It looks like there’s some skepticism among scholars about the authenticity of the already much-discussed “Jesus’ wife” papyrus–said to be a fragment from a non-canonical Coptic gospel that has Jesus referring to “my wife” and saying that she will be a “disciple.” Much of yesterday’s breathless reporting on the papyrus centered around its potential to “shake up” debates about women’s role in the church. So if the fragment is spurious, does that mean no such re-thinking is necessary?
To start with, we should be clear that, even if it’s authentic, all the papyrus would seem to show–at most–is that there was an early tradition that Jesus was married. (Curiously, few people seem to have considered the possibility that the wife “Jesus” refers to might be the church–an image that goes back to the NT itself.) It wouldn’t, as even the professor who discovered it acknowledges, show that Jesus was in fact married.
Second, even though Christian tradition has long held that Jesus was unmarried and celibate, it’s not clear to me that anything of theological significance stands or falls on this. How would the central Christological doctrines–the Incarnation, Atonement, Resurrection, Ascension, etc.–be affected by the discovery that Jesus was married? It’s true, as one Twitter-friend pointed out, that it may call into question the reliability of the gospels since you’d think they might mention such a significant fact about Jesus. But against this we should remember (1) the gospels don’t provide “biography” in our modern sense; they are theological-confessional documents intended to witness to faith in Christ, and (2) historical criticism has already called the reliability of the gospels into question in many respects, and yet they still function as the Word of God for people in the church.
All of this aside, I think it’s wrong to suggest that we need certain facts about the historical Jesus to be true in order to authorize things like the full equality of women in the church. As theologian Clark Williamson has written,
The problem with feminist theology is that in its constitutive assertions it is right. Women are fully human, clearly the equal of men, and need liberation from sexist oppression. But if the only way to warrant being a Christian feminist is by appeal to the empirical-historical Jesus as a norm, then Jesus will turn out to have been a feminist. . . . [But i]f Jesus was not a feminist, am I still not free to be one? Is it the role of Jesus . . . to authorize our conformity to him or to author our freedom and creativity, our right to reform the church? Dare we allow the historical Jesus to be himself, a first-century Jew, different from us, or must he reflect our concerns and ideals back to us? If so, how can he ever correct us? (Williamson, A Guest in the House of Israel, p. 190).
Williamson is concerned to correct the tendency in some feminist theology to portray Jesus as the egalitarian, feminist liberator from an oppressive, patriarchal Judaism, an opposition that in effect “de-Judaizes” Jesus and reinforces the long history of Christian anti-Judaism. But his point has broader application, I think. If modern Christians want to be feminists (and they should!), they don’t need to justify it by appealing to a shaky historical reconstruction of a “feminist Jesus.” Many churches, drawing on the resources of the canonical scriptures and Christian tradition, have come to see sexual equality as a gospel issue–and that provides a much stronger foundation. Christians shouldn’t be threatened by historical research, but neither should they build their faith on it.