There has been considerable misunderstanding about this, partly because people think of a gospel as a genre of the New Testament canon. But for those of us who work in the literature of the 2nd century, we have the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Philip and many, many other early Christian gospels. My suggestion in calling it a gospel is that it fits into this kind of genre. It’s not a claim for authority or canonicity at all.
And when it comes to gospels, she says, size doesn't matter:
With regard to the New Testament, for example, from this period we have tiny fragments of the New Testament gospels, John and Matthew, dating from the 2nd and 3rd century. These are actually the earliest physical existing pieces of these gospels that still remain, and they are tiny fragments like this one. The size of the fragment doesn’t actually indicate the size of the work it comes from.
King notes that ink testing, which is currently underway, will help resolve the issue of the fragment's authenticity, which, as we highlighted on Sunday, other academics have disputed. Professor Simon Gathercole, an expert on apocryphal gospels, offers some key context on what the timing of the script might imply about theological disagreements in early Christianity:
It could reflect debates about marriage and sex in the early church.
Tertullian (c. 200, the time of this fragment), discussed marriage a lot, in particular re-marriage after death of a spouse (which [Jesus] said was wrong), and his view of marriage was that the ideal marriage was without sex. Others at the time, like Clement of Alexandria, report opponents using Jesus’ celibacy as an argument for Christians remaining celibate. Some, he says, “say outright that marriage is fornication and teach that it was introduced by the devil. These arrogant people say that they are imitating the Lord, who neither married nor possessed anything in this world, boasting that they understand the gospel better than others.” (Clement, Stromateis3.49.1). The use of such a striking motif as Jesus being married obviously had a point to it: it may have been that Jesus’ marriage was invented as a reason to justify marriage.
Other academics agree with that possibility:
According to Michael Peppard, a professor of theology and Coptic language at Fordham University, a belief in asceticism saw rapid development in the second to fourth centuries, especially in Egypt where Christian monasticism was born. Some bishops at the time “were saying that the highest ideal was asceticism,” which included renouncing “all the trappings and worries of material life,” including marriage.
But Peppard said other bishops in the same period “were figuring out how to give everyone their space,” and letting it be known it was all right for Christians to live in the world. The new text published by King may be a sign of early Christians “pushing back” against asceticism and moving closer to mainstream Jewish attitudes “of blessing sex and procreation,” Peppard said.
Meanwhile, Fred Clark adds some comparative context from the New Testament to the debate:
Consider the apostle Peter’s wife. Mark’s Gospel tells us that Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law. If Peter had a mother-in-law, then he must have also had a wife, yet she isn’t mentioned in that story, or anywhere else in the Gospels, in Acts, or in the epistles attributed to Peter. The only other mention of her is in one of Paul’s letters, when he says, in passing, that apostles should take their wives along like Peter does (see 1 Corinthians 9:5).
So on the one hand, if Jesus had been married, then it seems like his wife ought to have been mentioned as being present at least at his death and burial. But on the other hand, if Peter’s wife could be invisibly present throughout the book of Acts, then the same thing could be true for Jesus’ wife in the book of Luke.
Clark also muses on the potential impact of the notion of a married Jesus:
It’s possible that would lead to the church becoming a bit less patriarchal, but probably not. The cult of virginity (in both its Catholic and Protestant forms) would live on in new forms. The same forces that conspired to turn Jesus’ brothers into his cousins so that his mother could declared a perpetual virgin — a madonna rather than that other thing — would likely create a parallel myth to attribute perpetual virginity to his wife as well. Sure, Jesus was technically married, they would say, but somehow he and his wife — just like poor Mary and Joseph — never did what married people do.