The world was all atwitter, both literally and figuratively, when the New York Times published Laurie Goodstein's piece, “A Faded Piece of Papyrus Refers to Jesus’ Wife.” Goodstein claimed the document, smaller than a business card, confirmed a popular conspiracy regarding Jesus' marital status.
B&H author and New Testament scholar Andreas Köstenberger responded to the claim in an article published online, writing:
"Unfortunately, the text is very fragmentary, most likely because a dealer divided up a larger piece so he could charge more for multiple pieces. Dr. King pointed out that phrases in the fragment such as “My mother gave to me life” and “Mary is worthy of it” are reminiscent of similar language in the Gospels of Thomas and Mary and so surmised that the fragment may have been copied from a second-century Greek text. The papyrus fragment was not carbon tested, but Dr. King is planning to have the ink tested by spectroscopy."
The Vatican quickly cast doubt on the fragment's legitimacy, as did scholars at schools like Emory and Harvard Divinity School. But the legitimacy of the papyrus seems irrelevant to the momentum of popular discussions on the authority of the Bible regarding Jesus' life. As Köstenberger points out in his article, best-selling fiction like The Da Vinci Code popularizes ideas like this one, and injects skeptism into the mainstream. Köstenberger writes:
"Even if genuine, however, there is a long way from inferring from the reference to Jesus’ wife in this fragment to concluding that Jesus was in fact married. There is no reference to Jesus being married in the four canonical Gospels, our best first-century evidence concerning the life of Jesus. It will be difficult to connect this reference to actual historical knowledge of an alleged marriage of Jesus."
So how should Christians respond in light of conversations regarding new claims about Jesus life?
1. Test everything, hold on to what is good - While you might recognize falsehood immediately, be dilligent, reasoning through why that might be the case. Even if your initial impressions are confirmed, neglecting to "test all things and hold on to what is good" fails to incoporate the wisdom of the New Testament. (1 Thessalonians 5:21)
2. Expect false gospels - Christians who read the New Testament should not be surprised to find false testimony concerning the gospel. The problem is as old as the church. (1 John 4:1)
3. Have patience with skeptics - Apart from the grace of God, we are all in the same boat. Treat those who lay captive to false gospels with an attitude of mission, not pugilism.
4. Commit to Scripture - Scripture validates itself. Those who view the Bible with any degree of seriousness, as most Christians do, must wrestle with the internal testimony the Bible provides about itself. Those who come out on the other side committed to the authority of Scripture will be well-equipped for times such as these. (2 Timothy 3:16)
5. Study more church history - Christians have nothing to fear while wading through the deep waters of church history. The truth of all matters concerning the canon are on our side, so dive in.
6. View it as an opportunity for evangelism - Any time the gospel is the topic of popular discussion, view it as an opportunity to share your faith. What better time is there to discuss matters of faith with a lost and dying world than when they are asking the questions?
7. Pray - The challenges situations like this one present are not merely intellectual. The spiritual dynamics of theological controversy are not subordinate in debate. Pray as often as you critique.
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