Married or not?—how does Jesus relate to priestly celibacy and to Mary Magdalene?
Married clergy ain’t going to happen anytime soon. Papa Francis, disregarding the Amazonian crisis in light of more menacing problems, just took a tip from his predecessor, Paul VI. That pontiff was called “the Hamlet pope” (“to be or not to be”). His advice? Try to please everyone. By the way, that is the guaranteed recipe for failure. Don’t believe me? Just ask Paul VI and the aftermath of Vatican II.
The bishop in white isn’t going for women deacons despite many the female servant-leaders active in the earliest Jesus groups. We can talk about the reasonableness of that decision some other time. O, what fun we will have.
Married with Problems
But coming back to the idea of married male priests, wowzer. What a powder-keg! Ultraconservatives just blow up about it. But we already have, right now, priests who are male and married in the Latin Rite! And please don’t forget about all those other rites every bit as Catholic as the Latin one where married priests are the norm. And we also have a rich history going back to apostolic times of married servant leaders. So why is this such a non-negotiable?
We claim to be in ecumenical dialogue with the “O” Orthodox side of Christianity hoping for reconciliation… we “C” Catholics better get consistent quick! Priestly celibacy cannot be a Christian essential, folks. And authentic dialogue in the Body of Christ can never be, “You must CONFORM to US!” That attitude is suicide. And the numbers keep dwindling. You’d have to be Catholic to miss this kind of obvious.
But still a loud minority clamors: “If the Church allows priests to marry, this is the END OF THE WORLD!” And Jesus gets invoked as the model of all Roman Catholic priests. O, if only that were true. If only they were in persona Christi truly. If only they smelled of sheep like the good shepherd. Jesus was a lay man. He disdained Levites, Sadducees, and the Urban Elites who ran the sacramental show of his day.
But the left has its nonscholarly fantasies too. There is so much speculation purporting to be scholarly in the media for decades now about Jesus of Nazareth and Mary of Magdala. Were they married? Did they have children? Did the Church cover all of this up?
Many times such popular Western speculation that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene gets presented as historical fact that cannot be doubted. So given the disastrous pastoral response to our brothers and sisters in the Amazon, nothing-people like the Nazarene Jesus, I thought that it might be good to actually test this presumption and see if it holds up to reason and what we can know about the historical Jesus.
No American-style Marriages in Jesus’ Day
Taking a cue from the Context Group of Scholars, I should stress off the bat that Jesus is a first century Mediterranean Middle Eastern male. He’s not an American. This cannot be repeated enough. During his earthly life he wouldn’t think, behave, and speak like an American individualist. When imagining or talking about Jesus, many American Christians (Catholics included) tend to exaggerate Jesus in a Docetic way—that means to think of Jesus as God disguised as a human being. One could argue that this latest move by the hierarchy takes a cue from the Docetic playbook.
On the rare occasion that U.S. Christians (American Catholics included) do think of Jesus as being truly human, unfortunately, we tend to imagine him as a United States person, or someone congenial to our cultural values. If we are going to speculate whether or not Jesus the Middle Eastern male was, in fact, married, a sound starting point to do so would be in a manner that is culturally plausible.
The Middle Eastern part of the Mediterranean culture has not changed significantly in 4,000 years. In the Middle East (both ancient and modern), marriage is the fusion of the honor of two families. The partners are not self-selecting—the individuals merely represent the families. Moreover, marriages are arranged, commonly between first cousins (father’s brother’s daughter; or mother’s brother’s daughter, or some such relationship). Mothers privately arrange the marriage (usually not long after birth). Fathers announced it at puberty to the public.
Get the Culture Correct
So if we are talking about the MENA (Middle Eastern North African) personality Jesus of Nazareth getting married, we have to limit ourselves to what is plausible there, in his world, not in ours. Who would have arranged Jesus’ marriage? Jesus’ mother together with the other women in Nazareth, of course. But here we encounter a problem.
Married to Shame
Remember that historically and culturally speaking, Jesus’ origins were dubious, scandalous, and shameful. The people in Nazareth refer to the Markan Jesus as “son of Mary” (Mark 6:2-3)—this is against the Middle Eastern custom of identifying a son with his father’s name, for example, Sirach 50:27. Why would they identify Jesus with his mother’s name? That’s strange!
One culturally plausible reason is because they were not sure exactly why Jesus’ real father was. Again, Mary’s pregnancy was dubious, shameful. Catholics need to put aside over a thousand years of sentimentality and devotional freight when considering this. “Mark,” even though he doesn’t give an infancy narrative, seems to have preserved this bit of information that the villagers all knew that nobody was really sure WHO Jesus’ father was.
“Matthew” in chapters one and two DOES give us an account of Jesus’ origins and infancy—at it’s a Mediterranean tale of terror. The author of “Matthew” has to go to great lengths to calm his Mediterranean audience down as he relates Mary’s discovered pregnancy and Jesus’ shameful origins. Mary, a Middle Eastern woman, was found to be pregnant—think about the horror of that, for a moment.
Suspected Bastards Stay SingleAnd even in the Fourth Gospel, the document we call “John,” recalls Jesus’ shameful origins. There we see an interesting exchange in chapter 8 (vv 31-59) between Jesus and Judaeans concerning the topic of fathers, sons, and bastards. Basically the Johannine Jesus insults the Judaeans, saying, “You all can’t really be Abraham’s sons, because you don’t do the things Abraham did.” So he calls them illegitimate, an insult that gets you murdered in that part of the world. And Jesus’ interlocutors retort, “We are not bastards! We have one father, God!”
Then Jesus’ fellow Israelites in John 8 say basically “Look, we know your origins. Why are you telling us that we are not Abraham’s progeny? C’mon, Nazarine! We know something about you!” So, short and sweet, it was common knowledge that Jesus’ origins were dubious, scandalous, and shameful. The Gossip Network spread it everywhere, and people asked, Is he illegitimate? Who was his father? Wasn’t his mother pregnant early?
Taking this dishonorable status into consideration, ask yourself: what woman in Nazareth would want to arrange with Mary a marriage with her son of dubious and dishonorable origin? How would that bring honor to their families? Think also—what cousins were available for Jesus so that the fusion of honor between two families, i.e., Middle Eastern marriage, might happen (see the above video)? What was the advantage to each family in such a union? Again how would it increase their honor rating? If Jesus’ origins were “dubious,” what would another family gain from joining Jesus’ family?
Jesus the Social Deviant
Beyond this we have multiple attestation that Jesus appears to have committed Middle Eastern social suicide. Apparently, Jesus seems to have moved away from his home and kinship network in Nazareth, really the only place in which he COULD gain a wife. Since it is impossible for a Mediterranean to exist without a group, when Jesus died to his Nazareth-self, he joined up with the coalition of John the Baptist. To do something like that in the ancient Mediterranean is to be deemed a social deviant. But par for the course, right, considering his dishonorable origins?
Later, Jesus went to live briefly in the house of Jonah, Peter’s father, in Capernaum. This happened when John died. Ask yourself—How did Jesus then relate to his birth home and family and kinship network in Nazareth and his new home in Capernaum? How would he marry someone outside of his kinship network?
Considering carefully all of these things, don’t you think that on cultural grounds it is probable that Jesus was not married? How would the Middle Eastern Jesus take care of his wife and family with no connection to his own family of origin?
Turn off the Movies, and Think
People living today exposed to American culture are inclined to romanticize things with Jesus and see him as an American. A Bible scholar friend of mine, the late John Pilch, used to ask his university students each semester – “How many of you have read ‘The Da Vinci Code’?” All the hands went up. Then he would ask, “And how many of you have read the Bible?” Most of the time, no hands went up. Except fundamentalists.
To think of Jesus as someone asexual, or even antisexual (thank you Kitsch religious art) is an injustice to God’s creation of sexuality. It undermines the Incarnation and our salvation also. The Fathers teach us well: that which is not assumed, is not redeemed. Either Jesus is fully human, and was therefore a sexual human being, or we are not redeemed. Remove the sexual aspect of Christ’s humanity and you dump an essentially Christian basis for human redemption and salvation.
We Christians believe (or at least profess to believe) that Jesus is fully human. We often parrot this in verbal orthodoxy without soaking in its ramifications. What does it mean that Jesus is fully human? One of the things it means is that he had sexual desires and understood the sexual struggle in a human way. Sorry Augustine, but not all appetitiveness is evil or sinful.
It is not unreasonable to accept that Jesus subordinated (not “suppressed”) the genital expression of his human sexuality as he proclaimed the Theocracy (Kingdom of God). But let’s not kid ourselves—be human is to live our humanity in a culturally-specific way. The kind of marriage available to Jesus’ time was an ancient Israelite arranged kind, and since no elder did that for him in Nazareth, it was not a possibility for him.
Insights from a Catholic Priest
Taking a cue from the late Richard McBrien, I can think of three other arguments contra to the suggestion that Jesus was married:
The canonical Gospels, the pre-Gnostic Sayings Gospel of Thomas, “Q,” “M,” and “L” are all early and are silent about Jesus being married.
The earliest New Testament Jesus groups, even the widower Paul, seem to be against weddings due to their ardent expectation in the immanent arrival of the Theocracy. It’s not a second century anti-sexual recontextualization, but rather that Mediterranean weddings are taxing events, inappropriate in a time of Cosmic warfare and upheaval (which they expected in the forthcoming Parousia). But what if Jesus himself had been married? Perhaps this would have modified their views.
Paul invokes his right to take a wife “as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Kephas” (1 Corinthians 9:5). Okay… So why doesn’t Paul drive his point to home-base by appealing to Jesus’ own marriage? That would really support his argument! But he doesn’t. Why? Probably because Jesus was not married.
Marriage and Emotional Bonds
It’s important that American individualists understand that Jesus was not an American individualist/post modern/romantic person. The weakest emotional bond in the Middle East is that between husband and wife. Undoubtedly, Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a much stronger bond than that of married couples from their cultural world. In the Middle East, the strongest emotional bond is that between mother and first born son. It is only rivaled by that between brother and sister. And that, my friends, is probably how Jesus and Mary Magdalene related to one another in the Jesus Movement.
So some takeaways. Jesus wasn’t married, not because he had a vocation to be a Second Millennium Latin Rite priest. Likely he wasn’t married because of his shameful origins which prevented anyone arranging his marriage. Scream all you want about that, Romantics.
Our Church history is messy. Our understandings of human sexuality and clerical celibacy have been and continue to be messy. That’s okay. God works in the mess—such is the way of love. We don’t have to dump disciplines, but let’s listen to what the Spirit is saying to the Churches. Let’s not mistake disciplines for dogmas, and neither for God—the worst idolatry is a mental idolatry.