I have been intrigued by the news this week about a tiny piece of papyrus, suggesting that Jesus had a wife. Everyone is commenting on it. Is it real? Is it a forgery? Thankfully I found a link on Facebook to a webinar hosted by two New Testament Scholars at General Theological Seminary in New York City which put the debate into perspective for me. Professors Dierdre Good and Katherine Shaner move through the aspects of the papyrus with great intentionality using established methodology to determine the authenticity of ancient manuscripts.
For example some of the indicators that authenticate this document as a late 4th century piece of Coptic/Egyptian Christian writing are: the way the papyrus is made, the torn edges of the document, the decay, holes and grain of the papyrus, the ink, and the style of the Coptic language used. Francis Watson, Professor of Theology and Religion at Durham University in the UK has stated that this document is a forgery. Other scholars convincingly show how Watson’s methodology is faulty. I have links on the Christ Church Facebook page for you to listen to the webinar and an article on why Watson’s conclusions are wrong, if you are interested.
Professor’s Shaner and Good wonder about the significance of this document to us today? They suggest that it is an example of people in the early Christian Church trying to think with the mind of Jesus in order to understand how to be a Christian in an increasingly complex world. Certain practices such as marriage, and subsequently sex and children, were deemed by Paul to be unimportant. This is because Jesus said that in the resurrection there would be no marriage. Paul believed that Jesus was coming back soon thus marriage, sex and children were not important. But when Jesus did not come back the Christian community had some questions about: the role of women in the church, who can be disciples of Jesus, and the role of marriage, sex, and children in Christian life. This document like the Epistles in the New Testament and other Christian texts not in the Bible are discussing these ideas by taking on the mind of Jesus and trying to think through his perspective. [i]
The writing on the papyrus is inconclusive as to whether Jesus had a wife because it appears to be discussing a broader topic of the role of women, discipleship, wives, and marriage in the life of the Christian community. The media frenzy focuses on what seems to be the most startling aspect of the document “Jesus had a wife.” Leading others to argue, “No, Jesus did not have a wife.”
Which may lead us to wonder:
Why would it be bad if Jesus had a wife?
Or, we might wonder, Did Jesus have women disciples?
This text, and the public debate about it, pushes at some of the current deep seated concerns in our cultural about leadership, women, human sexuality, and marriage. It also indicates that these concerns have been discussed in Christian communities for centuries.
Perhaps the best thing for us to learn from it is, it’s important for us as 21st Century Christians to ask questions.
Asking questions helps us explore the bounds of our faith and the world around us.[ii] Being able to ask and consider the questions in a public forum invites conversation. It is less crucial that we try to supply answers and more important that we listen intentionally to one another and open ourselves to ideas and possibility. It is also important that we become informed with credible scholarship and knowledge.
In a similar way each of our three readings today ask us to consider, with great intentionality, what it means to be a person of faith.
Some scholars think the Book of Esther, our first reading, is a story that was written to explain the Jewish festival of Purim. This celebration honors the deliverance of the Hebrew people from potential genocide by Persians in the 5th century before the Common Era. It appears, based on cuneiform texts that the characters in this story – Esther and Mordecai were actual people connected to King Xerxes I of Babylon. Purim is celebrated by giving gifts of food and drink, giving charity to the poor, a celebratory meal, a public recitation of the Scroll of Esther, prayers, drinking wine and wearing of masks and costumes. It’s a public celebration. Purim follows a lunar cycle and falls in Feb. next year.
In summary the story is this: Esther is married to King Xerxes. The king does not know that she is Jewish. The king’s Prime Minister, Haman, has convinced the King that all the Jews in the nation must be killed in order to protect the nation. Esther, secure in her role as the Queen can remain silent and live. Or she can speak up and risk death herself. Mordecai is Esther’s cousin and holds some unknown position in the King’s Counsel. Mordecai urges Esther to speak up, to request the king change his mind and save her people. In an act of selfless bravery Esther speaks and the king listens. The Hebrew people are saved, but Haman is killed as a traitor. The Book of Esther is a protest against persecution of minority groups. Haman is the prototype for one whose actions are motivated by prejudice and blind hatred.
In a pluralistic world like the one we live in today it is challenging to hear, within this text and the psalm that follows, the idea that God condones one segment of humanity and chooses to annihilate another. Violence in the Biblical texts is challenging to us as 21st Century Christians. We are cautioned to remember how, overall, the Bible calls us to be mindful of the injustices of the world in all the ways these injustices manifest. We are to intentionally address and correct those injustices: prejudice, hunger, poverty, and environmental waste are a few of the injustices we encounter in our daily lives.
The reading from James offers some perspective on how we can intentionally address injustice through prayer and action. Prayer is our foundation. Prayer is how we listen to God and teach ourselves how to listen to others as well. Prayer helps us to be more mindful and therefore more intentional.
In the Gospel of Mark Jesus is teaching his disciples about being attentive, intentional, and mindful. His teaching points us to recognize how the qualities of mindfulness and intentionality manifest in our lives – we can listen better, we can respond more effectively, we can see our role in situations with greater clarity, we can be less defensive and more open, we can become more compassionate, we can see others for who they are.
All of our readings this morning remind us that God acts in and through all human life. Christians have a particular lens for understanding this – we model our lives on Jesus and are called disciples.
Perhaps the question for us this morning is not, is this real? A more accurate question may be, “What does it mean to me and to you to be Jesus’ disciple?
[i] General Theological Seminary Webinar with Deirdre Good and Katherine Shaner on the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife”