Scholar weighs in on papyrus debate
By Roxanne King
At a Sept. 18 conference in Rome, a scholar said that a fragment of papyrus with eight lines of Egyptian Coptic writing is the "only extant ancient text which explicitly portrays Jesus as referring to a wife." The announcement stirred immediate debate. Father Andreas Hoeck, academic dean and professor of Scripture at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, spoke about the debate with the Denver Catholic Register.
Q: Harvard scholar Karen L. King has said that a papyrus fragment dating to the fourth-century has Jesus refer to a “wife” and that it also says “she will be able to be my disciple.” She said it is not evidence that the historical Jesus was married but that it is evidence second-century Christians were debating whether he was married. Does the Catholic Church have an official opinion on this finding?
A: Although the alleged papyrus fragment was presented at two prestigious universities in Rome, the Church has no official stance on the finding. It would take much more time than just a few days to examine the evidence. However, no matter what the outcome of further research on this purported text might be, it will be irrelevant to the teachings of the Catholic Church. Why? Because the canon of books belonging to the sacred Scriptures, containing the deposit of faith, has been closed with the Council of Trent in the 16th century. Also, with the death of the last apostle, namely St. John, no new divine revelation will ever take place. Moreover, it is absolutely erroneous to say that there was ever any historically credible discussion about Christ being married. On the contrary, there is serene and uncontested unanimity regarding the unmarried status of the historical Jesus.
Q: If Jesus were married would that have any effect on Church teaching about priestly celibacy?
A: The question is too speculative and unrealistic to be taken seriously. Since Jesus was factually not married, there is no point whatever in discussing potential ramifications in Church discipline, history or even theology.
Q: Could the reported reference to a “wife,” be to the Church, which Catholics believe is the “bride of Christ”?
A: Again, more research would be needed to answer this question: like, for instance, could the noun “wife” also mean “bride” in the Coptic language? We know that in the Old and New Testaments the Church is certainly described as the “bride of the Lord.” Yet at this early juncture there is no way to determine the exact linguistic connotation of the alleged text.
Q: What do you know about the scholar and her research and is this finding considered reputable by the Church?
A: One of the things that is known about Harvard Divinity professor Karen L. King is that she is an active member of the controversial “Jesus Seminar.” This seminar is widely known for its very liberal stance concerning the historicity of Jesus, rejected by mainline Catholics for quite some time.
Q: Is there a way to know whether the papyrus fragment is a forgery?
A: This is a difficult issue, but it is perfectly possible for this fragment to have been forged. Now, the most suspicious aspect of this whole affair is that the provenance (origin) of the text is not clear, and that the previous owner apparently refuses to disclose any information regarding this vital circumstance. Without knowing its precise origin, the fragment will never gain any scientific credibility and remain in the realm of irrelevance.
Q: What should Catholics do with this information?
A: Catholics have no real dealings with this finding. At best, the fragment might be categorized with one of the myriad pieces of papyri found in the caves of Qumran (1947), or the gnostic material found 1945 in Nag Hammadi. For Catholics, only the approved books of the Bible have any real importance, and are binding in faith. Even if the alleged papyrus turned out to be “authentic,” then it would never rise to any higher status than perhaps the apocryphal or gnostic texts of the times between the 1st century B.C. and the 3rd century A.D.
Q: Is there anything you would like to add?
A: Well, quite recently we were all witnesses of a flurry of frantic discussions about the “re-discovered” gnostic gospel of Judas, or even the publication of the most deceitful novel “The Da Vinci Code” (Dan Brown), causing people to question issues that have been settled in and by the Church for centuries. There is absolutely no need for Christians, and especially Catholics, to be troubled. We are all involved in the epic drama of the history of salvation which means ongoing spiritual combat, exposed to the tension between good and evil, between light and darkness, between truth and falsehood in this world. We are called to maintain inner peace and serenity by watchfulness and discernment in the Holy Spirit. As a reassurance, let us recall a word of our Lord Jesus spoken about our times: “Then if anyone says to you, 'Look! Here is the Messiah!' or 'There he is!'—do not believe it. For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce great signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. Take note, I have told you beforehand. So, if they say to you, 'Look! He is in the wilderness,' do not go out. If they say, 'Look! He is in the inner rooms,' do not believe it. For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather” (Matt 24:23-28).
And lastly, a reminder of St. Paul’s pertinent message to his spiritual son Timothy: “For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully” (2 Tim 4:3-5). The purported finding of an ancient text about a “wife of Jesus” is exactly such a myth!