Readers of GetReligion are familiar with that mainstream media holiday tradition of releasing news stories that are supposed to shake the foundations of Christianity. Easters over the last few years have explained to all those gullible believers that Jesus walked on an ice floe (not water), that he wasn't crucified in the manner in which people think, that Jesus' father was -- of course -- a Roman soldier named Pantera and that Jesus didn't die on the cross so much as pass out after being doped up. Easter 2006 featured an unrelenting public relations offensive (emphasis on offensive) by the National Geographic Society and its National Geographic magazine that argued that Judas was unfairly maligned by Christians. The story was covered far and wide by all the major media outlets. (A later story showing that the "lost 3rd-century religious text" had been improperly translated? Not covered so much, shockingly.)
Usually we have to wait until Christmas or Easter for this annual rite. But this year those stories are coming early.
So we were treated to front-page headlines yesterday in the New York Times about Jesus' wife ("A Faded Piece of Papyrus Refers to Jesus’ Wife"), based on a very tiny fragment of what one scholar says is a 4th-century writing about Jesus Christ. If there's one thing we all know, it's that mysterious stories about 4th-century Coptic fragments of questionable provenance are probably more authoritative (in the media's eyes) about Jesus' life than the extensive writings of his contemporaries. Now, considering how these annual "shake the foundations of Christianity" stories always tend to be about the sensationalizing of scholarship or archeological claims, yesterday's could have been worse.
After the juicy headlines ("Suggestion of a married Jesus," "The Inside Story of a Controversial New Text About Jesus," "Harvard scholar's discovery suggests Jesus had a wife," "Did Jesus have a wife? New historical discovery raises old question," "Was Jesus Married? Ancient Papyrus Mentions His 'Wife'," and "Newly revealed Coptic fragment has Jesus making reference to 'my wife'") and prominent placement and sexy ledes, we usually get stories conceding that, well, this doesn't really mean much that we can nail down.
But the point of the stories was put well -- and up high in the story -- by the New York Times:
Even with many questions unsettled, the discovery could reignite the debate over whether Jesus was married, whether Mary Magdalene was his wife and whether he had a female disciple. These debates date to the early centuries of Christianity, scholars say. But they are relevant today, when global Christianity is roiling over the place of women in ministry and the boundaries of marriage.
The discussion is particularly animated in the Roman Catholic Church, where despite calls for change, the Vatican has reiterated the teaching that the priesthood cannot be opened to women and married men because of the model set by Jesus.
The discovery of this lost fragment, if interpreted in just the right way, matches the views of the New York Times editorial page! It's another early Christmas miracle!
Christmas miracle image via Shutterstock.