23 Sep 2012
“‘Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me …’” (Mark 9:37)
In the name …
It’s weird how some things come together. On Monday evening I mentioned to our Bible study group a line from the Gospel of Mary Magdalene that I’m currently reading. In it, the traditional apostles complain to each other that Jesus could not have possibly revealed things to Mary Magdalene that He had not taught them, after all, say the apostles, she is only a woman. Then on Tuesday the news breaks about a tiny faded papyrus fragment smaller than a business card, but on it is the first ever reference to Jesus’ wife, often thought to be Mary Magdalene. On Wednesday Sharon yells down to me as she’s getting ready for work that the Harvard professor in possession of the fragment will be interviewed on the Today Show. A little later I open-up an email from Josh Tudryn who shared a New York Times article with me about this same little fragment. The article was sent to him via a sports blog of all things. Eight partial lines torn out of who knows where, dating from probably the 4th century, but because of those words about Jesus’ wife, it made the Today Show, the New York Times and a sports blog within 24 hours.
I have to say, I don’t think this fragment reveals anything about Jesus having a wife because it’s too late, too out of context and too much in opposition to many intact references to the historical Jesus that make no mention of His being married. And besides that, I think it’s to ordinary for Jesus, as I’ll talk about a little later. I think the fragment is important, however, because it may be telling us that very early Christians, maybe within the first century of our faith, were already struggling with the role of women in the church, or more accurately, with the exclusion of a role for women in the church. But what else I found really interesting was the excitement that this fragment of 8 partial lines on one side and 5 blurry words on the other made among the general public. I wish I could tap into that kind of excitement when I invite people to attend Bible study group, or even when I get 10 minutes to talk to you on Sundays about a couple of Bible readings. The unexpected and the revelatory are still to be found in these old, traditional books of the Bible, but we’ve let their excitement slip away. We’ve let the Bible become predictable.
There is, for example, the line in today’s Gospel about Jesus putting His arm around the child when He says, “‘Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me …’” Luke doesn’t like to present an emotional Jesus. He edits that kind of stuff out of his re-telling of the gospel story. He feels that it makes Jesus less impressive, less in control, less manly. But in the first telling of the story, Mark lets us know that Jesus places His arms around the child. Arms in the plural means enfolding, not only a hand on the shoulder. This takes place in a house in Capernaum. This house seems to be the home-base of Jesus and His disciples. This would have been the perfect place to mention or give some hint of Jesus’ wife, but there is no such reference even in Mark who has no problem with Jesus showing love. Jesus’ love is not bounded by family and friendship. That’s why I said the fragment is too ordinary for Jesus. His love knows no boundary. That’s why the English translation even has to refer to the child as “it” because we don’t know if it was a boy or a girl. It doesn’t matter. Jesus loved the child not because the child was His own, but because this was simply a child. Luke was embarrassed about the emotion in this story and he took it out, but Mark, who was closer to the event, had no qualms with an emotional Jesus, and had no problem telling us that the Master embraced this little one in His arms – again, not because the child was His own, but because of Jesus’ ability to love unconditionally. This is why “wife” actually restricts the role of women.
Some people may really want a married Jesus. That’s what I get from the immediate, visceral, excitement about a couple of words on a torn piece of papyrus. They want to believe that He knew first-hand of such love, companionship, sharing, and even of children. But I think Jesus was different than this. It’s not that I think Jesus didn’t have these emotions. Luke may have tried to erase the emotional Jesus, but He’s still there. I think, instead, Jesus felt all of those normal emotions of a healthy family life, but He felt them toward everyone. It wasn’t that Jesus didn’t get married. It’s more like Jesus counted us all as His family, as all of us as His loved ones. There is a bride of Jesus in the New Testament, but it’s not Mary Magdalene. The bride is us. We are the family Jesus loves.
This little Bible truth may not make the New York Times tomorrow, or the Today Show, or even a sports blog, but it’s a part of those same feelings and urges that generated all the excitement about a torn piece of papyrus. The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, inscriptions about Jesus’ wife, part of their motivation was to be as radically inclusive as Jesus was, as the earliest church was. Some members of the early church must have been wondering where the equality of Jesus’ discipleship had gone. What had happened to Jesus’ boundary-less relationships? What happened to that unconditional appeal to everyone? Even by the end of the biblical era, and definitely by a hundred years after Jesus lifetime, the church was becoming more like the society around it. These spotty efforts to raise-up Mary Magdalene or a wife for Jesus were sincere attempts to get back to the earliest message of the gospel, but they are not as powerful as the Gospels themselves. They wanted to include everyone, including women, again in the ministry of Jesus, but by talking about His wife they limited Jesus to the traditional love and respect for a biological family, when in fact the gospel talks about the radical idea of Jesus’ equal treatment of everyone. It limits the message if the child embraced in Capernaum was His own, and the same thing happens if wife replaces woman. The traditional gospel broadens the idea of Christ’s love beyond the expected, and that’s why the papyrus fragment is not nearly as exciting as the Bible we can read any time we want.
There was an undeniable excitement about the papyrus discovery, now it’s our job to share the even greater excitement and challenge that is Jesus’ traditional gospel message. That we may somehow get people to appreciate again the wonder, power and freshness that is our faith, for this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
The link to the New York Times article about the Jesus’-wife- papyrus fragment:
Fr. Randolph Calvo