To be sure, filmmaker Nakoula Basseley Nakoula's claim that Muhammad was a necrophile, a homosexual is just a little more inflammatory than Harvard Divinity School Professor Karen King's release of the so-called “Gospel of Jesus' Wife.” Even so, the stories challenging the two religions' orthodoxies offer a timely reminder about the need to temper zeal with reason, liberty and a little humanity.
The idea that Jesus Christ might have been married to Mary Magdalene or someone else is not new, of course, and was recently suggested in Dan Brown's “Da Vinci Code” book and movie. But King's announcement earlier this month was not a work of fiction, having been based on a small scrap of papyrus believed to have been written in the fourth century containing a phrase found nowhere in the Bible:
“Jesus said to them, 'My wife . . .' ”
“These debates date to the early centuries of Christianity,” the New York Times explained. “But they are relevant today, when global Christianity is roiling over the place of women in the ministry and the boundaries of marriage.”
The problem with that analysis is that not even King claims the document is definitive – as if the search for eternal theological truths can be influenced by contemporary debates or threats, in any case.
As the Times noted, King “repeatedly cautioned the fragment should not be taken as proof that Jesus was actually married. The text was probably written centuries after Jesus lived, and all other early, historically reliable Christian literature is silent on the question,”
And as Dr. Charles Gieschen sees it, that silence speaks loud and clear – or should, at least.
Gieschen, a professor at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, one of two such institutions operated by the 2.3 million-member Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, this week authored a response in which he cautioned against allowing partial information or wishful think to overwhelm the facts or more reliable and widely accepted documents.
Some of Gieschen's concerns are technical, such as the fact that little is know about the fragment's history before an antiquities dealer delivered it to King for evaluation last year. Experts in the Coptic language in which it was written, he said, have expressed serious doubts about its authenticity in part because the pronoun “my” prior to “wife” appears darker than the rest – and the age of the ink, unlike the papyrus itself, has not been tested.
Other concerns are sociological and philosophical, such as the fact that the document was apparently produced by the Gnostics, an early Christian sect that questioned or denied many of the fundamentals of Christianity. The group stressed salvation through wisdom (gnosis) rather than Christ's atonement through his death and resurrection.
Gieschen's primary point, however, is both historical and theological.
“There are four first-century Gospels (predating the Gnostics) – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – whose testimony was proclaimed and written while eyewitnesses were still alive,” he wrote. “These Gospels testify prominently to many aspects of Jesus' humanity . . . There is no historical evidence in these Gospels, however, that Jesus was married to a woman. If he had been, the result would have been a wife a children who would have attracted significant attention after his resurrection and ascension.
“Instead, it appears historically probable that the only 'bride' Jesus ever had was the church.”
“Anything about Jesus attracts attention, and I wanted to help Christian who desire to have accurate information about this discovery,” Geischen explained when asked why he responded to King's announcement. “It's healthy to be able to defend historical claims made in the canonical; Gospels about Jesus and his life.
“We should speak the truth in love, not get so upset that we assault the filmmaker or scholars who present information about Jesus with which we disagree.”
Whether the Nakoula's arrest was political or his film responsible for what has happened will be a source of debate. But because true faith can never be imposed, the civil debate over Jesus' “wife” offers a welcome alternative for anyone willing to accept one.
“Speak the truth in love,” indeed.