My contribution to the latest installment of The Paper Machete, Chicago’s live newsmagazine/reading series, which happened last Saturday:
Big news this week in the field of papyrology, that is, the study of ancient papyrus scrolls. (and when you ponder whether YOUR degree has gotten you very far, think of that.) A small piece of ancient papyrus, much smaller than a placemat from Pier One, was discovered to contain writing that could or could not shake the foundations of the Christian religion.
First, a little background. At the end of last year, a papyrus collector (and I should warn you, never get cornered at a party by a papyrus collector) brought the scrap to the Harvard Divinity school. Dr. Karen King, noted papyrologist, examined the scrap, showed it to colleagues at the secretive and exclusive Papyrus League Club, and determined that it was not a forgery. This week, Dr. King announced her findings would be published soon in US Weekly (really, the Harvard Theological Review).
The scrap, cut from a larger scroll, contained seven lines of sentence fragments. Among these were the words: “Jesus said, My wife.”
Now, I’d like to get address the elephant in the room and head straight for the Borscht Belt treatment: Jesus said, “My wife wants to take a vacation, spark up our LOVE life. Wants to go to the Dead Sea. I say, Why the Dead Sea? She says, it reminds me of our love life.”
And also: How can you tell that Jesus was married? He brings 5000 people over and then asks, “Hey, have we got any food?”
The headlines screamed the predictably sensational question, “Was Jesus married?” The expert from Harvard answered strongly that she had no idea. The sentence wasn’t complete, it had no context, the scrap had been cut from a larger papyrus we don’t have. It was written 150 years after the death of Jesus, who as you remember, was someone prone to speak a little cryptically. It could have been the start of a parable, analogy, mystical figurative allusion, or something else.
But I ask you, what’s more fun, scholarship or baseless conjecture? Then let’s get to it.
There is no clue as to the identity of the woman mentioned. Some traditions in the early Common Era have held that Jesus had a more-than-platonic relationship with Mary Magdalene, the prostitute turned disciple. This was exploited for Biblical Broadway hotness in “Jesus Christ Superstar” and for the members of the Wal-Mart Book Society in The DaVinci Code. If Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ wife, at least she’d be travelling with him and not stuck back in Podunk-areth.
The idea that Jesus was married does more than make the New Testament more saleable as a Lifetime mini-series. (You know somewhere the concept has been pitched, and a producer has said, “I like the story, but this guy Jesus, he needs to be sexed up.”) If the scrap proves to be accurate, it might shake the foundations of the Christian church as we know it, at least until the church as we know it squelches it.
(The collector who owns the scrap, by the way, has chosen to remain anonymous. He says it’s because he doesn’t want to be flooded with requests to sell it. But we all know what he’s really afraid of: Vatican ninjas!)
Throughout church history, there has been a battle about human flesh, about the proper relation of the physical to the spiritual, the body and the soul. Different groups have asked, should believers remain celibate? The Shakers, for example, are a group in US history that believed in salvation through communal living but no sex. Not surprisingly, only their furniture remains. Should believers indulge in any physical pleasure at all? If the taboo against sexual pleasure in marriage is knocked down, zealots would have to get busy building the case against other physical pleasures not mentioned in the bible, like footrubs or farting.
The governing bodies of the Catholic Church have historically used the agreed-upon narrative of Jesus’ life to justify the way the church operates and who operates it. The Pope and Roman Catholic clergy have used Jesus’ bachelorhood to justify single, celibate lives for priests and nuns. Now, if the words on this papyrus are true and Jesus was really married, that’s all out the window. Matrimony might become mandatory. The pope himself might be forced to get married, possibly to a former Israeli sex worker
Priests would also be allowed to marry, which would be a development so healthy that I can’t even think of an analogy of something that would be as healthy. My heart goes out to the nuns, though. At times they are referred to as “brides of Christ.” This new development would leave them heartbroken standing at the altar, about as close to the altar as they are officially allowed to get. And many of them would have to come out of the closet much earlier.
But there is other good news for women: The papyrus scrap also contained the phrase “she will be able to be my disciple.” Could such an admission allow women to take true leadership positions in more conservative churches?. Think of that! Twenty centuries of patriarchy swept away. In the blink of an eye. All that institutionalized sexism vanished. Yeah. … There are leaps of faith, and then there are daredevil, kamikaze leaps of faith.
But you know, it might happen, after a fashion. My guess is: There were 12 apostles, minus Judas equals 11. This vacancy allows Mary Magdalene to get a promotion. And since that makes 1/12th of the apostles women, then churches would require one out of 12 priests and pastors to be women. Most likely, they’d only be allowed to work one out of 12 months a year, probably February, the shortest month of the year, which they’d share with Black History Month. But still.
All these changes are possible, but they hinge on the notion that just because Jesus stood for something, his earth-bound interpreters would follow it. So forget I even brought it up.
This issue of the papyrus scrap does serve as a helpful reminder of how the Bible was put together. It should remind literalists and fundamentalists especially, that the Bible was not delivered through the years intact, in small leather-bound volumes in hotel dresser drawers. It was assembled from fragments from a variety of sources. A scroll here, a tablet there. Some redundant, some incomplete. The current Bible was pieced together by scholars and politicians during the first 4 centuries after Jesus’ life. Some ancient materials, such as the Gospels of Thomas, of Judas, and of – guess who? – Mary Magdalene, have been excluded by most churches for a variety of reasons. These texts, known as the Apocrypha, still provide crucial insight into how people strive to understand their existence in the world, their urge to rise above it, their quest to find a divine order to things, to “get right with God”. This scrap of papyrus is now part of the discussion. There’s no way to tell right now if this scrap tells us the literal truth of the life of Jesus or whether he was married. But it can be a new wrinkle.
Fundamentalists HATE new wrinkles. So there’s some joy to be had in the prospect of that.
At least as much joy as there is in imagining the things Mary Magdalene ended up saying to her second spouse. “Yeah, you’re no match for my first husband. That guy was amazing.”