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What’s Wrong with the Wife-of-Jesus Stories

Philip Jenkins explains [1]:

On average, the Biblical world sees a startling new discovery of allegedly cosmic significance every four or five years. Most recently, we had Jesus’s Wife, with the Gospel of Judas not long before that, and no great powers of prophecy are needed to tell that other similar finds will shortly be upon us.

In themselves, the finds are usually interesting (if they happen to be authentic), but where the media always go wrong in reporting them is in vastly exaggerating just how novel and ground-breaking they are.

So powerful are such claims, and so consistent, that it sometimes seems as if nobody before the 1970s (say) could have known about the multiple alternative Christianities that flourished in the first centuries of Christianity. Surely, we think, earlier generations could never have imagined the world revealed by such ancient texts as the Gospel of Thomas, and the Gnostic documents that turned up at Nag Hammadi. Lacking such evidence, how could older scholars have dreamed what we know to be true today: the vision of Jesus as a Zen-like mystic teacher, or perhaps a Buddhist-style enlightener, who expounded secret doctrines to leading female disciples, and who may even have been sexually involved with one or more of them? Today, for the first time, we hear the heretics speaking in their own voices!

But here’s the problem. Virtually nothing in that model would have surprised a reasonably well-informed reader in 1930, or even in 1900, never mind in later years. In order to make their finds more appealing, more marketable, scholars and journalists have to work systematically to obscure that earlier knowledge, to pretend that it never existed. In order to create the maximum impact, the media depend on a constructed amnesia, a wholly fictitious picture of the supposed ignorance of earlier decades.

Emphasis mine. Please do read it all.

19 Comments (Open | Close)

19 Comments To "What’s Wrong with the Wife-of-Jesus Stories"

#1 Comment By Dan Davis On October 17, 2012 @ 4:16 pm

Here’s a less sensationalist view of the latest media flap (I mean less so in general; Jenkins’s article is excellent and to the point): [2]. The real misinformation comes from such sources as the Discovery Channel and the History Channel, with their endless implications that the historic Church has conspired to cover up “real” Christianity and never discussing the criteria by which the early Church arrived at the Canon of the New Testament.

#2 Comment By Lulu On October 17, 2012 @ 5:49 pm

The-wife-of-Jesus story imposes the notion of comfort into the life of the son of God, and that’s why the story gets trumpeted so loudly. Many people, including many American Christians, would probably find Jesus more comforting if he were a little more normal and a lot less crucified.

Redemptive suffering? Who needs it?

#3 Comment By Chris Atwood On October 17, 2012 @ 5:55 pm

It works in other fields too. True story:

Once in 2007, a journalist called me up and asked me about the startling new discoveries made about the Mongol empire due to the recent uncovering of the “Secret History of the Mongols”. Now, the SHM has been known to scholarship since the 1930s, and in English translation since 1986. But Jack Weatherford had just written a popularizing book about it, and so the journalist assumed in was “startling” and “new” stuff. He really wanted to write a story about this, but when I told him scholars have known about this for decades, like the rich young ruler, he was saddened and went away grieving, never to write the article.

#4 Comment By Scott Locklin On October 17, 2012 @ 8:13 pm

The same is true of most science reporting.

#5 Comment By Glaivester On October 17, 2012 @ 9:58 pm

This reminds me of all of the breathless claims that, contrary to popular belief, the Israelites were a polytheistic people until after the exile, and that there was worship of Asherah in the temple.

Apparently these people never read the book of Kings, or they would hardly have been so shocked.

#6 Comment By isaacplautus On October 17, 2012 @ 10:07 pm


Good point. I think this gets into a historical problem as well. It’s more and more indisputable as history that someone called Jesus was crucified under Pilate’s reign. This wouldn’t have happened if he had been a teacher who merely told everyone to be nice to each other. If we can assert the crucifixion as history, which I believe we can, we have to ask the real historical question of why this man was crucified? It’s ironic that the quest for the “historical” Jesus has typically stripped him of his most controversial teachings and sayings. What else could it have been besides such controversial sayings that provoked the High Priests and then Rome to consider a threat that needed to be eliminated? Garry Wills and I are probably the only people voting for Obama who also believe that the Jesus Seminar was a complete evasion of the real historical problem of Jesus. But it really was, and no amount of political correctness changes that. As Wills says, “The Gospels are scary, dark and demanding. It is not surprising that people want to tame them, dilute them, make them into generic encouragements to be loving and peaceful and fair. If that is all they are, then we may as well make Socrates our redeemer.”

#7 Comment By MikeS On October 18, 2012 @ 8:29 am

Isaac: the religious historian Paula Fredriksen has a good book, “Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews”, in which she tries to reconstruct the historical situation. Quite plausibly Jesus was killed at the urging of some people in Jerusalam in order to a avert a Roman attack to suppress sedition; the fear was that the Romans may have interpreted talk about ‘messiah’ or ‘kingdom’ to be a political threat. John 11:49-50 may reflect the thinking. In any case, Rome killed (even by crucifixion) many people in occupied Palestine during those times, so the fact of someone’s death says nothing about the person’s aims.

#8 Comment By tbraton On October 18, 2012 @ 10:03 am

“It’s more and more indisputable as history that someone called Jesus was crucified under Pilate’s reign.”

Oh, really? Can you cite any evidence to support your conclusion? Could you specify the year such crucification took place? Why do you think so much fuss was raised a few years back about the recent discovery of the ossuary of “Joseph brother of Jesus”? Because it was the first historical evidence that a man named Jesus actually lived. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a forgery by an Israeli antiguities dealer, so we are left with no historical evidence whatsoever.

#9 Comment By tbraton On October 18, 2012 @ 10:04 am

I meant to say “James, son of Joseph and brother of Jesus.”

#10 Comment By Lulu On October 18, 2012 @ 11:15 am

Establishing Jesus’ historical record is not necessary to comment on the power of the narrative of the man from Nazareth, any more than establishing Moses’ historical record, or the record of the Jews’ enslavement in Egypt (which has also been challenged), is necessary to comment on the power that either of those narratives has had on the people who believe.

#11 Comment By Socrates On October 18, 2012 @ 12:51 pm

“It’s more and more indisputable as history that someone called Jesus was crucified under Pilate’s reign.”

In other words, not only is there evidence, but it is accumulating (more and more!) And it’s indisputable!

Show us. Because I don’t think there’s even one piece of “indisputable” evidence, much less “more and more”.

#12 Comment By Alan Jacobs On October 18, 2012 @ 1:57 pm

Hey y’all, the question of the [3] is of course endlessly fascinating, but this comment thread might not be the best place to pursue it.

#13 Comment By J On October 18, 2012 @ 2:25 pm

This phenomenon simply reflects American Christian culture hollowing out- the average adherents’ knowledge base of the religion keeps diminishing and they don’t see reason to care that this is happening. The various surprises and sensations that pop up in popular media at intervals keep them entertained. And also persuaded that the religion is fundamentally semicoherent, with everyone else doing picking and choosing among the teachings too.

#14 Comment By ConantheContrarian On October 18, 2012 @ 2:29 pm

“Many people, including many American Christians, would probably find Jesus more comforting if he were a little more normal and a lot less crucified.”

Comforting? Was that Jesus’ mission to be comforting? Jesus said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew, and something very similar in Mark). He wants us to be uncomfortable with our sin.

“Redemptive suffering? Who needs it?”

God the Father required suffering so that we could be redeemed. We needed, and only one person could do it. Jesus wasn’t called the Lamb of God for nothing.

#15 Comment By Lulu On October 18, 2012 @ 9:00 pm

Conan–I was trying to say that modern Christianity has lost sight of the need for redemptive suffering, and the secular world doesn’t much care for it either, so the wife-of-Jesus story becomes big news because it dilutes the power of the narrative.

#16 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On October 18, 2012 @ 11:06 pm

And let’s not forget Washington Irving’s ignorant provincial assumption that before Christopher Columbus, most people, especially most Christians, believed that the earth was flat, when the medieval (church) scholars were well aware that is was round, and its circumference had been measured with some accuracy in 500 BC.

(The rotundity of the earth should not be confused with the geocentric vs. heliocentric theories of extra-terrestrial arrangement.)

Irving’s myths went hand-in-had with remaking the almost-forgotten Columbus as a hero of the nascent USA, as if he sailed to make the world safe for liberty and democracy.

#17 Comment By Fran Macadam On October 19, 2012 @ 1:28 am

There’s nothing new, under the sun, or Son.

#18 Comment By Ethan C. On October 19, 2012 @ 10:29 am

Someone ought to put together an account of Jesus in which all of the fun theories are true at the same time: Jesus was a married gay Marxist Buddhist psychic space alien whose descendents founded the Merovingian dynasty after he visited England and America to meet with the lost tribes of Israel.

#19 Comment By isaacplautus On October 19, 2012 @ 3:00 pm

Didn’t mean to thread jack. To get back to the original topic: Why is is that our culture gets so much more excited over a tiny fragment such as this one, when we have documents that can be traced much farther back?

Whatever one thinks of this:


It is certainly a fragment that goes back considerably farther than the Jesus’ Wife fragment. Personally, I don’t care whether or not Jesus was married. But, when so many both inside and outside of Christianity are ignorant about the nature of ancient manuscripts, I think it’s unfortunate that the media only try to educate by picking out the sensational fragments.