Christmas came early this year. I am referring to the media’s holiday rite of trotting out old canards and sensational but spurious scholarship in what they call a quest for the historical Jesus. Like a burst of stale air from a newly discovered tomb, ancient pseudo-Gospels now appear with some regularity, feeding the media’s and the public’s appetite for anything heterodox.
The latest Coptic “Gospel” fragment to come to light, which quotes Jesus speaking about his “wife,” is no exception. If authentic, it is doubtless part of the same ancient Gnostic tradition that brought us the Gospel of Judas and even The DaVinci Code. These Gnostic Gospels may be new to the media, but they are hardly news to the church. In AD 180 St. Irenaeus published a book (Against Heresies) listing and refuting these writings, which had sprung up like crabgrass.
Gnosticism actually predates Christianity and finds its roots in the ancient Hellenistic dualism that divided spirit and matter. While they were attracted initially to the theology of Christianity, Gnostics rejected its core doctrines, especially the incarnation, bodily death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They believed that salvation came through the sharing of a “special knowledge” (gnosis), secret teachings not recorded in the original Gospels but that they claimed had been passed down orally from Jesus to a few select disciples. If you read the later documents of the New Testament, you will find the apostles, especially John, engaged in anxiously refuting or even mocking Gnostic teachings, which had infiltrated the churches and posed no insignificant threat.
The Gnostics were eventually expelled from the churches, though some left voluntarily. Not a few traveled to Upper Egypt, where they established little communities in the desert– the isolation providing a safer environment for the practice of their strange doctrines. The dry climate and low humidity there also provided a unique time-capsule for the preservation of their papyrus manuscripts.
Knowing this as we do, it would seem ludicrous to treat this fragment as evidence of a shared “dialogue” within early Christianity about Jesus’ marital status. It is really nothing more than an oddity belonging to an age, like our own, that was never short of cult-leaders and crackpots.