8News Web Exclusive: Dr. Andrew Crislip Explains the “Jesus Wife” Papyrus

On Thursday, new research by Harvard Theological Review revealed that a fragment of papyrus in which Jesus refers to “my wife” is probably authentic. Harvard University professor of divinity Karen King says the Coptic text likely dates back to eighth century Egypt. The small piece of text, no bigger than a business card, has raised many questions; ABC 8News talked with Virginia Commonwealth University history of Christianity professor Dr. Andrew Crislip for some clear answers.

8News: This is a huge story, obviously, but what does it really mean? Does this fragment prove that Jesus was actually married?

Dr. Crislip: “Absolutely not. Even if this fragment is ancient—which I’m still not convinced that it is—but even if it is, no one is claiming that this sheds light on Jesus’ own marriage. This fragment definitely comes, best case scenario, from seven to eight centuries after Jesus’ life. Definetly, it does not mean that Jesus was married.”

8News: How can scholars tell that the fragment is authentic?

Dr. Crislip: “It’s very, very difficult to prove, or disprove, authenticity. The recent publications have done carbon 14 testing on the actual papyrus. And interestingly, they did two different tests. One, done by the University of Arizona, dated the papyrus itself (that is, the paper that the ink was on, not the ink itself) to about 300 years before Christ. This seemed to indicate that either something was wrong with the test or that it wasn’t authentic. The other, done by Harvard University, dated it to around the seventh or eighth century. Assuredly, that piece of papyrus came from the ancient world; it was not created recently.

A way that people date texts like this is actually by the handwriting. You can tell a lot by a person’s handwriting: you can probably look at a letter someone wrote in 1950 versus a letter written in 185o, without any historical details, and you could probably pick out 100% of the time which one was written when, just by the handwriting. So, that’s one way scholars have developed, a sophisticated way of analyzing handwriting {…} because these styles do change over time.”

8News: Many people believe that the “wife” that Jesus is allegedly referring to in that papyrus represents the church, not an actual woman. How do you feel about that?

Dr. Crislip: “If it’s authentic, I’m comfortable with that interpretation. If this comes from the ancient world, there were traditions that viewed the church and God as a sort of marital relationship. There were also early Christians who described themselves as being married to Jesus, and some early Christians described a sort of “spiritual marriage” and not a physical marriage. So I think that’s a likely context for how this would have been used in the ancient world.”

8News: Along those same lines, how would you interpret the phrase found on the papyrus, “She will be able to be my disciple”? Do you think that it’s still referring to the church in the symbolic sense, or an actual woman?

Dr. Crislip: “In this case, I think it’s most likely that it’s referring to the church in the symbolic sense. Now, Karen King, who published this, she roots this in early Christian debates not about whether Jesus was married; that’s not her argument at all. But [it’s referring to] whether women could serve in leadership roles in the church: whether they could be elders, whether they could be priests, whether they could teach in church. And this was a very real and pressing issue, especially in the first two to three centuries of Christianity. So that’s an alternative way of making sense of this, and I can’t rule that out.”

8News: Critics say that undergraduate students could easily forge such a document as this fragment of papyrus. Do you believe that it could be so simple to fake something like this, that even undergraduate, freshmen college students could do something like this?

Dr. Crislip: “I wouldn’t say your typical freshmen could reproduce this. But someone who had taken a year or two of the Coptic language in graduate school could have forged something like this. I honestly, when I first saw this, assumed it was a forgery. The handwriting didn’t look right to me, it still doesn’t look right to me. And there are some serious grammatical errors in the text that a first year student of Coptic might not realize that they are errors. They seem right, but once you study them, you realize, “These are impossible errors that no native Coptic speaker would likely make. So that’s the argument that critics make against its authenticity; I don’t think it’s a very sophisticated forgery, if it is a forgery.”

For more information on the papyrus fragment, read here.

Copyright 2014 by Young Broadcasting of Richmond

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