One of the more intriguing news items this week is the discovery of a fourth-century papyrus fragment that suggests that Jesus had a wife, or at least that some early Christians believed that Jesus had a wife. The fragment also suggests the existence of a woman disciple.
When I listened to NPR's segment on this exciting revelation, I got the first hint of conservative Christians' reaction to the suggestion that Jesus may have had a wife and a woman disciple. Barbara Bradley Hagerty pointed out that "the reference to a female disciple goes to the heart of a worldwide debate about the role of women in the church." Darrell Bock, New Testament scholar at Dallas Theological Seminary, made sure to minimize this new finding:
It's a small, extremely fringe, light text with no context, and so to think about doing something about a tradition simply on the basis of, of that kind of a text, it's making a change on the basis of an asterisk.
Cue Southern Baptist Archbishop Albert Mohler. Even before clicking over to his article on the fragment, I could already tell on Twitter that Mohler was on the defensive:
The real agenda behind "The Gospel of Jesus's Wife." It is the rejection of normative biblical Christianity. http://ow.ly/dQVOm
In Mohler's panicked post, which exhibits a characteristic fear of non-evangelical scholars, he accuses Harvard Divinity School professor Karen King of "over-reaching." Delicious irony, indeed. Mohler himself seems to be over-reaching--and overreacting--to minimize the notion that Jesus could have had a wife or a woman disciple.
Brian LePort rounded up some reactions to this discovery (including Bock's reaction), and no one seemed as riled up about it as Mohler. So why does Mohler use such dramatic language, like "sensationalism," "heterodoxy," and even calling King's work "an effort to replace biblical Christianity with an entirely new faith"? I am intrigued that Mohler feels so threatened by this tiny piece of papyrus, which is nowhere near conclusive proof that Jesus was married or had called a woman disciple.
Perhaps I found the answer in Mohler's characterization of the "ambitions" that drive so-called heretic scholars' efforts to study ancient texts:
Feminists have sought to use the Nag Hammadi texts to argue that women have been sidelined by the orthodox tradition, and that these Gnostic texts prove that women were central to the leadership of the early church, perhaps even superior to the men.
Professor King, along with Princeton’s Elaine Pagels, has argued that the politically powerful leaders who established what became orthodox Christianity silenced other voices, but that these voices now speak through the Nag Hammadi texts and other Gnostic writings. Writing together, King and Pagels argue that “the traditional history of Christianity is written almost solely from the viewpoint of the side that won, which was remarkably successful in silencing or distorting other voices, destroying their writings, and suppressing any who disagreed with them as dangerous and obstinate ‘heretics.’”
Although the evidence weighs heavily in favor of Jesus not having had a wife, Mohler's fearful reaction is telling. The suggestion that a woman disciple may have existed is threatening to Mohler's carefully-constructed "biblical, orthodox Christianity." Even if the evidence is scant, it seems Mohler feels he has a duty to dismiss an alternative theory of Jesus' life and ministry. It comes across as offensive to Mohler that a woman would be central to the leadership of the early church, perhaps even superior to men.
Perhaps King is right. The powerful have silenced those voices on the margin. In immediately and strongly dismissing the suggestion that Jesus may have had a woman disciple, Mohler places himself squarely on the side of the powerful, the side that won.