So it was no surprise when, on Tuesday, a Harvard professor announced a new papyri fragment discovery. It was not even necessarily surprising that the papyri was about Jesus and was dated to just 250-350 years after his death (
Most people know that Jesus isn't supposed to have a wife, which was part of the attraction to The Da Vinci Code. The curious thing is that nowhere in the Gospels (the four volumes in the New Testament that record Jesus life) is it positively stated that Jesus didn't have a wife. The gospels have Jesus interacting with other family members, such as his mother and brothers, but make no mention of Jesus having a wife or children. Thus it is generally assumed he didn't.
But to conclude on this point is to miss the larger controversy, because this most recent papyri fragment is the latest in a series of discoveries that have challenged the status of the New Testament as the exclusive source of reliable information about Jesus. For example, a series of "Gnostic Gospels" have been discovered, which chronicle events not found in the four Gospels of the Bible, and cast Jesus' life and mission in a radically different light. At issue is not so much the question of whether Jesus had a wife, but which ancient documents have a trustworthy record of his life, if any at all.
Against this slide toward agnosticism, the weight of the documentary evidence we do have about the life of Jesus speaks volumes. We have by a few orders of magnitude more ancient copies of the New Testament availabe to us today than we have for any other ancient text. That speaks to the value and validity that those who originally received those writings placed in them.
It should come as no surprise that there were competing accounts of Jesus life in circulation in the centuries following his death. But copying manuscripts by hand was both time consuming and expensive. What counts in assessing Jesus historically is the effort people who read the various accounts were willing to put into copying and spreading one version versus another.
So when a story about a single ancient manuscript saying something sensational about the life of Jesus breaks in the media, remember that single manuscript is what most people who were around and cared judged as unworthy of the effort of transmission. What counts is the boring discovery of another group of New Testament papyri, too routine to be covered in the media, because that's what more people who were in the best position to know thought was worth preserving for us.