Back in 2012, a few fragments of papyrus were discovered that seem to indicate that Jesus had a wife. One of them reads, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…'” and another says, “As for me, I dwell with her in order to…” – although the speaker in the second line is not named.
They were largely dismissed as modern forgeries (not as “new” but within the last few hundred years) when they were discovered, but recent testing has shown them to be much older. If you’ve heard about it on the news or online, you’ve probably seen headlines like “Jesus’ Wife Was Not A Fake” or “Harvard journal says “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” is ancient, not a modern forgery” or even “Scientists: Ancient papyrus that says Jesus was married is authentic.” All of this has many Christians wondering what to make of this. Did Jesus have a wife? Does this prove that Jesus really was married?
While some may see headlines like those and immediately call into question the authenticity of Scripture and what the church has taught, should we really be ready to believe that Jesus had a wife?
First, we need to know that while they’re old, they’re not as old as Jesus. These fragments have been dated to anywhere between the 6th and 9th centuries AD (500-800 AD). That’s pretty old. But is it old enough? When you consider that the four Gospels were written around 50-90 AD and the oldest copies and fragments we have of them date to as far back as 117 AD, these recently discovered papyri are from at least 400 years after Jesus. That would be like finding a note from today making a new claim about the life of Shakespeare and assuming it was correct.
So should Christians be worried about this kind of discovery?
Let’s first remember that there are several old texts that refer to Jesus Christ and not all of them are authentic or legitimate. The four Gospels written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, are the only records of Jesus life and ministry that we have. There were no other writings that were considered or evaluated when it came to the Gospels. (Those words “considered” or “evaluated” aren’t even really the right terms – the church didn’t go looking for writings to include in the New Testament. Instead, these writings were widely read and circulated between churches and understood to be the Word of God.) From the time they were written, these four Gospels have been recognized by the church as the only divinely inspired writings about Jesus.
You may have heard about The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Judas, or The Gospel of Mary. National Geographic and The History Channel like to parade these writings around as proof that the church was selective about what books made it into the Bible and which ones got left out, and it’s often portrayed that the church had some kind of ulterior motive. As much as it makes for great drama, it’s just not true. Those other writings came about much later – centuries later – than the writers of the Gospels. They were also written from a Gnostic view and not from a Christian view.
IF Jesus had been married, we would surely know about it from the writers of the Gospels. We would expect that a major detail like that to be included. Instead, there is no mention of a wife or even a family other than His parents and siblings.
Christians have no need to be concerned about the Bible’s authenticity or an alleged coverup of a detail like this.
So, the real question is, why are people working so hard to get Jesus married off?
It partly comes from historians and archeologists who are searching for what they call the Jesus of History (as opposed to the Jesus of faith). It seems like a perfectly legitimate thing to study. After all, Jesus was a real person who lived in first century Palestine and there are several historical records that make reference to Jesus and His followers. It’s impossible to make the claim that Jesus never existed – there is simply too much of a record that He really lived. It certainly seems like a worthy field of study.
But the search for the Historical Jesus [usually] begins with a critical starting point: that Jesus was only a man. As Christians, there’s an important understanding of who Jesus really is, namely He is one person with two natures – a divine and human nature. Those who are looking for the Historical Jesus are more often than not of the persuasion that Jesus was merely a human – certainly an influential one, but a human none the less. In their view, the divinity of Jesus is completely ignored or removed. This means that there were no miracles, no resurrection, and no healing. They see Jesus’ teaching as only symbolic and usually politically oriented. In short, the Jesus of History that they find ends up looking nothing like the real Jesus – the Son of God and second person of the Trinity.
For them, getting Jesus married seems like a perfectly normal thing to do. It would have been common for a rabbi of Jesus’ time to be married and have a family. But for Christians who understand that Jesus is both God and Man and who was on a mission to save creation from the power of sin, death, and Satan, marriage wouldn’t be on Jesus’ agenda. He had a job to do and being married wouldn’t have helped Him accomplish His mission.
We can also take comfort in the fact that these kind of claims have been made for centuries, and the position of the church has remained unchanged – not because of some sly agenda or corrupt teaching, but because of the Word of God.
The Jesus’ wife papyri may be old, and may say that Jesus had a wife, but it doesn’t make the claim true.