A small ancient Coptic papyrus fragment was major news this week. And if you followed any of the reports on the fragment you might have become convinced that there is new evidence that Jesus was married. Based on the reporting, you might also believe that this news should make Catholics and other Christians who believe in the Bible very nervous.
There are two problems with this line of thinking. First, proof of a married Jesus wouldn't make most Catholics and Christians nervous. Second, the evidence just isn't there that Jesus was ever married.
Christians have no reason to be scandalized by the thought of a married Jesus because there is nothing in Christian theology that would eliminate the possibility. Jesus was pro-woman and pro-marriage. He attended weddings and even did his first miracle at a wedding feast by turning water into wine. When asked about marriage and about men who wanted to divorce their wives, Jesus defended the marriage bond with no equivocation: "what God has joined, men shall not divide."
If Jesus chose not to marry--and the body of evidence, beginning with all of the Gospels and two thousand years of tradition, points overwhelmingly in that direction--it was only because he chose to give up something wonderful for the sake of his divine mission.
Furthermore, Christians would have no reason to be nervous because proof of a married Jesus wouldn't change the practice of the Church in any way. The Church has learned from Jesus to treat women as equals to men in dignity and worth. Jesus was unafraid to break social norms to make sure all cultures, of all times, would understand this truth. He involved women in his ministry. He traveled with them.He had female friends. He honored his mother publicly. He invited women to be his disciples. And on the day of his Resurrection from the dead, he chose to appear first to several women even before he appeared to his twelve male apostles.
But if your source for information about the "married Jesus" was the New York Times, or the many other news sources that copied their line of fallacious reasoning, you probably think that one Harvard Divinity School professor's presentation in Rome, of what might be Coptic script on a piece of ancient papyrus the size of a business card, might indicate someone in the mid- Fourth century wrote about Jesus's "wife"...should not only alter the role of women in the Catholic Church but should also change the way we all view contemporary debates about marriage.
Here's just one of the statement made by the Times in reporting on the fragment: "Even with many questions unsettled, the discovery could reignite the debate over whether Jesus was married, whether Mary Magdalene was his wife and whether he had a female disciple. These debates date to the early centuries of Christianity, scholars say. But they are relevant today, when global Christianity is roiling over the place of women in ministry and the boundaries of marriage."
Really? Just as we have established that Jesus was willing to break social norms, it's equally evident in the Bible that Jesus recognized the real and beautiful differences between men and women, and their complimentary roles in the Church.
The Catholic Church's two thousand year-old tradition of a male-only priesthood is rooted in a determination to imitate Jesus' will as we see it in the Gospel. Jesus was a man and he chose twelve men by name to be his Apostles (the first priests and bishops). While there have been other leadership positions in the Church besides priesthood (and, in my opinion, there should be many more both locally and in the Vatican) Jesus called twelve men and their successors to serve the Church as spiritual fathers. The Church does not have the authority to reinvent history.
More mysterious still is the Times' unsubstantiated statement that an unauthenticated scrap of papyrus that refers to a married Jesus is relevant to global Christianity's "roiling over the boundaries of marriage." This is relevant but the Ten Commandments are not? This supposed Fourth century author should be considered a theological game-changer, but the writings of St. Paul and the Gospel accounts should be dismissed?
I read the Times regularly. While on most occasions, the paper's editors dismiss religious faith and arguments as irrational and therefore irrelevant, in their story this week they had no qualms about using a long-shot hypothesis to push their political agenda. What gives?
I personally spoke with several attendees of the Rome congress where the papyrus was first presented who said, as scientists, they were not impressed. These experts pointed out to me that the owner of the manuscript wished to remain anonymous and the "ink" on the manuscript was not even tested before its presentation. That's not exactly fidelity to the scientific method. In their opinion, at the heart of this story is an attempt by a faceless collector to increase the retail value of not only this fragment of papyrus, but the many others pieces that will with all likelihood soon appear on the market.
A long view of the story should make Christians very proud, however. First, the historic Jesus is still making news. The massive interest the story about Jesus and his possible wife generated, as evidenced by the extensive coverage it received in television, print, and social media, is newsworthy itself. Two thousand years after his death, hundreds of millions of people still want to know more about the adopted son of a carpenter from Nazareth who claimed to be divine. And a reason for even greater pride, is the way the Christian community has responded to scurrilous and inaccurate reports of what we hold sacred. It is precisely our faith in Jesus and his teachings that motivate us to respond in love. Embassy workers, foreigners, and non-Christians know they are safe in our midst, no matter what the New York Times and other media consider fit to print.
Father Jonathan Morris is author of "God Wants You Happy", available at www.fatherjonthan.com He is a Fox News contributor and Program Director of "The Catholic Channel" on SiriusXM radio, 129