Questioning as a Religious Discipline

Questioning as a Religious Discipline

Harvard Professor Karen King’s recent discovery of a Coptic papyrus that mentions Jesus’ wife and speaks of a female disciple is simply the latest contribution to a long line of discoveries about early Christian women. In stressing that hers is the first word on this papyrus, but not the last, she sets a model for both scholarship and theological reflection.

When I began my theological studies in 1971, we students were taught  virtually nothing about women, as though there were nothing to know. Feminist and other scholars questioned that premise and now, four decades later, the vociferous early Christian debates over women’s leadership, sexual ethics, and clerical celibacy are well documented.

It is not surprising that this unusual papyrus of Professor King’s has unleashed a storm of controversy. Among others, Professor Roger Bagnall of New York University, who has edited or commented upon thousands of ancient Egyptian papyri, believes that the papyrus is authentic, but some others see it is a forgery.

Professor  King notes that the papyrus fragment provides no evidence on whether or not the historical Jesus was married, but rather only that some early Christians claimed that he was. She invites us to question, to take another look at what we think we know. The Vatican bases the celibacy required of all Roman Catholic priests on Jesus’ celibacy, but the New Testament itself actually never specifies Jesus’ marital status, and it states that a bishop should be the husband of one wife. For centuries, clergy could marry and still can in Eastern Christianity, including, for example, in the Maronite Rite, which is under the Pope. This papyrus provides the occasion for questions, for taking another look at the known historical record.

The papyrus states that “she will be able to be my disciple.” This is also not new. The New Testament itself refers to a female apostle named Junia. The Gospel of Mary of Magdala, also commented upon by Professor King, presents Mary as a close disciple of Jesus. But the story does not end there. Scholars have now documented numerous examples of women who served as bishops, elders, and deacons in the early church. Many times, they faced opposition, as do female religious leaders today. In fact, the tone of some of Professor’s King’s critics echoes that of the ancient church fathers who opposed female religious leaders.

Professor King has generously made available for scholarly critique the meticulously researched draft of her article. In it, she outlines early Christian debates about whether or not any Christians should marry. Most Christians today would be surprised to learn that some early Christians opposed sex of any kind, even within marriage. One early Christian book tells of a wealthy woman who gave her husband her own slave woman as a concubine so that she could avoid the pollution of sex. Others, such as Augustine, thought that marriage is good, but that celibacy is clearly better. Only a few thought that marriage is as good as celibacy. As Professor King points out, in these heated debates, some early Christians claimed Jesus’ celibacy as a model for their own. Even if this fragment turns out to be forgery, it is still plausible to assume that early Christians who vigorously promoted marriage might have taught that Jesus himself was married.

Christian and other religious leaders often present their traditions as firmly fixed, unchanging, and eternal. Feminist and other academic scholarship on religion yields an infinitely more intriguing picture of contestation and heated debate, all of which opens up avenues for the present and future. Wouldn’t it be exciting if religious leaders, lay people, and scholars all followed Prof. King’s model and presented their ideas as the first word, but not the last?

Bernadette J. Brooten is Robert and Myra Kraft and Jacob Hiatt Professor of Christian Studies at Brandeis University and is founder and director of the Brandeis Feminist Sexual Ethics Project. She teaches and researches in the fields of Women’s and Gender Studies, Classical Studies and Religious Studies. In her work with the Sexual Ethics Project, Brooten heads a team of scholars, activists, artists and policy analysts who are disentangling the nexus of slavery, religion, women and sexuality.


**Feminism in Religion is creating conversation among bloggers by inviting writings on similar current event topics.  See Susanne Scholz's, a Feminism in Religion author, post on King's finding, here.