At an academic conference in Rome on Tuesday, Karen L. King, a church historian at Harvard Divinity School, presented a finding that, according to some reports, threatened to overturn what we know about Jesus, as well as the tradition of priestly celibacy. She identified a small fragment of fourth-century papyrus that includes the words, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife...’ ” Another clause appears to say, “she will be able to be my disciple.” Some experts have concluded that the manuscript, written in Coptic, is authentic.
But does this mean that Jesus was married? Probably not. And will this fascinating new discovery make this Jesuit priest want to rush out and get married? No.
It is more likely that Jesus was celibate. Remember that Dr. King’s papyrus dates from the fourth century — roughly 350 years after Jesus’s life and death. The four familiar Gospels, on the other hand, were written much closer to the time of Jesus, only a few decades away from the events in question. They have a greater claim to accuracy — even if the new manuscript is, as has been surmised, a copy of an earlier, second-century text. The Gospel of Mark, for example, was written around A.D. 70, only about 40 years after the crucifixion.
And what do the Gospels say? For one thing, the Gospel of Mark describes Jesus, who had settled in the town of Capernaum, on the Sea of Galilee, as receiving a surprise visit from his family, who had come from his hometown, Nazareth. “A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, ‘Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.’ ” Why no mention of a wife?