A tiny scrap of papyrus is creating quite the buzz lately. Last Tuesday, Harvard Divinity School professor Karen King made public the text of this tentatively authentic fragment, which includes an alleged quote from Jesus saying the phrase “My wife …” followed by, “She will be able to be my disciple.”
Riveting stuff, I know.
But in all seriousness, these words have the potential to revolutionize several different areas of Christianity. This evidence breathes new life into the age-old debate about Jesus as a man and as a symbol. Also of particular interest for me as a full-fledged Berkeley-inspired feminist, it reopens the conversation about women in the church, especially in the Roman Catholic denomination.
Quick review: Jesus is the messiah of Christian believers, a notable prophet in Islam and the rejected savior of Judaism. His most important role is, of course, within Christianity, but he is a pervasive figure in American culture. But for Christians specifically, he was God in the flesh without the multifarious issues that plague the undivine human male — his mother was a virgin, he lived without sin and allegedly had no family (in the traditional sense of the word). Much of Jesus’ mystique comes from this contradiction: He lived in the corporeal world without bending to its material demands.
But if you throw a wife in the mix, then all of a sudden, Jesus becomes a lot more complicated. His marital status prompts questions about desire, sexuality, spousal relations, etc. The “lone wolf” depiction of Jesus that currently dominates his accepted identity is a lot simpler and safer because it keeps the “divine” at a manageable distance from the profane world. In short, Jesus would be a lot more human than divine if he were hitched.
I spoke with one member of the Cal Christian Fellowship about this very complication. Senior Kirsten Kuwatani feels this argumentation is a little premature, given the nature of the new evidence. In Christianity, the relationship between Christ and the Church is commonly framed as that of husband and wife. Kuwatani said this common motif was likely being employed in the translated papyrus, which is a valid position considering the ambiguity of the phrase.
The limitations of this type of discovery are apparent in Kuwatani’s response. How much can a piece of papyrus from well after Jesus lived fundamentally alter the cult of personality around this man that has been built up for more than 2,000 years? Only time will tell how important this information will be in restructuring overall Christian ideology. Nonetheless, the possibility of a wife figure of Jesus has struck a different, and core, nerve in Catholicism.
Jesus’ permanent state of bachelorhood and his entourage of all-male disciples have been used to uphold a ban against women in the Catholic clergy. In a world where feminist and equality movements have touched nearly every public and private sphere and have even started discussions in religious contexts, the Vatican has remained staunch in its opposition to the integration of female priests. Their logic relies heavily upon the fact that Jesus did not appoint women to be his disciples, nor as priestesses. He was the model of clerical excellence, and his ruling, as extrapolated from his actions, serves as the final word on the subject to this day.
In light of this reality, King’s revelation is no longer as inconsequential as it initially seems. Jesus explicitly uses a feminine pronoun, regardless of whether or not he was referring to his wife, in delineating who can legitimately be among his disciples. And if the Catholic Church stays loyal to its previous process of justification, discipleship and the priesthood would therefore be open to women, according to Jesus’ model. This pint-size papyrus may perhaps even pave the way for a Popess!
Certainly, this would be a positive move toward equality for the historically conservative Catholic Church, but it is underscored by the reality that only a male figure — Jesus — could bring about this change. If Jesus really did have a wife, it is tragic that history has managed to erase her existence almost entirely. But history is never static, and it is promising and exciting that such new developments, with their undercurrents of feminism and all, can still enter into categories “closed” to revision.
I may offend Nietzsche here, but this papyrus is impressive largely because it demonstrates that religion is not dead. And although I am sometimes frustrated and disheartened by how religion reinforces larger structures of patriarchy, I am thrilled at the prospect of learning how these devotees may negotiate that relationship in a new way.