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Harvard Professor Challenges Jesus’ Celibacy

Harvard Divinity Professor Karen King – who caused a worldwide controversy last fall when she unveiled a 4th Century papyrus fragment that implies Jesus was married – told a roomful of Michigan students Wednesday night that Christ could very well have been someone’s husband.

While King was careful to hedge her comments by saying no one knows for sure, she argued that her controversial evidence, in which Jesus supposedly refers to his “wife,” proves that the debate is far from over – despite the Vatican and other scholarly experts’ rejection of the papyrus scroll and its text as a fake and forgery.

“My first reaction was modern forgery; it would be two years when I finally began to change my opinion,” King said during her speech at Kalamazoo College, a private liberal arts institution in southern Michigan.

“We are still not quite sure what it is … (and) we have come no closer to answering the question of if Jesus was married or not,” she said, insinuating there indeed is a possibility that Jesus was, in fact, married.

King commented that, as a scholar, there is more at issue for her than Christ’s possible marriage. She questioned how Jesus’ celibate status came to be accepted, astonished few have previously challenged this issue.

“We should be asking how we have largely come to believe that Jesus was not married,” she said.  “It is worth questioning something that has come to shape gendered law and normative institutions.  Much is at stake in constructing this history of a usable past.”

King prompted international headlines in September when she unveiled the 1.5-by-3 inch, honey-colored scrap of papyrus paper that hails from Egypt and that she dubbed “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.”

It states in Coptic: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife . . . I dwell with her…’ ”

It has since been roundly criticized by scholars across the globe, and the fragment is now undergoing more scientific testing.

King said in her speech that she still awaits the results of the carbon “C-14” testing.  In the meantime, she said she grapples with questions.

“We are still waiting for the results of the C-14 testing, but surely it’s later than the fourth century, but even if it’s translated from a second century text, it is still not evidence of the marital status of Jesus,” King said.

In this context, King further explored the phrase written in Coptic saying, ‘I dwell with her,’ stating: “This can have a sexual meaning, but it is not the normal Coptic meaning.”

An alternative explanation King offered is that this fragment speaks of placing discipleship to Jesus before family members.

Even if this text does not prove to King that Jesus was married, she cites other information that perhaps he was.

King relies upon the Gospel of Philip, one of the non-canonical gospels written well into the third-century, containing theological observations written from a Gnostic perspective.

She quotes the Gospel of Philip 59:6-11, which reads, “There are three who always walk with the Lord: Mary and his mother and her sister and Magdalene, who is called his koinônos.  For Mary is his sister and his mother and the one he is joined with,” koinônos meaning “to be joined with.”

King affirmed: “At least for me, this pushes the question of marriage” – indicating that she does not accept the canonical teaching that Jesus never married.

Near the end of her speech, she admits, “Much remains tantalizingly open.”

King has yet to truly deny Christ was married.

Fix contributor Jenna Neumann is a student at Kalamazoo College.

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IMAGE: Harvard University website

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