Rev. David Kind
Oh Boy! A new Gospel!!!
Every few years, it seems, there is a big hubbub as someone unveils some “new” “early Christian” writing that supposedly sheds new light on Jesus and the faith of the early Christians. A few years ago it was the “Gospel of Judas”. Before that it was the “Gospel of Mary Magdalene”, before that the theoretical proto-Gospel of “Q” (manuscript evidence for which no one has ever found or seen). This week the stir is being caused by the discovery by Harvard professor Karen King, of yet another gospel which is being touted as the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.” But do these fragments and writings do what St. John says the Scriptures are for? Do they bring us to believe that Jesus is the Christ and that, believing, we have life in His Name?
This new “gospel” is actually just a small fragment of text found on a scrap of papyrus (about the size of an early iPod nano) preliminarily dated to some time in the fourth century (the 300s). It is written in Coptic, leading the scholars involved to believe it originated in Egypt. The scrap contains only 8 lines of text on the front, none of which are complete sentences, and only five legible words on the back. It is being called a gospel because it contains phrases like “The disciples said to Jesus” and “Jesus said to them”. According to the article posted by the Harvard Divinity School, the translation of the front of the papyrus reads:
Line 1: not [to] me. My mother gave me li [fe]
Line 2: The disciples said to Jesus
Line 3: deny. Mary is worth of it (or) deny. Mary is n[ot] worthy of it.
Line 4: Jesus said to them, “My wife...”
Line 5: she will be able to be my disciple
Line 6: Let the wicked people swell up...
Line 7: As for me, I dwell with her in order to...
Line 8: an image...
The line that is causing such a stir is the fourth where it could appear that Jesus is talking about His wife; who, because line three mentions a “Mary”, might have been Mary Magdalene according to Karen King. Others in recent times have made the same claim, based on the fact that Mary Magdalene is held up as an important disciple in other writings like the Gospel of Mary Magdalene and the Gospel of Thomas. This rather new idea was made popular in the book The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown (and in the movie version with Tom Hanks). However none of these other texts actually say that Jesus was married, let alone that Mary Magdalene was his wife. In fact there are no texts written by anyone from before the fourth century (assuming this scrap is really that old) that make the claim that Jesus was married. Read the text of the papyrus and you will see that what we have in this case is an awful lot of speculation based on a piece of old paper that doesn’t even contain a single complete thought on it!
But what about these other gospels that don’t show up in the Bible? And what does this newly discovered papyrus fragment have in common with them? There are dozens of writings, claiming to be about Jesus or claiming to have been written by His disciples, that are not in the Bible. Most of them, like this scrap of papyrus, come to us from Egypt. Most of them were discovered in the last century, meaning that they were never used by the Church as Scripture (If they had been they wouldn’t have been lost). None of them were written before the late second century (more than 100 years after Jesus death and resurrection). And nearly all of them were written by people who held to a strange mystical spirituality called gnosticism.
The Gnostics were people who believed that there was a secret knowledge that only certain people had within them which would free their spirit, which, they said was, a little piece of God trapped within a person, from its material bondage (so your body and everything material was thought of as a kind of prison). Though there were dozens of flavors of gnosticism, all of them were rejected by the Church and their teachers condemned as heretics. Much of what St. John wrote in his epistles (See especially I John 1:1-5) and some of what St. Paul wrote in his, was in response to the early gnostic heresy.
What do the Gnostic gospels tell us about Jesus and the Christian faith? Not much, it turns out. Most of them borrow some material from the Biblical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. But what is not borrowed directly from the Bible is often so bizarre that, even if one were to take them seriously, they would provide precious little useful information in terms of who Jesus is and what He supposedly taught. For example, in the Gospel of Judas Jesus is portrayed as someone who needs help freeing His inner divinity through suicide (the cross) and Judas is portrayed as the hero who helps Him do it. In the Gospel of Mary Magdalene Jesus delivers a cryptic discourse to Mary Magdalene who is portrayed as the chief disciple. In the Gospel of Thomas Jesus supposedly says that in order to be saved Mary Magdalene would have to become a man first. So take teachings that are incoherent, then mix in lots of crazy visions, detached sayings, and weird stories, and you’ll get an idea of how most of these so-called gospels read.
Nowadays some scholars are promoting these gnostic texts as alternative witnesses of early Christian beliefs. By presenting these bizarre texts as legitimate expressions of Christianity, they claim to be showing the world that there were other forms of Christian faith which existed peacefully along side of orthodox Christianity. Karen King admits that she has based her career on challenging the Christian Faith and critiquing what she calls “the master story of Christianity”. What King and others like her are really challenging is the authority of the Holy Scriptures as the Word of God. The Bible, they claim, is merely one version of what people believed about Jesus, and that there is no one truth but several alternative versions of it.
But the Word of God recorded in the Holy Scriptures is not one version of the truth. According to Jesus and the Apostles it is The Truth. Jesus makes the claim that the Word of God is Truth in John 17 and that that Word cannot be broken in John 10. So how could there be multiple versions of the truth? And concerning the writing of the Scriptures, St. Peter says (II Peter 1): “we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty.” and again, a few verses later: “no prophecy of Scripture is of any private origin, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.” The Gospels in the Bible were given by God through His apostles. These Gospels are clear, true and trustworthy. Most importantly, they bring us repentance unto faith in Jesus, who, they witness, was crucified for our sins and alive again on Easter. The “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” and the other gnostic gospels? Well, that’s another story...