Today’s post is an interview with Anthony Le Donne on his new book The Wife of Jesus: Ancient Texts and Modern Scandals. Le Donne (PhD, Durham) is the author/editor of six other books including The Historiographical Jesus: Memory, Typology, and the Son of David. He co-founded the Jewish-Christian Dialogue and Sacred Texts Consultation and serves as an editor of the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus. He is an affiliate of the Centre for the Social-Scientific Study of the Bible at St. Mary’s University College, London and an adjunct lecturer at the University of the Pacific, Stockton, CA.
OK, the elevator speech: what is this book about?
Christianity. Our fear of sex. Our fascination with sex. Our desire for Jesus to remain just less than human. The fact that our simultaneous fear and fascination with sex creates a market for scandal. It is also a critical assessment of the question: was Jesus married?
What motivated you to write about the “wife of Jesus”?
Well, I’ve been listening to the conspiracy theories and Christian (over)reactions to a sexualized Jesus for a long time now. I’ve been observing the ebb and flow between pseudo-historians and media outlets. This topic isn’t going away. The Christianized West is simply too invested in Jesus and too preoccupied with sex to let go of the idea of a wife of Jesus. The humanity of Mary Magdalene has become a casualty in this process. She’s become something of a keyhole into the topic of Jesus’ libido.
I kept waiting for the professional historians to step into the conversation and tell us that marriage for romance is a recent invention and that Jesus’ marital status would have been in the hands of his parents. Despite Karen King’s best efforts, the media wanted to make the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” (a Coptic fragment she recently revealed) about the Jesus of history.
Even then, the national conversation lacked what I saw as the central issue: understanding Jesus in his culture. So I figured that I’d write a book that brings out the crucial aspects of Jesus’ culture that must be addressed in order to answer the question: was Jesus married?
And, in your view, what are those factors?
Marriage had to do with family honor and economic stability. Without an appreciation for the relationships between honor, property, and masculinity, we simply lack the ability to assess Jesus’ marital status. Most importantly, our views on celibacy and lack of progeny were not their views. We associate celibacy with holiness in many cases. We associate sex with naughtiness and scandal. But in Jesus’ culture, celibacy would have been viewed as “unholy” by most; it would have been considered an “alternative lifestyle”.
We’ve created a scandal out of Jesus’ marital status; but this is our scandal, not theirs. If Jesus had a literal wife, it wouldn’t have scandalized any of his contemporaries.
So, did Jesus have a wife? Do you give an answer in your book?
As I began to study this issue, I fully expected to argue for a Jesus who was likely married shortly after puberty as arranged by his parents. Short life expectancy, early marriage norms, the demand for progeny to ensure the survival of the family, maternal mortality rates during childbirth, the altogether positive views on marriage in Jewish thought—all of these factors had me thinking that Jesus would have entered an arranged marriage at around 20 years of age. These factors still compel me to take the notion of a literal wife of Jesus seriously.
What I wasn’t expecting to discover was the relevance of Jesus’ repeated anti-wealth statements. Add to this the many points of evidence that Jesus had an aberrant view of family honor and an atypical view on blood ties. I concluded that he was most likely celibate during his preaching career. In short, Jesus did not command his disciples to become conduits of “civic masculinity”. Whatever his parents might have arranged for him in his early adulthood, Jesus looks quite subversive on topics related to “family values” during his public career.
And this surprised you?
Yes, quite! I had read Jesus’ anti-wealth statements a thousand times, but I had never considered how these statements might relate to honor, family, and progeny. Studying about the various ways that the voices and names of women are silenced and marginalized in history, I realized that the topic of wealth and family were inseparable from traditional expectations of masculinity.
Jesus blesses the man “who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children.” He blesses “eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” He anticipates a time when people will bless “childless women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!” Concerning paternal honor and inheritance, he says, “Let the dead bury their own dead.” There are dozens of episodes where Jesus takes a quite subversive stance on economic security and family honor.
I tend to resist theses that set Jesus over and against his contemporaries; the historical Jesus has to make sense within his cultural context. So I was quite surprised to find a Jesus who subverted traditional notions of masculinity.
If Jesus was possibly married in his early adult years but likely single during his public career, what does this do to theories that imagine Mary Magdalene as the wife of Jesus?
The legacy of Mary Magdalene is a key thread in my book. The “wife of Jesus,” in many ways, is a construct that we’ve invented in the last decade, a cultural symbol that has emerged quite recently in our collective imagination.
This development provides an interesting mirror for the Christianized West—Magdalene’s legacy illustrates much more about us than it reveals about her as a historical figure. Mary’s 2000-year evolution from disciple, to obscurity, to prostitute, to royalty, to girlfriend, to wife reflects our sexual fascinations at almost every turn.
Unfortunately, our imaginations have not been kind to Mary. I think that it is noteworthy that Mary stands alone as an independent figure when she is characterized in the Gospels. She is not the wife of somebody or the mother of somebody.
Given that this is a scandalous topic, have you experienced any hostility?
Not much. I do get the occasional sideways glance or the anonymous Facebook comment that betrays a certain discomfort. It’s completely understandable. I argue that Jesus’ views on sexuality were quite nontraditional. It’s bound to challenge religious provincialism on that level.
But the most interesting thing that I’ve found is that such hostility is short-lived. As soon as folks realize that my book brings a responsible tone to a sensationalized topic, almost everybody sees the need. I tend to find that the Christians who rolled their eyes at The Da Vinci Code welcome a bit of sober research on the topic.