History · Musings

And so now they say Jesus had a wife

Coptic Evidence

A Faded Piece of Papyrus Refers to Jesus’ wife

If anything, this document will serve to spark new debates that, to be honest, have never really disappeared. The Christian Church has been arguing since it began. Within the Roman world, Christianity spread throughout the empire by the efforts of missionaries. Without a central base of power, a doctrine, and or any sort of official regulation, the very early Christian Church was largely founded as a series of scattered independent sects. Of course each sect had its own independent beliefs, which were shaped by local cultures and even sometimes local mythologies. There were so many varieties of Christian that it is entirely safe to say that early Christianity was in fact early Christianities.

The above document has been deduced to be of 4th century CE origin. This is an important detail for historical context.

Once Christianity had control of the former Roman world and were thoroughly embedded in the power structure of the Byzantine Empire, with a hierarchy and a growing volume of decrees to boot, they were met with the challenge of coordinating and establishing one set doctrine that all Christians were to thereafter follow.

The logical result of this was that there was a lot of in-fighting and a great many council meetings, the most notorious of these early meetings the ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, which was really just a very amusing debate over a few Greek terms (homo vs. homoi, as in Homo Ousios and Homoi Ousios). In clear language let me sum up this debate in one simple phrase: Was Christ the same substance as God his divine father (homoousios) or of similar substance to God (homoiousios). Once the Council decided its ruling (homoousios) and produced the Nicene Creed, they could then condemn as heretics any others who still maintained belief in the similar substance model. This is really, historically, the first step of establishing a strictly enforced single doctrine, on perpetually shaky footing (but that is a discussion for another time). From there, it was all just a continued argument over details frequently punctuated by skirmish, death, and excommunication. A completely appalling but nonetheless interesting affair, really. And it lasted a near millennium.

The dates given in the article are really very enlightening when measured on a timeline against what was going on in the wider world. The Coptic document was written sometime when Christianity was only beginning to create its own central doctrine, and therefore the Christian world was alive with a multitude of beliefs centred on Christ, his life, and his miracles. There was no Vatican central office to remind the Coptic Church that Jesus was, of course, a virgin at death and could never have been married. How could you soil the divinely perfect with notions of physical desire, need, and real human love? Banish the thought.

This document also originates from, presumably by the language, the Coptic Church. One of the ways they differ from the Roman Catholic Church is that Coptic belief includes an allowance that priests should marry.

And so to continue the historical context:
In and around the 4th century, Christianity began to idolise its hermits, mystics, and virgins. After all, there were no more Christian martyrs because the government no longer persecuted and killed people merely for being Christian. The hero martyr gave way to the hero hermit who overcame all temptation, and also the sacred virgin who was purity embodied. Perfect chaste temples were they together. Both hermits and virgins were, from a ideological standpoint, somewhat identical. Both resisted the temptations of the world, felt that to give in to the desires of the body was to corrupt the soul, and believed that focus on the body took attention away from the concerns of the soul. You should not be eating or thinking carnal thoughts… you should be praying. Priests, holy men, monks, and nuns were to live chaste lives, never to marry, and certainly never to fornicate (but they did, and much so). Understandably, the Christian Church (and then the Roman Catholic Church that it became as Christianity splintered), could not accept any hint that Christ himself was not pure as a virgin, a temple to God’s light and power. The idea of Jesus marrying, and yes possibly fornicating, made him too human, too dirty, and too concerned with earthly satisfaction. This would not do.

Men like Origen, Augustine, and Jerome had a lot of personal hang-ups. I will concede that Origen at least makes sense, but Augustine wanders very early into dark and heavily restrained territory, and Jerome is almost too misogynistic to stomach and is more ghastly than entertaining.

But there you have Jesus Christ, virgin and bachelor.

The priests of the Coptic Church were allowed to marry. In fact, though the Pope of Alexandria must be celibate, Coptic Priests must be married in order to be ordained. While the Coptic Church does elevate the virginity of the Virgin Mary, they don’t see marriage as an inherently sinful state that leads to a preoccupation with body over soul. The Coptic Church broke from the official church when the Coptic’s announced they were miaphysite, which seemed a bit too monophysite for the official branch. In essence, the Coptic Church felt that Christ had two sides, that which was divine and that which was human, and those two forms intertwined to give him his one form. It was historically to them perhaps that it was no smear to the nature of Christ to accept his human side, and with that his human needs, because that part of him was coiled together with his divinity, and both parts were essential halves to the final whole.

But that is historical context. The document was still written centuries after the death of Jesus, and most certainly authored by a man or a group of men who had no direct connection to the person who was Jesus Christ. This is no firsthand account of one of Jesus’ speeches, but merely a source of information about the Coptic Church in the 4th century CE.

Many people are reading the headline and perhaps even going as far as the first paragraph, but failing to read the rest of what Professor Karen L. King had to say about the document.

Is it proof that Jesus had a wife? No.

It is proof that there was at least one Christian sect in the early Christian world that believed Jesus had a wife? Yes.

The document stands as no evidence of Jesus’ own marital status, but it tells us something about the Coptic Church, and it reinforces some of their own central tenants.

I still prefer the droll Gnostics and ever-amusing Nestorians with their excessive concern over the womb of Mary any day.

One thought on “And so now they say Jesus had a wife

  1. After reading this and taken into consideration with other knowledge I have gleaned I still see it simply, and unfortunately people are still missing it thousands of years later. No matter if Christ had a wife or if he was Homo Ousios or Homoi Ousios he came here to show us the love of our Father in Heaven and the way home. He had to be human so that we could follow Him home, we are after all immortal beings having a mortal experience. Because of this belief I know that we are to be happy while here, we are to gain knowledge and grow and to enjoy life. He gave us a beautiful world, taste buds, senses so that we may have pleasure and enjoy the world around us. As any Father wants their child to be happy, as does He. All the infighting detracts from this simple truth.

    As my words may show I am a Christian, and the church I belong to fits me. However I would never force or berate another for their beliefs and argue over the best way to worship. I do not care how others worship as long it is not telling them to kill others or otherwise do them harm. We are all unique and thus so must be our paths; what ever one does or does not believe.

    Thank you for this post, I was not familiar with the Coptic Church and now I am. I know some shy away from talking about religion or God but for me I always like learning what others believe, so that I may have a better understanding of them. Plus I feel it fosters a better relationship when you are able to talk frankly with one another. Also I love to learn: “A well-instructed people alone can be permanently a free people.”
    -James Madison

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