The recently announced 4th century Coptic papyrus fragment in which "Jesus" refers to "my wife" has generated quite the buzz in the media. The New York Times' provocative headline read "The Gospel of Jesus' Wife." Even David Letterman had a spoof about it on his show. Within a day of this story breaking, a college student in our church messaged me on Facebook wanting to know what I thought about this new discovery (a good reminder of the new media reality that people don't have to go looking for skeptical claims anymore; skeptical claims find them!).
Well, first things first, does this fragment prove that Jesus was married? According to Dallas Theological Seminary New Testament scholar Dan Wallace, "The answer is an emphatic no. At most, it can only tell us what one group of 'Christians' in the middle of the second century thought. But it says nothing about true history, about Jesus of Nazareth." And now there seems to be a growing consensus that the fragment is actually a fake.
While sensational headlines like these can create doubt and confusion for people, they can also create timely opportunities for us as pastors and Christian leaders to remind those we serve of the importance of understanding why we believe what we believe (i.e., apologetics). Let's not let this cultural moment pass us by. Here are five things Christians need to understand when it comes to apologetics.
- Defending the faith is not optional.The Bible makes this clear: "In your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer [apologia] to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect" (1 Pet. 3:15; Phil. 1:7). Apologetics involves responding to objections (defense), making a case (offense), and giving hope (Christ-centered). It is part of what it means to be a thoughtful follower of Jesus who seeks to love God with all of your mind (Matt. 22:37)
- Apologetics is extremely practical. Isn't apologetics only for academics and intellectuals? The short answer is no. Here's why. Everyone has questions—you do, your kids do, your friends and neighbors do, your family does, and our culture certainly does. It's that simple. We will either think carefully or poorly about these questions, but the questions themselves cannot be avoided. Moreover, if Christianity is true, then it speaks to all of life. It doesn't get more practical than that.
- Christianity rises to the level of being true or false. Priority one is to get Christianity out of the blind faith category and into the reality category. If Christianity does not rise to the level of being true or false then it has been completely removed from the cognitive realm. If something can't be false, then it can't be true either. And rational investigation becomes impossible. Now don't get me wrong, I think there are good reasons to believe Christianity is true (I share some of these reasons in my book Is God Just a Human Invention?). But Christianity is the kind of thing that could be false. So when it comes to Christianity, the most important question we need to help people ask is not will it work for them or help them feel better, but rather is it true?
- People are entitled to their own beliefs, but not their own truth. Belief is not what ultimately matters—truth is. Our believing something is true doesn't make it true. The Bible isn't true simply because I have faith. Truth is what corresponds to reality—telling it like it is. In the case of Jesus' alleged wife, we need to look at what the earliest and most reliable biographies of Jesus of Nazareth tell us. Upon further review, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John unanimously teach that Jesus was not married.