A faded fragment of papyrus known as the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife,” which caused an uproar when unveiled by a Harvard Divinity School historian in 2012, has been tested by scientists who conclude in a journal published on Thursday that the ink and papyrus are very likely ancient, and not a modern forgery. Skepticism about the tiny scrap of papyrus has been fierce because it contained a phrase never before seen in any piece of Scripture: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…’ ” Too convenient for some, it also contained the words “she will be able to be my disciple,” a clause that inflamed the debate in some churches over whether women should be allowed to be priests. The papyrus fragment has now been analyzed by professors of electrical engineering, chemistry and biology at Columbia University, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who reported that it resembles other ancient papyri from the fourth to the eighth centuries. [http://www.nytimes.com]
Every year a story like this one seems to hit the news right before Easter. Somebody somewhere has found some fragment or relic or artifact or inscription that calls into question the traditional claims of historic Christianity. Some report it as if it has the power to topple the Faith even as some of the faithful overreact and launch campaigns against the “godless” media and their “satanic” conspiracies. I deliberately take another approach.
You see, my faith is not some fragile thing that needs to be coddled and protected. If the fragment from a papyrus that was written hundreds of years after the Christ event that references His “wife” can knock you for a spiritual loop, then maybe just maybe it’s your faith and not the news story that needs to be examined more closely. An unexamined faith is not worth having. So, first let me quickly address the specific “Easter controversy” de jure – the “Jesus’ wife fragment” – and then let me address the bigger issue of the credibility of Christianity’s claims.
Dr. Darrell Bock over at Dallas Theological Seminary has been one of my “go-to guys” when these sorts of stories show up in the media like clockwork around Easter (Another one is Dr. Ben Witherington III up at Asbury Seminary in Kentucky – see his book: What Have They Done with Jesus?: Beyond Strange Theories and Bad History–Why We Can Trust the Bible – Harper One – 2007). What I really like about Darrell is that he doesn’t light his hair on fire and run around the room acting as if the whole edifice of Christianity was in danger of crumbling because somebody somewhere is challenging it with some “new find” and a controversial theory about what it is and what it means. Instead, Darrell takes a thoughtful stance and always makes a much more measured response. On the question of this new fragment about Jesus’ wife, Darrell wrote –
This would be the first text – out of hundreds of texts that we have about Jesus – that would indicate that he was married, if it’s even saying that. So to suggest that one text overturns multiple texts, and multiple centuries, of what has been said about Jesus and what’s been articulated about him, I think is not a very wise place to go, just simply from a historical point of view. …It’s a small, extremely fringe, light text with no context, and so to think about doing something about a tradition simply on the basis of, of that kind of a text, it’s making a change on the basis of an asterisk. [http://www.npr.org]
Earlier, in the days of another group of “discoveries” that were certain to doom historic Christianity once and for all, the “Da Vinci Code,” Darrell responded with an entire book, Breaking the Da Vinci Code (Nelson – 2004). The second chapter of this book was entitled “Was Jesus Married?” In it Darrell began with five observations that remain relevant for this latest announcement about “Jesus’ wife.”
(1) There is no evidence anywhere that explicitly indicates that Jesus was married.
(2) One of the few things on which the vast majority of liberal and conservative scholars agree is that Jesus was single. …It is such an unusual situation in the study of Jesus for scholars of all persuasions to agree – when it happens, one should note it. The agreed-upon point is quite likely valid.
(3) On the other hand, we have no explicit text declaring that Jesus was single.
(4) On several occasions, it would have been easy for the writers of the New Testament to say that Jesus was married if that was the case.
(5) Even if Jesus had been married, it would not have had the devastating effect on Jesus’ claim of divinity that the conspiracy view alleges. …Jesus did many things that underscored His genuine humanity. He ate, thirsted, slept, tired, lived and died. His everyday life was that of a normal human existence. …One of the most basic beliefs of Christian faith is that Jesus was 100 percent human. So, if He had been married and fathered children, His marital relationship and His parenthood would not theoretically undercut His divinity but would have been reflections of His complete humanity. Had Jesus been married, there was no need to cover it up. The whole rationale for covering up any supposed relationship has no basis in theology. Had Jesus married, theoretically He still could have been and done all He did. (32-34)
I’ll bet you didn’t see that coming!
But isn’t it refreshing?
Instead of battening down the hatches and immediately launching fierce counterattacks on the intelligence and sincerity of those who would dare to challenge the claims made by historic Christianity, Darrell takes them seriously and answers their objections with reason, evidence and care. And that’s the general point that needs to be made.
I was at a recent prayer breakfast where the speaker talked about his experience of going to Yale University. Raised in a churchgoing family, he described himself as a “cultural” Christian. He never really questioned his faith, and his faith was never really challenged. It was just part of the scenery of his life. And then he went to Yale and he said that at every turn the unexamined faith of his family, the untested faith of his childhood and early adolescence was openly ridiculed. His history professor derisively dismissed his Christianity. And then his psychology professor derisively dismissed his Christianity. And then his anthropology professor derisively dismissed his Christianity. And then, even his religion professor derisively dismissed his Christianity. “Nobody believes in the Virgin Birth anymore,” he was told. “Nobody believes that Christ worked miracles.” “Nobody believes that Jesus Christ died for our sins.” “Nobody believes in His bodily resurrection.” That’s what he was told over and over again, and because he had never seriously thought about his faith, because he had never been given any good reasons for believing (I Peter 3:15), because he had never considered the evidence for or the logic of what Christianity teaches, he simply didn’t have the resources he needed to be able to counter the assertions that were being made by the new authorities in his life, his college professors. He couldn’t slow the intellectual force that was steamrolling his faith, let alone be able to push back against it. And so by the end of his freshman year he had simply knuckled under and stated thinking of himself as a kind of church alumnae. A Christian was something he used to be. Christianity was something he used to do. And the amazing thing was just how easily this capitulation had taken place. He had surrendered his soul without so much as a whimper, let alone a fight.
How different was Christianity in the beginning. Consider the ministry of the Apostle Paul in Thessalonica. Luke described it for us in Acts chapter 17 –
When Paul and his companions had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead. “This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Messiah,” he said. Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women. (Acts 17:1-4)
To “reason” is to make a logical argument, it is to be able to answer questions and respond to objections. It’s a word that describes a thoughtful exchange. The word translated “explain” in Acts 17 literally describes the opening wide of a folding door. It is a gradual, step-by-step process. To “give evidence” or “proving” is to make the case for something by putting down beside each claim that is being made something that proves that it’s actually true. And the word for “proclaiming” means to call for a decision. It is to ask people to do something with what they are being told. And in Acts 17, when Paul had done this, Luke reports that some were “persuaded” (17:4). “Persuaded” – now, that may strike us as a peculiar way of talking about conversion. It just sounds so cerebral, so analytical, and yet, we find it again in Acts chapter 26, at the end of Paul’s logical and methodical presentation of the Gospel to King Agrippa. The King finally cried out: “In a short time you will persuade me to become a Christian” (26:28). And there’s that word – “persuade” – again! Clearly the appeal of the Gospel in the Apostolic Preaching as we hear it in the book of Acts was an appeal to the mind; it was a matter of intellectual persuasion.
You see, there are people who still believe in the Virgin Birth, and that Christ worked miracles, and that He died for our sins, and that He was raised on the third day. I’m one of them. And these are not convictions that I hold by suspending reason and ignoring the evidence. No, these are convictions that I hold because they are the best way for me to make sense of the evidence that we have. I don’t believe that faith can be compelled by the force of logical arguments, but I do believe that faith can be positioned as a credible choice for someone to make, as something having good and sufficient grounds. The caricature of a Christian as a backwards, ignorant, unreflective and repressed bumpkin only works so long as you don’t know Christian intellectuals like Darrell Bock.
C.S. Lewis used to say that he read in order to know that he was not alone. I fully endorse that idea, and then I take it a step further. I read so that I don’t have to be afraid. There are incredibly bright people of thoroughly examined faith who are effectively pushing back against the arguments and assaults that are constantly being made against the claims of historic Christianity. It might be time for you to get acquainted with them. DBS+