A new documentary set to premiere on "The Gospel of Jesus's Wife" repeatedly reminds viewers that while testing shows the papyrus fragment indeed is an authentic ancient document, its contents do not actually prove that Christ was married. Yet, that does not keep the hour-long TV program from exploring, with titillating dramatizations, the possibility that Jesus was more than Mary of Magdala's savior.
While speculation that Jesus and Mary were an item are nothing new, "The Gospel of Jesus's Wife" documentary airing on the Smithsonian Channel asks important questions and wonders how the acontextual lines found on the ancient papyrus add weight to the argument.
"The Gospel of Jesus's Wife" first became known to Karen King, the Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School, in 2010 when she received an email from a man claiming to be in possession of a piece of ancient Coptic papyrus. The artifact, belonging to a private collector who wants to remain anonymous, is a 1 1/2 by 3-inch fragment of a fuller document that contains 33 words written in Coptic script, and which include the translated blockbuster line: "Jesus said to them, 'My wife ...'" While testing strongly supports that the papyrus originates from between the 6th and 9th centuries, the words themselves are believed to possibly have been written as early as the second to fourth centuries.
Christianity has traditionally affirmed that Jesus, a first century Jew of Galilee worshipped as God incarnate by 2.2 billion adherents (32 percent of the world's population), was celibate. The biblical canon makes no mention of any betrothal, or spouse connected to Jesus. Nor, as the Smithsonian program also notes, does it explicitly state anywhere in the Christian canon that he was single.
"If the 'Gospel of Jesus's Wife is genuine, what does it mean?" wonders the program's narrator, who immediately goes on to caution: "From the beginning, King and her colleagues strongly emphasized that this is not historical proof that Jesus had a wife."
But, of course, that is too boring.
The program goes on to speculate what the 33-word document could possibly mean — with the actors portraying Jesus and Mary in dramatized scenes exchanging knowing looks.
"Anything to do with sex and Jesus, is big money and big excitement," notes Benedictine monk and Biblical Studies professor Father Henry Wansborough in a preview of the hour-long program that was shared with The Christian Post.
"We imagine Jesus as the Son of God," adds AnneMarie Luijendijk, associate professor of Religion at Princeton University, "and the fact that He then could have sexual relationships leads us to really assess a lot of Christian theology." Luijendijk is an expert on early Christianity and a papyrologist, who assisted King with her analysis of the document.
"The implications could go wider still," the program narrator continues, while in a dramatized scene the Jesus actor removes his sandals, disrobes and blows out a lit candle, presumably in preparation for bed...with who, one wonders.
"If the notion that Jesus had made Mary not just a disciple but his wife had ever become the mainstream of Christian belief, it would strike at the very heart of celibacy and male control of the Church," adds the narrator.
Cue the Rev. Robin Griffiths-Jones, an Anglican priest and theologian: "If evidence was to be taken seriously that Jesus was married, vast trenches of Christian thought and discipline, and life and observance would just evaporate."
Should the Gospels and other accepted New Testament writings, which do not line up with extra-biblical writings that suggest Jesus may have been married, and that have been rejected by the traditional Church, be accepted as accurate, historical documents?
"The Gospel of Jesus's Wife" documentary does not answer that question, but instead leans heavily on ancient theories and Gnostic writings that portray Jesus and Mary as being quite intimate, and the devoted female disciple as a leader on par with Peter and the other apostles.
Other questions raised are: Is the papyrus truly an "ancient Christian text?" Why was there no public report on the ancient document when it was emerged decades ago? Why has King's revelation and naming of "The Gospel of Jesus's Wife" caused such a massive storm? Does "The Gospel of Jesus's Wife" redeem the besmirched reputation of Mary, who had been portrayed by the Roman Catholic Church for centuries as a prostitute, and in some popular works as a sort of temptress?
The biggest question, undoubtedly, is: What does "The Gospel of Jesus's Wife" mean for Christians living today?
"You can think the ideas are sensible. You can think they drive Christianity in a direction you'd like. You can think that these were all nutcases. Whatever. It does give a sense that the people in antiquity had a lot of different ideas," states Dr. Roger Bagnall, the director of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University. Dr. Bagnall assessed the physical condition of the papyrus and the ink to be forensic proof of the document's age.
Father Wansborough, the Benedictine monk and Biblical Studies professor at Ampleforth Abbey in North Yorkshire, England, interprets matters differently, expressing a view held by some Christians reluctant to entertain the possibility that "The Gospel of Jesus's Wife" holds any significance for modern believers.
"It will not have a great deal of importance for the Christian Church," suggests Wansborough. "It will show that there was a group who had these beliefs in the 2nd century. Christians or semi-Christians who perhaps had not reflected enough on the implications of the canonical Scriptures to see that Jesus could not have been married."
"It's a historical interest, rather than a faith interest," he concludes.
King, on the other hand, believes "The Gospel of Jesus's Wife" speaks to various issues that have affected Christians for ages, right up to present times: sexuality, marriage and women in leadership. She believes the document is part of a larger exchange between Jesus and his followers concerning the question of whether "women who are wives and mothers can be disciples of Jesus," and therefore, be leaders in His Church.
"The Gospel of Jesus's Wife" special premieres Monday, May 5, 2014, at 8 p.m. ET on the Smithsonian Channel. Learn more about the program at www.smithsonianchannel.com.