Dr. Karen King of Harvard Divinity School discovered a fourth century CE Coptic papyrus in which a scribe writes “Jesus said to them my wife." When some Christians read or heard about this discovery, their first reaction was, “what difference does it make?”. The papyrus fragment discusses issues of discipleship and family in general. In fact, one of my Facebook connections and a friend asked more specifically what difference the possibility of Jesus being married makes for salvation. Dr. King is careful to note that the papyrus does not explicitly say that Jesus was or was not married. In fact, the papyrus is of a quite late date compared to some other New Testament manuscripts dated in the second century CE. But the papyrus does raise questions as to when early Christians started raising questions or talking about Jesus’ marital status. Below is a video of an interview with Dr. King of Harvard University:
I think Christians should be interested in the papyrus fragment, and other such archaeological finds as well, for the following reasons: (1) They are historical documents. And as historical documents they give us a glimpse into the history of Christianity. We ought to know about our history, how it impacts the present, and how it may inform the future. Christians who belong to denominations that require their pastors to obtain a theological education are exposed to church history for the prior-mentioned reasons; it makes good sense to be able to understand things in their historical context. Without context we have no meaning or meaning is distorted. Members of Christian churches should want their pastors and teachers to be able to place things in their proper historical context, in as much as it is possible. Nothing happens in a vacuum. (2) Some Christians base their understandings of marriage and singleness in general, as well as the impact of marital status on ministry, on whether or not they understood Jesus to be married. In fact, some Christians place a higher value on being single over being married with regard to commitment to Christian ministry, relying heavily on Paul’s statements in First Corinthians chapter 7. Other Christians have believed and some still believe that all clergy should be married (as well as all men and women!). Such a discovery that Jesus was married might certainly impact how we understand ministry and the Christian life. (3) If Jesus had been married, we would certainly read differently some of the canonical and non-canonical witnesses that preserve the sayings of and about Jesus. For example we might read differently the two somewhat contradictory testimonies at Matthew 5:31-32 (when Jesus says in Matthew that no man should divorce his wife except if she is unchaste. If he does so for any other reason and remarries, he has committed adultery) and at Mark 10:10-12 where Jesus takes the position that there is no exception or excuse for divorce (anyone who divorces and remarries as committed adultery). Or we would at least expect that Jesus definitely set the example in his own marriage and was, as the author Hebrews writes "touched with all the feelings of our infirmities." If he could maintain a good marriage, certainly we can. If we see it as a bad thing for Jesus to have been married, then it may be that we place a low value on the institution of marriage in general. Again, however, the fragment does not say he was single or married. I personally think God would be fine with Jesus or anyone making the choice to be married or to remain single, as long as they lived a life pleasing to God.
We should not be so readily dismissive of new finds and evidence. It was not until the middle 1940s (1947-1956) that the over 800 Dead Sea Scrolls were found in caves thirteen miles east of Jerusalem. That archaeological find yielded invaluable manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible (written in Hebrew and Aramaic), not including the book of Esther (as well as other nonbiblical texts). The Isaiah Scroll, found relatively intact, is 1000 years older than any previously known copy of Isaiah. It also contains never before seen psalms attributed to King David and Joshua. The scrolls are the oldest group of Old Testament manuscripts ever found! I don’t believe that our salvation is threatened by keeping an open mind and being humble about what we know and don’t know. God probably has quite a few more surprises for us.