Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A false report about marriage and some gnostic gospels

Just today, September 18, a news article was published in the New York Times, “A Faded Piece of Papyrus Refers to Jesus’ Wife.” It stated that a very small fragment of Coptic origin was found which refers to Jesus’ wife. According to Professor Karen L. King, the tiny fragment dates to the fourth century but may belong to an earlier text since it sounds like some of the material in  the gnostic gospels of Thomas and Mary. The NYT piece states:

Much of the context, therefore, is missing. But Dr. King was struck by phrases in the fragment like “My mother gave to me life,” and “Mary is worthy of it,” which resemble snippets from the Gospels of Thomas and Mary. Experts believe those were written in the late second century and translated into Coptic. She surmises that this fragment is also copied from a second-century Greek text.

While King insists that this does not at all offer any proof that Jesus was married, she goes on to insist, “It provides further evidence that there was an active discussion among early Christians about whether Jesus was celibate or married, and which path his followers should choose.” Trying to ignore the “whether Jesus was celibate” and go on to the marriage suggestion it should be pointed out that all of the Gnostic gospels, except Thomas which has later layers of Gnosticism  added, come at least a century or several after the biblical accounts.*  And there was little, if any, conversation between Gnostics and early orthodox Christians.
But more seriously the details in most of the Gnostic gospels are so bizarre that one cannot equate Christianity with them at all.  I have written about the Gospel of Mary in another place in a book review of Dan Brown’s novel, the Da Vinci Code. His whole plot was based on the idea that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. This is what I wrote about the Gospel of Mary:

He [Ben Witherington III] places The Gospel of Mary in the second century. [1]In “The Gospel of Mary,” Mary Magdalene refers to differing powers, such as ignorance, which she tells the disciples the soul passes as it ascends. Like all gnostic texts this one implies the soul must overcome ignorance and other powers as well as the material world and one must look within to accomplish this. Allegedly, this gnostic view of salvation is part of the secret knowledge Mary was given by Jesus.[2]However, neither the teachings nor the dating of these gnostic texts gives them any standing as truthful history about the life or teachings of Jesus. First, their gnostic doctrines contradict the whole Jewish background of the early church. Once again the Hebrew Bible and Jewish history come under attack. Secondly, these texts were written much later than the authentic texts of the New Testament.

The books of the New Testament did not receive their status as the official canon at the Council of Nicaea, but at the Synod of Hippo in 393 and this “was re-promulgated by the Third Synod of Carthage” four years later. And it is certain the books were not canonized without first having been recognized by the Christian church as possessing authority.[3] As F.F. Bruce writes:

"There is a distinction between the canonicity of a book of the Bible and its authority. Its canonicity is dependent upon its authority. For when we ascribe canonicity to a book we simply mean that it belongs to the canon or list. But why does it so belong? Because it was recognized as possessing special authority. People frequently speak and write as if the authority with which the books of the Bible are invested in the minds of the Christians is the result of their having been included in the sacred list. But the historical fact is the other way about; they were and are included in the lists because they were acknowledged as authoritative." [4]

It should be added that E.M. Yamauchi writes about the various gnostic gospels and states that although they are all different they do have some common concepts:


… a dualism that opposed the transcendent God and an ignorant demiurge (often a caricature of the OT Jehovah).” In some systems the creation of the world resulted from the presumption of Sophia (Wisdom). The material creation, including the body, was regarded as inherently evil. Sparks of divinity, however, had been encapsuled in the bodies of certain pneumatic or spiritual individuals, who were ignorant of their celestial origins. The transcendent God sent down a redeemer, who brought them salvation in the form of secret gnosis.[5]

The important thought here to consider is that although progressive scholars may insist that early Christians debated whether or not Jesus was married, and non-scholars insist this is some kind of proof that he was married, the real argument has nothing to do with orthodox Christianity, the person of Christ or the authority of Scripture. There are no real connections between the two. They did not dialogue as we think of it in our mainline denominations.  Instead early Church fathers who lived in their century wrote about the gnostic  heresies. We have a sure word-a strong foundation, a revelation given by the Creator of the universe.

* I do not write about this because I believe that church leaders should not be married, but more importantly because it is an attack on the deity of Jesus Christ.

[1] Ben Witherington III, Women In The Earliest Churches; Society for New Testament Studies, Monograph Series, Ed. G.N. Stanton, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1989) 208.
[2] “ The Gospel of Mary,” in The Gospels of Mary: The Secret Tradition of Mary Magdalene the Companion of Jesus, Marvin Meyer with Esther A. de Boer, editors and commentary, (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco 2004), 19-22.
[3] F.F. Bruce, The Books and the Parchments: How we got our English Bible, revised and updated, (Old Tappen, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company 1984), n. 30, 103-4.
[4] Ibid.,87.
[5] E.M. Yamauchi, “Gnosticism,” Dictionary of New Testament Background: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship, eds. Craig A. Evans & Stanley E. Porter, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press 2000), 414-418.

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