On Thursday Oct 25, Karen King gave a lecture at Carleton University in Ottawa called “Controversies over Sexuality and Marriage among Early Christians: What a New Papyrus Fragment Can (or Can’t) Tell Us.” While Prof. King did little to respond to the many criticisms that have circulated as to the authenticity of the fragment, she did explain that her initial skepticism nearly prevented her from working on this document at all. Her belief in its authenticity only gradually emerged after a long period of reflection. She was equally emphatic that even if the papyrus is judged to be authentic, it provides absolutely no evidence about the historical Jesus’ marital status. This last point, she lamented, has been completely overlooked in recent media coverage and largely lost on the public. The reality of this situation was amply demonstrated by the fact that, in spite of a very nuanced presentation about early Christian debates about marriage and sexuality (to which this fragment may contribute a small piece of evidence), questions from the audience largely belaboured the point about whether or not this text proves that Jesus was wed.
In my view, the question of whether Jesus was actually married is the least interesting aspect of this whole controversy. Ironically, Karen King’s own contextualization of the fragment in comparison with other non-canonical texts such as the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Philip make the superficial historical interpretation the least plausible, given what we know about the evolution of early Christian debates. The real interest of this fragment, assuming its authenticity, is to underscore the immense and ongoing diversity of opinions within the early church during the 2nd and 3rd centuries. This sophisticated analysis, which scholars of early Christianity have been building for over a century (and which is arguably more offensive to conservative Christian sensibilities than Jesus’ marriage), is simply not part of the general public’s imagination. The impression, bolstered by many in the often equally conservative Biblical Studies community, that early Christian history is only about Jesus continues to shape the public’s perception of new textual and archaeological discoveries. Clearly, the scholarly community has failed to communicate the fruits of its dynamic interdisciplinary research to the general public. At the same time, however, it has increasingly become the norm for prominent scholars to submit new discoveries to the court of public opinion before a thorough international scholarly analysis is allowed to take place. Book deals and television rights now take precedence over peer-review and patient research.
I am also disturbed at the way in which the tenor of the blogosphere debate over the fragment has degenerated from a healthy degree of skepticism over prematurely publicized results to blatant displays of academic elitism and ad hominem attack. Those critical of the fragment are labelled as either Vatican apologists or dismissed as third-rate scholars who presumptuously dare to challenge the wisdom of the Ivy League. Such rhetoric does nothing to advance the cause of Early Christian Studies, a field whose credibility is seriously weakened when its leading lights put media spin before methodological rigor.
Timothy Pettipiece is Sessional Instructor for Carleton’s College of Humanities and the University of Ottawa’s Department of Classics and Religious Studies. He received his Hon. BA in Classical Languages from the University of Guelph in 2000, and then went on to complete an MA in Religion and Culture from Wilfrid Laurier University in 2002, where he wrote a thesis on the Greek fragments of Heracleon, the earliest known commentary on the Gospel of John. He received his doctorate in Religious Studies from Université Laval in 2006, where he studied numeric patterning in Coptic Manichaean literature at the Institut d’études anciennes . He is interested in the religious culture of Late Antiquity in both the later Roman and Sasanian Persian contexts, with a specialized focus on the translation and interpretation of texts in Coptic, Greek, and Syriac. He is currently writing a biography of Mani and a commentary on Manichaean fragments found in Titus of Bostra. SOURCE