A small papyrus fragment, preserved in the sands of Egypt for nearly two millennia, contains words referring to Jesus’ wife, and the whole world is agog with a sense of scandal. It’s a bit like the pictures of Kate Middleton topless, we are seeing something titillating from a great distance, and even scholars have no idea what to do with it — even though that won’t stop them, as the Royals unerringly did, from making fools of themselves. Tom Holland has probably taken the most politic and reasonable line when he says, in his Guardian article about the fragment:
What the fragment does not do is shed any light on the marital status of the historical Jesus – let alone whether he truly had a sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene. … What it does give us, though, is a glimpse into an otherwise occluded moment in the evolution of Christianity, and a reminder of how effectively religions have been able to manufacture for themselves, in defiance of messy reality, a streamlined and authorised past.
This is important. When we look at Christianity or Islam we see them as somehow “ready-made” religions, but it took centuries before they took their present form, centuries of sifting and sorting, writing and rewriting, until they had attained an authorised form and had an authority that could authorise them. It helped that the Emperor was onside. Had he not been, I doubt that Christianity would have reached us in anything like its present form. It might not have reached us at all. The New Testament, for example, was not gathered together as an authoritative text until after Christianity had been made, by Constantine’s acceptance, the religion in waiting of an empire.
So, was Jesus married? Probably, and if he was, given the early history of the formation of classical Christianity, this is something that it would have been in the interests of those who had already accepted of the body as somehow unholy to suppress – as Jesus himself effectively does in the canonical gospels when he remarks that some are born eunuchs, some are made eunuchs by others, and some have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of God (Matthew 19.12), and that his message about sex was hard for men to accept (for it is quite explicitly directed, as most religious messages are, to men) — to conceal the fact that Jesus was a man like other men, and that, like every faithful Jew, he had married. The story of Jesus told in the gospels is almost entirely mythological. If Jesus existed, he was not like this — which is why I am convinced that, even if Jesus was a real figure in history, the Jesus of the gospels is almost entirely an imaginative fiction. Whether there was a real, historical person at the centre of the story is largely irrelevant to the Jesus of Christianity.
What bemuses me is why anyone should think this fragment of a piece of papyrus religiously important. It cannot really tell us whether or not Jesus was married. It cannot plausibly be thought to confirm or disconfirm anything about the historical figure who has already been raised to the nth power and made to seem like a god once walked the earth. We can be assured that he was not like that, and since he was not like that, the likelihood of his having been married (or failing that, as some have suggested, following the hints about “the beloved disciple”, his having been gay) is, I should have thought, fairly high. Why should this surprise anyone? If Jesus was a man — and if he was an historical figure, what else could he reasonably be taken to have been — then he was like other men, and probably had a sexual relationship with someone. The only people who should be bothered by this are those, like the pope, who at least pretends to have been always celibate, and who still thinks that marriage is, somehow, not quite up to spiritual snuff, and such people we can safely ignore.