A reader writes:
"It appears genuine" – really? This is a very creative way of saying something that's technically true while avoiding the actual issue. Yes, it appears to be a 4th-century Coptic Christian document, perhaps from an alternative Gospel. However, there are dozens of similar alternative Gospels, from the one written by Jesus's brother to the one that makes Judas out to be the hero of Gnosis. Why would this one have any greater claim to fact than those other documents, written hundreds of years after Jesus' death?
It has no greater claim at all. It doesn't tell us much except that some fourth century Christians thought Jesus was married. Another gets bent out of shape:
That's a legitimately interesting discovery that you posted to earlier. But the way you tossed in that this find "greets the fundamentalist world and the Vatican" – as though the pope has to explain this away, or else the jig is up! – was such a dilettantish and hackish overreaction that I had to respond. Where to start?
This is part of a completely unknown text. We know that this bit of papyrus is from about the 4th century – more years between it and Jesus than between us and George Washington – but that's it. We don't know what larger work this is a part of. It could be an editor's later addition to an earlier book, like the Gospel of Thomas, as part of it has a similar wording. It could be a work completely new to us. We have no idea of what the surrounding text says.
The sentence isn't even complete: "And Jesus said to them, 'My wife…'" It could be the start of a parable, or the beginning of a metaphor involving family members, a la Matthew 12:48: "Jesus said to him, 'Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?'" You don't respond to that isolated sentence by concluding that Jesus was an orphan or had no idea of his family, do you? And as this post at The Atlantic points out, a reference to Christ's wife is hardly limited to a literal spouse.
But, as you point out, "It appears genuine." As in, it's old, and not a recent forgery. Well! What it says must be true. Even though we're not sure what it is. The pope should just quit now. Do you know what you call people who take a decontextualized piece of an ancient work (in this case, a couple of sentence fragments) they know next to nothing about, make sweeping, unsubstantiated assumptions about what it is and how to understand it, and decide that their conclusions are likely historical fact? Biblical literalists. They have a museum in Kentucky you might like.
I do think that seeing the wide diversity of early Christianity does scramble old notions of a single, monolithic Christianity from the beginning onwards which fundamentalists, yes, cling to. The Pope's circular non-arguments against married priests are also challenged somewhat by this scrap.
David Haglund, who passes along the above video, argues that "the parchment serves primarily as a reminder that this question about the historical Jesus has never been settled, and that confident assertions on the matter tend to be fraught with social and political implications." We'll delve more into this on Sunday.