Monday, September 24, 2012

Was Jesus married? And does it even matter?

Unwelcome message
Big news!

A newly-identified papyrus dated from the fourth-century, roughly 150 years after Jesus (whoever or whatever he was) died, suggests that the Christian Messiah may have been married. Harvard Divinity School professor Karen L. King translates a phrase on the ancient document as "Jesus said to them, 'My wife...'" (The papyrus is torn and the phrase is incomplete.)

For most of the Christian world, the idea that Jesus was married (and therefore presumably engaged in sexual relations) is a shocker.  As April DeConick, a biblical scholar at Rice University says "We have so many hundreds of years of an understanding of sexuality that in some way sex is not divine, it’s not sacred."

Forgive my cynicism, but it makes sense.  Much of Christian orthodoxy requires that the Flock be convinced of its own culpability in its Fallen state.  By teaching that human sexuality is dangerous and somehow unholy, believers are given proof of their inherent sinfulness, of their need for salvation (which, of course, only the church can provide). 

Although Peter, the first pope, was a married man, the Catholic Church eventually dictated that its priests remain celibate. The Church's reasoning is not entirely clear, but theologian Glenn Weiser has this to say about it:
With the advent of the Dark Ages around 500, the upheavals in society saw a decline in clerical discipline and with it, a return to marriage and even the keeping of concubines by priests. During this time, the wealth of the church was also increasing, a development not lost on Rome. Many priests were leaving church lands to their heirs, and others handed down land of their own through primogeniture. The Holy See saw that a return to the celibacy rule would result in a real-estate bonanza, and in about 1018 Pope Benedict VIII put teeth in the Elvira decree by forbidding descendents of priests to inherit property. Later, in the 11th century, Pope Gregory VII, who had assumed vast power by declaring himself the supreme authority over all souls, went even further by proscribing married priests from saying mass; he also forbid parishioners from attending masses said by them. Scholars believe that the first written law forbidding the clergy to marry was finally handed down at the Second Lateran Council in 1139.  --Read more here.
No surprise, I suppose, that money played a part in the decision.  That's the way the world works.  But I digress.

What are the implications of this new revelation about Jesus and his wife?  Hard to say for sure.  Theologists will probably spend years pondering the matter.

But get ready for shrill accusations of blasphemy from the snake-charmers. Even today, in this (supposedly) Enlightened Age, suggesting something this radical in the wrong environment could get you tied to a fence post atop half a cord of firewood.

To my way of thinking, regardless of the accuracy and veracity of the translation, the discovery doesn't change anything.  Christians, just like everybody else, adhere to a belief that is independent of factual events. 

Humans create stories to provide structure and make sense of the Universe; to justify their deeply-held beliefs, regardless of the stories' provenance.

Remember how evangelical Protestants in the United States changed the 6th commandment to say "Thou shalt not murder?"  The old commandment "Thou shalt not kill" didn't jibe with their war-lust.

My prediction is that most organized Christian churches will attempt to discredit the discovery. Failing that, they'll ignore it. There's just too much invested in the idea of a celibate Jesus. Entire belief structures hinge on it.

That's not all there is to say about the controversial papyrus.  Another translated phrase throws a monkey wrench into the established orthodoxy.  It's this:  "[my wife] will be able to be my disciple."

But that's another ball of wax entirely!

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