On Tuesday, September 25, 2012, General Theological Seminary offered a webinar inviting participants to examine and discuss the "Jesus' Wife" papyrus fragment. Conducted by New Testament Professors Deirdre Good and Katherine Shaner, the webinar can now be viewed here.
The subject of the webinar, "A Conversation about the Gospel of Jesus' Wife," was the news of a fourth-century fragment of a papyrus codex, written in the Sahidic Coptic language and unveiled earlier this month by Professor Karen L. King of Harvard Divinity School at a Coptic Congress in Rome. The tiny fragment includes the electrifying words "Jesus said to them, 'My wife...' " and also indicates that a woman, perhaps Jesus' wife, was both able and worthy to become a disciple. The text raises many questions about what early Christians believed about Jesus, his relationship with a woman named Mariam, whether he was married, and whether women can be disciples.
The webinar began with Prof. Shaner closely examining the papyrus fragment itself, using digital technology to magnify the fragment and text written in ink upon it. She observed, for example, the ragged edges and grains of the papyrus, and the inelegant lettering, blotches of ink in the crevices, and variations of bold and faded ink. While questions about the fragment's provenance remain, the quality of the fragment, the lettering and the ink lead some scholars to believe the papyrus is authentic and not a forgery. Prof. Shaner also showed how the text includes the nomina sacra, or sacred name of Jesus, in the Coptic language — the letters iota and sigma with a bar above them — suggesting that the Jesus referred to in the text is the same Jesus of the Christian canonical gospels. To view a FAQ prepared by Prof. Shaner about the papyrus, click here.
Prof. Good then considered the text of the papyrus fragment in the context of other early Christian texts addressing marriage and divorce and Jesus' relationship with Mary (Mariam). The text of the papyrus, she observed, is similar to other non-canonical "Dialogue Gospels" of early Christendom in which a post-resurrection Jesus engages in conversation with the disciples about various matters. One such text is the Gospel of Philip, a Valentinian Christian text that also suggests early Christians thought Jesus had been married. Similarly, she demonstrated parallels scholars have noted between the new papyrus fragment and the Gospel of Thomas. To view the texts discussed by Prof. Good, click here. She also showed a woodblock from the Biblia Pauperum or "Bible of the Poor" of medieval Christianity. The woodblock typologically links the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene to the bride and her spouse in the Song of Songs, an interpretation going back to the second century CE. To see the art and to read Prof. Good's teaching about it, visit her blog by clicking here.
Over 160 people participated in the webinar, including viewers from across the United States, as far away from New York City as Hawaii, and even from England, Mexico, Scotland, and the Virgin Islands. The webinar brought together alumni/ae of the seminary, who used their Facebook pages to greet one another as the webinar began. After their formal presentations, Profs. Shaner and Good answered questions from participants, many of whom sought guidance about how to present the possibility of a married Jesus, and Christian teaching on marriage, in parish settings.
The Rev. Matthew Grunfeld, Priest in Charge of All Saints Episcopal Church in Montgomery, Alabama, invited parishioners to watch the webinar with him. "I think they enjoyed seeing how experts are approaching this discovery," he said. The Rev. Sam Tallman, Curate at St. Mary of the Hills Episcopal Church in Blowing Rock, North Carolina, shared what he learned from the webinar with members of a morning Lectio Divina group. "They love anything that opens up our dialogue about who Jesus might have been as fully human."
"Don't underestimate the intelligence of people in the pews," Prof. Good said. "They are fascinated by new discoveries and crave opportunities to think together about Christian teachings on marriage, which this text affords them."
"Those of us in the Church have a story to tell about why this papyrus is important," Prof. Shaner added. "It opens up conversation and invites deep inquiry into our tradition around marriage, sexuality, and women's leadership. It's a story that is different from the sensationalism of the media accounts, and it's our responsibility as theological leaders to make sure that we tell this story publicly, not just to the people in our pews, but also to the people outside the church doors."
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