides to “honour and submit to” their husbands, “as the Church submits to Christ”.

Bishop Rob Forsyth has reportedly claimed that “submit” is “a deeply biblical word” which, he argues, is “more nuanced” than the word “obey”.

I have four problems with this proposal as, indeed, with the whole issue of wifely obedience.
In the first place, if we are to accept such a vow, we will find ourselves in a serious theological and logical inconsistency. The New Testament contains four lists of “household codes” that set out the relevant duties of one partner to another in the context of family relations (Col 2:18-4:1, Eph 5:21-6:9, Tit 2:1-10, 1 Pet 2:18-3:7).

The husband-wife partnership calls for submission by the wife to her husband. It is paralleled by the father-child relationship, which calls on children to obey their parents. The third parallel is the master-slave relationship, which calls for obedience and submission from slaves to their masters. The slave is even to accept suffering, if it is needed to show acceptance of the master’s authority.

It is true that, in the case of the husband-wife and master-slave pairing, there is also a Christ-dimension: Christ’s love for the church, in the case of husbands, and Christ’s willingness to suffer, in the case of slaves.

The problem is that there is an acceptance of slavery implied in these household codes which none of us today would be happy to endorse. If we accept the codes, exactly as they are, we need to accept them all. Is Sydney calling on slaves, in those parts of the world that still have slavery (or something very like it), to submit to their masters? I would imagine not.

But why pick on the husband-wife paradigm while discounting the master-slave paradigm, which is part of the same unit? If one is impossible to interpret literally, then perhaps the other is also!
Secondly, we need to allow for the fact that the household codes reflect the culture of the ancient world and the context in which the early Church found itself. These codes, originating with Aristotle, demonstrated that, far from being socially and politically dangerous, Christians were good citizens, following the accepted values of the day (even with a Christian twist).

The household codes reflect, in other words, the compromise the church sometimes has to make in order to proclaim the gospel in socially or politically repressive contexts.

At the same time, in more foundational ways, the New Testament proclaims a more radical and counter-cultural status afforded Christian women in the new order of things, in and through Christ. There is no better statement of this than Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

The Easter stories in the Gospels likewise give women an extraordinary authority to proclaim the Lord’s resurrection, far beyond the patriarchal norms of the ancient world. Even the women disciples’ status as witnesses to Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection challenges the values of the day. Why should we ignore these explosive, evangelical texts in favour of others that support a more conventional model of human relationships?

Thirdly, in theological terms we can’t call something “biblical” just because we happen to find it in the Bible. We can find all sorts of commands in the Bible – against usury, skin diseases, and tattoos, along with the death penalty for cursing parents – which we would not necessarily endorse today. What is truly “biblical” must be discerned, not by arbitrarily grasping verses here and there, but by understanding the tenor of biblical texts. We need to interpret Scripture in its context and discern its theological heart: to interpret Scripture by Scripture.

It’s not the submission of wives to husbands that is “biblical” in this sense, but rather the mutual submission of Christians to one another, in loving knowledge and service.

Fourthly, I have yet to hear an argument explaining why husbands need to be the head of their homes, apart from the rather na├»ve statement, “because the Bible says so”. What is it about the nature of men that associates them with leadership and authority, which is lacking in women?

In the ancient world, where women were by-and-large uneducated, and society had strict gender differentiations, it might have made some sense, but in the modern context, it makes none at all. Both the world and the church have had fine leaders among women; women who use authority well – sacrificially, wisely, strongly, responsibly.

The young Sydney bride, interviewed by The Sydney Morning Herald, who promised to “submit to” her husband, spoke of the “joy and freedom” of submission. I take the point. The great truths of the gospel can sustain us, even in the most unpromising situations.

Saints and martyrs down the ages – some of them slaves and many of them female – have endured suffering, privation and imprisonment, and found that Christ’s vibrant presence has filled them with a paradoxical sense of joy and freedom. But that doesn’t justify either the privations or the imprisonment.
Revd Dr Dorothy A. Lee is Dean of Trinity College Theological School and Frank Woods Distinguished Lecturer in Biblical Studies, MDC University of Divinity.