His Eminence Metropolitan Methodios is grateful to the Reverend Dr. Theodore Stylianopoulos for responding to recent media reports concerning a 4th century Coptic text. Father Stylianopoulos is Professor Emeritus of New Testament at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology.
An announcement about an ancient text in which Jesus is reported to have spoken about “my wife” has received extensive attention in the media in recent days. The text comes from a small papyrus fragment about 1x3 inches in size, judged to be of the fourth century AD, which apparently had broken off from a larger page of a document presumed lost. The text is still in the process of linguistic and chemical analysis to determine its authenticity. When the papyrus fragment was discovered, and under what circumstances it has passed from hand to hand until the public announcement, are presently unknown.
Written in ancient Sahidic Coptic script, the text is perhaps a translation of an earlier Greek document. Because the lines on all four sides of the fragment are broken and incomplete, transcription of meaningful sentences is impossible. But the names of Jesus and also Mary (presumably Mary Magdalene) are reported to occur, and also certain phrases, including Jesus using the expression “my wife.” Mary Magdalene has been portrayed as an intimate of Jesus, but not a wife, in other ancient writings already known to the Fathers of the Church and designated as apocrypha and fraudulent. These works were composed by small circles of heretical teachers concerned to disseminate their own and often bizarre teachings. For example, a few years ago the discovery of “The Gospel of Judas” caused a stir in the media. This document was known to St. Irenaeus in the late second century AD. Among its strange teachings is that Judas was the only disciple who truly understood Jesus and that his treachery was a good thing in itself because it helped Jesus to be crucified; except that by that time the real Christ had (weirdly) departed from Jesus and that only Jesus the man was crucified.
Professor Karen King of Harvard Divinity School who made the announcement cautioned that the new text is no proof that Jesus was married but only an indication that Christians in the fourth century debated the issues of marriage and celibacy. The Gospels and most of the other books of the New Testament are extensive documents of the first century AD and provide no hint that Jesus was married. Marriage was viewed as a sacred covenant in Judaism. It should be noted that St. Peter the Apostle, as well as other apostles were married (Mark 1:30; 1 Cor. 9:5). The Bible and the Orthodox theology confirm that marriage is instituted by God, it is honorable and holy, one of the sacraments of the Church. Just as the Church honors a celibate life dedicated to God, so also it celebrates marriage as a workshop of God’s kingdom--a journey to God.