In 2012 historian Karen King introduced to the world a small fragment that she purported to be from the 8th century written by the disciples of Jesus. Since then, many scholars have had the opportunity to inspect the fragment in order to determine its authenticity. The findings have been lopsided that it is a modern fraud, led by figures such as Brown University professor Leo Depuydt who compared the 3-inch piece of papyrus to a Monty Python sketch with its bolded lettering in the “wife” mention. However, Harvard University is said to soon release dissenting findings, that is an authentic fragment from an early period of Christianity. “Early” being 7-8th century. This is supposed to stun the world but don’t let it shake you. Let me explain.
Among the writings of Irenaeus, Origen, Eusebeus, and Ephiphanaeus, four Christians who wrote extensively about texts which they were either familiar with or had heard of, and their general contents, this ‘Gospel of Jesus’ Wife’ is not among them. Also, to mark a document from the 7th or 8th century as “early”, is a stretch. By then, the canon was formed, the chaff was long separated from the wheat, and early Christian history was largely sealed and encapsulated in many harmonious writings.
This aside, throughout the long history of Christianity many “disciples of Christ” have written some bizarre things about Jesus. One only needs to take a 30 second swim in The Apocryphon of John, an early Gnostic text, to see the sort of buffoonery that was working its way into the Christian world. Today we have “christian” sects who tell their adherents that Jesus was born on a different planet, and others who deny the authority he gave to Peter, and still others who have resurrected heresies like the Jehovah’s Witnesses have done with denying the Divinity of Christ, akin to Arianism.
What needs to be kept in mind during all of this is what the findings mean about this fragment, and what they don’t mean. “Authentic” is not synonymous with “Orthodox”. Simply because a fragment was found and dates to the early periods of Christianity does not prove in any way that its contents are fact.
Additionally, fragments purporting something innovative about Jesus or Christianity is really nothing new. In 1945 entire libraries of early popular “christian” literature were discovered at Nag Hammadi, Egypt. Gnostic and otherwise orthodox and canonical texts were found in the heaps. Codices and scrolls that were mentioned by Irenaeus, Origen, Justin, and Epiphenaeus were discovered which were thought to be lost. Writings like the Odes of Solomon, likely the earliest Christian hymnbook, were found along with copies of Mark’s gospel, next to a massive codex of Gnostic and Montanistic texts. Some were found to be copies, others have been determined to be forgeries, and many were found to have been altered from earlier forms, such as the Acts of Pilate (Gospel of Nicodemus).
However numerous or ancient a manuscript or fragment is found to be doesn’t change anything. Just because one fragment has Jesus saying “my wife”, doesn’t give Him a wife, and even if it did say, “I am Jesus, I have a wife”, it doesn’t make said fragment orthodox. Said fragment would still be considered apocrypha, and we have plenty of those.
But, Jesus did have a wife. That spouse is still alive and will be forever unto perpetuity. We know her as his Church – you and me, joined in this mystical body. And to this spouse was given a special gift of protection. In sickness and in health, in times of good and times of bad, He promises to us that he will keep his bride from the gates of Hades (Matthew 16:18). The Church has been given the commission to make disciples, to teach, and to baptize (Matthew 28:19-20). If any of those is broken, then Jesus has unchained the gates of hell and poisoned our bodies. That would make Jesus a liar.
Thankfully, Jesus is God and God cannot lie.