A recently discovered papyrus fragment directly suggests that Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the Christ, was married and accepted female disciples. Stop the presses, right? This could open the door to a more sex-positive Christianity, greater gender quality in Christian leadership, and even married priesthood.
Sorry, but you have two big reasons to hold your horses.
First, the papyrus fragment should not be convoluted with the canonical Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. These books were composed in the first sixty years after Jesus’ death, whereas the newly discovered fragment was written as much as 300 years later. Determining which writings were “canonical” — true, holy, and of particular value to the community — was a process that continued for 1500 years after Jesus. During that period, each community would make their own decisions about what stories were worth including, and then transmit and copy those stories themselves.
The four Gospels in the modern Bible were considered to be superior in terms of their completeness, authenticity, and worthiness for widespread distribution. The papyrus fragment falls into the same category as the Gospels of Mary or Judas — not old enough, not complete enough, and not supporting the theological arc of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. So the papyrus fragment will never have the moral weight of the Gospel of Matthew.
Which brings us to the second point: the Bible must always be interpreted. Biblical literalism (the idea that the King James Bible is the verbatim transmission from God) ignores the human messiness involved in the creation of the Bible, especially in the first 500 years after Jesus.
Writings about Jesus were theologically interpreted and evaluated by early church leaders, and we must do the same every day. In mainstream theology, the Holy Spirit works through us in every age, allowing us to make wise, moral, holy decisions. So the papyrus fragment and the Gospel of Matthew only have the moral weight we give them.
Sadly, the real reasons behind Christianity’s history of misogyny and Victorian sexual ethics has very little to do with scriptures. The Gospels have a lot to say about compassion and fiscal morality, but completely omit sexual ethics. The theology behind celibacy and unisex clergy comes from Christians, not from Jesus Christ, and new Jesus stories will not change that, except by challenging us to re-imagine Jesus and the early church.
Read more by Andy Morgan at millennialfaith.blogspot.com.