By John Warwick Montgomery
Christian News, October 1, 2012
On 18 September, at the International Congress of Coptic Studies meeting in Rome, a Harvard Divinity School professor (one Karen L. King) dropped a bombshell. She produced a tiny, eight-line papyrus fragment including the partial lines: “deny Mary is worthy of it,” “Jesus said to them, My wife,” “she will be able to be my disciple,” and “As for me, I dwell with her in order to.”
Does this suggest that Jesus was married? Does it say something as to the legitimacy of women’s ordination? The press is typically all a-titter over this, as they were a few years ago when an empty ossuary (bone box) turned up in Israel with the inscription, “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” (The jury is still out as to whether this is a forgery—but, in any event, all three names in the inscription were very common in 1st century Palestine and need not refer to the family of our Lord at all.)
And now the Coptic fragment. Does it constitute a bombshell—or just another journalistic fizzle? The easy answer is the latter. Why?
(1) It is impossible to determine the real meaning of the text from so few words. Thus, why not the following reconstruction? “[Should Mary be given 10 denarii to buy lunch? I] deny Mary is worthy of it.” “Jesus said to them, My wife [, if I had one, would never manage the budget].” “[Speaking of women, though budgeting is not their strength,] she will be able to be my disciple.” “As for me, I dwell with her in order to [help her become more responsible in financial matters—but only just before the tax collector is scheduled to arrive].” You see the problem . . .
(2) The fragment is in Coptic, not in Greek or Aramaic, and is apparently of the 4th century. Jesus spoke Aramaic and the New Testament documents—the only firsthand, primary source materials concerning his earthy life—are in Koine Greek, the lingua franca of the Roman Empire in Jesus’ time. Suppose someone were to find a fragment in Hungarian, dated yesterday, which purported to contain an admission by French apologist Blaise Pascal (d. 1662) that he was a secret bigamist; how many reputable historians would accept this?
(3) This papyrus clearly falls into the category of the Gnostic materials that floated on the margins of the church in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th centuries. It is to be classed with the so-called Gnostic Gospels (Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Philip, Gospel of Mary, Gospel of Judas, etc.) attributed by Gnostic heretics to early Christians in Apostolic circles to give them pseudo-authenticity. Only tendentious writers like Elaine Pagels seriously argue that these writings represent a legitimate alternative theology of Jesus to what is found the canonical New Testament.
The issue is really very simple. The Jesus of the New Testament presents himself—and is presented by the eyewitnesses of his ministry—as no less than God-come-to-earth to die for the sins of the world. The Gnostic materials give us a Jesus of mystical, inner experience and esoteric knowledge, much of which contradicts what the New Testament materials say. The authors of the New Testament writings can be identified (Papias and Polycarp, disciples of the Apostle John, learned from John that Matthew, Mark, and Luke were the authors of the first three Gospels) and the Gospel writings are within a generation of the events of Jesus’ life. (See, for example, Charles F. Hill, From the Lost Teaching of Polycarp, and Robert H. Gundry, The Old Is Better—both from Mohr Siebeck in Tuebingen, 2005 and 2006.) The Gnostic stuff, however, is 2nd century at best and without any demonstrable connection with the earthly ministry of Jesus. The choice between them is not, therefore, very difficult.
So don’t lose sleep over the Coptic fragment. Probably next year a Latin fragment will turn up that says “Jesus . . . Roman governor,” which will be taken to mean that Pontius Pilate and Jesus were actually the same person.
John Warwick Montgomery
Distinguished Research Professor of Philosophy and Christian Thought, Patrick Henry College. Professor emeritus, University of Bedfordshire, England. Ph.D. (Chicago), D.Théol. (Strasbourg, France), LL.D. (Cardiff, Wales, U.K.). Member of the California, D.C., Virginia, Washington State and U.S. Supreme Court bars; Barrister-at-Law, England and Wales; Avocat à la Cour, Paris. Websites: www.jwm.christendom.co.uk; www.apologeticsacademy.eu; www.ciltpp.com.