Sunday, September 23, 2012

What is Known and What is Possible With the Gospel of Jesus Wife Fragment

I am always of two minds about these 'experts' who claim that this or that theological concept 'isn't possible' in early Christianity. By all means, let us accept that people who spend their professional lives studying the Bible are more authoritative than amateurs and people who attend church study groups. Many of them may even have an encyclopediac knowledge of certain subjects and some degree of familiarity with most subjects related to the early Church.

I would give weight to papyrological arguments put forward by people like Alin Suciu.  But with respect to 'what is possible' within earliest Christianity that is another question entirely.

There is a small contingent within scholarship that has already supposed that the document is a forgery.  Many of them are trying to connect this 'fake' with 'other modern forgeries' like 'Secret Mark.'  At least a few, like Alin Suciu are putting forward the argument that the idea of Jesus having a wife was unknown in the early Church.

Let's leave aside the obvious difficulty with this assertion - that if Jesus was understood to be a man (i.e. against the Marcionite belief that he was wholly divine) then the claim of some group somewhere in early Christianity that Jesus was once married is hardly surprising.  That's what men do.

To argue that because that such a claim isn't attested in our surviving works about Jesus this proves the text is modern is a silly argument.  At some point, assuming that the belief that Jesus was a man was widespread in earliest Christianity, we should expect to find references to Jesus doing a whole host of things that are typical of males of that time.  One could even make the argument that the reason we don't have Jesus depicted as riding a horse for instance is because the information we have has been carefully chosen to reflect a particular theological view of him.

We should keep this in mind as we look to 1 Corinthians chapter 5 and in particular the Marcionite interpretation of this material.  We read:

"It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and such sexual immorality as is not even named among the Gentiles; that a man has his father’s wife!"

Ever since I started to take an interest in the literature of this foreign religion I have always been struck by the idea that this statement could be taken in two ways - (a) some guy literally took his father's wife as his wife or (b) that this is some figurative reference to a man having declared that he is now wed to a feminine being - likely Wisdom - and understood to be the wife of the heavenly Father. I could be mistaken but I think Elaine Pagels makes the argument that this passage can be taken 'gnostically' in her Gnostic Paul.

Let us not forget that Origen looked to the second letter to this Corinthian community to find apostolic support for the allegorical interpretative method of his native Alexandria - "the letter kills!"  A little earlier in 1 Corinthians Origen and the Marcionites argued that the "rulers" who crucified Jesus were angels and demons.  There is a similar tendency in other examples of Origen's interpretation of material from this epistle.

The point however is that while Jesus is not mentioned explicitly in this passage it is easy to reconstruct the related Marcionite interpretation of the passage.  If 1 Corinthians chapter 5 is not to be taken as a literal reference to porneia (= whore mongering or fornication) in the community, at least part of the solution will have to be found from a reconstruction of context from the material which precedes it.

The apostle makes clear of the ritual context at the beginning of chapter four. He is addressing "those entrusted with the mysteries God" (1 Cor 4:1). In other words, presbyters within the community. He admonishes them to "not go beyond what is written” (1 Cor 4:6) which according to Origen's predecessor Clement reinforces that Paul had a copy of the gospel.   This point if further reinforced in what follows "I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me" (1 Cor 4:16, 17).  And finally he speaks of sending "my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord" and who "will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church."

The original Marcionite understanding of the passage was clearly that it distinguished the right way to baptise from the wrong way.  Hence the reference to Paul as 'the father' and the sending of 'the son.'  As we have already noted elsewhere the 'orthodox' view was understood to be the pairing of male with a male (= Jesus) in baptism.  The contemporary 'heretical' community understood baptism to consist of being wed to a female (= Wisdom or some such hypostasis).

What does this have to do with Jesus having a wife.  Well, let's focus on the apostle's criticism of the other group.  They not only claimed that they wed individuals to a female Holy Spirit or Wisdom but clearly that Jesus was the first to undergo this baptism.  It is important to note that the Gospel of Jesus's Wife Fragment does not say that Mary Magdalene was Jesus wife only that he had one.

I think a powerful argument can be constructed to the effect that:

  1. our current edition of 1 Corinthians is senseless and manipulated to read as a literal account of porneias
  2. that the Marcionite text witnessed in the Dialogues of Adamantius understood the topic of 'marriage' to be divided into 'same sex' (= with Jesus and good) and 'opposite sex' (= with a woman and bad). 

This argument can be further strengthened by some Marcionite fragment from the Dialogues of Adamantius which we will bring forward in our next post.

For the moment at least it should be noted that from the Marcionite version of the letter of Paul, the 'orthodox' understanding was that God wants men to paired with a male power while Satan encourages the female (and hence the Eve references in 2 Corinthians and elsewhere). The claim that Jesus being married isn't known to the early Church is simply false.  It just seems to make sense to those who want to limit the possible interpretation of the surviving New Testament material.

An example of 1 Corinthians chapter 5 being used in this way from the Latin Epistle of Titus:

On the unprecedented crime of this new people the apostle says:

One hears commonly of unchastity among you and indeed of such unchastity as is never met with among the Gentiles, that one lives with his father’s wife. And ye are yet puffed up, and do not rather mourn, that such an evil-doer may be removed from your midst. I am indeed absent in the body, but in the spirit am among you and already, as if I were present, I have passed sentence on the evil-doer: to hand over that man to Satan in the name of Christ.

O invention of the devil, sport for those about to perish! Oh poison instead of honey, to take a father’s wife in the same way as any bride dedicated to Christ whom in thine heart thou hast craved for! O man, thou hast lent no ear to the wisdom that says to thee: the lust of the ascetic dishonours the virgin. So also did the first created man fall because of a virgin: when he saw a woman giving him a smile, he fell. His senses became tied to a craving which he had never known before; assuredly he had not experienced earlier its flavour and the sweetness that proved his downfall. O man who fearest not the face of this criminal person, passing by whom many have lost their lives. The disciple of the Lord, Judas Jacobi, brings that to our remembrance when he says: Beloved, I would bring to your remembrance, though ye know, what happened to them who were oppressed by the corruption of the flesh, as for instance the genuine persons who did not preserve their dignity, but abandoned their heavenly abode, and enticed by lust, went to the daughters of men to dwell with them.

Notice also how unusual the original citation of 1 Corinthians 5:1 - 5 is that starts the discussion. This understandings is being developed not only within a heretical community but one which emphasizes that males and females should not be wed in the 'bridal chamber.'

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