The news has had a flurry of flutter about the release of a credit card sized fragment of Coptic papyrus, with words that seem to be talking about Jesus having sex with a woman.
As usual with these sort of discoveries, there is a flurry of rumor and hype as well as scholastic thought. Those who follow the lead of Dan Brown (The DaVinci Code) get excited that a new historical discovery may prove that Jesus actually did marry, and was not quite the religious figure portrayed in the Bible. I find that the reality is much less exciting.
First is the issue whether this is an authentic document, or a fake. Some scholars like Francis Watson (and corrections by Mark Goodacre) are inclined in this direction, in which case all of the blog posts are a lot of excitement over nothing.
Assuming it is an authentic document of the 2nd or 4th century, what would it really change? In my understanding of the history of the Church – Nothing. To affect my beliefs, a document must not only be genuine, it must also be authoritative. From earliest times, the Church has always recognized that there were genuine documents circulating in and around the Church of varying levels of value. Some like the Epistles of St. Ignatius of Antioch or the Didache were considered to have authority in the Early Church, possibly on the same level as Paul’s epistles. Though later excluded from the canon of scripture, they are still considered to be of value. There were also other texts like the Gospel of Thomas that contain valuable insights into the history and time of the Early Church, but were not accepted due to their Gnostic influences. Such books are worth reading, but are not a foundation for developing theology. Like the history written by Josephus, they give us cultural and historical context, but they do not reflect the mind of the Church. And finally, there are those texts that come from heretical or pagan sources. They are genuine historical documents, but have little or nothing to add to our faith.
If there was irrefutable evidence that this document was penned by Paul or one of the apostles (an authoritative source), I might be a bit concerned; but it will take a lot more than this fragment to convince me that the Church fabricated the its view of history and suppressed the real truth (except for this fragment which they missed).
As a side note, I find the timing of the public release of this fragment to be quite ironic. While the release of The Innocence of Muslims causes widespread reaction and unfortunate violence, the reaction of the Christian world to something that could be considered equally ‘blasphemous’ is little more than a fairly dull scholarly conference and a few words wasted blogging.