The fragment of ancient Coptic papyrus that contains the words “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…’ ” has already left the news cycle but I can’t let it go unremarked upon. It may seem like a kooky bit of esoteric flotsam, but I predict it will boomerang back many times over the next 10 – 20 years in the form of good old-fashioned, no one’s going to care about it, won’t get you a job, dissertations. Accompanied by religious tracts, conspiracy theories and quasi-intellectual books a la “The Secret” and “DaVinci Code”.
The people who care about things like this care very, very much. I’m not talking about just your garden variety religious nut (an unkind shorthand, but you know what I mean), but legions of academics, theologians, followers of all things Knights Templar, conspiracy theorists, and other “off the grid” kinds of folks.
Once upon a time, when I thought my life would go in a different direction, I took classes in Latin, Ancient Greek and Aramaic. I’m not a natural at languages but I worked hard and kept up. Ancient Greek was my favorite and I fantasized about reading The Trial and Death of Socrates in the original one day. (Failing that, I continue to reread it at least once a year, the Jowett translation, because it recharges my thinking and makes me happy, even in English.)
So in an advanced Greek seminar, when I was starting to get an inkling that I was not going to master this, the professor decided to mix it up and have us start translating the Old Testament rather than poetry or philosophy. Three weeks. That’s how long we spent on the first sentence. Why? Because not only are the copies of copies of copies suspect, the copies of copies of copies from multiple locations do not align. And then there issues with translation to the Greek from the Hebrew and debate about which century of Greek was used.
Why does the century matter? Not to go too far off on a tangent, lets take a look at the 21st century word Gay, meaning homosexual. During the 19th and early 20th century the word meant full of mirth, carefree, joyful. By the last third of the 20th century Gay meant male homosexual, by the last decade and bleeding into the 21st century, it not only describes a homosexual but is also used by some as a euphemism for “lame”. Now imagine explaining the sentence “…and God was gay” without knowing the century of origin. Century matters.
Last but not least, once we have determined what the actual words are that we are translating in the Greek Old Testament, we discover that there are some verb issues that make it possible that Genesis doesn’t say “In the beginning God created Heaven and Earth” but may instead say, “in the beginning God separated Heaven and Earth”.
BIG difference if the Bible is your go to book. Creationism, or maybe not so much. See the problem? Now what does this have to do with a scrap of ancient paper no bigger than a business card? The rumors and theories about Jesus being married have been around for years, not just among the Dan Brown crowd, but with reformists who want proof that the Catholic Church was never intended to be a male hierarchy, or celibate. And here comes the conspiracy theory – many believe that through the years, beginning with the burning of the Serapium library at Alexandria ~390, the Mother Church confiscated and/or destroyed all evidence to the contrary. Except for this bit of Coptic papyrus.
The good news, if you will pardon the pun, is that anyone who believes Jesus was married will continue to do so. Anyone who does not will continue to do so. Usually evidence is not only unnecessary, but redundant when it comes to faith or the Catholic Church.
History is fascinating, religious or not. It is a living breathing thing, and anyone who thinks its static isn’t paying attention. We reshape the living record all the time when we admit alternate perspectives (women, people of color, whoever is not in power) and additional information (see Records, Suppression of.)
Churchill said “History is written by the victors” but that doesn’t mean that particular version is permanent. Even if you do try to burn the copies, delete the files or scrub all the servers.