The problem with today’s headline story is not the discovery of an ancient document that suggests that someone once believed that Jesus had a wife. There were many false and unbiblical teachings in ancient times, just as there are today. The problem is the media can very easily make a minor story into something sensational that appears to threaten historic Christianity.
The lead paragraph of the USA Today article says it this way:
A papyrus fragment from the fourth century contains a phrase in which Jesus refers to “My wife,” which a U.S. scholar says is the first evidence supporting the belief among early Christians that he was married.
That’s the version that most will read. Contrast that with first paragraph of the academic paper on which the story is based (bold font mine):
Published here for the first time is a fragment of a fourth-century CE codex in Coptic containing a dialogue between Jesus and his disciples in which Jesus speaks of “my wife.” This is the only extant ancient text which explicitly portrays Jesus as referring to a wife. It does not, however, provide evidence that the historical Jesus was married, given the late date of the fragment and the probable date of original composition only in the second half of the second century. Nevertheless, if the second century date of composition is correct, the fragment does provide direct evidence 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.
A few observations:
1. We have known for a very long time that some people around the year 200 argued that Jesus had a wife.
2. A newly discovered but poorly preserved fragment may suggest that some people around the year 200 argued that Jesus had a wife.
3. Ancient texts that showed that some people believed that Jesus had a wife were non-existent until the discovery of this fragment.
4. There were many “Christian” groups in the first few centuries that had bizarre beliefs that contradicted Scripture.
5. The early church was in wide agreement that Jesus did not have a wife.
6. No first-century document ever mentions or hints at the possibility that Jesus had a wife.
7. Jesus understood his identity and his atoning death from the beginning of his earthly ministry, and he knew that marriage was not part of his mission.
Karen L. King, the author of the academic paper, gives a good introduction to the discovery on this video produced by Harvard Divinity School.
As I learn of good articles on the subject, I will add them below.
Darrell Bock: Quick Thoughts on the New Jesus Wife Text
Michael Heiser: Ancient Coptic Fragment Has Jesus Alluding to His Wife
Mark D. Roberts: Was Jesus Married? A Careful Look at the Real Evidence.
James Davila: A Coptic gospel that mentions Jesus’ wife?
Associated Press: Harvard Claim of Jesus’ Wife Papyrus Scrutinized
*Simon Gathercole: Did Jesus have a wife?
Michael Kruger: Apocryphal Gospels and the Mainstream Media
David Bivin: Was Jesus a Confirmed Bachelor?
Thomas L. McDonald: The Gnostic Noise Machine and the “Wife” of Jesus
Preston Sprinkle: Did Jesus Have a Wife?
*Mark Goodacre: The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife: The Story is Moving Fast!