Jesus made several appearances to people after his resurrection from the dead. On Easter morning he appeared to Mary, that afternoon he appeared to the two men on the road to Emmaus, that evening to the disciples in the room behind locked doors, and then a week later to Thomas. There are also other appearances recorded in New Testament. These are all wonderful stories, but they do raise a question in my mind. Why is Jesus appearing to all these other people, and not to his own wife? If I died, I think my wife would be sad. And if I came back from the dead, I think she would want to know about it, and see me. In fact, I think she’d even be a little miffed if I went all over the place appearing to everyone else in town except her. Why don’t we have even one story of Jesus appearing to his own wife?
Perhaps some of you did not know Jesus had a wife. Well, you must not be reading the newspapers. Several months ago an ancient papyrus fragment was discovered dating way back to the 8th century in which Jesus refers to his wife. And just recently the news has been reporting that some scholars have decided that this was an authentic document. Doesn’t that settle it?
Well, actually NO it does not settle anything. I don’t know what reports you might have heard about this, or even if you heard any. But I tune in to this sort of thing, and some of the ways I was hearing the story reported made it sound like this was some breath-taking new evidence that calls into question everything we have been told in the New Testament. The reports make it look like a big deal. The true story, however, makes it clear this false alarm is based on nothing more than one incompetent (or deceitful) professor, hungry for publicity; and uncritical journalists, eager to challenge the church’s message, even if the story is insignificant and unsubstantiated, which it is.
Here is what they have. It is a fragment about the size of a business card, and most of the writing on it is not readable. What can be read says, ‘Jesus said, My wife,’ and then later something about ‘is able to be my disciple.’ The words in between and the wider context are missing. We know nothing about who wrote it and why, or where it came from. The papyrus seems to be from the 8th century—old, yes, but at least seven hundred years after the life of Christ. The writing on it may be that old, or it may be a forgery written recently on a blank fragment of old papyrus. Many scholars think it is a forgery. But even if it is real, it is dated from the 8th century! All four Gospels were written in the first century, within the lifetimes of eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus, with actual copies of manuscripts dating from only a few decades later. Uninformed journalists are more than happy to call into question the first century Gospel full accounts which stand up very well to all test of historical validity; but these same journalists are quick to believe a much later, questionable fragment, without any wider context. Even if it is authentic, and there still is much doubt about that, it proves nothing. Many strange things have been printed about Jesus going all the way back to the second century, and just because something is in print doesn’t make it true.
In 2010 a novel was written called Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. It was a ridiculous concept for a novel, but that book is indeed in print, making it an authentic document, copyrighted in 2010, a mere 145 years after Lincoln’s death. But that doesn’t make it true. Would you go to a book like that to get at an accurate look at the real Lincoln? No, you would go to a biography written by someone who knew him—like Billy Herndon, Lincoln’s Springfield, Illinois law partner; or the reflections of his White House aides, John Hay and John Nicolay. Those biographies were written by eyewitnesses as true accounts. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter was written as a silly novel. Who wrote the ‘Jesus had a wife fragment,’ and why? No one knows, but everyone knows it was written at least 700 hundred years after the very reliable eyewitness accounts. To learn about Jesus wouldn’t you go to first century documents, rather than to what might be the eighth century equivalent of a silly novel?
This is the same kind of thing we keep hearing in reports about the Gospel of Judas, the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Thomas, that best-selling book The Da Vinci Code, the story that someone found the box that Jesus was buried in, and so on and so forth. Publicity hungry scholars get their 15 minutes of fame by being reported by journalists eager for a story; but it is all a sham, and responsible scholars demolish these stories time after time. Real scholars look at things like textual authenticity, support from other texts from the same time period, context, grammar, and much more. There are many ways to ask the hard questions and honestly evaluate authenticity, and when that is done, the New Testament itself always comes out looking really good—in fact, better than any other ancient document. Some writers who actually studied the reliability of the New Testament in order to discredit it, have changed their minds and come to believe in just what the Bible says, that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, risen from the dead. That’s what can happen when you take a closer look. But you won’t see any of that in the newspapers.
In my opening question about ‘why Jesus didn’t appear to his wife’ I wasn’t just being silly. If Jesus did have a wife, that would indeed be a significant piece of the story, and there would be much more in the Gospel accounts that would not make any sense. It is fair to ask how the story would work if Jesus did have a wife, and it becomes clear that it wouldn’t work very well at all. We know that the early Christians were persecuted for proclaiming that Jesus had risen from the dead and ascended into heaven. Why would they have gone through all that trouble if Jesus had never even died, but was off in France raising a daughter with Mary Magdalene– as suggested by Dan Brown in that silly book, The Da Vinci Code? These theories take unreliable documents from many centuries later and use them to make nonsense out of the very best documents that we do have.
This is why I am concerned. Many of you probably pay no attention any of this kind of news, but I know that some of you do. I get questions from people who hear this kind of thing and wonder why the church has not been upfront with them. But pastors welcome these questions, and, I do want to address this because I know how easily someone can be misled in an area they know little about. For those untrained in theology it is easy to pull the wool over their eyes and make the New Testament accounts look silly. I know something about biblical studies, so I can immediately see how outrageous some of these reports are. But I know what it’s like to be in the dark on something. I am not very knowledgeable about car engines and other things mechanical, and in that area I could be easily misled. If I am in for an oil change and the mechanic comes out with a serious look on his face and tells me I need a new “muffler belt flywheel for my knooder pump,” I might say, “Okay, you better put one in.” In the same way, many people who hear about an authentic 8th century document saying that Jesus had a wife, might say, “Oh well, I guess that ruins the whole story.” Sad to say, this ongoing assault of irresponsible scholarship and sloppy journalism has taken its toll on the faith of many people.
In Acts chapter two, after recording Peter’s sermon on Pentecost Sunday, verse 40 says: “And Peter testified with many other arguments…” That is what I am doing—making an argument to defend what we believe from uniformed attacks. Peter was proclaiming the biggest news ever, that Jesus Christ had risen from the dead, and he was alive, and Jesus was offering eternal life to all who would believe in him. It is important that we not allow irresponsible professors and journalists to destroy our faith with false evidence, because as Paul said, “If Christ has not been raised then our faith is in vain.” Our faith is not in vain, but is built on solid ground. A strong historical case can be made for the truth of the resurrection, based on eyewitness accounts in authentic, reliable, ancient documents.
(Today’s meditation is from a sermon I gave last May. The newspaper story I refer to is ‘old news’ by now. But this kind of ‘news’ comes out every once in a while.)
Acts 2:40 — And he (Peter) testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.”
2 Peter 1:15-16 — I will make every effort to see that after my departure you will always be able to remember these things. For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.
1 Corinthians 15:1-8 — Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
Lord Jesus Christ, you burst the tomb winning for us an eternal triumph over sin and death forever and ever. Let the good news of your resurrection from the dead call us now to live no longer under the dominion of death, but in the light of life eternal until the news permeates our homes, our communities, our nation, and our world. In the name of Jesus we pray. Amen.