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Papyrus referencing Jesus’ wife dates back to ancient times

April 13, 2014 at 4:07 PM EDT
Experts at Columbia, MIT and Harvard have concluded through scientific testing that a small papyrus fragment that quotes Jesus making references to “my wife,” is in fact from ancient times. What do these new findings reveal? Hari Sreenivasan speaks with Michael Peppard, a theology professor at Fordham University, about the religious ramifications of this discovery.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Experts at Columbia, MIT and Harvard have concluded that a small papyrus fragment made public two years ago is from ancient times, not a forgery. But its contents continue to provoke controversy. That’s because it quotes Jesus making references to “my wife,” and also includes the words “she will be able to be my disciple.” For more about this we’re joined by Michael Peppard, he’s a professor of theology at Fordham University and author of the book “The Son of God in the Roman World.” Alright, so first of all, what’s the scientific finding confirm and why does it matter?

MICHAEL PEPPARD: Right, well when this came to light about a year and a half ago, there was a lot of uproar about “why wasn’t this tested” “how do we know it’s not a forgery.” Typically with ancient papyri, they’re not tested by science, they’re tested by paleography — meaning the study of handwriting. And yet because there was such a bombshell finding here in this phrase “my wife.” It was sent out and professor Karen King commissioned this from Harvard to be sent out for testing. Now the truth about this scientific testing is that it cannot authenticate something as much as it can prove that it’s not fake. So what I’m saying is that–

HARI SREENIVASAN: There’s a difference…

MICHAEL PEPPARD: Yeah, there’s a difference, the testing did not falsify anything. So that kind of tilts the scale a little bit back towards authenticity, right? But I would say that the community of scholars that study early Christianity, like myself, are still kind of in this middle ground of mysteriousness about the text. That being said, some of the critics on the forgery side argue that there is bad grammar, that there are other indicators, bad penmanship and that kind of stuff. But papyrologists — that is nerds like us that study ancient papyri — we see bad handwriting all the time. The apostle Paul himself in the new testament talks about his bad handwriting. So handwriting it’s a techne in Greek, it’s a skill, it’s acquired. And so we might think of typing, right? Typing doesn’t mean you’re smart or something like that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So to a non-Christian scholar, what are the religious ramifications if Jesus did have a wife? Why does that matter so much?

MICHAEL PEPPARD: Right, so what we have here is probably a 7th or 8th century papyrus, which if authentic preserves possibly an earlier text, which doesn’t really tell us anything about the first century; so we have layers of history here. I would say most scholars do not think Jesus was married and I don’t think that’s a pious answer, I think it’s an answer about historically plausibility. I think Jesus was an itinerant, apocalyptic teacher, he says very controversial things critical of biological and domestic family life, already there in the canonical scriptures. And so I think that most scholars and most Christians will say “well we don’t think Jesus was married, and we think that is a later discussion about the roles of women as disciples, and the role of kind of sex and family life.” But now that is interesting, for a different reason, I think to most scholars. And that is that this papyrus gives us another window into what were some live debates in early Christianity. Debates such as: is procreation a vehicle for holiness or is celibacy — voluntary celibacy– a vehicle for holiness. A second debate that it clearly was engaging was the worthiness of women as disciples, especially Mary the mother and Mary Magdalen, two of the main figures that were discussed.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Some of these debates we’re still having a couple thousand years down the line. Alright, Michael Peppard from Fordham University. Thanks so much.