Theology professor Arthur Dewey offers insight into words referring to Jesus' "wife" on a papyrus fragment

The fragment was presented publicly this week by a Jesus Seminar colleague | September 20, 2012

Was Jesus married? Did he allow women to become his disciples? The questions have been debated among scholars for centuries to no conclusive end, although a new document made public this week pushes the subject back into the spotlight and adds interesting new evidence to the debate.

On Tuesday, Karen King, an early Christian historian at Harvard Divinity School, brought to the public’s attention a privately owned piece of papyrus with Coptic writing on it. Among the words translated from the document are, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife...’ ” and “she will be able to be my disciple.” The document has been authenticated by scholars and dated to some time in the fourth century—a little late in the realm of the historical Jesus discussion, but still early enough in the formation of the Christian Church to have an impact on the debate on women’s roles in the Church. Jesus' being married and allowing women disciples could dramatically change the well-debated issues of both celibacy and women priests.

But will it? Probably not, says Arthur Dewey, a professor of theology here at Xavier and expert in the historical Jesus. Dewey earned his doctorate in theology from Harvard Divinity School and knows King from The Jesus Seminar, where they are both Fellows. He knew about the document, which is about the size of a business card, prior to its release to the media, and had the chance to study it, its transcriptions and its translations.

“You can definitely say it’s from the fourth century, and it may well relate to a translation from the Greek from the second century,” he says. “You can read the Coptic, and you can tell by the writing that it’s not from a very good scribe, but that’s not unusual. The problem is there’s not enough words or phrases to make any conclusions. It’s frustrating because just when it becomes interesting it cuts off.”

But, he says, finding an ancient document that mentions Jesus’ wife clearly must have at least some impact on the conversation.

“This is the first text that says that Jesus had a wife,” he says. “I suppose you could say it continues metaphorically with something like, ‘Jesus said, “My wife, the community...” ’ But that’s not in the text.”

The document’s biggest impact, he says, is not what it reveals about Jesus, but what it reveals about the thoughts of the early Jesus followers and what was being debated in the Church at that time.

“It’s more a reflection of the concern of Jesus’ followers at that time than it is the historical Jesus,” he says. “In the first century, the concern was about discipleship. In Mark, the question was, ‘Who is my brother and mother? Those who do the will of God.’ They were not worried about if Jesus was married but about his words and deeds, especially wisdom. But in the second century, the issue of virginity became important. The focus shifted to whether disciples should be celibate or if it was OK for them to have regular sex.

“Bodies at that time were seen as part of the larger social matrix, kind of like the Shakers being celibate to the mission. Men’s bodies were seen to be part of the nation; women were part of the family. But women started raising the issue of being in control of their own bodies. That raised concerns if it was OK to be a disciple if you weren’t celibate. That’s when this whole debate started.”

And it’s still being debated today.