A long while ago I discussed The Didache (an early Christian document) with an old friend. I commented that I’d just learned it dated to the late first century CE. My friend responded that some scholars date it from the fourth century CE, and from what he’d read, he was inclined to accept the later date. Being well acquainted with his beliefs, I was a little annoyed. He held strong convictions about baptism which contradict the early baptismal practices described in The Didache – major problem for him. I suggested he may have been more motivated by dogma than his apparent historical arguments given that the later date seemed all too convenient. And in fact, he was quite wrong about the date. I think he just left it at that and never returned to thinking about The Didache or the various ways in which this early date threatened his convictions.
He should have noticed that the moment he realized the document contained something incompatible with his beliefs, he sought refuge in any source which invalidated it. But he didn’t, and the result was (and here is the point) that even after he was corrected, the contents of the document still somehow didn’t matter. All he then had to say was, “Look at how quickly even the early Christians went astray!” That is the cloudy face of dogma in all its glory.
This sort of thinking, of course, affects both the religious and secular, but let’s stick to religious examples for this discussion. There’s potentially a new Gospel. Yes, a “Matthew, Mark, Luke, John” type of gospel. We can add it to our pile of gospels written decades or centuries after the death of Christ (which includes the four everyone knows about). This ostensible gospel compels many Christians to ask questions: Is it authentic? Is it real? Who wrote it? Why did they write it? When was it written? Why does it matter?
Great questions! They are questions of fact, too, whatever their motivation. Let’s discuss some of the facts.
Scientists have analyzed this scrap of papyrus and determined it originates from between the sixth and ninth centuries CE. Radiocarbon tests, examination of the chemical composition, and micro-Raman spectroscopy were all employed to produce these date ranges. And it’s supposed its content may even originate from as early as the second to fourth centuries CE. The announcement comes from Harvard Divinity School.
Frankly, I don’t care whether it’s authentic or not for this discussion. I have something else to talk about instead.
Read the press release for yourself. Even in this press release from Harvard, the second paragraph – second paragraph – goes out if its way to assuage any misgivings about this find: whatever it is exactly, it does not mean Jesus had a wife. Which immediately ignites my curiosity: in what other instances are such disclaimers necessary in a scientific analysis? Did anyone apologize when, just months ago, the moon was said to be millions of years younger than previously thought? Are paleontologists ready to shout in disagreement when new bones are discovered? Such equivocation simply has no place in other truthful representations of the facts.
In the case of this scrap, the facts are that we have an ancient piece of papyrus, written (or copied) centuries after Christ (and it could be a modern forgery), conveying that he had women disciples and possibly a wife. Yet where is the focus and what strikes you personally? Why, of course the fact that it was written centuries after Christ died and the mention of his wife. Early rebuttals question the veracity of the radiocarbon dates on the grounds that dates can be wrong and confused. People have also (in great detail) examined grammatical errors in the text. There is not (or at least normally would not be) a single thing wrong with those activities. We need real historians, linguists, philologists, and experts to examine the document fastidiously and eruditely, combing through all the details to find the unbiased truth.
And as it turns out, the papyrus very likely is a fake. Most likely, someone procured some old papyrus, made some ink, and copied various Coptic words.
So what if it were conclusively real? I’m tempted to say it wouldn’t affect a thoroughly believing person. If this fragment was dated to the late first century, would it change their minds, cause them to question their long-held beliefs? What if it explicitly stated that Jesus had a wife? Isn’t the answer obvious? The fragment would be wrong. Jesus didn’t have a wife because the gospel remnants we revere don’t mention a wife (note: when it’s convenient, say, “Where the Bible is silent, we too should be silent,” else say, “Just because the Bible doesn’t mention it, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen”). Do you see the problem? If you already have a conclusion you wish to stick to, any new evidence will be wrong so long as it doesn’t align with your conclusion. It’s why The Didache is and always will be moot as far as my old friend is concerned, yet the Book of Revelation is canon. And it’s why we know Jesus didn’t have a wife: because Jesus didn’t have a wife.
Of course, the Modern Church suffers no shortage of witticisms wrapped so thickly in platitudes it’s sometimes hard to tell if one is very dryly joking (this is often an unrealized hope of mine). Some of the spiciest rebuttals have addressed nothing and say nothing. For example, a rejoinder to this papyrus might be: “But Jesus does have a wife…her name’s the Church.” Don’t say those things. Please don’t say those things. It’s like watching a sausage-fingered brute trying to delicately catch a butterfly. Further, examine your own conclusions and dogma in light of my old friend above and in light of this papyrus fragment. Would it matter to you if a piece of paper said Jesus had a wife? If not, then why does it matter to you that a piece of paper said he rose from the dead? I know the classic replies, I really do – been there myself. My point is simple (and has nothing to do with whether Jesus had a wife or not): don’t dismiss evidence that contradicts your beliefs. Contradict your beliefs in light of the evidence.
I think this is a good illustration of what people mean by “free thinking.” If you are a true Christian, the way you evaluate the world and process ideas is constrained by certain dogma. You are effectively *not free* to draw certain conclusions about the world. That is so strange to me. It’s strange that I can effectively predict a Christian’s conclusion regarding some question of fact, as in the case of the fragment in question. You are a Christian, therefore after evaluating the facts, you will draw the conclusion that the document is inauthentic. How is that possible? How is that OK? It reminds me of a questionable play in football after which all the players on one side offer the “touchdown” signal, while every single member of the opposing side signals an incomplete pass. Having a stake in the matter seriously interferes with our ability to think freely and draw responsible conclusions.