“You’re a fit dude. You wear sandals. You spend all your time hanging around 12 other guys. People were starting to talk,” said T.V. talk show host and comedian Stephen Colbert in a joke about a mysterious papyrus fragment referring to the women in Jesus’s life. According to a Harvard historian, the papyrus mentions Jesus’s wife, as well as a female disciple of Jesus. If authenticated, the papyrus could open new doors for ordained ministers everywhere – by undercutting centuries-old dogma about priestly celibacy and female authority.
The announcement was made by Dr. Karen L. King, an historian at Harvard Divinity School, Tuesday, 18 September, at the International Congress of Coptic Studies in Rome. According to King, the scrap, written in Coptic in the fourth century about three hundred years after Jesus lived, contains the phrase, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife….’,” while the following line allegedly reads, “she will be able to be my disciple.” Before the conference, she had shown the papyrus to only a small number of experts in papyrology and Coptic linguistics, who have concluded the papyrus is most likely authentic, yet King and her peers are seeking insight from other experts in the field. The origin of the papyrus remains a mystery, while its donor remains anonymous.
If authenticated, the small scrap of papyrus–no larger than a business card–could have profound implications for the way pastors conduct their ministries, especially prelates of the Roman Catholic Church. Historically, the Vatican has decreed that men must make a vow of celibacy before joining the priesthood, while it has staunchly resisted calls to open up the priesthood to women. As Laurie Goldstein of The New York Times reports, “the Vatican has reiterated the teaching that the priesthood cannot be opened to women and married men because of the model set by Jesus.” However, if Jesus was in fact married, and if his wife was his disciple (believed by many to be the historically maligned Mary Magdalene), the Church may be forced to revisit its stance on the spiritual authority of women and married men.
Traditionally, online churches like the Universal Life Church have taught that every person has access to a spark of divine wisdom. If this is so, having sexual relations and starting a family should not constitute a distraction for the spiritual seeker–indeed, these things may provide useful life experience to those who wish to become a minister. Likewise, the Universal Life Church has always strongly defended women’s right to minister alongside their male peers. If every person has access to a spark of divine knowledge, women have an equal place with men at the pulpit, and to deny them equal status as spiritual teachers is to cut out a vital organ in the body of the church.
We do not yet know for certain whether the mysterious Coptic papyrus presented by King at the Rome conference constitutes categorical proof Jesus had a wife and female disciple, but it is a tantalizing piece of evidence. Quoting King, Goldstein points out, “There was, we already know, a controversy in the second century over whether Jesus was married, caught up with a debate about whether Christians should marry and have sex.” If these suspicions are ever confirmed by documents like King’s fragment, it will be a wake-up call for ministers everywhere: Jesus Christ was not necessarily the man we think he was.