Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Did Jesus Have a Wife? A New Gnostic Fragment

According to an article in the Washington Post, an ancient manuscript claiming that Jesus had a wife has just been discovered. I’ll tackle this new discovery with some Q&A.
What is this new find?
Karen King, the Gnostic scholar who published the manuscript, has titled it the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife (see the scholarly article here). It is a very small fragment, only 12 partial lines, of an ancient Gnostic book. The fragment, written in Coptic, dates from the fourth century, but it is a copy of an older book, perhaps written in the late second century. According to the fragment, Jesus refers to “my wife.”
Is the manuscript genuine?
It’s too early to tell. When manuscripts are discovered, it usually takes some time of examination and scholarly vetting before forgeries are discovered. There are some concerns about Gospel of Jesus’ Wife’s unknown provenance and history of ownership, but the initial reports make it seem likely that this is a real fourth-century Gnostic document. That doesn’t mean that the document is true or has anything to do with Jesus!
How is this related to the so-called Gnostic gospels?
The Gnostics wrote a number of short collections of sayings that they attributed to Jesus: the Gospel of Philip, Gospel of Judas, Gospel of Mary Magdalene, and others. Technically, these are not really gospels, at least when compared with the canonical gospels. The four gospels in the New Testament are full biographies of Jesus, directly tied to eyewitness accounts, and written within 25 to 60 years of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The Gnostic gospels, in contrast, are short collections of sayings, with little or no biographical material. They are written by people more than a century removed from Jesus, with no connection to the eyewitnesses. Generally, these works are easily identified because they try to make Jesus sound like a Gnostic. This newly discovered fragment has a few lines that sound like the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Thomas, and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene.
What does the document say about Jesus’ wife?
Not much! Here is the entire text of the document:
1 ] “not [to] me. My mother gave to me li[fe…”
2 ] The disciples said to Jesus, “.[
3 ] deny. Mary is worthy of it
4 ]……” Jesus said to them, “My wife . .[ [
5 ]… she will be able to be my disciple . . [
6 ] Let wicked people swell up … [
7] As for me, I dwell with her in order to . [
8] an image [
1 ] my moth[er
2 ] three [
3 ] …[
4 ] forth which … [
The ellipses indicate unreadable material. As you can see, there is very little to work with. However, as King points out, it seems that “My wife” in line 4 refers to “Mary” in line 3, although we can’t be certain. Although Mary was a very common name, the prominent relationship between Mary Magdalene and Jesus in other Gnostic documents makes it seem likely that this is Mary Magdalene and not some other Mary.
So the Gnostics thought Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene?
Not so fast. Marriage, kissing, and the “bridal chamber” were metaphors in Gnosticism related to enlightenment and their initiation rituals. Some Gnostics thought that all actual sexual intercourse was evil. So the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife may be using Gnostic metaphor. You may recall from several years ago that the Gospel of Judas was so packed with opaque Gnostic metaphor that scholars are still debating whether it portrays Judas as a hero or a villain.
Then does this document tell us whether Jesus was married or not?
All it tells us (sort of) is what Gnostics thought. Since Gnostics weren’t around until the second century, and Gnostics are notorious for making up sayings of Jesus, this tells us absolutely nothing about the real Jesus. Karen King, the scholar who published the fragment, partially agrees with this evaluation. You can bet that this important fact will be overlooked or downplayed when you see it on the cover of news magazines or watch the forthcoming Smithsonian documentary.
Aside from this manuscript, how likely was it that Jesus was married?
There are three reasons that Jesus was probably not married. First, the New Testament never mentions a wife. Since the NT authors mention Jesus’ mother, father, four brothers, some sisters, an aunt, and some cousins, it is very unlikely that Jesus had a wife and no one mentioned it. Second, Jesus described a special calling of celibacy to allow a greater focus on the kingdom of heaven (Matt 19:10-12; cp. 1 Cor 7:7-9). This strongly implies that Jesus was celibate. Third, the church fathers, some of whom had access to reliable oral tradition about Jesus, believed that Jesus never married (Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Chrysostom, as King points out).
But wasn’t it the norm for Jewish men to get married?
Yes, it was strongly encouraged. In later Judaism (second century), it was almost a requirement. But there are significant examples of celibacy in Judaism, including Jeremiah, some Essenes, the female Therapeutae, possibly the prophet Bannus, and the second century sage Ben Azzai.
Does it really matter whether Jesus was married or not?
In one sense, it doesn’t matter. If the Gospels had told us that Jesus was married, it would not be disturbing, and we would consider it as part of his incarnation and genuine humanity. However, Jesus and Paul clearly thought that some people should fully devote themselves to kingdom service by abstaining from marriage. Jesus’ celibacy confirms what we already know about Jesus: that his entire life was completely and undistractedly devoted to advancing the Kingdom of God.

The picture: The front side of the newly discovered Gnostic fragment The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife (copyright Karen King).

This post can also be found at the Talbot blog, thegoodbookblog.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Revealed to Whom? (John 3:21)

I often get questions from students about the best translation of some verse. Usually, the difference is between "literal" translation (such as ESV or NASB) and "dynamic" translation (such as the NIV or NLT). These two types are also called "formal" (because they try, when possible, to follow the forms and word order of the original Greek or Hebrew sentences) and "functional" (because they try to preserve the function or meaning of a whole sentence). Another way that these two types of translations are sometimes characterized is "word-for-word" and "thought-for-thought." A good book that clearly and succinctly explores these two translation philosophies is How to Choose a Translation For All Its Worth, by Gordon Fee and Mark Strauss.

A recent question emailed to me about the translation of John 3:21 reveals the difference in approaches. The underlined phrase in each (below) is a translation of the underlined Greek verb.

Greek: ὁ δὲ ποιῶν τὴν ἀλήθειαν ἔρχεται πρὸς τὸ φῶς, ἵνα φανερωθῇ αὐτοῦ τὰ ἔργα ὅτι ἐν θεῷ ἐστιν εἰργασμένα.
My formal translation: But the one who does the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be revealed that they are worked in God.
ESV: But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.
NLT: But those who do what is right come to the light so others can see that they are doing what God wants.

There are several differences between the translations, but the most important one is who the works are revealed to. The ESV (and other formal translations, like the NASB) leaves it unclear, but the first impression of most readers is that the works are revealed to God. The NLT (and some other functional translations like the CEV) specifies that the works are revealed to other people.

Part of the change that the NLT makes is converting the Greek passive "may be seen" into an active "so that others can see." It is common for functional translations to convert passive verbs to active for greater clarity. Nothing wrong with that - formal translations sometimes do the same to make more sense in English (Matt 5:7, for example). In this verse, converting the passive "may be seen" to an active verb requires specifying who it is revealed to. Should it be translated "so that God can see" or "so that others can see"? If the sentence was ambiguous in Greek, it would be best to leave it ambiguous in English, or maybe pick the most likely one and put the other choice in a footnote.

However, it turns out that this verse was not ambiguous to a native Greek speaker. The Greek verb for reveal in this verse is phaneroo (φανερόω). Elsewhere in John, and in general throughout the NT, phaneroo refers to revelation to humans, not to God (John 2:11, 7:4, 9:3, 17:6, 21:1). Knowing this, the translators of the NLT decided to make it clear in the translation that the the works are revealed to other people. 

While there are good reasons to have "literal" translations like the ESV, it is interesting that in this case, the NLT more clearly communicates the meaning of the sentence by being less "literal."

The picture: John 3:21, from the fourth-century manuscript Codex Sinaiticus. You can see that the scribe accidentally skipped most of verse 21, but the corrector added it into the margin.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Greek Scholars Rule?

He is a very amiable good fellow, but he is a Greek scholar and naturally a little eccentric.

– George Bernard Shaw, Major Barbara

Friday, April 8, 2011

Greek Scholars Rule!

Greek scholars are privileged men. Few of them know Greek; and none of them know anything else; but their position is unchallengeable.

– George Bernard Shaw, Major Barbara

Erasmus on Interpretation

It's the generally accepted privilege of theologians to stretch the heavens, that is the Scriptures, like tanners with a hide.
– Erasmus

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Review of Bell's Book

Darrel Bock is going through a chapter-by-chapter review of Rob Bell's new book, Love Wins at his blog. Bock is a top-notch scholar of the Gospels, and writes some civil and fair comments about the pros and cons of each chapter of Bell's book.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Are You Hungry? Blessings on the Hungry and Meek (Matthew 5:5-6)

Here's a sermon on two of Jesus' beatitudes, preached in August 2006 at Hope Chapel West Oahu.

The picture: Jesus' triumphal entry (on a donkey rather than a warhorse). Giotto di Bondone, 1308.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Monday, March 14, 2011

Soldiers in the Gospels

When I teach or preach from the Gospels, I always bring in relevant aspects of the historical and cultural background. Including such details not only helps us in our interpretation of the scene, but also helps us retell the story well – an essential part of preaching from narrative passages.

Several passages in the Gospels involve soldiers. Movies about Jesus, and most sermons about Jesus, portray all of these soldiers as Romans. We sometimes get the idea that there were centurions on every street corner. But is this the case? I have pulled together some of the information that we have about soldiers in Judea and Galilee in the first century, and included a few comments about each scene in the Gospels involving soldiers.

Herod the Great: During Herod’s rise to power, his personal army consisted of Jews as well as bands of foreign mercenaries. Rome also loaned Herod the use of three legions to help him expel the Parthian invaders and their puppet king, the Hasmonean prince Antigonus. But by the time of Jesus’ birth, Herod had no Roman troops; he still had a sizable Jewish army, as well as one cohort each of German, Thracian, and Gallic mercenaries. Herod continued to use some Roman advisors or officers.

Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee: Herod Antipas also had his own army. Although details are sketchy, his soldiers were likely Jews and Gentile mercenaries, like his father’s army.

Pilate and other Roman governors: When Archelaus (another Herod) was removed from office, Jerusalem and Judea fell under the control of the Roman governors. They kept four cohorts (a cohort was usually 6 centuries of 60-80 soldiers) and some cavalry in Caesarea Maritima, the Roman provincial capital, and one cohort in the fortress Antonia in Jerusalem. The cohort in Jerusalem was primarily in charge of protecting the fort and the arsenal. The governor came to Jerusalem at major feasts with additional cohorts, which were temporarily quartered in the Praetorium (the governor’s palace). Roman cohorts normally travelled with battle standards and shrines that honored their gods. However, the troops left these behind when they came to Jerusalem, since Romans (usually) tried to honor the religious customs and gods of their client nations. Since the "Roman" soldiers in the East were primarily recruited from the Syrian Greeks, they probably spoke Greek as their primary language, not Latin. Their senior officers were probably ethnically Roman or Italian.

The High Priest: The Roman governors allowed the priestly aristocracy to govern Jerusalem and Judea, although the governor appointed and removed high priests and kept the right of capital punishment. The high priest had his own Jewish troops (called ὑπηρέται, hyperetai in the Gospels). These primarily had police responsibility, but were also prepared for city defense.

Scenes involving soldiers:

Soldiers coming to John the Baptist: Some soldiers come to John the Baptist for baptism (Luke 3:14). Since John’s primary ministry was in Galilee, these are probably Jewish soldiers of Herod Antipas.

Gentile officer who comes to Jesus (Matt 8:5-13). It is possible that this officer is a Roman centurion, as it is normally interpreted. However, the word translated "centurion" is ἑκατοντάρχος (hekatontarchos), which refers to an officer of any army. Throughout the LXX (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), hekatontarchos is a standard title used for captains and administrators, translating the Hebrew title שָׂרֵ֣י מֵא֔וֹת (sarey meyot), “leader of a hundred” (Exod 18:21, 1 Sam 8:12, 2 Sam 18:1). Josephus uses the title to refer to officers in David’s army, the Roman army, and in his own rebel army. Since it is unlikely that Roman troops were stationed in Galilee, it seems possible, or even likely, that this man was a Gentile mercenary captain in the army of Herod Antipas.

The arrest of Jesus: John 18:3 mentions the cohort and officers of the high priest. Although “cohort” can refer to troops of any nation, in this case it refers to a squad (or more) of soldiers from the Roman cohort. In Jerusalem, a reference to “the cohort,” along with the mention of a χιλίαρχος (chiliarchos, commander of a cohort, John 18:12), makes it clear that Roman troops are present along with the officers of the high priest. Since civil disorder was always a possibility at Passover, the high priest decided to request a contingent of Roman troops to support this arrest. John’s wording can be interpreted to mean that some portion of the cohort was present, rather than the entire cohort.

Jesus before the high priest: When Jesus appeared before the high priest, only Jewish officers (ὑπηρέται) were present (Matt 26:58). One of them struck Jesus during the hearing (John 18:21); others beat him after the verdict (Mark 14:65). In the morning, these soldiers would have guarded Jesus as he was handed over to Pilate.

Jesus before Pilate: Pilate ordered Jesus to be beaten and mocked by his soldiers (Matt 27:27-30). These were from the cohort that had travelled down with Pilate from Caesarea Maritima. Most of these troops were recruited from the Syrian Greeks, known for their hostility towards Jews. Josephus records that in about AD 50, one soldier “mooned” the Passover crowds from the walls above the Temple and caused a riot; another was executed by the governor for tearing up a Torah scroll. 

Jesus before Herod Antipas: Herod was in Jerusalem for the Passover, so Pilate sent Jesus to Herod, probably hoping to dodge the problem of executing Jesus. Herod’s soldiers, who were probably Jewish, mocked Jesus and gave him a royal robe (Luke 23:6-12).

The crucifixion: Since the Roman government reserved the right of capital punishment, Roman soldiers presided over the execution. Mark calls the presiding officer a κεντυρίων (kenturion), a Latin loanword, rather than the usual hekatontarchos. Crucifixion was reserved for acts of insurrection against Rome; the two criminals were likely compatriots of Barabbas, an insurrectionist.

The tomb: The high priest persuaded Pilate to seal Jesus’ tomb and post a squad of Roman soldiers (Matt 27:62-66). Since their failure to guard the tomb could result in their execution, the chief priests promised to use their influence with Pilate to protect them, if they would lie about the event.

There is more to say, as soldiers show up in Acts, and as metaphors in Paul's letters (maybe the topic of a later post). Paying attention to the “local color” of scenes in the gospels doesn’t always dramatically influence our reading, but it does help us retell the stories in an interesting and accurate way.

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