Anthony Le Donne
The Wife of Jesus: Ancient Texts and Modern Scandals
New York: Oneworld, 2013.
Available at Amazon.com
By Benjamin Sutton, Ph.D candidate at Ridley Melbourne
Anthony Le Donne has provided interested readers with a double blessing. In The Wife of Jesus, the initial intrigue of Jesus’ marital status gives way to a crash course in responsible historical inquiry.
Le Donne’s expressed goal is two-fold: to provide arguments for and against the possibility of a married Jesus (p. 7), and to provide a self-critique of a culture so captivated by the scandal of Jesus’ sex-life (p. 8).
To accomplish these goals Le Donne begins with a sketch of the prevalence of sexual insecurity, which is the likely candidate for the enduring memory of a celibate Jesus. This is followed by a series of chapters examining the development of various non-celibate pictures of Jesus in the last 2,000 years. These pictures are the result of individuals or groups who project their current circumstances and struggles onto the life of Jesus by retelling stories from the Gospels (which contain the closest historical evidence for Jesus’ life). By retelling stories of Jesus, each group or individual can `create’ affirmation for whatever position they hold.
The repeated theme of the book is that our current situation will inevitably influence how we interpret the past. The problem with these portrayals of Jesus is not necessarily that they construct a Jesus which reflects their perspective, it is that they do so without appropriate consideration for the context of Jesus’ life.
Le Donne proceeds cautiously–surveying the available ancient documents which provide a picture into the expectations and values current in Jesus’ time. Le Donne shows that while the Christian church is most likely correct about Jesus’ celibacy, it’s for the wrong reasons. It is not because sex is taboo, so therefore Jesus must have been celibate. Rather, it is because the record of Jesus’ teachings largely undermined the Jewish (and Greco-Roman) culture of what Le Donne calls ‘civic masculinity’.
It is only after this cultural background is understood that the teachings of Jesus can be examined and contemporary pictures assessed for historical plausibility. The unexpected result is a subversively celibate Jesus, who may be as unpalatable to Christians for his opposition to blood-relatives (Jesus emphasizes the spiritual `family of God’) as a married Jesus.
If offence is taken either way this book should be a wake-up call to assess the assumptions we may have about Jesus. Le Donne doesn’t just provide a tentative answer to a difficult question. He demonstrates the kind of sustained effort it takes to answer historical questions responsibly, while calling all people to examine their cultural frameworks for traditions that might be better forgotten.
Engaging, concise, and well-researched, this is a quick read that gives a substantial return on investment.