Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Mrs. Jesus

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

            Considering 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.

            “And 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.

            One 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

           Dan 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] ...

2) The disciples said to Jesus, "...

3) ... deny. Mary is worthy of it ... (or, alternatively, Mary is not worth of it ...)

4) ..." Jesus said to them, "My wife ...

5) ... she will be able to be my disciple ...

6) Let wicked people swell up ...

7) As for me, I dwell with her in order to ...

8) ... an image ...

            To 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)

            I 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.

            But 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 stadium.

            This 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.”