The Last Supper - Tintoretto (1594)

When I used to be Roman Catholic, there was no ceremony or subject I would love more than the Eucharist, only followed by the devotion to Our Lady. It became the center of my religious life.

After I became a Religious Naturalist, my spirituality has changed considerably, although, some of my views are touched by drops of Eucharistic metaphors. While researching on Paul the Apostle for the publication of my book’s third edition, I found a perspective that apparently is becoming very popular in some Spanish scholarly circles. Unfortunately, due to the fact of language, many other Bible scholars around the world usually don’t engage very much with Spanish-speaking scholars or read works written in Spanish.

Antonio Piñero de Sáenz

Antonio Piñero de Sáenz

This perspective whose most visible representative figure in Spain is Antonio Piñero de Sáenz, I consider to be the most complete, sound, and thorough view on the Eucharist I have ever seen thus far. In these series on the Eucharist, I’m going to make an exposition of his views. I will also add a bit more information that might confirm them (I will note them so that people do not confuse his opinion with mine). The reason I’m doing this is because I detect a certain discomfort about this subject among scholars regarding the big elephant in the room, that the traditional story of the Eucharist has its actual roots in Paul, and not the Apostles, nor the Last Supper itself. I hope that I represent Piñero’s opinion accurately.

NOTE: I want to make clear that with these series I do NOT intend to present my position as being de facto superior to the opinions of the vast majority of scholars in the world. I think that I’m right, but another thing is if I am right. This is my opinion for the moment and an exposition of a respected scholar’s view that I think should get more attention in the English-speaking world. Yet, at the very end of the day, the consensus of Bible scholars is more authoritative than anything I write. I respect it! I am an outsider looking at what is going on in Bible scholarship. Do NOT take these blog series as being as authoritative as Biblical scholarship in general. On the contrary, be critical of everything I say. THAT said, let’s continue …

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The Stories of the Last Supper

In this first blog, I would like to make an exposition of the stories of the Last Supper as they appear in the New Testament in chronological order.

Let’s start with the earliest one we have, which appears in one of Paul’s genuine letters (all quotes are from the NRSV):

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat and drink from this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes (1 Cor. 11:23-26).

1 Corinthians is treated by scholars as being one whole letter written by Paul, while others think that they are two letters edited into one. Whichever the position, the content of 1 Corinthians seems to have been written around the years 52-54 C.E. This constitutes the earliest story we have regarding the Last Supper.

Let’s explore the next one, which appears in the Gospel of Mark, written around 65-70 C.E.

While they were eating, [Jesus] took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after  giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God” (Mark 14:22-25).

In the Gospel of Matthew, written around 80-90 C.E., we find a similar story.

While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will never gain drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matthew 26:26-29).

For now, these three versions look very similar to each other in form, structure, and words. There are slight differences, but it is one basic story.

Finally, we have the Gospel of Luke, also written around 80-90 C.E. Here we notice that the story changes in very strange ways:

When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” Then he took the loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. But see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table. For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined but woe to the one by whom he is betrayed!” (Luke 22:14-23).

What makes this passage particularly interesting is the fact that Jesus blesses and offers the cup twice. What is going on in this case?

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Earliest Sources on the Celebration of the Eucharist

What makes this issue a bit more interesting is the fact that we have some scarce news about the way the Eucharist was being celebrated at the time. Among them we find two (besides 1 Corinthians). One comes from the Acts of the Apostles, which expresses a very early tradition of the Jewish character of the Eucharist:

Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their good with glad generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved (Acts 2:43-47)

This passage talks about the “breaking of the bread” activity as a way to gather and share in community. Most scholars are careful with this passage, since it presents an excessively idealized situation that is later contradicted in that same book (e.g. Acts 6:1). Yet, in its story of the Eucharist, there is no allusion to any offering of  vicarian blood for others or atonement for the forgiveness of sins, and it also shows early Christians as being devoted Jews who celebrated in the Temple of Jerusalem.

The other more important source regarding the Eucharist comes from a text called the Didaché, also known as the Teachings of the Twelve Apostles, which many scholars date to the early or late second century C.E. The Lord’s Prayer appears there in its full version (Matthew’s) as well as several other important teachings and ceremonies. In it, we find the following, regarding the celebration of the Eucharist (from the New Advent, Catholic translation):

Now concerning the Thanksgiving (Eucharist), thus give thanks. First, concerning the cup: “We thank you, our Father, for the holy vine of David Your servant, which You made known to us through Jesus Your Servant; to You be the glory for ever.” And concerning the broken bread: “We thank You, our Father, for the life and knowledge which You made known to us through Jesus Your Servant; to You be the glory for ever. Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let Your Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Your kingdom; for Yours is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever.” But let no one eat or drink of your Thanksgiving (Eucharist), but they who have been baptized into the name of the Lord; for concerning this also the Lord has said, “Give not that which is holy to the dogs” (Didaché IX).

This is mostly odd, given that it is the cup that is blessed and offered first, before the bread. And in none of the words of thanksgiving do we find any reference at all to Jesus’ vicarian sacrifice or forgiveness of sins.

Again, what is going on here?
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Next Step: Beginning the Qualification of the Evidence

Maybe someone is asking: “What about John‘s version of events?” What is interesting regarding the Gospel of John is that it has a Last Supper, but has no blessing of the bread and wine, just a very long speech by Jesus (John 13-17). There may be a reason for this.  If you look at the passages in the Synoptic Gospels, we notice that they present the Last Supper as a Seder, that is, as a Passover meal. A Lamb is sacrificed the day before the Passover feasts begin, and then it is eaten afterwards. According to the Synoptics, this last part happened before the crucifixion. Yet, for John, the Lamb (i.e. Jesus Christ) would not be sacrificed until his crucifixion … the day before the Passover feasts begin. So there was no Eucharistic offering during the Last Supper. According to that Gospel, the moment of crucifixion would be the moment of glorification for “the Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world”. So, the main reason, why the thanksgiving does not appear in its version of events is for theological reasons.

Besides this very special case, we find ourselves with a bunch of problems with the data provided by Paul and the Synoptic Gospels. Let’s look at them carefully.

  • First, one of the most notorious things that we notice of Paul’s version of events is that he does not tell us at all if the Last Supper was a Seder or another sort of ceremonial meal. He only limits himself to say that it occurred the night when “he was betrayed”. Although this is the current and popular translation, the word usually translated as “betrayed” could also mean “delivered {to other hands}” or “handed over” (“παρεδίδετο” from the term “παραδίδωμι”), which could mean the night when God delivered Jesus to be sacrificed. Yet, we are not clear when exactly did this happen in relation to Passover.
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  • The words attributed to Jesus in Paul’s version of events most probably were not pronounced by him. On the contrary, at best, this could be a later tradition elaborated after Jesus’ death, which was reinterpreted in light of the Suffering Servant’s expiatory act prophecy (Isaiah 53) by the Judeo-Christians in Palestine, which was later reinterpreted once again as a vicarian sacrifice in Judeo-Hellenistic circles. In here, I follow the conviction of many scholars, that it is plausible that Jesus did not know that he was going to be crucified as a way to sacrifice himself, and “spill blood” for everyone’s salvation (a vicarian notion of his death). The problem with this vicarian notion of Jesus’ death  is that not only did the Jews (including Jesus) NOT expect a Messiah who would be sacrificed, but that the notion of vicarian death was most probably regarded as Pagan, and foreign to Palestinian Jews in general.
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  • This leads us to the next problem. Not only the words, but also the very steps with which Jesus blesses and offers the bread and the cup, seems to break with ceremonial Jewish meals in a very radical manner.  In a Seder meal or in a kiddush, you find that the wine is blessed first and then the bread. Note that the Didaché version of the celebration of the Eucharist respects the kiddush order of events, even when the traditional story of the Last Supper reverses both. The words of prayer in the Didaché are also remarkably close to the ones pronounced as a Birkat ha-Mazon (a Grace after Meals as was practiced in Judaism).  The Synoptics’ main story also have a strange Passover meal, because there is no reference at all to the sacrificed lamb being consumed, nor is there any reference at all to the bitter herbs.
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  • The fact that early Christians celebrated the Eucharist on a daily or weekly basis may be a sign that it was not originally celebrated as a Passover meal (which would have been celebrated yearly). The fact that nothing in the Didaché version makes any allusion to Passover reinforces this conviction.
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  • The Gospels in general give different days for when the Last Supper occurred. For Mark, it happened in the day of the first day of Unleavened Bread, which he describes as the day when the Passover lamb was sacrificed (Mark 14:12). Actually, the lamb was sacrificed the day before. Yet, Matthew and Luke agree with MarkJohn disagrees for theological reasons … but ironically he might be closer to the truth. This is highly problematic, because later all of the Synoptic Gospels argue that Jesus was processed during a Passover feast day, which is highly improbable. The Jewish leadership would have been busy with Temple rituals and ceremonies, and would not have much time to address Jesus’ prosecution. If the Synoptics present the Last Supper as a Passover meal, it is most probably (also) for theological or a apologetical reasons: perhaps a memory of the nearness of Passover when Jesus was crucified, and the fact that gentile Christians began to not celebrate the Passover, and needed to justify it. After all, according to Luke, Jesus told his disciples that he wouldn’t celebrate the “Passover meal” again until the Kingdom of God is realized. Speaking of which …
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  • When we go to MarkMatthew, and Luke, we notice something that Paul’s version lacks, the following words of Jesus: “I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” This might be a hint of history, given that Jesus always compared God’s Kingdom with a collective meal (Q [Luke] 13:29; 14:15-21,23; Luke 22:29-30). It would indicate that the Last Supper may have been a sort of “farewell” meal.

What do we do with all of this? This is what these series are all about. But for now, let’s make some several statements:

  • Jesus’ crucifixion was a historical fact, there is no dispute among scholars about this. Yet, if there was a process by the Jewish authorities and by Pontius Pilate leading to his death, most probably it took much more than one evening and day, and the Gospels seem to have shrunk the whole story to one evening and day. Most possibly the crucifixion happened near the feast of Passover, perhaps the day before.
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  • There are huge problems interpreting Jesus’ activity as being a “Passover meal”. It is better understood at a historical level as a kiddush celebrated as a farewell meal. This is the basic tradition preserved by the Didaché, and (as I will argue in my next blog), the Gospel of Luke.
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  • There are also huge problems with the assumption that Jesus blessed the bread first and the cup second, while claiming that the former was his body and that the latter contained his blood (understood in expiatory or vicarian terms). Simply speaking, it is highly improbable that Jesus would have said these words.

Where did Jesus’ words come from? Our earliest source seems to mention exactly where it comes from:  from Paul’s own revelatory experiences. Jesus as he experienced him in his vision, revealed this story. Not every scholar accepts this interpretation. For example, we must take into account the criteria of multiple attestation that we find in the New Testament:  that multiple sources confirm the story. The word that Paul uses for receiving the information (“παρέλαβον” from the term “παραλαμβάνω”), seems to imply that it was transmitted as a result of an oral tradition whose source he believed was the Lord. Can these reasoning be contested? Piñero and others think so.

Then what really happened during the Last Supper? This will be examined in the next blog posts of these series. For now, let’s convene that apparently most scholars agree that the Last Supper was no Seder.
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Bibliography

Boff, Leonardo. Pasión de Cristo, pasión del mundo. Hechos, interpretaciones y significados. Ayer y hoy. Santander: Ediciones Sal Terrae, 1987.

Ehrman, Bart. “Does Paul Know about Judas Iscariot?” The Bart Ehrman Blog. December 9, 2015. http://ehrmanblog.org/does-paul-know-about-judas-iscariot/.

Klawans, Jonathan. “Was Jesus’ Last Supper a Seder?” in Biblical Archaeology. July 01, 2014. http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/people-cultures-in-the-bible/jesus-historical-jesus/was-jesus-last-supper-a-seder/.

Mazza, Enrico. The Celebration of the Eucharist: The Origin of the Rite and the Development of Its Interpretation. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1999.

Piñero, Antonio. Guía para entender a Pablo de Tarso. Una interpretación del pensamiento paulino. Madrid: Editorial Trotta, 2015.

Piñero, Antonio y Eugenio Gómez Segura, editores. La verdadera historia de la Pasión. Según la investigación y el estudio histórico. Madrid: EDAF, 2011.

Riddle, M.B. and Kevin Knight, translators. Didaché. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 7. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0714.htm.

Vidal, Senén. Hechos de los Apóstoles y orígenes cristianos. Santander: Editorial Sal Terrae, 2015.

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A Fragment of a Lost Gospel Discovered!

The scholar of Coptic and Gnosticism, Karen King at Harvard Divinity School has made what could potentially be one of the biggest discoveries of the twenty-first century.  It is a fragment of a papyrus manuscript, smaller than a credit card.  These are the images and translation obtained from Karen King’s own website:

Front:  written text

Fragment of Manuscript

] “not [to] me.  My mother giave to me li[fe …”
] The disciples said to Jesus, “[
] deny. Mary is worthy of it [
] …..” Jesus said to them, “My wife … [
]… she will be able to be my disciple .. [
] As for me, I dwell with her in order to . [
] an image [

Back:

Back of Fragment

] my moth[er
] three [
] . . . [
] forth which … [
] (illegible) [
] (illegible) [

The fact that it is written in front and back is significant, because, if authentic, it tells us a little about the origins of the text and what it was used for.  As many of you know, the vast majority of books in the ancient world were written in scrolls.  However, Christians originated what could be considered one of the most revolutionary steps in publication:  publishing books in codex.  Scrolls are written only in one side of the papyrus, but not so in codex.  A codex is basically taking one page and binding them together in one of their margins, creating what looks like modern books today.  And, just like today’s books, the papyri pages were written on both sides.

Why would Christians do this?  Mainly because of disputes among themselves regarding passages of writtings considered sacred. It is a lot easier to search for passages in the middle of a dispute with a codex than with a scroll.  How early was this tendency?  It was a tendency we can actually trace to the second century C.E.  For example, our earliest New Testament manuscript that we have is called P52 (you can see it here), a piece a bit bigger than this new controversial scrap, and we know that it comes from a codex because it is written on both sides.  It contains some verses of the Gospel of John and paleographers have dated it to a period from  117 to 150 C.E.

What makes Karen King’s piece of codex so controversial in terms of its content is the apparent claim that Jesus had a wife.  Due to the degree of lack of text, we are not sure if the Mary talked about is either his wife or his mother, although it is highly probable that he refers to his wife.  King thinks this piece of codex dates to the fourth century C.E. and may be based on a second century original text, probably a Gnostic text.

Did Jesus have a Wife?

No one can say with absolute certainty (100% accuracy) whether Jesus was married, but all the available evidence points towards the fact that he was not.  The New Testament contains what is practically the earliest testimonies we have about Jesus.  The earliest writings are those from Paul.  His letter to the Thessalonians (1 Thessalonians) is the earliest surviving Christian text (50 C.E.).  The latest New Testament books seem to be the so-called letters of Peter and the Pastoral Letters, which are dated to the first part or mid-second century C.E.  Of all of the four Gospels, Mark seems to be the earliest (68-75 C.E.), and the other Gospels were written later:  Matthew and Luke (80-100 C.E.), and John (100 C.E.).  Matthew and Luke were based on Mark’s Gospel, but they also seemed to have shared another writing now lost which has been called “Q” by scholars, and it seems to be dated from 50 to 70 C.E.  There could be other Matthean, Lukan or Johanine early traditions that were included within these late Gospels.

As any scholar will tell you, none of these writings have a monolithic view of Jesus.  Quite the contrary, as they could tell you, even when many of the Gospels share the same story, their views on Jesus are dramatically different.  For instance, Mark’s perspective of Jesus passion is different from Luke’s in significant ways.  In Mark, Jesus agonized and suffered tremendously.  He seemed to be in a state of shock before the authorities and Pilate, being silent the whole time, and at the very end there was a cry of desperation and he died.  Luke’s perspective is different, for he does not portray Jesus agonizing or suffering at all (in fact the whole episode of Jesus sweating like blood was added later by some unknown Christian scribe), he was perfectly calm during the whole process, even to the point of establishing a conversation with women along the way, and having an intelligent conversation with the criminals who were crucified with him, and there is no cry of desperation at all. This is what is called by scholars a “passionless passion”.  In John’s account, there is even less passion.  Mark does not seem to share the high Christological level that John had.  For Mark, Jesus is pretty much human and deeply emotional.  John made Jesus the pre-existing Logos and divine (perhaps God Himself), rational, and in control at all times.

So, the Gospels may agree on some of the facts, but it would be a very big mistake to think that they share the same view about Jesus, or that they thought about him exactly the same way.  To be more to the point, there is absolutely no reason for these Gospel writers (at least for Q and Mark, and perhaps Matthew and Luke) to have hidden information about Jesus’ marriage in any way.  Also, Paul had absolutely no reason to hide this information.  Contrary to what people think, Paul was not himself against marriage of any kind.  He was just worried that Jesus was “soon to come” and that we should be prepared for his arrival, and marriage could be a bit of a distraction.  But Paul worked intensively with the assistance of couples, and once he mentioned the Apostle’s own wives as a positive thing (the negative part being that Paul was criticized for having women working for him).  Paul stated several times that he actually met and talked to Jesus’ own “brother” James, at least three times (the three times he visited Jerusalem).  There is no mention Jesus’ wife or children in any of his references to his visits.  There is also no mention of any “Mary” wife of Jesus (he did mention other  Mary’s, though).

The Gospels, which are later writings, but that kept earlier traditions do not mention Jesus’ wife or children.  In many occasions you learn, implicitly, about the fact that some Apostle was married (for example when Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law), but no mention of Jesus’ wife.  There is, strangely, no reference to Jesus’ wife either looking at his crucifixion from afar (in the Synoptics), or even at the foot of the cross (in John’s Gospel at least).  There is no mention of his wife assisting the other women when they went to the tomb.  There are no news at all about Jesus’ wife or children, anywhere after he died or what happened to them.

More to the point, little reference to any issue about the existence of Jesus’ wife or lack of anywhere during any discussion or writing during the first three centuries of Christianity.  I want to say this in order to deflate any “conspiracy theory” regarding embarassing information that “the Church may have wanted to hide”.  Today we have many documents with all sorts of insults made against Jesus during the first four centuries C.E.  For instance, we know of an accusation that Mary, Jesus’ mother, was a prostitute who slept with a Roman soldier called Panthera, a claim made by the philosopher Celsus during the second century C.E.  In the Gospel of Thomas, we learn that Jesus may have had a love affair with a disciple called Salome, who complains to Jesus about sharing her bed with him (ambiguous phrasing), and eating at her table.  The text itself is ambiguous enought to interpret one of two things:  either Jesus slept with her, or that Jesus slept on her bed at some moment alone to rest.  In the case of the former (the worst case scenario) it is interesting that at no point Salome complains to Jesus about Jesus’ being married and cheating.  There are other sorts of insults where Jesus is being compared to a donkey as some Jewish texts seem to imply.  Apparently this insult was prevalent enough to be found in Rome (of all places), and today it is known as the Alexamenos graffito, that displays Jesus crucified with the head of a donkey.  It is thought to have originated in the third century C.E.

Alexamenos Graffito
The scribing is in Greek: Αλεξαμενος ϲεβετε θεον
Translation:  “Alexamenos, worships God”

In the texts of the Holy Fathers of the Church, and the renowned Non-Christian (and sometimes Anti-Christian) texts, the issue of Jesus’ wife remains completely silent, as if it were not an issue at all, nor a .  The closest we have to something like that has to do with a reference to “Jesus family” in later centuries, but probably meaning the descendants of Jesus’ own “brothers and sisters”, who were, apparently, Judaizing Christians.  Other than that, no reference to Jesus’ wife or descendants.  At most, we have some evidence of it being an issue by Clement of Alexandria (late second century) making a reference about Christians who insisted that Jesus did not marry.  That would mean that at least in the late second (perhaps third?) century it was an issue among Christians, but relatively a minor one in relation to other well known doctrines and claims about Jesus that the Fathers of the Church were trying to fight against, such as the claim that Jesus was not human at all.  Others argue that the fact that Paul shows himself as an example of being single and not Jesus is proof that the latter was married.  Perhaps, perhaps not.  After all, for the churches he wrote to, he is a more immediate and live example of being single and an authority, but having a lifestyle, than Jesus, who is gone and will come back later.

As it is often objected, many people assume by default that he was married, because you had to be married in order to be considered a “rabbi”.  Yet, as archeological and textual evidence have shown, there were many celibate teachers in this period.  The Essenes of Qumran (where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found) are an obvious example of this.  Contrary to what many people think, the Essenes did not just live in Qumran.  Yes, Qumran was their center of worship, but many of them (men, women and children) lived all throughout Judea, and perhaps Galilee.  As far as we know, not even John the Baptist seems to have married.  Paul himself seemed to allude to Jesus’ teachings on celibacy too for the sake of God’s kingdom.   So, it is not unhistorical to say that there were teachers in the time of Jesus who were celibate, and that Jesus was one of them.

But what if King’s new fragment is authentic?  Karen King herself tells readers to be cautious about her findings.  She says in her website, the following:

No, this fragment does not provide evidence that Jesus was married. The comparatively late date of this Coptic papyrus (a fourth century CE copy of a gospel probably written in Greek in the second half of the second century) argues against its value as evidence for the life of the historical Jesus. Nor is there any reliable historical evidence to support the claim that he was not married, even though Christian tradition has long held that position. The oldest and most reliable evidence is entirely silent about Jesus’s marital status. The first claims that Jesus was not married are attested only in the late second century CE, so if the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife was also composed in the second century CE, it does provide evidence, however, that the whole question about Jesus’s marital status arose as part of the debates about sexuality and marriage that took place among early Christians at that time. From the very beginning, Christians disagreed about whether it was better to marry or to be celibate, but it was over a century after Jesus’s death before they began using Jesus’s marital status to support their different positions. Christian tradition preserved only those voices that claimed Jesus never married, but now the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife shows that some Christians claimed Jesus was married, probably already in the late second century.

So, with this caution in mind, and the fact that practically the vast majority of scholars (all across the spectrum) tend to think that Jesus was celibate, we shall proceed to the next question:   Is the Fragment Authentic?

 
Is the Fragment Authentic?

For scholars, the issue of whether Jesus was married or not is relatively uncontroversial, most of them believe he was celibate, but there is still (minor) debate about it.  If there is some element that could be considered truly controversial regarding this discovery, perhaps it is about the fragment’s authenticity.  Karen King is not a coptologist nor a paleographer, but she did talk to experts in those areas:  Roger Bagnall (perhaps one of the most renowned papyrologists in the world), and AnneMarie Juijenijk of Princeton.  In their opinion, apparently the fragment is authentic, and that it was written around the fourth century C.E.  (the details can be found in this PDF document written by Prof. King).  Other scholars, such as Scott Carroll of Oxford University has dated the fragment to the first half of the fifth century.

Yet, what surprised me was how cold has been the reaction of the experts in the field.  While the big corporate media and the social networks have expressed overwhelming enthusiasm in this area, scholars have not reacted the same way.

In a blog post titled “Reality Check: The ‘Jesus’s Wife’ Coptic Fragment“, Daniel Wallace tells about the first reactions of scholars when the announcement was made:

Dr. Christian Askeland, in attendance at the International Association of Coptic Studies conference in Rome, noted that about two thirds of those in attendance were very skeptical of its authenticity, while one third were “essentially convinced that the fragment is a fake.” Askeland said he did not meet anyone at the conference who thought it was authentic (posted at the evangelical textual criticism website on Wednesday, 19 September 2012). This presumably does not include Professor King. A number of noted coptologists have pronounced it a fake or have expressed strong reservations, including Alin Suciu of the University of Hamburg, Stephen Emmel of the University of Münster, Wolf-Peter Funk of l’Université Laval in Quebec, Hany Sadak the director general of the Coptic Museum in Cairo, Scott Carroll, Senior Scholar at the Oxford Manuscript Research Group, and David Gill of the University of Suffolk.

There are a number of reasons why some scholars think so.  One of the things you might note above is that the edges of the writings have been cut.  Such cuts are characteristic of modern cuts, not ancient.  With a very suggestive title (The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife:  How a Fake Gospel-Fragment was Composed), Francis Watson (University of Durham) questions how old is the ink, which should be tested in some way.  He also thinks it is a fake because it uses individual phrases found in the Coptic version of the Gospel of Thomas and shows how this might this might have been accomplished (Here is the Summary, Here is the Complete Text of his Analysis.  See also his “Addendum:  The End of the Line?“).  Other scholars have pointed out to the “too good to be true” sort of discovery.  What are the odds that the only surviving fragment of an entire writing happens to contain a very controversial claim?  Did a person “cut” the fragment because it is controversial and preserved it?  In such case, why not cut the whole integral text so that we can contextualize the writing better?  Other scholars have pointed out that the writing “looks fake”, or that there are grammar problems.  See comments by these scholars:  Christian Askeland (here), and other scholars such as Stephen Emmel, Alin Suciu and Wolf-Peter Funk (here).

Conclusion

There is nothing to conclude yet, as far as I know.  At the end of the day, if it proves to be authentic, it would only show that some Christians in the fourth (or fifth?) century, more likely a minority, believed that Jesus married, and that would be all.

As a Roman Catholic and Christian, if this “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” turns out to be authentic, it wouldn’t be any threat at all to my faith.  And if someone could prove that Jesus married, it would not be a threat to my or anyone’s faith, anyway!  If Jesus really married, it would only show that he was human and was married (something that does not contradict any article of faith in any Christian denomination as far as I know).  However, I do think, at least in the historical dimension of the problem, that it is highly unlikely that Jesus was married (mostly for the reasons I’ve stated above).

Regarding the scholarly part of the issue, it is very early to call the manuscript as being definitely a fraud.  However, I do agree with Bart Ehrman, after the first analyses made by some renowned scholars, things don’t look so well for people who believe in its authenticity.

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