University Congregational Church
May 18, 2014
“The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife”
Song of Solomon 5:1
In an ancient monastery in a faraway place, a new monk arrived to join his brothers in copying books and scrolls in the monastery’s scriptorium. He was assigned as a rubricator on copies of books that had already been copied by hand.
One day he asked Father Florian, “Does not the copying by hand of other copies allow for chances of error? How do we know we are not copying the mistakes of someone else? Are they ever checked against the oldest manuscript?”
Father Florian was set back a bit by the obvious logical observation of this youthful monk. “A very good point, my son. I will take one of the latest books down to the vault and compare it against the old one.”
Father Florian went down to the secured vault and began his verification. After a day had passed, the monks began to worry and went down looking for the old priest. They were certain something must have happened.
As they approached the vault, they heard sobbing and crying. When they opened the door, they found the Father sobbing over the newest copy and the ancient book, both of which were opened before him on the table. It was obvious to all that the poor man had been crying his old heart out for a long time.
“What is the problem, Reverend Father?” asked one of the monks.
“Oh, my Lord,” sobbed the priest, “the word is ‘celebrate’!”
It is true! Somewhere along the line in church history, we moved from celebrating our sexuality as a God given gift, to understand sex as evil and morally suspect.
Sexuality, as I am referring to it, is something all of us have. We are sexual creatures. We have sexual feelings and responses, whether or not we actively engage in “sex”, or “intercourse”. But ,sexuality is much broader: it includes our physical and emotional response to people of our own sex and the opposite sex. We are all sexual creatures. And it is to be celebrated!
The Song of Solomon in our Bible is a very explicit sexual book. In fact, I am a bit hesitant to read much of it from the pulpit (some of it is R. rated!) – but I encourage you to go home and dust off your Bible and explore it for yourself! Here is an excerpt from Song of Solomon 5:1:
“I come to my garden, my sister, my bride;
I gather my myrrh with my spice,
I eat my honeycomb with my honey,
I drink my wine with my milk.
Eat, friend, drink,
And be drunk with love.”
Early church leaders such as Augustine viewed sexual pleasure as an irresistible force that caused people to lose control and act irresponsibly. Sexual pleasure, they argued, lures us to focus on individual satisfaction, tempting us to selfishly ignore or abuse others. Many leaders of the early church felt that the good Christian was one who avoided sex as much as possible, and, when forced to fulfill marital obligations to one’s spouse, performed those sexual duties with as little pleasure as possible.
While attitudes in the church are changing, this Augustinian understanding of sexual pleasure still has great influence within U.S. Christian culture. We are taught that sexual pleasure is irresistible, and will necessarily overwhelm both human reason and human will.
Because sexual pleasure has been so misunderstood, sexuality has long been a taboo subject. Sex education has been labeled as encouraging “carnal thoughts”.
Unfortunately, the belief that sexual pleasure is irresistible not only mandated sexual avoidance, but has provided very convenient excuses for irresponsible behavior in sexual situations.
For these reasons, the recent news about an ancient papyrus fragment called the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” has really become titillating! Here’s what we know so far:
- It is made up of eight mostly legible dark lines on the front and six barely legible faded lines on the back.
- Scientists have concluded the fragment dates back to the 6th-9th centuries and its contents may originally have been composed as early as the 2nd – 4th centuries.
- It is written in Coptic, a language of ancient Egyptian Christians.
- The legible lines on the front seem to form a broken conversation between Jesus and his disciples. The fourth line of the text says, “Jesus said to them, my wife.” Line 5 says “she will be able to be my disciple.” And line 7 says, “As for me, I will dwell with her in order to…”
- Twice in the tiny fragment, Jesus speaks of his mother, his wife, and a female disciple – one of whom may be identified as “Mary.”
Dr. Karen King, a professor of divinity at Harvard Divinity School, is the person who brought this papyrus to attention. She says that the “main topic of the fragment is to affirm that women who are mothers and wives can be disciples of Jesus – a topic that was hotly debated in early Christianity as celibate virginity increasingly became highly valued.”
The fragment gives us a reason to reconsider what we thought we knew by asking how the role of Jesus’s marital status played in history and in early Christian controversies concerning marriage, celibacy, and family.
If, for example, Jesus was married, would the church have instituted celibacy as a requirement for church leaders?
And why, now, is it so frightening for some to think of Jesus as a married man when for the ancient Hebrews, being married was the norm? They would have thought him strange if he hadn’t married.
If we would understand sexuality as a positive force, as a source of God’s transforming grace, we could not deny the power of sex. Too often, in our culture like the ancient Christians before us, sexuality is treated lightly, in terms of privacy, or recreational activity, as a body function with no more meaning or importance than other body functions.
We should not see sexual desire, or any other bodily desire, as an enemy to be feared and controlled. We need to understand our sexual desires as one set of messages to ourselves about how we are. All of us need to learn to hear the messages circulating in our bodies, to interpret them correctly, and to cooperate with them. Repression of our body’s messages is dangerous.
Our discomfort with sexual pleasure is one result of the failure of Christianity to affirm self-love, and the tendency to over-stress the element of sacrifice in love of neighbor. Christianity has never really taken seriously the real wisdom in Jesus’ injunction to love one’s neighbor as oneself: that love of neighbor must begin with love of self. We cannot love the neighbor well unless we love ourselves well first, for we literally will not know what the needs of the self are and how those needs might be satisfied.
There is controversy about this newly discovered “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife”. Questions about its authenticity have been answered by multiple sources. The papyrus dates back, the Coptic language is consistent with the carbon dating. So what is the problem?
Karen King is not insisting that this document is proof of Jesus being married. She is simply suggesting that the role of women in the early church may not be what we assumed.
There is something very important at stake for the critics, however. For many, the belief of salvation rests on the idea that Jesus was an “unblemished lamb” offered as a sacrifice for our sins. The idea that Jesus could have been married topples a house of cards! Follow the logic here…
- If Jesus was married, he likely had sex with his wife.
- If Jesus had sex with his wife, he was not sacrificially pure.
- If Jesus was not sacrificially pure, his death did not appease the law of sacrifice.
- If Jesus was not the pure and unblemished sacrifice, his death does not qualify to take away the sin of the world.
- If Jesus didn’t take away the sin of the world, then we have no way to get to heaven.
Some critics of the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife must be seen as skeptics simply because of their theology. They will not accept the idea because it topples the basis of their faith.
Do I think Jesus was married? I’m about undecided on the topic. In the long run, however, it doesn’t change my view of Jesus or of the Christian faith at all. My faith is not based on Jesus’s celibacy and his death. It is based on his life philosophy and his teachings. In short, a married man healing the sick, stilling storms and raising the dead is just as impressive as an unmarried man doing so. Married or unmarried, celibate or sexually active, it doesn’t change my faith.
The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife is not really about whether he was married or not. For me, its intrigue is really more about the role of women in the early church. The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife indicates (as do a number of other ancient documents) that women were active in leadership in the early church and were accepted as Jesus’s disciples.
Men and women working together to spread the Good News, recognizing that gender and sexual expression is a part of what God intended for our lives? That, I can celebrate!