What would it mean if Jesus had been married?

One of the odder stories this week involves a small scrap of Coptic papyrus and what it says about Jesus.

The fragment is old, but not Jesus-old. It’s more like Constantine-old — 4th-century probably. I’ll let James McGrath summarize:

Karen King, a scholar well known for her work on the phenomenon usually referred to as “Gnosticism,” has come into possession of and has been studying a Coptic papyrus fragment which is likely to be authentic, dates from around the 4th century, and has Jesus mention his wife. (King has posted online a pre-publication version of an article [.pdf] she has written about the text.)

It is important to note that this is clear evidence only of one thing, namely that the author of this text, centuries after the time of Jesus, believed that Jesus had been married.

Anything beyond that is speculation, although there certainly do seem to be points of intersection with, or echoes of, other previously known extracanonical texts referring to Mary Magdalene.

The phrase in question, cut off by the edge of the fragment, reads: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …’”

That’s tantalizing. Reading that, quite a few commentators immediately thought of Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code. I immediately thought, instead, of Henny Youngman and Rodney Dangerfield. And now I’m hoping for the future discovery of another Coptic fragment beginning: “… the disciples said unto him, ‘How bad a cook was she?’”

Without more context — the rest of Jesus’ sentence, the subject and genre of the 4th-century writers’ text, etc. — this fragment doesn’t really tell us much. I see four broad possibilities:

1. Jesus was married. Knowledge of this was preserved for four centuries, either through oral tradition or in texts now lost to us, but he really was married.

2. Jesus was not married, but some people thought he was, including the writer of this Coptic fragment.

3. Jesus may or may not have been married, but this fragment doesn’t speak to that because it is the work of the 4th-century equivalent of David Barton — a polemicist with some other agenda that trumped historical accuracy.

4. Jesus may have been speaking metaphorically. He may have been saying something like, “My wife is whoever hears the word of God and does it.” That’s exactly what he said in Luke 8:21 about his mother and brothers. And it wouldn’t be far from the imagery of his parable about bridesmaids. Alas, such a statement wouldn’t indicate one way or the other whether he had an actual wife (although he did have a mother and brothers).

All of those seem possible, and I’m sure there are other possibilities as well. I have no idea which of these is the most likely, but it’s clear which is the most interesting.

What if it turns out Jesus really was married?

Throughout most of Christian history, we have assumed he wasn’t. The canonical Gospels and most of the extracanonical ones don’t say anything about Jesus having a wife. Neither does Paul — who wrote his epistles much earlier. Had Jesus been married, his wife would likely still have been living when Paul was writing those letters.

“The Magdalene Before Her Conversion,” James Tissot, 1894.

But just because none of these texts mention Jesus wife doesn’t mean he was not married. Consider the apostle Peter’s wife. Mark’s Gospel tells us that Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law. If Peter had a mother-in-law, then he must have also had a wife, yet she isn’t mentioned in that story, or anywhere else in the Gospels, in Acts, or in the epistles attributed to Peter. The only other mention of her is in one of Paul’s letters, when he says, in passing, that apostles should take their wives along like Peter does (see 1 Corinthians 9:5).

So on the one hand, if Jesus had been married, then it seems like his wife ought to have been mentioned as being present at least at his death and burial. But on the other hand, if Peter’s wife could be invisibly present throughout the book of Acts, then the same thing could be true for Jesus’ wife in the book of Luke.

Of course the assumption that Jesus never married isn’t entirely due to the silence of the canonical texts. It may also be due in part to early Christian notions about the evils of the material world, which led to a revulsion toward sex and an idealization of virginity. (King’s Coptic fragment may have been a reaction against exactly that.)

So while this latest 4th-century find offers next-to nothing in the way of evidence that Jesus may have been married, it’s still a possibility that he was. So what would happen if we did find evidence proving that was true? What if Jesus was married?

Let me suggest four implications I think this would have for Christianity:

1. It would help to flesh out our understanding of the incarnation.

Jesus was fully human. Sexuality is part of what it means to be fully human (even for lifelong virgins and celibates). But the church has often balked at accepting that Jesus was as much of a sexual being as any other human. That comes dangerously close to suggesting that he was only fully human above the waist. That’s a kind of soft Docetism — a denial of Jesus’ full humanity. (Or is that Monophysitism? I get my early heresies mixed up). This reinforces and is reinforced by another dangerous notion — that Jesus could only have been sinless if he remained a virgin, and thus that sex with his wife would have defiled him because all sex defiles and is icky, dirty and nasty. Both of these ideas together deny Jesus the name Emmanuel. They suggest that God has never been entirely “with us” — only with us up to a point.

2. We would need to re-read stories of Jesus with fresh eyes.

Like most Christians, I have always assumed Jesus was not married. If it turned out he was, I would want to re-read the Gospels carefully, keeping that in mind. Would it change the meaning of those stories? Not much, I don’t think. But I would be very interested to read someone with expertise on first-century Judaism discussing how Jesus’ many encounters with women — the Samaritan woman at the well, the Syro-Phoenician woman, the woman with the hemorrhage, the woman with the oil, the woman caught in adultery, Mary and Martha of Bethany, Mary Magdala, Susanna, etc. — might take on new shades of meaning if we read them as involving a married rabbi.

3. Celibate priesthood would seem even sillier.

The idea of a celibate priesthood has always been weird. There’s no biblical case for it, and no good biblical defense of it. Its many downsides have always outweighed its few purported benefits. If we somehow learned that Jesus was married, the idea would quickly become wholly indefensible and unsustainable. I imagine it would be abandoned in short order. That ought to happen anyway, even if we somehow learned instead that Jesus definitely never married.

4. The unique place of Mary, the mother of Jesus, would change.

I originally only had three items in this list, but I spent this morning at St. Mary Church in Conshohocken, Pa., an old and ornate shrine to the blessed virgin. In a patriarchal church, Mary serves as a kind of abstract ideal of the sort of woman that the patriarchy can tolerate. If we someday learned that Jesus was married, then his mother might have to share that role with his wife.

It’s possible that would lead to the church becoming a bit less patriarchal, but probably not. The cult of virginity (in both its Catholic and Protestant forms) would live on in new forms. The same forces that conspired to turn Jesus’ brothers into his cousins so that his mother could declared a perpetual virgin — a madonna rather than that other thing — would likely create a parallel myth to attribute perpetual virginity to his wife as well. Sure, Jesus was technically married, they would say, but somehow he and his wife — just like poor Mary and Joseph — never did what married people do.

In other words, if it should ever be found, evidence that Jesus was married is more likely to inspire new myths to support the patriarchy than it is to dispell the old ones.

See also:

 

  • http://snarkthebold.blogspot.com/ Edo

    There’s a strong tendency on the part of many scholars to err
    uncritically on the side of the exotic and non-traditional: the same
    person who takes the standard gospels as unreliable in their depiction
    of Jesus will then treat a text written centuries later, which makes
    outlandish claims attested to nowhere else, certainly no text written
    when there were still living witnesses to Jesus’s life, as if it were
    very good evidence!

    YES. THIS THIS THIS. Thank you so much for saying that.

    On a broader scale, my biggest issue with this whole topic is the horrible looming sense that there isn’t going to be ANY intelligent, rational discussion about if and how this papyrus fragment means or matters: that people will, for personal psychological reasons, arbitrarily and dogmatically declare “Jesus was/wasn’t married!”

    Because as a relatively studied Christian (and usually the one who has to represent Christianity in my completely unchurched social circles), I waste enough time as it is dealing with the Rapture and Dan Brown. And maybe it’s because I’m short of sleep, but I have no hope that popular culture won’t make a mess with this, and I am tired of endless remedial cleanup.

  • teucer

    As an asexual man, I’d like to point out one minor quibble – suggesting that Jesus was not as much a sexual being as most people doesn’t make him any less human, provided you regard that as an incidental fact about him rather than arguing as some church fathers have been known to that his having sex is inconceivable.

  • SisterCoyote

     I… I keep trying to come up with an intelligent response to this, but all that will come to mind is “…wut.”

  • Revelshade

    Jesus was the bridegroom at the famous wedding at Cana. He married Mary Magdalene. Honestly, it’s all right there in ‘Holy Blood, Holy Grail’. Don’t you people read?

    Seriously, HBHG is a textbook example of crank writing, but I find the idea that Jesus’ marriage might be hidden in plain sight irresistible, and as a big fan of marriage (20th anniversary coming up) I long ago adopted the idea as canon. The use of the fan term is deliberate, given that we will never know whether Jesus was married any more than we will ever be certain of the identity or for that matter the existence of Dr. Watson’s second wife.

  • Ethnically Atheist

    I just want to make it clear that this piece of evidence, even if it contained more information, wouldn’t really have a great deal of bearing on what we know about the personal life of a person whose only record of their specific existence is a mythological work. Jesus, in the historical record, is a mythological figure. Anything that isn’t a reliable, secular document like a birth certificate, a record of his arrest, trial, or execution, or similar confirmation that he existed can only tell us about a tradition of belief concerning Christ as a mythological figure. There may well be a tradition that believes Christ to have been married, but that tells us nothing about the marital status of the “real” Christ as there may well not have been a “real” Christ.

    I’m not saying this to be mean or aggressive about belief in a historical Jesus, just that this fascinating and important historical document (or even one that expanded to reveal that the Christ described there was married) does not affect the case for or against a historical Jesus, or his marital status.

  • Tricksterson

    There has long been a theory that the marriage in Cana attended by Jesus and his mother was his own.

  • Tricksterson

    “Tables,chairs and oaken chests
    Would have suited Jesus best
    He’d have caused nobody harm
    Caused no one alarm!”

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Words cannot describe how creepy that doctrine is.

  • Ross Thompson

    No, but they did find his foreskin.  Several of them, in fact.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holy_Prepuce

  • RavenOnTheHill

    A Jewish man of Jesus’s time would most likely have been married–it is considered a mitzvah (“good deed”) and was and still remains nearly an obligation for a Rabbi, though some ascetics of Jesus time did not marry. If he hadn’t been married, I would expect that would have been remarked on by Jewish commentators; Jesus was not, as far as we know, an Essene. So very likely Jesus was married. That Christians did not assume it all along is a very odd thing; it is not like information about Jewish customs was unavailable to them.

    BTW, ravens are unclean beasts in Judaic traditions. :~)

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_2CUJHSQSQYTYT4DPZSKTVESYNQ B

     Interestingly, I just read a new book about this by Bart Ehrman, “Did Jesus Exist?” which points out that we don’t have that kind of documentation for ANYONE who lived in 1st Century Palestine (including Pontius Pilate, the most powerful man in Palestine in his day).   Likely most of it never existed — Pilate didn’t need to go through any sort of legal proceedings to execute a man, after all!  (There are no execution records from his day, but based on what historians say about it, it’s not because he didn’t execute people!)

    So by that standard you’re stuck believing that pretty much no one in the ancient world existed. :-)

  • http://www.oliviareviews.com/ PepperjackCandy

    Th0se forces didn’t have to turn Jesus’ brothers into his cousins to turn Mary into a perpetual virgin — they had to do it in order to turn Joseph into a young man.

    I’m confused by this conclusion.  How would making Jesus’s brothers into his cousins have made Joseph any younger?

    Jesus was at least 30 when he started his ministry.  Most of the 30-year-olds I know of who were the eldest in their family had at least one adult sibling at that point.  Even my mother, who was born far later than her siblings, was 18 when her sister turned 30.

  • Gil

    Yeah this came to mind when I was reading, too.

    Fred, I love you to death but equating sexuality with humanity made me sigh a tiny bit.

  • Diez

    One can be fully human while ignoring or simply missing a great deal of the human experience.  Perhaps ‘sexuality is a huge part of the human experience’ would have been a better way to word that.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_2CUJHSQSQYTYT4DPZSKTVESYNQ B

     I don’t think Jesus would have had to have been an Essene to not be married — the idea of religious celibacy was clearly something going on in Judiasm at the time, why would be think that no non-Essene ever practiced it.

    Certainly we know that Paul was neither married nor an Essene

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Actually I believe there was recently evidenced a coin stamped with Pilate’s name on it. Wikipedia may have more on that.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pontius_Pilate

  • http://newpillowbook.wordpress.com/2012/05/11/friday-fictioneers-lunacy/ esmerelda_ogg

    I wonder if jesus do what human do eg. eat, drink, pee, breath and etc. – Fikry2011

    Well, of course. Otherwise he couldn’t be fully human. (Early on, Christianity went through several centuries worth of argument to decide that somehow, in a way beyond our understanding, Jesus was and is fully human and fully divine, both at the same time.)

  • http://newpillowbook.wordpress.com/2012/05/11/friday-fictioneers-lunacy/ esmerelda_ogg

    Agreed. I’ve long wondered if the reason Jesus didn’t start his ministry until his thirties was that he was married (and therefore had responsibilities he couldn’t just walk away from). When his wife died, the personal upheaval might have triggered recognizing or accepting his larger mission.

    Of course, if we take the Protestant position that Joseph and Mary had a normal marriage, with Jesus as the oldest child in a large family, it’s also possible that when Joseph died, Jesus felt obligated to stay in Nazareth until the younger children were grown and established.

    The Romans definitely didn’t accept (simultaneous) polygamy, though they did divorce and remarry a lot. As far as I’ve ever read, Jews of that period were also monogamous.

  • Tricksterson

    That reminds me of a story (sorry, don’t know title or author) where an archeologist finds a secret department of his college where they are manufacturing dinosaur fossils.  When he confronts his superior about it he’s told that the reason they’re doing it is because there is no fossil record at all.  Then at the very end of the story he walks into a room where they’re manufacturing artifacts from the Depression and World War II.

  • Katie

    Personally, I’m more interested in the fact that in this passage, he calls a woman a disciple.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Mary actually would have routine sex with her husband and then magically
    forget every detail immediately after.   She would therefore remain a
    perpetual virgin “In Effect.”

    Ew.

  • http://heathencritique.wordpress.com/ Ruby_Tea

    I’m sure I’m not the first person to think this, but does it strike anyone else as odd that the RTCs, who recoil in horror at the mere thought of marriage that is not “traditional,” have as their superhero a perpetually-single guy?

  • John Harland

    Jesus starting a sentence with “My wife..” really makes me think of Columbo.

    “Go now, and sin no more.

    Just one more thing…”

  • Turcano

    And now I’m hoping for the future discovery of another Coptic fragment beginning: “… the disciples said unto him, ‘How bad a cook was she?’”

    “Her cooking was so bad that even Rabbi Shammai would let me divorce her!”

    That’s all I’ve got.

  • Diona the Lurker

    Wikipedia says nothing about that, but does confirm Pilate’s historicity by reference to the Pilate Stone – a limestone block discovered in 1961 with his name carved on it. The inscription in translation reads,
     
    To the Divine Augusti [this] Tiberieum
    …Pontius Pilate
    …prefect of Judea
    …has dedicated [this]
     
    The wiki article on the stone calls it “the only universally accepted archaeological find with an inscription mentioning the name “Pontius Pilatus” to date”.

  • Trixie_Belden

    Wait a minute – I think it’s just a joke ,  a play on the movie “Memento”?

  • fraser

     That’s actually the concept for the super-horny Starfire in DC’s reboot universe–lots of sex, but no memory of it.

  • fraser

     Now I’m thinking of an alt.world where not having sex is considered sinful.

  • The_L1985

    “I mean, the historical evidence that Jesus wasn’t white is overwhelming,
    but many, many European and American Christians continue to believe he
    was.”

    I dunno.  A lot of African-Americans have pictures and statues of Black Jesus, and in Asia, there’s Asian Jesus.  I think this is more a case of people relating more to a god who looks like them.

  • The_L1985

     That is quite possibly the stupidest explanation for “perpetual virginity” that I’ve ever heard.

  • The_L1985

     I think he’s including asexual people among the celibate.

  • The_L1985

     Sexual orientation is a facet of sexuality.

  • The_L1985

    Medieval tradition states that Joseph was a widower (with children) when he married Mary, and that Mary was perpetually virgin. If Jesus’s brothers were actually his cousins, then you don’t need Joseph to be an old widower, and can instead portray him as being Mary’s age.

    The Perpetual Virginity idea wasn’t made Official Catholic Doctrine until the 19th century though.

  • Parisienne

    Here’s why I incline towards the idea of an unmarried Jesus: under the old covenant, ancestry/blood relationships are a BIG deal – just check out all those genealogies. If you can prove a blood relationship: awesome, you’re in. Granted conversion existed, but it wasn’t easy or particularly encouraged as far as I know. For Jesus to have a wife and more particularly, children, would risk reinforcing this whole thing about blood relationships (“yeah but Jesus was my great-grandfather so I’m a special flower”).

    On the other hand, if you look at Paul’s lists of greetings at the end of his letters (Romans especially), it’s not about blood relationships or ancestry any more. Instead it’s a big hotpotch of diverse people, both Jew and Gentile (“say hello to my mate X, and so and so’s sister, not forgetting Y’s Mum who is a very nice lady”). People become brothers and sisters in one spiritual family and their blood ancestry doesn’t matter. Anyone is free to be part of this family, no matter where they come from.

    ( Bit of a tangent, but concerning Paul, my working assumption is that he was widowed. For a Pharisee like him never to have married at all would be very odd indeed.)

  • http://www.oliviareviews.com/ PepperjackCandy

    But I don’t understand why they couldn’t be Jesus’s younger siblings. 

    Does Greek differentiate between older and younger siblings, like the Chinese languages do?

  • S_Montefiore

    Under the “Joseph was an old man” tradition, Joesph was in his sixties or seventies at the time of Jesus’ birth, had what we would now call erectile disfunction, and would be unable to engage in intercourse with Mary.  Jesus may have been Mary’s only child, but Joseph would have had other children from a previous marriage that ended with his first wife’s death.  Thus, Jesus was the youngest child, and, as the children had the same (earthly) father, they would have been regarded as siblings.

    Now, let’s imagine Joseph was young at the time of Jesus’ birth.  He’s young enough that he couldn’t have had a previous wife, and that he couldn’t have fathered children in the past.  If you’re committed to the premise that Mary was a perpetual virgin, then where are Jesus’ siblings going to come from?  Mary’s still alive when the wedding at Cana takes place, so we can’t postulate a second wife for Joseph.  We have to turn Jesus’ brothers into cousins.

    It’s not necessary to turn Jesus’ brothers into his cousins in order to turn Mary into a perpetual virgin — portraying Joseph as an old widower at the time he met Mary would have been sufficient for that, and, as I pointed out earlier, there are Medieval artworks which do portray Joseph as an old man.  However, if you want to portray Joseph as a young man at the time of Jesus’ birth and regard Mary as a perpetual virgin, you have to turn Jesus’ brothers into his cousins.

  • S_Montefiore

     The word Greek word “adelphos” can refer to either an older brother or a younger brother.  In order to differentiate between the two, the Greek language, like English, requires the use of an adjective.

  • christopher_young

    If you can prove a blood relationship: awesome, you’re in.
    Which might explain why James and Jude (let’s call them Jesus’ next of kin, to avoid argument), who don’t seem to have been in the inner circle in the gospels, suddenly seem to be promoted to being major authority figures after the Ascension.

  • Emmakennedy

    That whole perpetual Virginity thing comes, I think, from a verse in Ezekiel.

    *Mooches over to google and looks*

    Ezekiel 44v2: The LORD said to me, “This gate is to remain shut. It must not be opened; no one
    may enter through it. It is to remain shut because the LORD, the God of Israel,
    has entered through it.

    The gate representing Mary’s… anyway. Also being from one of Lajenkins’ favourite three Bible books I think the verse also crops up in Glorious Appearing as a Prophecy Checkpoint TM for TurboJesus to tick off after he’s destroyed Nicky Snowdon’s Army.

  • The_L1985

     That still doesn’t mean Jesus wasn’t married–just that he didn’t have kids.

  • The_L1985

    I have no clue.

    And again, the idea that they couldn’t be Jesus’s younger, full-sibs is based fully on the idea that Mary remained a virgin, for life, after having Jesus.

  • The_L1985

     Which begs the question: was Jesus a C-section baby?  Because I’m pretty sure Mary’s, er, “gate” would have been opened by the birth process.

  • Michael Cule

    There are (I’m not kidding) extant mystery plays from the middle ages which explicitly state that Mary’s hymen survived the birth of Jesus by a special miracle to maintain her perpetual  virginity. I think (and I can’t be arsed to look it up at this moment) it’s the one in the York cycle that features a skeptical midwife who attempts to disprove this by shoving her hand up the BVM and is smote by the Lord for her blasphemy.

    And IIRC there’s a bit in the MORTE D’ARTHUR where the Lamb at the Grail Mass enters through a stained glass window without breaking it as a symbol of the Virgin Birth.

    (Oh, the junk that accumulates in an English Lang and Lit graduate’s brain…)

  • Robyrt

    Celibacy has other roots than Jesus’ personal celibacy – there’s the verse that goes “Some have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the gospel” for instance, and Paul was an enthusiastic proponent of being as celibate as possible. But yes, this is definitely the legacy of the philosophical trend of that era to see the physical body, and by extension sex, food, etc. as agents of evil, which has all but disappeared today, which leaves the main rationale for a celibate priesthood high and dry. (Not that it was ever particularly persuasive in my opinion.)

  • Lori

    I think the reason most people assume that Jesus was not asexual (aside from not even getting that asexuality is a thing) is the verse about him being tempted in all ways as a man. Sexual temptation is a big thing for most people, so I think folks assume Jesus must have had some experience with that. (Which added a nice slice of irony to the freak out over The Last Temptation of Christ. )

    Of course the flip side of that is that so many Christians basically think of Jesus as asexual—because sex is icky and/or thinking about Jesus having sex gives them the wiggins.

  • Dar Kur

    This is hilarious.  The assumption isn’t about Jesus’ marital status.  The  first assumption is that he even existed. 

  • Ygorbla

    I think that point 3, about abandoning celebrate priesthood, is a bit too optimistic — tradition is, unfortunately, a lot stronger than that, and doesn’t generally care about facts.  There are a lot of other traditions (both in religion and elsewhere) that are even more silly and even more harmful and yet still survive; I don’t think that any revelations about Jesus could persuade some people to give up on celibate priesthood, not when it’s defined them for so long.

  • OnlyMe

    Or to the other side, it would mean ignored and neglected the needs of his wife to go off gallivanting for three years.  And then left her wife a widow in a society where widows of men in his social class were significantly economically and socially disadvantage.  Especially widows of executed criminals.

    The concept of Jesus as a widower doesn’t bother me at all, but as married during the time of ministry raises some very serious questions.

  • Lunch Meat

    Ezekiel 44v2: The LORD said to me, “This gate is to remain shut. It must not be opened; no one may enter through it. It is to remain shut because the LORD, the God of Israel, has entered through it.”

    The gate representing Mary’s… anyway.

    Then what’s verse 3 supposed to mean?

    “The prince himself is the only one who may sit inside the gateway to eat in the presence of the Lord. He is to enter by way of the portico of the gateway and go out the same way.”

  • Isabel C.

    Disclaimer: aromantic non-Christian.

    I don’t see why having a wife would have implied any more danger of dereliction of duty or having to choose between mortal and divine ties or whatnot than having family and friends does.  Jesus is explicitly said to have the first, and while no non-Disciple friends are mentioned explicitly as far as I know, I also don’t think the concept gets anyone’s undergarment-of-choice in a knot.

    That’s a Thing That Bugs in general, actually. I remember getting annoyed at “we’re supposed to be impartial” as a reason for (SERIOUS Nerd Alert) a warrior order in Mercedes Lackey to be celibate, especially when the whole series was about one of said order’s totally awesome friendship. 

    Because seriously? I’m a million and two times more likely to be partial to my mom or my best friend than I am to be partial to some guy I fuck, or even than I was to the longest and most attached of my boyfriends.  


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