“The apostles had wives!” Well, Peter was married, but…UPDATED

Father James Martin is a very kind man and a joyful priest who loves his vocation and will tell you that priestly celibacy is a discipline and gift that has enabled him to form deeply intimate, lasting friendships with with all kinds of people — friendship that, removed from the flesh and the material, is free to seek out the God-element in each person, and to love with the mind of Christ.

Many of my celibate friends feel similarly, whether they are priests, religious or layfolk. Their celibacy, freely embraced and honored, encourages them to find other routes to love and that mindful seeking ends up forging deeply nourished roots of joy. It’s a palpable joy — you can see it in the shine of their eyes — it is a joy that attracts, and if there was no value to it, someone had better tell these Benedictine and Dominican and Passionist and Franciscan Nuns before they make their final vows, about which they seem rather deliriously happy. Someone should tell this Jesuit priest that he’s miserable. Or this Franciscan one; or this Cardinal.

So I was very glad to see Martin deal a smackdown — a gentle one, because he is a gentleman, but a smackdown nonetheless — to Bill Keller of the New York Times, who soundly deserved it for this ill-informed, intellectually lazy, unsurprisingly adolescent attempt to analyze the value of celibacy.

I read Keller’s piece and wondered why he feels so bothered by the idea of celibacy that he wants to make it go away — at least Christian celibacy; he seems to have no problem with Buddhist celibates. No one is trying to make him celibate; priests and religious go into their vocations quite aware that celibacy is part of the bargain, and that it’s not an empty trade-off, but a means to other sorts of riches. pursue their vocations quite willingly,

Still, I want to address one point Keller tosses off as fact, based upon nothing at all: “The apostles had wives.”

To echo Martin, “Really? Peter did–but all of them? Guess I missed those mentions of Zebedee’s daughters-in-law.”

Not only do we not hear about the wives of the apostles, we don’t actually hear about Peter’s wife, either. We know Peter was married because the Synoptic Gospels tell us so; Matthew, Mark and Luke all recount a visit to Peter’s house, where his mother-in-law was down with a fever. Christ Jesus healed her and she immediately got up and waited on them.

A detail many miss is that had Peter’s wife been around, she would have been mistress of the household, overseeing the comfort of Peter and his guests. Instead, it is the mother-in-law who, once healed, takes charge of the hospitality.

This suggests to me that Peter was very likely a widow. At some point he brought his mother-in-law into his home — possibly upon her widowhood, but perhaps even before — and upon the death of his wife it would have been a natural thing for this woman to manage the household for her daughter’s husband. Jesus healed her, and then she got up and served, very likely because she was needed to serve.

In the gospels Martha and Martha are always mentioned together; when Our Lady stands at the cross of her son, we read that Mary [the wife] of Clopas and Mary Magdalene were there, as well. It is not unreasonable to think that had Peter’s wife been around when Jesus came to visit, we would read that his mother-in-law left her sickbed and — with Peter’s wife — served them all.

Her going unmentioned suggests Peter’s widowhood, and means it’s fair to assert that during time with Christ Jesus, his participation in ministry and subsequent priesthood, Peter was unmarried, and celibate.

In the comments section,
some are grousing about celibacy when it is “enforced” rather than being taken up voluntarily. Margaret Rose Realy has some thoughts about that.

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • DeaconsBench

    Exactly. Thank you for clearing up one of the most common misunderstandings —and misreadings—in the gospels. At the time he was a follower of Jesus, Peter had a mother-in-law. That doesn’t mean that he also at that time had a wife.

  • Inge Loots

    Not only that. Apostles were the first bishops. In early times, monks were appointed to be bishops because of their celibacy. There was a time where we had married priests, but there never have been married bishops. Probably because the responsibilities of being a bishop would hurt family life. So his point is exactly what?

  • MeanLizzie

    His point seems to be that celibacy is scary.

  • Andy Carlisle

    Apart from the passage in 1 Corinthians 9:5 which seem to say that many of the apostles (including Peter) were accompanied by their wives…

  • MeanLizzie

    Aye, but I’d argue that the sentence can be just as easily read as “the brothers of the Lord and [of] Cephas.” Someone who wanted to could argue that Paul was asking couldn’t he take his wife along — or could try to use the passage to suggest that he had a wife — but we know he was unmarried.

  • http://rosarynovice.stblogs.com/ Augustine

    Not to mention that even among the married ordained, the ancient discipline is of continence. Failure to live faithfully to this discipline that dates to the apostolic era led it to be relaxed. Since a man, bishop, priest or deacon, has to abstain from marital relations for three days before celebrating the Eucharistic Sacrifice, in the West the discipline was retained along with daily Mass, in the East the discipline was dismissed, except for bishops, and Mass became biweekly. I think that the West got the better part.

  • Steve Billingsley

    1 Corinthians 9:5 NRSV CE
    “Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a believing wife,[a] as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?”

    This seems to imply directly that Cephas (Peter) was accompanied by a believing wife. IMO, Bill Keller is certainly a creep – but I think he is right here.

  • http://rosarynovice.stblogs.com/ Augustine

    And they were known to be continent even with their wives.

  • http://rosarynovice.stblogs.com/ Augustine

    Not quite. See Card. Stickler’s work on the history of celibacy in the Church: http://bit.ly/1672P5g

  • MeanLizzie

    I will put the non-mention of Peter’s wife in 3 Gospels against the questionable reference in one epistle, any day. As I said to Andy, that sentence, can be just as easily understood as “the brothers of the Lord and [of] Cephas. The sentence could just as easily be used by someone who wanted to argue that Paul was asking if he couldn’t take his own wife along, in an effort to suggest he was married, but we know he was not.

  • http://www.kypackrat.com/ Kentucky Packrat

    I find it interesting that the only times when people say “it doesn’t mean what it says” with the Bible is when they are attempting to make the Bible fit their beliefs, not when the Bible is guiding their beliefs.

    The meaning of 1 Corinthians 9 is plain. People were complaining that Paul and Barnabas didn’t deserve to be supported in their missionary work. While there’s enough reason to believe that Paul wasn’t married, we don’t know about Barnabas. Either way, the meaning doesn’t change: the rest of the apostles, including Peter, were being supported in every single need their mission incurred, even their wives’ expenses. Paul and Barnabas should be equally supported, even if they choose not to take the support. This doesn’t make sense in the plain reading unless Peter is one of the apostles who has a wife to support.

    The Bible supports the voluntary choice to be celibate, and to be a celibate preacher/minister/etc. It does not universally support the demand that all clergy be celibate; IMHO it forbids it by requiring that congregational leaders be one-woman men who have grown children with strong faith and clean lives.

    Pose a reasonable argument that doesn’t ignore this requirement, and I will consider your arguments. Trying to hand wave around a historical fact well supported by the Bible text, using a fallacy to boot (absence of evidence is NOT evidence of absence) is hardly convincing.

  • Steve Billingsley

    I think that plays against the plain reading of the text. The context of the entire chapter is that Paul is showing the Corinthian church the many ways in which he has put their (and that of other churches) good above his own – including the fact that he had not married (which is well established in all other texts) and that he didn’t burden the churches in any way, financially or otherwise. The plain reading of the text (and not just in translation) is that the other apostles (as well as the brothers of the Lord) were married and were accompanied by their spouses in the fulfilling of their ministry. The argument from silence (no wife is mentioned in the Gospel texts) is just as sketchy as trying to twist the the Corinthian text into saying that Paul was married. And I have no axe to grind in clergy celibacy – I am just fine with it and that particular Church teaching doesn’t rest on the historical marital status of Peter at all. The authority of the Magisterium should be sufficient on its own merit.

  • craig

    Widower. Pedantic, I know, but what a language has made gendered, let no Catholic make neuter. Political Correctness must be fought on all fronts.

  • Ron Turner

    Unless someone changed the rules, the correct term is “widower”.

  • MeanLizzie

    I’m not “waving away” anything (and this response works for Steve as well.)The Gospels do not mention Peter’s wife. PETER does not mention his wife. Call it evidence by omission if you like but that speaks as powerfully to me as one line in a Pauline epistle whose language is doubty enough for our day — is Paul references Jesus’ cousins or actual brothers? Joseph’s sons? Who knows? It can go either way.

  • Steven Schloeder

    Steve: “Cephas” is not necessarily Peter, and this passage in fact argues that he is not. Peter would have been one of the apostles. Cephas (per Eusebius) was one of the 70, and perhaps even Caiphas (neither form is uncommon in ancient Judaism.) There is a whole of of textual criticism that upholds that reading, which would be laborious to go into here, but you might be interested in this essay, which I find intriguing: http://www.jesusking.info/Paul%27s%20Cephas%20is%20Caiphas.pdf

  • Naomi Kietzke Young

    Well, it IS. So is fire. And electricity. I’m in favor of the wise and appropriate use of all 3.

  • MeanLizzie

    THANK YOU, Steven…I had actually forgotten about the Eusebius notes.

  • Victor

    Exactly! The Anchoress has made it very clear and convincing that just because Peter had a mother-in-law doesn’t mean that Peter at the time had a wife.
    We Christians also know that those who have certain agendas will do what ever they can to create plenty of doubts that Peter might have really had a wife who still lived back then and while at “IT” they will also try to con vince many that “Jesus” was not really GOD if they could.
    Christians have got to hang on to what “Jesus Christ” has given us with
    all The Heart Felt Faith that we can muster seed UP on GOD’s Earth.

  • Thomas R

    I’m not sure I’d thought of this, Peter being a widower, but it does make sense.

  • KathyZ

    I will just throw this question into the mix. Who wrote the Gospels and the Epistles? You are ignoring the historical and cultural context of the times. These are elements of any scripture study. Let’s not get like the Evangelicals now. Really, what would Jesus say?

  • Stephen

    Sure, you should be free to choose celibacy if that’s what you want. But what if you don’t want it? Should it ever be forced on you?

    Often it is. Many men and women never find a spouse and end up living celibate lives through no choice of their own. It would be foolish to imagine that they all “find other routes to love” because many of them do not. They may continue to hope for love and marriage up until the day they die. That hope may sustain them as they eke out lonely and unfulfilled existences, but it will never make up for what they don’t have.

    I myself had a maiden aunt who quite simply lucked out in the genetic lottery and was so plain that she never became the object of any man’s affections. She was active in the parish and did much good and was generally appreciated for her kindness and willingness to help others in need. But she was one of the unhappiest people I think I’ve ever known, deeply lonely and with an overwhelming sense of being a spare part. She always hoped that one day her prince might come, but he never did, and she never ceased to regret it.
    My aunt’s life was hard but until the very end she always held on to the hope that maybe one day her prince would come. I also had an uncle (different side of the family) who was gay. There was no hope for him. No matter how long he waited, his prince was never going to come. Or if he did, the Church told him that any relationship they might have would be sinful and result in his damnation.

    My uncle took his own life shortly before his thirtieth birthday. I found his suicide note amongst my father’s effects after he’d died. In it he said he couldn’t bear the thought of living a life alone with only the praise of the Church and the cold comfort of good works as the only things to look forward to. Celibacy was a life sentence for my uncle with no time off for good behavior and no remission, so his only way out was to cut his life short.

    So while you wax all lyrical about the beauties of celibacy, spare a thought for two of my relatives whose lives were destroyed by it being thrust upon them through no choice of their own.

  • Roki

    The point is that the meaning of 1 Cor. and the Gospels is NOT plain. This is because whether Peter (or the other apostles) had wives was not all that important to Paul or the authors of the Gospels.

    It is fairly clear from the earliest traditions that at least John the Beloved was unmarried. So one can make a strong argument that not all the apostles were married.

    Peter is the only apostle whose marital status is even alluded to, so the strongest case for married apostles applies to him; but even so it is not an absolute certainty that he was married during his ministry. And, as Ms. Scalia points out, there are good arguments that he was not. Again, not absolute proofs, but reasonable arguments supported by evidence. In other words, “the apostles had wives” is at best contentious and possibly outright wrong.

    Nobody is arguing that the Bible imposes a requirement of celibacy on presbyters or bishops. History is clear that the requirement is a later development imposed only in the West. However, as others have pointed out, the practice and expectation of celibacy and/or abstinence is ancient. It appears in seminal form even in Paul’s letters and in the Gospels, as a strong recommendation.

    It is a valid and reasonable question whether a requirement for clergy to be celibate is prudent. It is not reasonable to make contentious statements like “the apostles had wives”, and then to base one’s argument on that assertion.

  • Victor

    (((So while you wax all lyrical about the beauties of celibacy, spare a thought for two of my relatives whose lives were destroyed by it being thrust upon them through no choice of their own.)))

    My sympathy for your relatives Stephen and maybe that’s another reason why GOD The Father let His Son die on His Cross but if “Jesus” was right, the Eternal Reward of Faithfulness will be worth “IT” someday. Don’t you think?

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    Anchoress you nailed me not too long ago for assuming Peter’s wife was still alive and I will never forget it. You are quite convincing. No doubt he was a widower. The only thing is, how come you weren’t as gentle with me as Fr. Martin was with Keller? :-P (By the way, Keller is a jackass.)

  • Suburbanbanshee

    The traditions about Peter differ. Some say he was a widower, some say that he had a living wife and daughter (often called “Petronilla”). We’ll know for sure on Judgment Day, but until then I think it’s not essential to know one way or the other.

    And yes, continence among the married ordained is very ancient.

  • Louis Bertrand

    The other argument I have is that there is no mention of wives following Jesus and the apostles who served their physical needs. Magdalene was one, wealthy women they were called. Paul refers to his renunciation of a wife-as-sister which the other apostles had, and that to me indicates a celibate female, something liker housekeepers that used be more usual in the 20th century, less so later. Peter also asked Jesus about their giving up family and home, can we assume that several apostles did or must we presume he chose all celibate or widowed men. Paul says he was single. J MURPHY CONNOR OP recently deceased that women died in house fires or child birth and explains one of those as cause of Paul’s celibacy because it was normal for a rabbi to be married in he Jewish tradition of the tme

  • Louis Bertrand

    there were married bishops before the monastic celibates of the East became their norm. Gregory Nazianses – mostly sure- was the son of a bishop.

  • Eve Fisher

    Well, there is 1 Corinthians 9:5, – “Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?” Which indicates that Cephas (i.e., Peter) took his wife around with him, and thus was still married. Granted, it’s not handy to remember this if you’re going to argue that Peter was a widower and thus celibate, but I would advise everyone to keep in mind that cherry-picking is just as off-putting on one side as the other.

    By the way, the Orthodox church has always allowed married priests (based on Peter, etc.) – provided the marriage takes place before ordination; and widowers cannot remarry. Considering that the Orthodox and Catholic churches were one communion for almost a thousand years, this would seem to indicate that priestly celibacy is not innately scriptural, nor required for the performance of priestly duties. But that’s another discussion.

  • Louis Bertrand

    AS SISTER, see my reference and the exact quote from Paul SB

  • Cotswoldsrose

    I think the article is stretching the verse about Peter’s MIL getting up to wait on them. Just because she is waiting on them doesn’t mean his wife is dead. She could be merely participating in the hospitality. I don’t know…I don’t see enough evidence here to be convinced that he did not have a wife. On the other hand, it would make sense that Jesus would choose disciples who did not have wives, so that they would not be harmed by the disciples’ prolonged absence from their homes.

  • parise

    yep, because we all know that women were thought of so highly in biblical times as to always be referred to when present.

  • Victor

    ((( (By the way, Keller is a jackass.) )))

    Anchoress! Far for me to speak for Manny during Advent Season but “I” think that Man he, “I” mean Manny simply wanted to say that as far as his bleeding human heart was concerned, Fr. Martin is no better than a Tramp on The Street. :)


  • Victor

    (((yep, because we all know that women were thought of so highly in biblical times as to always be referred to when present.)))

    Forgive me parise but,, I don’t really know if you’re being sarcastic and/or do you simply have an agenda that for some reason encourages you?

    I don’t want U>S (usual sinners) to try and High Jack The Anchoress post like I’ve on occasion done at

    I hear YA Anchoress! You’ve only got so much time to do that Victor! :)
    OK! Let’s “FORGET BOUT “it” parise. (lol)
    God Bless Peace

  • bill bannon

    Eve Fisher has since pointed out I Cor. 9:5…” Do we not have the right to take along a Christian wife, as do the rest of the apostles, and the brothers of the Lord, and Cephas?”

  • http://rau.3littlefoxes.com/ LindaF

    It does also make some sense, as how many women would be thrilled with their husband running around Israel with a bunch of guys, often in rough company?

  • MeanLizzie

    Again, as earlier and in the update, likely not the same Cephas http://www.jesusking.info/Paul%27s%20Cephas%20is%20Caiphas.pdf

  • Anne Cregon Parks

    Maybe your aunt never found her prince charming not because she was plain but because she was “one of the unhappiest people” you have ever known.

  • DaTechGuy on DaRadio

    I think the church is better off with celibacy (the temptation to choose wife & family vs church would be huge) but I don’t really care if it’s changed one way or the other

  • JoFro

    I thought the same thing as well!

  • JoFro

    Remember also that only the Latin Rite has enforced celibacy for all. Other rites in the Church do not have this rule!

    I would like to see a Western rite within the Catholic Church that allowed for married priests, just like the Orthodox, so they could serve in our parishes without the ethnic make-up that comes with becoming a married priest in an Eastern rite Catholic Church.