I had a little fun with the idea that Jesus had a wife last week. This week, something a little more serious. My dear friend, Rabbi Joseph Edelheit, often posts at the Emergent Village blog; he regularly co-preaches with me at Solomon’s Porch, and he and I are co-presenting next week at Luther Seminary’s Celebration of Biblical Preaching Conference. I asked him what a Jew might think of Jesus being married, and he wrote this superb guest post:
The Rabbi says, “Of course Jesus was married!”
The recent headlines regarding a fourth century papyrus fragment in which we read a reference to Jesus’ wife raises a wonderful dilemma for Jews and Christians in dialogue.
When Christians search for their (Jesus’) Jewish roots, the question of marriage and even children is not very radical. The first commandment of the 613 mtizvot (commandments) in the Torah is “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28). Jesus would not have consciously chosen to be single nor celibate as a first century Judean following normative Torah, but the Christ, the risen and incarnate Messiah, is beyond those normative structures. When Jews are asked by Christians to explain what it means to be a Jew, far too many begin with the self-definition of: Jews don’t believe that Jesus is the Messiah, tragically defining themselves by rejecting the primary religious axiom of all Christians.
So, this news about Jesus being married is a wonderful and unexpected opportunity for Jews and Christians to reconnect about who they are in relation to each other. Since Jews do not have a problem with the historical reality of Jesus and they assume the necessity of marriage, the possibility of Jesus having a wife is not very challenging.
The Essenes — the desert monastic cult that is mentioned along with the Sadducees and Pharisees of Jesus’ time — were celibate and are therefore outside any Jewish norm. Christians can help Jews understand that their focus is actually on the Christ and not the human Jesus, the Judean for whom marriage would have been the norm. Christians might feel ambivalent about giving up their Jewish roots, but for the sake of honest dialogue it is important to explain that the risen Christ is their salvation and the human Jesus while mysteriously linked to the Messiah/Christ can’t be married according to later doctrine!
Jews and Christians alike must face the challenge that the Scriptures and traditional histories and commentaries from which the Judaism and Christianity of today are based cannot be defined by facts discovered out of context. Our two communities will always be challenged by the next new discovery which as a matter of course will counter our traditional point-of-view. Our faiths, observances, and theologies are not accumulated facts that will be changed when new facts are found.
The current legal battle over circumcision requires contemporary medical and legal thinkers to accept that this is a ritual that defies rational debate. The rational possibility or even necessity of marriage for Jesus, the Judean/Galilean teacher, is of little importance, because the Christ Jesus could not have married! Jews have to listen and learn from their Christian dialogue partners that arguing against a Christian’s religious values is not a valid act of 21st century religious pluralism.
“Yes,” the rabbi would say, “Of course Jesus was married!” But if the rabbi wants to understand how Christians must intellectually multi-task, having both a Jesus in history and a Christ beyond history, then listening might be the best tactic.