Karen L. King, the first woman to occupy the Hollis Chair of Divinity at Harvard, recently caused a sensation in Rome. At the International Congress for Coptic Studies, she revealed a fragment of papyrus measuring 4 cm by 8 cm (1.6 inches by 3.15 inches), dating back to the fourth century and covered with Coptic writing.
The papyrus contains a phrase attributed to Jesus, in which he refers to "my wife." Several renowned archeologists have authenticated the document, whose owner prefers to remain anonymous but who is known to King.
The theologian, familiar with the Gospels and Coptic literature, is an expert on the role of women in the early Christian church. She finds nothing surprising in the idea that in the fourth century a Coptic scribe with awkward handwriting believed that Jesus was married.
Since the Congress in Rome, the academic world has been in uproar over the papyrus, some affirming that it is impossible for it to be true, others that it could not possibly be a fake. We see this a lot in Christianity.
I have my own idea. The reason that the question is still not settled is that Jesus himself preferred not to talk about his personal life in public. Absorbed by saving humankind, he decided to avoid the gossip that systematically accompanies such suicide missions. His unexpected success after death and his posthumous celebrity naturally revived all the rumors about his private life. Anything else would have been surprising.
Personally, I admire his discretion about women, and the respect he always showed them, not condemning them to housework. Jesus never, for example, ordered his wife to hurry off to the bakery to buy multiple loaves of bread. Instead, he created them himself, and without raising any suspicion that someone behind him was washing the dishes. If there was a miracle, it is that he did not need a woman to do the job.
A frugal last supper
It is the same thing with the Last Supper. An American feminist, whose audacity I have praised here in the past, has complained that the name of the cook for the Last Supper was lost (Who Cooked the Last Supper?). But in fact, Jesus wanted it to be a frugal meal -- sandwiches, nothing fancy, so that his wife would not be overworked at such a solemn moment. Italian painters understood this well -- they put almost nothing on the table.
If he was courteous in his domestic sphere, Jesus was even more so in regard to his sexual life, which was no one else's business. As the papyrus people of those days have disappeared, we will never know if some paparazzi of the time might have come upon some interesting scene. It is true, though, that without any specific expression of interest or any stolen piece of information, the heads of the early Christian church could tranquilly fashion the image of a purely spiritual Jesus, without wife or child, then thanks to this, take for themselves his entire inheritance and all the power. It was only too easy!
The small fragment of Coptic manuscript that Karen L. King has presented will not rewrite history. She admits that it is not enough to "prove" anything. But it does sow discord among the dogmas. When you are a woman in a theological man's world, like Ms. King, that is already a small victory.