Was Jesus Married?
This past week, many media outlets including the New York Times, CNN, Fox News, and many others ran a story about a small, incomplete Coptic manuscript fragment, presumably from the fourth century. Much of the media hype appears to be geared to help promote the Smithsonian Channel’s special on the fragment. Unfortunately, many of the media headlines about this manuscript—including the Smithsonian’s—have said “Fragment refers to Jesus’ Wife” or some variant.
We know from all the canonical Biblical Gospels, the Epistles of St. Paul, and the writings of the earliest Christians in the first and second centuries and beyond that Jesus was never married. In fact, when the Bible does talk about Jesus and his “bride”, that “bride” is always and without exception the Church (See Ephesians 5:22-23).
For those who are in the field of Biblical studies, manuscript criticism, or who are aware of the thousands of papyrus texts unearthed over the past two thousand years, this fragment is not really news and nothing new. It does not give any evidence whatsoever that Jesus was ever married or had a wife. If the fragment is indeed from the fourth century or even earlier, then it is from some obscure, heretical sect or cult which we may or may not already know about from the early Christian apologists and Church Fathers.
Most people do not know that the early Christian Church constantly fought against many false teachings about Jesus and the Christian message. For example, St. Paul in his Epistles mentions people teaching false doctrines and speaks against them. St. Ignatius of Antioch, who was martyred around 104 A.D. mentions a group, called Gnostics, who denied that Christ had a physical body. St. Irenaeus of Lyons, who died around 202 A.D. wrote a book called “Against Heresies” where he combats the false teachings of various heretical groups.
By the time we get to the fourth century, St. Ephiphanius of Salamis compiled an entire encyclopedia (called the Panarion) of different sects and groups who had picked aspects or persons from the Christian faith and distorted them into very odd and even bizarre practices and teachings. For example, St. Ephiphanius mentions the Collyridians, who offered sacrifice to Mary as if she were a god; the Ophites, who worshipped a snake, who they said was really Jesus Christ.
We know that these heretical sects frequently denied many of the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments (that make up our Bibles today) and composed their own texts to spread their strange teachings. In fact, we even know the names and some of the contents of these apocryphal books. Some of these apocryphal books will claim to have “secret” stories or sayings about Jesus. Thus, the conditions the early Church faced were in some ways no different than what we see today with various cults and sects that creep up from time to time.
Therefore, when it comes to this papyrus fragment, if the reconstruction of the current fragment is correct, then it is likely a section of one of these apocryphal texts from some heretical sect. As such, it doesn’t prove that Jesus was ever married and it certainly doesn’t have any impact on a person’s Christian faith or the teachings of the Church. Rather, the real question about this papyrus fragment is not whether Jesus was married, but rather which third or fourth century heretical sect this text likely came from.
Theo Nicolakis, Chief Information Officer
Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America