"Gladly Lerne, Gladly Teche" is the personal web log of John V. Fleming, the Louis W. Fairchild Professor of English and Comparative Literature emeritus at Princeton University. It continues in its title and its spirit his one-time newspaper column in The Daily Princetonian. As a general rule a new post is mounted every Wednesday morning (EST).
Wednesday, May 7, 2014
Crist was a mayde, and
shapen as a man,
And many a seint, sith that the world bigan;
Yet lyved they evere in parfit chastitee. -–the Wife of Bath
Man with no wife meets woman with five husbands
that he is the most famous human being who ever lived, Jesus is a real mystery
man when judged by the common expectations of biography. We know absolutely nothing about what
he was doing for most of his life, what he looked like, or whether he had any
formal education. Did he have a
happy childhood? Did he enjoy
sports? Music? What were his family’s relative
financial circumstances? The
evangelist John, who of all the gospel-writers is the one with the most exalted
theological view of the man, seems aware of the biographical poverty.
there are also many other things which Jesus did,” John wrote, “the which, if they should be written
every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books
that should be written.” (John
21:25) That is literary hyperbole,
but Jesus certainly had to do a lot of unrecorded things, and one is almost
compelled to speculate about them.
hot topic of the moment is this: did Jesus get married? Most men who
have ever lived, after all, have had intimate sexual relations with women,
mainly in the context of matrimony.
The invocation of social and cultural norms cannot take us very
far. It would have been most
unusual for a Jewish man of Jesus’s age not
to be married, but Jesus is so far off the “Most Unusual” chart in so many
ways that one hardly notices the aberration. Yet for reasons that have little to do with the content of
the gospel and lots to do with the development of ascetic theology in the early
Church the very suggestion that Jesus might have been married has taken on the status
of a desperate blasphemy that has allowed Dan Brown to mislead millions and make
macro-money with a puerile book founded in an interpretive travesty of “The
Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci.
And should you think these remarks are animated by vulgar jealousy, you
would be right.
Jesus and a special friend
Brown has had an academic analogue of sorts in the person of Professor Karen
King of the Harvard Divinity School.
A couple of years ago she came up with a supposed fragment of ancient
papyrus, not too much bigger than a magazine address label, with a few words of
an apparently otherwise unknown Coptic text in which Jesus, speaking in the
first person, speaks of “my wife.” I use bold face because that is
how the phrase is treated in the supposedly ancient fragment! Mystery surrounds the provenance of this
piece of paper, naturally.
Apocryphal gospels are very in at the moment, and this scrap immediately
became the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife”.
Puzzling papyrus (with unattributed English translation taken from the Internet)
1) ... not
[to] me, my mother gave to me li[fe] ...
disciples said to Jesus, "...
3) ... deny.
Mary is worthy of it ... (or, alternatively, Mary is not worth of it ...)
Jesus said to them, "My wife ...
5) ... she
will be able to be my disciple ...
wicked people swell up ...
7) As for
me, I dwell with her in order to ...
8) ... an
find in the twenty-first century eight lines of a previously undiscovered religious
text of great antiquity, containing two words that reverse the consensus of two
millennia of scriptural exegesis, would be a scholar’s dream, of course. But, alas, things that seem too good to be true generally
are. I fear Professor King’s apocryphal gobbet falls into this
category. If somebody hands you an
old coin stamped “42 BC”, and tells you it came from the Mount of Olives, you
should react with reserve. In
scholarship, perhaps even more than in some other fields, the wish is father to
the thought. About a third of my
own published great ideas could confirm that truth, though fortunately I do not
write about stuff likely to be taken up by CNN or the Wall Street Journal.
Scholar at work (without magnifying glass or deerstalker)
am no scholar of ancient religious texts, and especially not ones written in
Coptic; but all it takes to curb one’s enthusiasm in this particular instance
is a modicum of literary sophistication. Humbert Humbert, the narrator of Nabokov’s Lolita,
remembers having read in his youth a French detective story in which the clues
were actually printed in italics, or perhaps I should say in italics. The author
didn’t want you to miss them. The
scribe of the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” apparently sought to offer similar aid
to his readers with his cunning calligraphic bold face. Professor King and several of her
colleagues took it in stride.
the italicized clue, according to Humbert Humbert, “is not McFate’s way”—McFate
being Humbert’s playful personification of the force that eventually reveals
the mysteries of our lives. An
actual Coptic scholar, Christian Askeland at Wuppertal in Germany, has blown the
whistle on the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife”.
In fact it was only from reports of the exposure of the spurious nature
of the text in the popular press that I first became aware of it—sort of like
arriving two hours late to the football game just as everybody is exiting the
merry prank thus leaves us no closer to knowing whether Jesus took a wife or
not. The strong preponderance of textual
and historical implication—one can hardly speak of evidence—is that he did not.
As a Christian I am still allowed to hope that he might have been
married. A married Jesus would add
emphasis, and maybe even italics or bold face, to the Church’s claim that “he
lived as one of us, yet without sin.
To the poor he proclaimed the good news of salvation; to prisoners,
freedom; to the sorrowful, joy.”