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Coptic Manuscript brings Jesus' Name to the Headlines

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Sep 27, 2012

Dr. George L. Parsenios

The last several years have seen Jesus in the headlines over and over again, often because an artifact has been uncovered that purports to tell us something we never knew before.  It is an amazing testament to the unique power of the person of Jesus that these stories continue to attract the attention even of unbelievers. Very often, though, these artifacts grab bold headlines because they seem to undermine traditional Christian belief.  Some are shown to be frauds; others are shown to have nothing to do with Jesus under further examination. The most recent such discovery is a papyrus fragment that seems to refer to Jesus as having a wife. It's still early in the study of this document, but several things can be said for certain.

  1. The authenticity of the document has not been settled.  It may still be shown to be a modern forgery. The study of ancient documents is a highly specialized and complicated field.  As all news reports indicate, some people accept the antiquity of the document; others are suspicious. According to ABC News, one of these skeptics is Stephen Emmel of the Institute of Egyptology and Coptology at the University of Muenster (Germany).  He is well known as one of the leading experts in Coptic manuscript studies in the world.  His skepticism should be taken seriously.
  2. Even if it is an ancient text and not a modern forgery, this document does not mean that Jesus was married. Despite the screaming headlines, the very scholar who published the fragment agrees that it says nothing about the historical Jesus, and about whether or not he was married. How can that be? The best way to understand this is to look at movies about Jesus from the 20th century. In some of them, Jesus had blonde hair and blue eyes. In others, like Jesus Christ Superstar, Jesus was a hippy in blue jeans and a bandana.  No one would assume that Jesus actually looked or acted like these movies presented him.  Rather, the movies tell us a great deal about views on race and politics in 20th century America, and absolutely nothing about the 1st century life of Jesus in Palestine. The same historical value should be attached to this 4th century fragment, written hundreds of years after Jesus’ ministry, even if it is a translation of a 2nd century document. It tells us about how fringe groups outside of mainstream Christianity thought of Jesus.  We learn about these groups, and not about the actual life of Jesus.  Because this fragment is just that – a fragment – it’s impossible to know which group circulated it.
  3. Some seem to imagine that there was a conspiracy to hide that Jesus was married. We live in an age of conspiracy theories, and these theories arise in the face of inexplicable events.  Because the Gospels tell us so little about Jesus’ childhood or personal life, people wonder about the aspects of his life not narrated, and conspiracies can take root. But the Gospels are not like modern biographies, which describe every aspect of a person’s life. The Gospels are ancient biographies. When Plutarch of Chaeronea (46-120 AD) wrote the biography of Alexander the Great, he did not describe every event in Alexander’s life, but focused on those distinguishing features that defined Alexander’s character.  Plutarch said he was a like a portrait painter who wouldn’t paint the whole figure, but only those lines in the face and distinguishing features that revealed the essential character and significance of Alexander.  The Gospel of John ends by telling us very much the same thing, when it says that Jesus said and did many other things, but John selected only those things that revealed the character and significance of Jesus, “so that you might believe that he is the Messiah, the Son of God, and by believing, you might have life in his name.”
  4. From the very moment that Jesus Christ entered the world as both God and man, human minds have struggled to comprehend the great mystery that he reveals.  Even some of his first disciples imagined that his earthly life had very earthly goals, like driving the Romans out of Judea and restoring political freedom to Israel (Acts 1:6).  But the meaning of Jesus’ life extends far beyond what our human minds can imagine or want.  He freed us, not just from earthly enemies, but from the universal bondage of sin and death.  So in the same way that he urged his disciples to place devotion to him over all earthly ties - even the ties of family – his own earthly life was entirely focused on the will and work of God.

George L. Parsenios (PhD, Yale University; MDiv Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology) is Associate Professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary.

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