The “Did-Jesus-Have-A-Wife” Controversy: A Study In Postmodern Ideology

Jun 5th, 2021 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

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More biographies have been written about Jesus than any other historical figure.  The book that defines His nature, His character and His mission—the Bible—is annually the number-one-seller.  No one’s teaching has had a deeper impact on culture, politics, morality, justice, philosophy, and human character than Jesus.  He is habitually quoted, even by secular world leaders.  Indeed, in a recent book by British historian, Tom Holland, Jesus and His movement called Christianity, are characterized as “the most subversive revolution in human history, whose legacy is the ongoing disruption of settled patterns of life.”  With His emphasis on love and human equality, Jesus undermined tyranny, racism, men’s abuse of women and selfish imperialism.  He offered salvation to all humans and provided the foundation for a new kingdom, the kingdom of God—with values, virtues and standards that undermine the kingdom of darkness in this broken, fallen world.  His call is a radical call to discipleship that transcends and overcomes ethnic-political loyalties.  His followers have a loyalty to Him above all else.  Hence the title of Holland’s book, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World.

Is it important to come to terms with the claims of Jesus?  In the 17th century, French mathematician and theologian Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) posited a “wager” about those claims.  If you believe the claims of Jesus throughout your life and they are found to be false, what have you lost when you die?  But, if your reject those claims and they are found to be true, what have you lost when you die?  Another way of considering Pascal’s “wager” is that there are eternal consequences to examining and responding to the claims of Jesus Christ.

The Old Testament (OT) progressively unfolds God’s response to humanity’s hopelessness.  Over time, God revealed His plan to redeem hopeless humanity and undo the devastation of the rebellion led by Satan.  Let’s review this plan, in select OT texts, all centered on Jesus:

  • He would strike the fatal blow against Satan: Genesis 3:15 [fulfilled in Galatians 4:4].
  • He would be a Jew, fulfilling the Abrahamic Covenant and the Davidic Covenants:  Genesis 12:2 (Abraham); Numbers 24:17 (Jacob); Genesis 49:10 (Judah); Isaiah 11:1 (Jesses); 2 Samuel 7:12-16 (David) [fulfilled in Matthew 1:1, 2 and Luke 3:23, 32, 34].
  • He would be born of a virgin:  Isaiah 7:14 [fulfilled in Matthew 1:23].
  • He would be born in Bethlehem:  Micah 5:2 [fulfilled in Matthew 2:6].
  • He would be preceded by a “forerunner,” who would introduce and prepare the way for Him:  Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1 [fulfilled in Matthew 3:3].
  • He would escape with His parents into Egypt to escape King Herod’s nefarious genocide:  Hosea 11:1 with Jeremiah 31:15 [fulfilled in Matthew 2:14-18].
  • He would be a King, a Prophet and a Priest:  Psalm 2:6; Deuteronomy 18:15-18; Psalm 110:4 [fulfilled in Matthew 21:5; Acts 3:22-23; Hebrews 5:6-10].
  • He would be called “Lord” and “Immanuel:” Psalm 110:1 and Isaiah 7:14 [fulfilled in Luke 2:11 and Matthew 1:23].

Famously, C.S. Lewis wrote of Jesus: “. . . people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’  That is the one thing we must not say.  A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher.  He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell.  You must make your choice.  Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse.  You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God.  But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher.  He has not left that open to us.  He did not intend to.” [Mere Christianity, p. 56]

There are three key terms that frame our understanding of Jesus:  His humanity, His deity, the unity of these two natures in one Person.  This issue affects our salvation.  Jesus must be fully human to die as our substitute; fully divine to die as our perfect substitute.  Thus, Christology is linked with Soteriology.  But how are His two natures united.  Is He more God than man?  More man than God?  The definition that best embodies all the evidence is that Jesus Christ is undiminished deity plus perfect humanity, united in one person.  He is the Godman.

Throughout church history, the view of Jesus I just summarized has been challenged, rejected and ultimately mocked by many as myth and legend.  Indeed, more recently, the mass audience book, The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, posited that Jesus was a mere human being who was married to Mary Magdalene, whose offspring produced the Merovingian dynasty of medieval France.  Then, in September 2012, Karen King, the Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard, announced at the International Congress of Coptic Studies that a second-century papyrus fragment text suggested that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene.  This fragment became known as “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.”  [The papyrus fragment contained eight cryptic, incomplete lines in Coptic, including the provocative, “Jesus said to them, My wife . . . .”]   The papyrus fragment, King argued, hinted that this “wife” named Mary, would reasonably be Mary Magdalene, whom Pope Gregory the Great in the 6th century denominated as a prostitute.  [The Bible never declares her to be a prostitute.]  King is a well-known feminist scholar whose specialty is Gnostic Christianity, especially the second-century apocryphal “Gospel of Mary.”  [See her book, The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle.]

In 2020, the award-wining journalist Ariel Sabar published Veritas: A Harvard Professor, A Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, which analyzed the veracity of Karen King’s bombshell claim.

He provides incontrovertible evidence that King was the victim of a hoax that invalidates all of her claims about Jesus being married to Mary Magdalene.  What did Sabar uncover?

  • Even before the 2012 Rome event where King revealed the importance of the papyrus, two of the three anonymous peer reviewers retained by the Harvard Theological Review suggested that the papyrus fragment might have been a fake.  In a review of Sabar’s book, Alex Beam points out that Brown University Egyptologist Leo Depuydt called the papyrus’s grammar a “colossal double blunder,” arguing that “its creator was less likely to have been a ‘very incompetent ancient scriber’ than ‘a modern author who might have benefitted from one more semester of Coptic.’”  As Sabar contends, King, who taught Coptic at Harvard, “had somehow failed to spot most of the text’s grammatical irregularities.”  [Actually, it was discovered, the so-called 2nd century text was written on 8th century papyrus with 21st century ink.]
  • Sabar reveals that the original owner of the papyrus text was Walter Fritz, a failed German student of Egyptology and director of the Stasi Museum “turned Florida based wife-swapping pornographer.”  The mystery of Fritz—and why King did not fully investigate the provenance of this scrap—is at the center of” Sabar’s book.  In short, King “bypassed the facts, ignored peers who warned her something was amiss and failed to thoroughly interrogate how Fritz had come to possess this stunning artifact.”
  • Sabar also demonstrates that the Columbia University and MIT “authentications” of the fragment were performed by scholars with “close personal ties” to Dr. King.  The MIT authenticator was the son of a family friend and “an expert in explosives detection.”  The ink analyst from Columbia “had no experience with ancient objects.”  As Mark Oppenheimer in another book review points out, “To test the papyrus, [King] engaged a friend who had been an usher at her first wedding, with whom she regularly spent New Year’s Eve.  She was blind to the conflict of interest.  Another tester, who gave the second of two favorable early reports, was the brother-in-law of King’s close academic ally, who solicited him for the job.  Complicit were the editors of The Harvard Theological Review, which published these results, and Harvard’s press office, which flogged them to the world with the avidity of Hollywood publicists.”

Sabar concludes that “[King’s] ideological commitments were choreographing her practices of history.  The story came first; the dates managed after.  The narrative before the evidence; the new conference before the scientific analysis.”  In a very real sense, King epitomizes Postmodernism, for she had previously written, history “is not about truth but about power relations,” and historians should forsake “the association between truth and chronology.” By 2016 it became clear that “the fragment was nothing more than a bad forgery cobbled together from publicly available Gnostic texts with sloppy penmanship.”  King, now 66 and retired from her position at Harvard, is a tragic and pathetic figure whose formidable academic career is now in shambles.

See Alex Beam in the Wall Street Journal (4 August 2020); Mark Oppenheimer in the New York Times (27 September 2020); and Lucas Wittmann in Time (17-24 August 2020).

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