Everyone Loves A Conspiracy: Jesus’ Wife and the Gnostic Gospels

I’m afraid the title of this post is a bit misleading. But then again, so are the titles of nearly all the media reports about the recent “Jesus-Wife-Manuscript”. So, if you came here to revel in the hysteria, you’ve come to the wrong place. There aren’t any secret manuscripts containing secret messages from unknown authors to unknown audiences from unknown sources and unknown dates. You won’t find the conspiracy you’re looking for here, just some clear thinking when it comes to understanding these Gnostic gospels and their hollow bomb shells. Spoiler alert; this one’s a dud too. Karen King says as much in her article, if we bothered to read it. She doesn’t find a conspiracy here – or any evidence of Jesus having a wife either.

But “Everyone loves a conspiracy,” wrote Dan Brown. It sure worked for him and that silly little book, The Davinci Code. Conspiracy sells: sensational books with fiction presented as fact and sub par movies (Remember JFK by Oliver Stone?). Conspiracy makes for sugar-high fiction and a good old’ fashioned media frenzy. But usually the amount of truth in the conspiracy turns out to be no bigger than a 1.5 by 3 inch fragment, which also happens to be at the center of the latest redux of the “Jesus had a wife” conspiracy. This fragment, revealed Tuesday by Harvard professor Karen King, contains a dialogue in which Jesus refers to “my wife,” whom he identifies as Mary. King says the  fragment of Coptic script is a copy of a gospel, probably written in Greek in  the second century. However, the copy itself most likely dates from the 4th century.  While the scholars at Harvard have admitted that the research is both inconclusive and incomplete, they have done little to stem the tide of sensational reporting surrounding the alleged fragment that has sparked so much interest.

You can read the full news story here. A regurgitation of the story here would be about as fruitful as the regurgitation of poor scholarship surrounding the texts of these alleged gospels. In fact, this appears to be yet another fragment of a Gnostic gospel. And this brings us to several of the actual important facts in this “discovery.”

First of all, this issue has been dealt with before when Dan Brown’s Davince Code caused all that raucous years ago. He made similar sensational claims with little care for historical evidence, New Testament scholarship and church history. Hank Hannegraf and Paul Maier wrote an excellent little booklet addressing this titled The Davinci Code: Fact or Fiction? But really, this is peripheral. After all, as Alister McGrath reminds us in Mere Apologetics, not even his fellow atheist colleagues find this stuff credible. Somewhere, someone is getting a good laugh. It’s time we all join in when this stuff comes along.

Secondly, there is a timely, concise and well-written treatment of this put out by Prof. Jeff Gibbs at Concordia Seminary, St Louis. His research helps clear up what Karen King is actually claiming and where the yellow journalists have shown their true stripes once again. Here are a few choice quotes and the link to read the full article:

Here are the claims that Dr. King makes for her own paper, and I quote her precisely.  She begins by stating clearly, “[This papyrus fragment] does not, however, provide evidence that the historical Jesus married.”  And why not?  This is so, “. . . given the late date of the fragment and the probable date of original composition only in the second half of the second century.”  This is clear, and significant.  Did Jesus of Nazareth have a wife?  This papyrus find does not speak to that issue.  And why not?  The fragment is of too late a date for that purpose, even if (please note the deliberate “if” used by King) the 4th century fragment is a copy of a writing that originated between AD 150 and 200.

So, then, what might be the possible significance of this find?  Again, note what Dr. King actually says:  “Nevertheless, if the second century date of composition is correct . . . .”  She argues in her essay that a second century origin is likely, but she realizes that it is not a matter on which she can be certain.  But given the “if,” what then?  King writes, “ . . . the fragment does provide direct evidence . . .”?  Evidence of what?  “ . . . that claims about Jesus’s marital status first arose over a century after the death of Jesus in the context of intra-Christian controversies over sexuality, marriage, and discipleship.  Just as Clement of Alexandria (d. ca 215 C.E.) described some Christians who insisted Jesus was not married, this fragment suggests that other Christians of that period were claiming that he was married.”

Thirdly, this raises the larger questions that we should be asking about these Gnostic gospels: What do they actually say? When were they written? Who wrote them? Why were they written? And most of all, are they historically reliable, veracious accounts of the events they claim to report?  For more detail on the authorship, dating and content of these Gnostic gospels – the chief examples often being The Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Judas, Gospel of Peter and the Gospel of Mary – I suggest reading a stellar article by my good friend, Mark Pierson, in the May/June  2010 issue of Modern Reformation. His article Gospels, Gospels Everywhere? addresses this very issue with clarity and responsible scholarship. It’s a must read for anyone discussing or studying this issue, And it appears that we are going to have to face this more and more, since, conspiracy sells.

However, in summary, here are the chief problems with the Gnostic gospels. First of all, They are not written by anyone who had access to the apostolic circle. This is important because the apostles were selected specifically because they were eyewitnesses to life, death and resurrection of Jesus. This was one of their primary qualifications, that they had been with Jesus from the beginning (Acts 1). And the Gospel writers were comprised of both direct eyewitnesses (Matthew and John) and close associates of eyewitnesses (Luke and Mark). The writers of the Gnostic gospels neither had access to the apostolic circle nor were they eyewitnesses.

This leads us to the second problem, namely, dating the books.  These alleged additional gospels were not written until the 2nd, 3rd and 4th century, and in some cases even as late as the 6th century A.D. In any historical scholarship the best and most accurate sources are the earliest ones because the time when they were written was closer to the time of the actual events they record. Writing gospels about Jesus’ life and times 2-5 centuries later is neither adequate nor accurate. Consider the following illustration. Imagine that a new book was released, a biography of Abraham Lincoln’s life and death, claimed to be written by Mary Todd herself no less. And in this new book we learn that Lincoln in fact fought on behalf of the South, started the Civil War in order to destroy the Union, and died – not in Ford’s Theater – but by slipping on a banana peel in the bathtub (special thanks to my friend, Mark, for teaching me this too). How reliable would we consider that text? Not one bit, not even a business card’s worth of accuracy. As the kids in my youth group would say, LOL or ROFL. It’s the scholarly equivalent of Godspell – entertaining and flashy and that’s about it. They make the Onion look like the Wallstreet Journal. And lastly, the stories reported in these Gnostic texts are wildly contradictory and just plain bizarre when compared to the events harmoniously recorded in the four gospels.

At best these books are wild stories that are fun to read but of little value when it comes to getting a picture of the New Testament world of Jesus. At their worst they are heretical books that are contradictory to the very claims that Jesus made himself in the New Testament dealing with essential teachings like sin and salvation.

The greatest irony here is that many New Testament scholars and skeptics claim that these Gnostic books are reliable, trustworthy sources of history while at the same time claim that the four gospels of the New Testament – written within living memory of the events of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection by eyewitness and close associates – are spurious fairy tales, folklore and myths that evolved over time and should not be trusted. That’s what my history teacher in high school would’ve called bassackwards.

And that, my friends, is why we continue to be steadfast in defense always being ready to give a reasonable account for the hope that is within us (1 Peter 3:15). Yes, conspiracy sells. But the truth saves. And you don’t need a conspiracy theory to know that Christianity is true, just the facts ma’am.

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