What if Jesus Had a Wife?The Deadly Cost of Worshiping the Bible Instead of God

Practically all traditional religions have or have had strict rules on blasphemy. The idea behind this is to honor the sanctity of what the tradition regards as sacred. It is appropriate that one demands of the faithful more than a modicum of respect and reverence for the names and symbols of their religion. Given that in all societies and at all times there have always been skeptics and unbelievers who did not care to respect such injunctions it seemed appropriate for the religious establishment in power to impose severe penalties on those who desecrated in one way or another, in public or in secrecy, whatever was regarded as sacred. Lack of respect and over insult to the sacred in a religious framework is what one calls blasphemy.

In ancient times punishment for blasphemy used to be severe, certainly in the framework of the Abrahamic religions. These ranged from excommunication and exile to hanging, decapitation, and burning at the stake. Savage as such treatments might seem to those who have been awakened to enlightened values and modern worldviews, they seemed perfectly normal to those whose love for or devotion to their god was so intense, not to say distorted, that they felt it was their moral and religious responsibility to protect God’s honor by severe means, not only to punish the impious but also to teach the rest that they better beware of what they say or write about what is proclaimed as canonically sacred.

But even in olden times only the followers of a religion were held accountable for acts or words of blasphemy. One not belonging to the faith was not meted out the same punishment as a believer who blasphemed. But now things have changed. For the first time in history — perhaps since the publication of the cartoon in a Danish newspaper — even outsiders are subject to the same laws of blasphemy. It is important for the world to recognize this ominous turn and its terrible consequences, actual and potential. Furthermore, in the good old times, only the perpetrator of blasphemy was answerable to his or her behavior. Now, as we have been seeing, people who are utterly innocent of the charge, and even those who publicly condemn such behavior, are considered fair targets of the rage of the so-called believers.

I like to think that the vast majority of modern Muslims are appalled by this development which brings only ignominy to their great religion. I am sure many of them are nauseated by the kinds of reactions by the mindless bigotry of some of their co-religionists that one reads and sees in the news. I am well aware that many of them the can do very little about it.

The only hope seems to be this: The leaders in Islamic countries, both lay and religious, imams and ayatollahs, may proclaim to their people that this kind of behavior is contrary to the teachings of their faith. Furthermore, the United Nations should resolve that every member nation repeal medieval blasphemy laws from their books.

In meanwhile, like many Non-Muslims in the United States and all over the world, I too condemn intentional and provocative desecration of the religious symbols of other people. But I also uphold the individual right of every human being in civilized societies to express his or her views on any religion or aspect of any religion as they wish. God forbid that suicide killers spring in the other religions of the world also.

Let us pray and wish for peace and understanding among the peoples of the world.

Anything that leads to murder should raise doubts about its legitimacy when put in service of so-called spiritual truth. That killing was done “for God” and yet didn’t lead to a complete re-think about the theological “approach” to a relationship with God is simply insane. Yet this madness persists today. Every time a sermon is preached where someone says “the Bible says God says” the lie continues to be spread. The answer to all such claims is a loud “Says who?”

Listening to the BBC Radio 4 program In Our Time, hosted by the always wonderful Melvyn Bragg about Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (1563) one story hit home — hard! One of the show’s contributors told the story of Perotine Massey, a Guernsey woman burned for heresy by the Roman Catholics. She gave birth while in the flames. The baby was tossed back into the fire after it burst from her burning stomach and landed — alive — at the feet of a soldier guarding the pire.

This awful event was described in the quaint “Old English” title given to a contemporary engraving depicting the burning as: “A lamentable spectacle of three women, with a child infant brasting out of the Mothers Wombe, being first taken out of the fire, and cast in agayne, and so all burned together in the Isle of Guernsey, 1556 July 18.”

Such an account might confirm the superiority of Protestant Christianity to the brutality of Roman Catholicism — except that Protestants did the same sort of things to Catholics, not to mention to Native Americans.

There is a “reason” for such viciousness: theology practiced as if it is an exact science. Call this the Roman Church/Protestant idea of spirituality as “correct” belief. That’s a liability. The equivalent would be to say that you’re only married if you can pass an exam on the correct details of your spouse’s life history, beliefs, likes and dislikes, blood-type and food preferences.

A theological approach to religious faith attempts to reduce something intuitive to an exact “science.” Tick the “wrong” box and you fail the exam.

From liberal to fundamentalist to charismatic, the Protestant denominations are still as united in their commitment to salvation-through-correct-ideas as are the Roman Catholics. The root of the Protestant commitment to salvation through correct belief lies in the retributive and juridical “rationalistic” history of the Roman Catholic Church from which all Protestant denominations evolved. Western Christianity has relied heavily on signing up to “correct” doctrines in order to be saved. Catholics and Protestants may disagree on what is correct but they agree that correct doctrine is needed for salvation.

Believing “wrong” was for much of church history called heresy and punishable by excommunication or death. Religious “certainties” were so fragile they had to be protected by violence by all sides. That should have eliminated this theological correctness retributive and juridical rationalistic approach long ago. It didn’t because religion was never about God but about a way to dominate people and keep rulers in power. It still is.

The problem is that the book around which these “correct” doctrines are spun is not a book at all. In that sense it “says” so many things that it says nothing. So the book is a great mine to dig anything out of needed to support one’s personal tyranny over others but it is nothing more than that.

For any book to “say” something it has to fulfill 2 tests: First it has to be a work of non-fiction whose truth claims can be corroborated from outside of itself. Second, it has to be by one author or at least by authors who know each other and collaborate to bring their message to readers.

What it can’t be and at the same time be said to have a single coherent message worth killing people over, is a collection of myths, essays, letters, stories, recorded oral history, misinformation and fables that were gradually collected and added to over thousands of years without the authors being aware that their bits and pieces of writing would someday be seen as “chapters” in one “book.” And since little to nothing in the book can be corroborated from outside testable sources, its truth claims (real or imagined) are worthless if taken as “fact”-based let alone in a juridical sense and then used to judge others.

When I run into the idolatry of Bible worshiping I’m reminded of something I observe with the folks raised in the age of texting and cell phones. I see them expect “answers” from the little black box they hold. They seem to trust it rather than the reality around them. They seem to be losing a tactile sense of how the world works because their connection to it is mediated through their phones, tablets and computers. For instance I know a young woman who tends to check the weather by looking at her phone instead of up at the actual sky. And that reminds me of the people I know who argue about what the Bible “says,” for instance “about” gay people, rather than trusting what they know to be true about the gay people they actually know.

At least the weather report on the phone someone is checking (rather than just looking up at the real sky) was put together by well intended sane meteorologists who were actually trying to tell their audience what was happening. But those who look to the Bible for instruction in a way that overrides the reality they actually experience are like people trying to find out what is happening with the weather who watch a cooking show to get a weather report!

Since what is being said on the cooking show has nothing to do with the weather the person looking for information has to come up with an elaborate “explanation” of just how it is that a show about — say — making fried chicken actually is about thunderstorms and what to wear to a family picnic.

When absurdity is being rationalized and explained things get a bit crazy, say like this:

“We’re having fried chicken at the picnic, they are talking about fried chicken on the show and so they must know all about our picnic and so when they say to use corn flower to bread the chicken because it doesn’t burn as badly at regular wheat flower that must mean that there will be no sun today but clouds so we need to bring umbrellas so we won’t burn and that just proves that real believers will only be saved because corn flower saves chicken from burning so from now on real believers will never eat white bread again or go out without rain gear. White bread is sinful and a sign of true faith is wearing a raincoat at all times! Amen?”

Here’s a theologian at work “explaining” his equivalent of mistaking a cooking show for a weather report, and no less nuts: “Solomon also teaches us that not only was the destruction of the ungodly foreknown, but the ungodly themselves have been created for the specific purpose of perishing (Prov. 16:4).” (Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries: Romans and Thessalonians, pp.207-208) Nothing much has changed since Calvin’s day. Franciscan University (Steubenville, Ohio) classifies gay people with murderers and rapists. This is a course description on their website: “SWK 314, DEVIANT BEHAVIOR focuses on the sociological theories of deviant behavior… The behaviors that are primarily examined are murder, rape, robbery, prostitution, homosexuality, mental illness, and drug use (3 credit hours)”

The fact that theologians waste their lives is too bad but the problem is they’ve taken the rest of us with them into a labyrinth of absurdity where one can imagine a “god” creating the “ungodly themselves… [for] the specific purpose of perishing.” I mean can you imagine seriously looking to — say — the life work of John Calvin for “answers” as to how to be saved when he said the system was rigged? And can you imagine going to a university where “murder, rape, robbery, prostitution, homosexuality, mental illness” are lumped together? Would taking this course be useful for learning how to relate to your gay daughter? And can you imagine how thinking of a gay friend as having been created for the specific purpose of perishing will help you love her as a human being?

The self-evident ridiculousness of “Bible-based” theology — a ridiculousness evident to all but those who buy into it as the needed passport to salvation and/or to those who earn a living through it — is due to the fact that most theology is as farfetched as trying to come up with a way to understand fried chicken recipes as actually being about the “meteorology” of salvation. This isn’t because theologians are bad people. It is because they are trying to “interpret” a book that isn’t a book. They are looking for a coherent single message in a book that the authors never knew they were writing. They are trying to explain the inexplicable and find coded “messages” where there are none. In that sense theology is the domain of the ultimate conspiracy theorists.

So perhaps it’s no coincidence that atheism emerged in the context of the Western Christian expression of both Roman Catholic and Protestant “intellectual” and “rational” religions that carried on doctrinal disputes over their “facts” to such a degree that those theological issues became the root cause of endless wars, persecutions and killings. Beside the idea of correct doctrine leading to actual war Western Christianity paid another price in that it built a house of cards wherein if you remove one card the entire edifice collapses. Since religion was reduced to belief in the right ideas religion became more about the “recipes” in the “cookbook” than about cooking itself.

The problem is that this approach to faith (and cooking) flies in the face of all the rest of human experience which is a matter of trial and error, mixed motivations, sincerity seesawing with bad motives and healthy doubts about everything we encounter. Life is lived on an experiential plain that has less to do with coming up with the right formulations than with passing on wisdom gained by our experience. In other words “correct” ideas don’t take into account changed minds.

In reality church for most folks is about community, family and continuity rather than about believing the ideas spouted from the pulpit. For most people the truth is that sitting through sermons is the passport to the coffee hour when the real business of church is conducted in conversations with family and old friends.

Most things we do have a human community reasons for doing them rather than an ideological or theological “reason.” I go to church because of my grandchildren. I enjoy taking them to the liturgy. But I’m fortunate because the liturgy I take them to the Greek Orthodox service that revolves around doing of liturgical practice rather than talking about belief systems. What you believe isn’t the point. Showing up is. We light candles, take communion, make the sign of the cross, and kiss icons. The comfort I derive from these inane rituals is much the same as the comfort I get from gardening.

The plants I like best in my garden are those plants that have survived many winters like the old rosebush climbing up against the porch. They can be counted on. They are not new and improved and I don’t enjoy them by reading about them or talking about them but just by coexisting with them. The doing of rituals – like old plants in old gardens — also binds us into familiar pathways where others have gone before.

Like caring for an old tree the pleasure is in the stewardship of continuity. And the “point” isn’t knowing about roses, it’s the pinprick form the thorns, the smell of the flower, the wife who you have taken the flowers to from the same rose tree each year, the grandchild next to you helping you water the rose while you’re telling her that you did the same thing with her father “when he was little.”

Faith is about finding contexts where we feel comfortable and where we don’t have to constantly question ourselves on our motives or how we feel about the “facts” or if we “believe” this or that. Instead we just are. This just being in the moment, this “stillness of the heart” is a completely different experience than sitting through sermons and taking notes or turning to biblical passages and weighing up in one’s mind whether you “believe” (whatever that means) in what’s being said.

Certainty based on “facts” is a delusion since no information is complete and there’s nothing we “know” that later we might not change our minds about. But experience is something that grows and can be added to organically. Learning by hands-on experience is not an either-or proposition. It is a matter of looking up at the sky to see what is happening in reality instead of down at an electronic device. And connecting with the experience of grace is better than looking at a book and reading about it.

A “fact based” religious life — in other words the idea that theology is a road to knowing the “right way” to love God — is like a fact-based marriage where each person has to be “right” about everything. It’s devoid of hope on those days when you don’t agree. And spirituality like a marriage only works when the prime directive of love overrides who is right or wrong.

A previously unknown scrap ofancient papyrus written in ancient Egyptian Coptic includes the words “Jesus said to them, my wife,” — a discovery likely to renew a fierce debate in the Christian world over whether Jesus was married.

The existence of the fourth-century fragment — not much bigger than a business card — was revealed at a conference in Rome on Tuesday byKaren King, Hollis Professor of Divinity atHarvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“Christian tradition has long held that Jesus was not married, even though no reliable historical evidence exists to support that claim,” King said in a statement released by Harvard.

“This new gospel doesn’t prove that Jesus was married, but it tells us that the whole question only came up as part of vociferous debates about sexuality and marriage.”

Despite the Catholic Church’s insistence that Jesus was not married, the idea resurfaces on a regular basis, notably with the 2003 publication of Dan Brown’s best-seller ” The Da Vinci Code,” which angered many Christians because it was based on the idea that Jesus was married toMary Magdalene and had children.

King said the fragment, unveiled at the Tenth International Congress of Coptic Studies, provided the first evidence that some early Christians believed Jesus had been married.

Roger Bagnall, director of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World in New York, said he believed the fragment, which King has called ” The Gospel of Jesus’s wife,” was authentic.

But further examination will be made by experts, as well as additional testing of the papyrus fragment, described as brownish-yellow and tattered. Of particular interest will be the chemical composition of the ink.

The fragment is owned by an anonymous private collector who contacted King to help translate and analyze it, and is thought to have been discovered in Egypt or perhaps Syria.

King said that it was not until around 200 AD that claims started to surface, via the theologian known as Clement of Alexandria, that Jesus did not marry.

“This fragment suggests that other Christians of that period were claiming that he was married” but does not provide actual evidence of a marriage, she said.

“Christian tradition preserved only those voices that claimed Jesus never married. The ‘Gospel of Jesus’s Wife’ now shows that some Christians thought otherwise.”

King’s analysis of the fragment is slated for publication in the Harvard Theological Review in January 2013. She has posted a draft of the paper, and images of the fragment, on the Harvard Divinity School website.

What if Jesus had a wife?

This is the question that Christianity confronts today after a fragment of papyrus has been presented at a conference of scholars in Rome. The ancient Coptic document includes the phrase “Jesus said to them, my wife” using a term that undoubtedly references a woman who was his spouse and not some metaphorical partner.

Harvard scholar Karen L. King, who announced the discovery of the papyrus at the International Congress of Coptic Studies, believes it is from the latter half of the Second Century. The fragment was authenticated by experts in New York and Jerusalem, but it awaits chemical testing to confirm its age more definitively.

As professor King points out, the passage doesn’t prove that Jesus was married. However it casts doubt on the traditional belief that he never had a wife. “Christian tradition has long held that Jesus was not married, even though no reliable historical evidence exists to support that claim,” King said today. “This new gospel doesn’t prove that Jesus was married, but it tells us that the whole question only came up as part of vociferous debates about sexuality and marriage. From the very beginning, Christians disagreed about whether it was better not to marry, but it was over a century after Jesus’s death before they began appealing to Jesus’ marital status to support their positions.”

The implications of professor King’s discovery are profound. If Jesus was married, the main spiritual argument for male-only clergy and the celibacy of Roman Catholic priests falls into question. (Priests wouldn’t need to abandon sex in order to imitate him.) But more importantly, if Jesus was a family man, then the claim to special status made by Catholic clergy, who regard themselves as supernaturally closer to God, loses much of its power.

Beyond internal Catholic Church politics, a married Jesus invites a reconsideration of orthodox teachings about gender and sex. If Jesus had a wife, then there is nothing extra Christian about male privilege, nothing spiritually dangerous about the sexuality of women, and no reason for anyone to deny himself or herself a sexual identity. In fact, one could argue that in their obsessive self denial — of sexual pleasure, intimate relationships, and family – celibates reject the fullness of Jesus’ example.

The papyrus in question is owned by a private party who first contacted King in 2010. At the time, recalled King, “I didn’t believe it was authentic and told him I wasn’t interested.” But after the owner persisted, King invited him to bring the document to Harvard. Upon close examination, she was convinced it was an authentic ancient text. King took the fragment to New York where she was joined by Professor Anne Marie Luijendijk, of Princeton University. Together they showed it to Roger Bagnall, director of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. Bagnall, a renowned expert in papyrology and the cultures of ancient Egypt and Greece, confirmed its authenticity.

The three scholars trace the papyrus to ancient Egyptian Christians because it is written in the language used by them. Luijendijk suggested that, “a fragment this damaged probably came from an ancient garbage heap, like all of the earliest scraps of the New Testament.” She said that since writing appears both sides of the papyrus, it obviously belonged to an ancient book, called a codex, not a scroll.

King and Luijendijk have named the text the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife. They believe it is a translation of an even older version, probably written in Greek. It is framed as a dialogue between Jesus and his disciples. Early Christians, who often turned away from their families to follow Jesus, sometimes regarded themselves as a kind of family, with God the Father, his son Jesus, and members as brothers and sisters. Twice in the fragment Jesus speaks of his mother and once of his wife–one of whom is identified as “Mary.” The disciples discuss whether Mary is worthy, and Jesus states that “she can be my disciple.”

If the fragment dates from before the year 200, it would have been written in the middle of an intense historical debate over marriage for Christians. A century earlier, noted King, Timothy had warned that people who forbid marriage are following the “doctrines of demons.” Then, around the year 200, Clement of Alexandria declared that believers should emulate Jesus by not marrying. A decade or two later, said King, Tertullian of Carthage said that Jesus was “entirely unmarried.” Tertullian did not condemn marriage, but he denounced divorce and remarriage for widows and widowers.

For Richard Sipe, one of the most widely recognized experts on celibacy, the fragment points to time when the church “had no real organization. It was like Alcoholics Anonymous, a spiritual community where no one was above anyone else.” It was only after Christianity became organized and bureaucratic that Jesus was framed as a nonsexual person, added Sipe, who is a former monk. By depriving priests of wives and children the early church secured any property that might be inherited by descendants. This property interest was of great concern to celibacy’s early advocates, added Sipe. In scripture, he added, “Jesus was eloquently silent about sex.”

Sipe, who has written several books on sexuality and the clergy, predicted that the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife will be dismissed by church authorities even as it renews a long running debate over early Christianity and the canon that guides believers today. “The hierarchy will laugh at it,” he said, “But then they they’ll have to study it.” If the fragment is further authenticated it will contribute to “a current reformation of the church that has to has to do with sexuality.” Evidence of Jesus as a sexual being “could have been denied deny in the First Century but it cannot be today,” he said. “We know too much about human nature now to simply dismiss it.”