Jesus’ Wife Matters a Lot — and Not at All

The recently discovered papyrus reminds us that a celibate, all-male priesthood needs reform

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Harvard Divinity School / Karen L. King / AFP / Getty Images

The papyrus fragment that quotes Jesus referring explicitly to his wife˜

The Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests — a breakaway group founded in 2002 — sent out an e-mail yesterday announcing that its bishops will ordain six new female clerics next month. (The howl you just heard was from the archconservative Catholic League.) These ladies have nothing if not good timing: their missive immediately made me think of last week’s news from Harvard Divinity School that an early Christian text asserts Jesus was married and suggests his wife was a disciple — which would indicate women were eligible for the Catholic priesthood all along. But it also reminded me of the other reaction I usually have to these Da Vinci Code–ish historical discoveries about Jesus: So what?

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As a Catholic, I do think Jesus scholarship is important. What experts like John Dominic Crossan and others have done to illuminate Christ the man and his ancient milieu enhances religion as well as the record — it raises questions that prod us to examine our faith and its purpose more deeply. But its value in that regard is also limited. As I’ve written on this site before, you could show me incontrovertible scientific proof that Jesus was not the product of a virgin birth or that he didn’t rise from the dead, and it wouldn’t dampen my faith one iota. Likewise, handing me hard evidence that Mary was indeed a virgin mother, or that the resurrection did occur, wouldn’t do much to reinforce it. Faith doesn’t, or shouldn’t, work that way.

Which is why the revelation by Harvard professor Karen King — that a Coptic papyrus fragment quotes Jesus as saying “my wife” as well as declaring that a woman believed to be that spouse, perhaps Mary Magdalene, is one of his apostles — makes me both turn my head and shrug my shoulders. If Jesus was a husband and did consider a woman as clerically worthy as Peter and the rest of the apostolic crew, it matters a lot, for all the reasons Tom Hanks discovers in the (very fictional) Da Vinci Code. That is, it calls into further question one of the Catholic Church’s most questionable constructs, a celibate, all-male priesthood. But in another sense, it doesn’t matter at all: we didn’t need a codex to convince us that a Messiah as human and compassionate as Jesus did not intend his priesthood to look, and in many cases behave, the way it still does today.

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To understand why the papyrus merits more than just biblical or historical curiosity, consider another religion-related event this month. On Sept. 6, Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City was convicted on a misdemeanor charge of failing to report suspected child abuse, making him the highest-ranking member of the U.S. Catholic Church hierarchy to be found guilty of shielding pedophile priests. (Earlier this year in Philadelphia, Monsignor William Lynn was convicted on a felony charge of concealing child-abuse claims in his diocese.) I’m not suggesting that allowing Catholic priests to marry or women to be priests would have stopped the abuse that’s rocked the church. Pedophiles prey regardless of gender or marital status. But I will argue that it could have helped prevent the just as pervasive and just as criminal cover-ups.

And I base that contention on the overweening clericalism that plagues so much of the Catholic priesthood — and which is, at least in part, a consequence of the required celibacy and exclusion of women. Most priests are of course good men and do godly work, and their celibacy per se is not the problem. I respect it — if it’s the priest’s choice. But as I wrote last year when Lynn was arrested, the mandatory segregation of diocesan priests and bishops from the world of wives and children has for centuries risked sending the message that those human joys would somehow sully their vocations — that those things are inferior to the priesthood, and therefore aren’t as worthy of protection as the holy fraternity is. Hence, in my view, one cause of the monstrous insensitivity of church bosses like Lynn.

That also explains why it’s welcome to hear any historical evidence that Jesus didn’t consider clerical marriage or female ordination anathema to the religion he founded. But again, such evidence isn’t, or shouldn’t be, necessary.

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The kind of belief we associate with faith doesn’t rise or fall on archeological digs or, as in The Da Vinci Code’s case, decrypted symbology. At their core, religions are stories, dramas so powerfully meaningful that they become for billions of people their cultural means of communing with God. Five years ago atheist zealots hooted and Christian fundamentalists hollered when The Lost Tomb of Jesus,a documentary produced by Titanic director James Cameron, claimed to have unearthed confirmation that Christ never left his grave. But both sides got it wrong: from Christians to Hindus to pagans, most believers don’t predicate their shared faith that light ultimately defeats darkness on the laboratory verification of ancient miracle narratives.

So just as I don’t get that worked up when a “find” purports to debunk my faith, I don’t get too excited when one appears to validate my faith. Or at least my convictions about the Catholic clergy, as King’s Jesus-was-married codex would seem to do. At a time when the Vatican, panicked by growing Catholic support for female ordination, is senselessly hounding U.S. nuns for their “radical feminism,” the latest piece of papyrus does serve as a useful reminder of how wrong Rome is in this matter. But most of us knew that long before King deciphered it.