Everyone’s going to be talking about it, so we might as well jump in here at Jews for Jesus.

Over the past few days, the Internet has been ablaze in virtual neon over a discovery made by Harvard professor Karen King.

Professor King has acquired a fragment of papyrus – the ancient equivalent of paper – that dates from about the fourth century after Jesus, in which Jesus is quoted as saying, “my wife.”*

Well. Shades of Dan Brown and The DaVinci Code.

Some headlines have soberly and accurately said no more than that someone in the fourth century believed that Jesus had a wife.

Less cautious headline editors have trumpeted the discovery as a “suggestion” or “clue” to Jesus’ marital state.

And then there is the whole question of whether the papyrus is a forgery. Not forged by Professor King, mind you – she is merely translating the papyrus that came into her hands. But perhaps by someone else. The jury is still out – very, very far out at this point. But respected biblical blogger James Davila has this to say:

This fragment is exactly, exactly, what the Zeitgeist [the contemporary mindset] of 2012 would want us to find in an ancient gospel. To my mind that weighs heavily against its authenticity. Of course I hope I’m wrong and that it is genuine, and that is certainly a possibility, but this is equivalent to winning big in the lottery and that should make us nervous. It is too perfect. As Larry Schiffman put it, “The most exciting things are the things most likely to be forged.” My working hypothesis at the moment is that someone who knew what they were doing went to a lot of effort using a piece of ancient papyrus to create a remarkable forgery.

And:

We must always be especially wary of both interpretations and discoveries that tell us what we want to hear.

Davila’s coverage of the media and his evaluation of the whole affair is excellent and can be found here.

The warning against hearing what we want to hear is one that can’t be sounded enough. This is especially true when it comes to opinions about Jesus. Every era, it seems, has managed to find a Jesus in tune with its own desires. We have had the liberal Jesus who mouths ethical platitudes. We have had the Jesus who is a rabbi like any other rabbi. There has been Jesus the martyr, Jesus the good teacher, Jesus the mushroom (yes – there was a theory by John Allegro that “Jesus” was the result of the disciples’ smoking one too many hallucinogenic fungi). There is Jesus the avatar, Jesus the guru, Jesus the deceiver, Jesus the nice guy, Jesus the bad guy, Jesus the figment of someone’s imagination, Jesus the magician. Oh, and Jesus the Messiah, too.

Of course followers of Jesus are not exempt from making Jesus into their own image either. The point is we all need to be aware of our biases and adjust our thinking accordingly.

Shofar Rosh Hashana is over, but the shofar will be sounded yet again before Yom Kippur has ended. The shofar’s blast is meant to awaken us to repentance. I think there should be another use for it: to put us on our guard against seeing what we want to see and hearing what we want to hear.

Professor King correctly says that this discovery doesn’t prove that Dan Brown was right. But his ghost, so to speak, wanders the halls of the modern mindset. So maybe give yourself a nice High Holy Days present. Instead of the book of Dan, crack open the book of Daniel, and the rest of the Bible too. You might not hear what you want to hear. But that is often not a bad thing at all.

L’shana tova.


Who do *you* think Jesus is? A mushroom, a miracle-worker, a messiah? Use the comments box to let us know.

End Notes:

*The papyrus fragment of Jesus having a wife first came to my attention from this article: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/19/us/historian-says-piece-of-papyrus-refers-to-jesus-wife.html