|The Coptic fragment|
“So here it is,” King said. On her desk, next to an open can of Diet Dr Pepper promoting the movie The Avengers, was a scrap of papyrus pressed between two plates of plexiglass.
The fragment was a shade smaller than an ATM card, honey-hued and densely inked on both sides with faded black script. The writing, King told me, was in the ancient Egyptian language of Coptic, into which many early Christian texts were translated in the third and fourth centuries, when Alexandria vied with Rome as an incubator of Christian thought.
When she lifted the papyrus to her office’s arched window, sunlight seeped through in places where the reeds had worn thin. “It’s in pretty good shape,” she said. “I’m not going to look this good after 1,600 years.”
But neither the language nor the papyrus’ apparent age was particularly remarkable. What had captivated King when a private collector first e-mailed her images of the papyrus was a phrase at its center in which Jesus says “my wife.”
The fragment’s 33 words, scattered across 14 incomplete lines, leave a good deal to interpretation. But in King’s analysis, and as she argues in a forthcoming article in the Harvard Theological Review, the “wife” Jesus refers to is probably Mary Magdalene, and Jesus appears to be defending her against someone, perhaps one of the male disciples.
“She will be able to be my disciple,” Jesus replies. Then, two lines later, he says: “I dwell with her.”
The papyrus was a stunner: the first and only known text from antiquity to depict a married Jesus.
So what are we to make of this?
King has her own idea: "In King’s analysis...the 'wife' Jesus refers to is probably Mary Magdalene, and Jesus appears to be defending her against someone, perhaps one of the male disciples."
Archaeological discoveries are always interesting. I find it fascinating that people are always seeking to prove something when these things are discovered, as if one single fragment would prove or disprove 2,000 years of research on all the rest of the archaeological evidence. But with each new archaeological discovery, I'm reminded that (as you did when you were in the holy land) this stuff really does have historical roots!
In a follow-up article at smithsonianmag.com, Sabar writes,
"The writing was in the ancient Egyptian language of Coptic, into which many early Christian texts were translated in the third and fourth centuries, when Alexandria vied with Rome as an incubator of Christian thought. But King made no claim for its usefulness as biography, saying instead the text was probably composed in Greek a century or so after the Crucifixion, then copied into Coptic two centuries later. As evidence that the real-life Jesus was married, it is scarcely more dispositive than Dan Brown’s controversial 2003 novel, The Da Vinci Code."
So, even though the Coptic text dates to somewhere around 300-400 years after Christ and we might assume (though there is no proof of this) that it was a translation of a Greek text that might have been earlier (King says at least 100 years after Christ), people will hop on this and say that this proves that all the other archaeological evidence we have concerning Christ should be called into question.
I am all for critically analyzing all the evidence in order to constantly seek historical truth. And we have found many things that have brought better understanding of 1st Century history and thus the world in which Christ spoke (things like the Dead Sea Scrolls, etc.) But for 2,000 years, people have tried their best to prove that the New Testament accounts are false (as if the documents we have of the New Testament are not verified archaeological artifacts). And for 2,000 years, we have yet to have found anything that can possibly overturn the accounts recorded in those ancient texts.
Dan Story sums up what we know about the New Testament's texts:
There are more extant New Testament manuscripts than any other document from antiquity. More than 24,000 partial and complete copies of the New Testament are in existence today. By comparison, the ancient document second in number of available copies is the Iliad, which has only 643 surviving manuscripts. And this number is extremely high compared to other ancient documents. For example, the History of Thucydides, the History of Herodotus, Caesar’s Gallic War, Tacitus’ Histories and Annals, and many other ancient documents have fewer than two dozen surviving copies.
In addition to New Testament manuscripts, there are over 86,000 early patristic (church fathers’) quotations from the New Testament and several thousand Lectionaries (early church-service books containing selected Scripture readings) dating to the early centuries of the church. In fact, there are enough quotations from the early church fathers that even if we did not have a single copy of the Bible, scholars could still reconstruct all but 11 verses of the entire New Testament from material written within 150 to 200 years from the time of Christ.
So, it seems that a single new Coptic fragment has very little weight in light of the rest of the archaeological evidence.
And we must also ask some questions based on literary criticism. What does the text of this fragment really mean when it says, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife... She will be able to be my disciple... I dwell with her.”
Perhaps this is literal, but how do we know? Was this metaphorical or symbolic language? Both the apostles Paul and John used the metaphor of the "bride of Christ" to represent the people who are Christ's people, that is, his Church
Paul wrote to the Corinthians, "For I feel a divine jealousy for you, since I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ." (2 Corinthians 11:2) and he likened human marriage that was talked about in Genesis to the relationship between the church and Christ in his letter to the Ephesians: "'Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.' This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church." (Ephesians 5:31-32).
John, in the mysterious revelation given to him, wrote concerning how the church would be united with Christ in the end time this: "And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. (Revelation 21:2-3)
Notice that not only do we have a "bride," but we also have the idea of God "dwelling" with man!
Or take an account that Matthew recorded:
"While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, 'Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.' He replied to him, 'Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?' Pointing to his disciples, he said, 'Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.' (Matthew 12:46-49)
This shows that Jesus could use family ties metaphorically. It is not beyond comprehension that someone writing a text 200 years after Christ might want attribute to Jesus that same kind of metaphorical language to address Jesus' relationship to his followers.