Who would have thought that one small piece of papyrus could stir so much explosive debate?
I’m referring, of course, to the recent discovery by a historian of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School, professor Karen King, of a papyrus fragment that purportedly identifies Jesus as referring to Mary Magdalene as “my wife.”
The papyrus fragment is hardly the first piece of evidence that Mary Magdalene was — or may have been — more than just a disciple or a reformed prostitute. An exhibit at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia on the Dead Sea Scrolls includes two bone-storage boxes that once contained the remains of a married “Jesus son of Joseph.” In addition, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the boxes also contained the remains of a woman whose name resembled that of Mary Magdalene.
The papyrus fragment has been peer-reviewed and deemed authentic. The bone-storage boxes have not been conclusively connected to the New Testament. But as we dig deeper into ancient history and find more relics, I predict this question is likely to be debated many times.
The reason there’s so much controversy surrounding this discovery is manifold. Archaeologists and church elders have debated over the centuries whether Jesus was celibate, and if not, what impact that would have on his purity and on his designation as the son of God.
Of course the Catholic Church’s attachment to Jesus as a celibate is most integral to church teachings. It’s why priests, bishops and all church leaders ca
n only be men (in Jesus’ image) and why they must also be celibate.
To an outsider, this debate is specious. It is as incapable of being settled definitively as the location of the Ark of the Covenant (at least as of now) or the very existence of God. We might as well hang it up.
Biblical scholars cannot agree on the precise date the Gospel of Mark was written. Most agree the range would have been sometime between 65 and 70 A.D., or before the destruction of the Jewish Temple. Others argue it co
uld have been much later.
Regardless, Jesus is generally agreed to have died around the age of 33 and many scholars believe that none of the Gospels was written by an eyewitness to Jesus’ life.
Picture yourself among the literate “scholars” of the time. They believed in magic. There was no consensus on why the sun rose and set each day. There were scores of cult leaders and kings proclaiming themselves messiahs, both before and after Jesus’ death, including Alexander the Great.
My favorite take on why this debate continues was written by the Rev. Cynthia Bourgeault, who is a guest blogger for The Washington Post.
She said: “Nowhere in the (Nicene) creed does it specify as an article of belief that Jesus is a celibate, or that his divine status depends on his presumed celibacy. This is all later Christian mid-rash, the product of an increasingly patriarchal and misogynist hierarchy, which for the past 1,600 years has conducted its theological discourse in the hallowed halls of celibates speaking to other celibates. Not only does it not reflect the authentic message that Jesus is teaching; it actively distorts this message.”
The gospels that made the New Testament were chosen by politically-motivated church and state leaders who rejected dozens of other gospels with which they disagreed. This was completed centuries after Jesus’ death, early in the 4th century. What gave them the power to decide what should be included in the Bible and what should not?
The answer is nothing: They had political power and used it to sway church dogma. I urge all believers and non-believers to dig into biblical history. I’m shocked at the number of believers who’ve never read any
thing outside the Bible or listened to anyone but their pastors or priests on this topic. I hope King’s discovery will create a flurry of people rushing to learn more about how church doctrine came about in the first place.
Bonnie Erbe, a TV host, writes this column for Scripps Howard News Service. Email email@example.com.