Jesus Christ! Married Guy!

Ever since the story broke about the Coptic papyrus, I’ve been finding myself singing new riffs on various Broadway musicals. For example, if you’re in an Andrew Lloyd Webber mood:

Jesus Christ! Married guy!
Earthshaking news, though we might ask why!

Or, with apologies to Avenue Q:

If Christ had wed,
Like I just read
A fragment said,
Would we be ed-i-fied?
[jazz hands!]

Ahem. No, in seriousness, I do realize that the fragment of papyrus referring to Jesus’ wife, if genuine, would be interesting. It’s from the fourth century, which was when the questions about Jesus that theologians now remember as the biggies—like, did Christ exist from all eternity? Or was he the first creature that God the Father created?—were of a rather different flavor than “Did Jesus put a ring on it?”  

But that’s precisely why this discovery would be noteworthy. As I’ve learned from my colleages Brandon Scott and Dennis Smith, traditions that elevate Mary Magdalene do show up well earlier than the 4th century, and they stick around a while. It would be fascinating if the papyrus gave us more knowledge about whether and how those traditions endured, even when so many others had turned their attention to more metaphysical questions about Christ’s person and nature. Plus, it could raise other tantalizing questions like: what did that tradition make of the “bride of Christ” language for the church? Did they subvert it? Appropriate it? Ignore it? What? 

Still, I think Stephen Prothero has it right when he says:

Our Jesus has been black and white, gay and straight, a socialist and a capitalist, a pacifist and a warrior, a civil rights activist and a Ku Klux Klansman. Over the American centuries, he has stood not on some unchanging rock of ages but on the shifting sands of economic circumstances, political calculations and cultural trends… Now, in an era in which Americans are debating who can marry and have sex with whom, we are given a Jesus who has given his body and soul in marriage, at least if we are to believe the scrap of ancient papyrus soon coming, via Harvard Divinity School professor Karen King and the Smithsonian Channel, to a television set near you.

Given the understandable tendency to see ourselves in Jesus and vice versa, it seems worth mentioning that a married first-century Palestinian Jewish Jesus would still be very, very, very different from, say, a married 21st-century Christian guy living in the U.S. 

Because the two settings are very, very different. Sure, both contain a powerful empire, debt slavery, and rampant economic inequality. But measured by other criteria—life expectancy, social institutions and arrangements, explanations for natural phenomena, ways of imagining the body, and ways of being what we late moderns would call “selves”—the worlds are just very different. A married Jesus would not really resemble a 21st-century nuclear family man than would an unmarried Jesus.  

Luckily, Jesus, and the history of ideas about Jesus, are worth learning about quite apart from whether our discoveries make him seem more or less like us. Because learning more about important things means you understand them better, and have more informed things to say about them… and darn it all, I think those things pretty much unqualified goods. Or, failing that, there are always the show tune possibilities.