The Bible Refers to Jesus' Wife, Too

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A recently discovered ancient text doesn't tell us anything new about Christ's marital status.

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"A Faded Piece of Papyrus Refers to Jesus' Wife." It's a tantalizing claim and an irresistible headline. According to a New York Times article published today, a Harvard researcher has discovered an ancient Coptic document that includes the phrases "Jesus said to them, 'My wife ...'" and "she will be able to be my disciple."

If the document is real, and Jesus did in fact have a wife, the implications could be tremendous, the article says:

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.

There's only one problem, though. The Bible itself refers to Jesus' wife, repeatedly. Only that wife is not Mary Magdalene or any other earthly woman. It's the church.

Christ calls himself a bridegroom throughout the New Testament. When the finger-wagging Pharisees ask Jesus why his disciples don't fast, he answers:

How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast.

In other words, Christ is the groom and his disciples are his friends—and it would be rude of them to abstain from eating while they're in the presence of the groom.

Later, as Jesus foretells the coming of God's kingdom, he also refers to himself as a groom: "The kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom." Again, Christ is the groom and his followers are the groom's friends—there to celebrate the wedding with him.

In John 3, John the Baptist echoes this description of Christ as a groom (and refers to himself as a best man of sorts) when he says:

I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him. The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom's voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less.

If Christ is the groom, then who is his bride? The Gospels don't really answer that question, but the rest of the New Testament does. And the answer probably doesn't offer much help to people hoping Jesus' marital status could shift the debates over women in ministry or the definition of marriage. In Ephesians 5 (one of the more controversial passages of the Bible), the apostle Paul tells his readers, "For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior." Christ's wife, at least according to Paul, is the church—not an individual human woman.

That the church is Jesus' bride gets confirmed in Revelation, the final book of the Bible, which serves as a prophecy for the end of the world. In this apocalyptic vision, Jerusalem, a proxy for God's people as a whole, is described as "a bride beautifully dressed for her husband." Later the narrator says, "One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, 'Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.'" Here, the wife is again Jerusalem, and the Lamb is Jesus.

The image of Christ as groom and the church as bride infuses Christian theology and writing. Pastor and best-selling author Timothy Keller preaches frequently on the topic, including a 2007 sermon called "The True Bridegroom," where he compares God to a husband whose wife (the church) is constantly cheating on him. A classic hymn includes these lines in its opening verse: "The church's one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord / She is his new creation by water and the word. / From heaven He came and sought her to be his holy bride." Countless books have been written meditating on what the Bible means when it calls Christ a groom and the church his bride.

So, if this newly discovered document is real (and according to the Times article, experts think it is), its words may not be as earth-shattering as they first appear. The phrase "Jesus said to them, 'My wife ...'" could very well end with a description of the church, rather than a woman. And Jesus saying, "she will able to be my disciple" could also simply be a reference to the church as a whole as Christ's servant, not an endorsement of an individual woman as his disciple.

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Eleanor Barkhorn is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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