The Da Vinci Code—which popularized the notion that Jesus was married—is back in the news with the discovery of a fourth century papyrus text written in Coptic that refers to “Jesus’ wife.” But scholars say that the discovery does little to prove the theory, other than show that such speculation is nearly 2,000 years old.
“There is zero evidence that he was married,” says Lawrence Schiffman, a Dead Sea scroll expert who has also studied early Christianity extensively. “This text just shows that some people in the fourth century believed he was married.”
Mary Magdalene is often believed to be Jesus’ wife and in the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, there are even references to a “close relationship” between the two.
“One text refers to a kiss on the lips but just because they kissed on the mouth doesn’t mean they were married. If she was his wife, why wouldn’t the texts have said so? This was nothing to be embarrassed about in ancient Israel, when most men were married.”
Schiffman, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education at Yeshiva University and formerly Chair of New York University’s Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies, says that the text is important in showing that some early Christians wanted a Jesus narrative in which women play a more prominent role. “Mary Magdalene is a tantalizing figure. She’s mysterious and Jesus’ early followers want to know what’s going on.”
The text, he adds, points to a dynamic religious tradition that changed over time. “Just like Judaism, Christianity isn’t a one-shot creation. There are developments over time and new ideas expressed every century.”
And Schiffman, like Karen King, the Harvard historian who discovered the text, says that even with the discovery, The Da Vinci Code should remain strictly relegated to the fiction department because despite what Dan Brown might think, Josephus, the Roman Historian Tacitus and the Gospels all report that Jesus was killed in the crucifixion. Says Schiffman: “There’s no evidence he survived.”