Jesus the Widower

Jesus the Widower April 12, 2014

In discussions of whether Jesus was married, two main options are usually considered.

One is that Jesus had never married. But in that case, it is objected, Jesus was rather unusual, and so it is surprising that this is never explicitly explained or mentioned.

The other is that Jesus was married. But in that case, it is objected, it is surprising that this is never explicitly mentioned, given the debates about marriage and discipleship.

A third option is rarely mentioned. But it is precisely the scenario which can account for the lack of any mention of Jesus’ wife or of his unusual bachelorhood.

That possibility is that Jesus was, by the time of his public ministry, a widower, one who did not remarry.

I suppose some overlook it, or if it occurs to them, they think, “Jesus raised the dead – how could he have been a widower?”

But taking Jesus seriously as a human being, who clearly did not and presumably could not simply prevent all deaths, and the mortality rates in general and for women in particular, this is an option that deserves more consideration than it usually gets.

What do blog readers think? Is this more likely than that Jesus was like Narendra Modi?

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  • Randy Hardman

    I find this just as unlikely as the notion that he was married for the same reason that the other two are often questioned, perhaps even more so: why was this not explained or mentioned? Being a widower–and I tragically speak from experience–alters your entire life in such a way that that person becomes central. You can chalk it up to God and this can still be a true thing, but the person and their significance–especially if the death is tragic–never become an unmentionable factor in what you do, especially if its caring for the hurting, diseased, and broken. If Jesus was a widower, I would greatly expect that she wouldn’t become a silent relic of his past but rather central to everything that he would do.

    The question is what makes better sense of the silence and at least from my vantage point of being a widower, the idea seems to make even less sense than the other two.

    • Thank you for sharing. I think it can be extremely hard for us to imagine how different the society in which Jesus lived was from our own. Women frequently get no mention even when they are alive – and so we get a mention of Peter’s mother-in-law because Jesus healed her, but no mention of Peter’s wife in the Gospels. That a woman who had died some time previously should not get a mention in these texts (which does not mean that Jesus never spoke of her, it must be emphasized) would be unsurprising in this context, alas.

  • Dr Denis O’Callaghan Ph.D.

    James, Interesting proposal. I had not considered that as a possibility before.

  • Neko

    I’ve been brooding about this very third option for the past few months. It might account in part for Jesus’s sympathy toward women. It would certainly add poignancy to Jesus’s edict “What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.”

    Maybe his life was even more tragic than we thought.

  • Michael Wilson

    Jesus vould have been a widower and had that occured earlier, I think it is possible that it never came up in Jesus’ teaching or peopkes discussions of him on any source that survied. I would say that any such marriage probably did not produce children that survied him, as that would likely have impacted the choice of his brother to succede him, though it is possible that he was estranged from any children he may have had.

    Another prospect, James, is that Jesus was to poor for a wife. If he was the son of a common laborer, it is not that unlikely that he never produced enough income to support a spouse, especialy if his own father died with dependent children. In the 1st century Classical world their was an unequal distribution of women in society. Many lower class women would have been funneled off to richer men who could have several wives or concubines. Further, given the scarcity of basic nessesities, I think a lot of women would choose prostitution in cities over marriage to itinerant country laberors. Even today, I imagine that the number of women from eastern europe that have been shifted to western europes sex industry abd the mail order bride trade must make it hard for poor eastern european men to find wives.

    Also I think we have to admit that Jesus was an unusual example of 1st century Judaism and given his interest in mysticism and prophetic movements, I think we have to concider the possibilities that he was influenced by the sort of thinking we find in some essene communities that practiced celibacy or that his time spent in religious study left him without the viable income to support a wife.

    • Wendybird

      It’s not unreasonable that a brother (James) would succeed Jesus in leading his movement rather than a child, especially if that child, male or female, was only about 10 years old at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion.

      • Michael Wilson

        You have a point, but I suspect that a child of the messiah boy or girl, youth or not, would make a bigger impact than the evidence allows for. We have a somewhat good tradtion that Jesus’ brothers mainted leading roles in Judea’s Christian community for a while and I find it hard to believe that his son or daughter wouldnt become a focal point of the movement.

        • Wendybird

          I’m not saying Jesus *did* have a child, I’m just supposing if he’d had a child, why James/ a brother would still have taken over the Jesus movement in Jerusalem.

  • Wendybird

    Four or five years ago this is exactly the discussion I had in an email exchange with an academic scholar of the historical Jesus and early Christianity. Odds are that Jesus was married at about age 20 like most young men of that culture. People who set off on a spiritual journey, calling or mission often have as a trigger a life-changing event. The loss of a beloved wife could very well have caused Jesus to pursue his spiritual journey, leading to discipleship with John the Baptist, time spent in the wilderness (maybe years, not days, and maybe in revers order?), and ultimately as a teacher in his own right with his own disciples, embarking on his own mission/public ministry of inaugurating the Kingdom of God.
    Also, in response to Randy Hardman’s take, that the death of a wife earlier in Jesus’ life would have made her the center of his life, rather than God. I understand that sentiment/perception. But Jesus was also very spiritual and enlightened (full of the light and spirit of God). Having experienced a perhaps lengthy spiritual journey of about 10 years, and having encountered the mystical, real love of the Father, I think Jesus would have transcended that emotional attachment and loss (they are 2 sides of one coin), realizing in the unity of God’s love, she had never been truly separated from him by death (death is a conquerable illusion). That relationship of beloved spouse is ever present, but Jesus’ consciousness would have expanded greatly beyond that relationship to encompass all of Israel, even all of humanity. We are to love our enemy, because our enemy is also the image of God, and hence us. All is one. Jesus is our elder brother, and all humanity are God’s children.
    If Jesus was truly 100% human as well as divine in revealing God to us through himself, then marriage is an important part of experiencing what it means to be fully human. I find it very plausible that Jesus was a widower who chose not to remarry. I am looking forward to reading Anthony Le Donne’s “The Wife of Jesus” — he posits just this, that Jesus had been married earlier but may have lost his wife in childbirth or in some other manner. I was delighted to see a scholarly work on just this topic that I argued several years ago.

    • Neko

      Odds are that Jesus was married at about age 20 like most young men of that culture…The loss of a beloved wife could very well have caused Jesus to pursue his spiritual journey, leading to discipleship with John the Baptist, time spent in the wilderness (maybe years, not days, and maybe in revers order?), and ultimately as a teacher in his own right with his own disciples, embarking on his own mission/public ministry of inaugurating the Kingdom of God.

      That’s exactly what I’ve been thinking!! After holding out all these years I finally watched the deplorable Passion of the Christ, and it got me wondering about alternatives to the emotive ciphers who stand for women in Jesus movies. Yes, Jesus losing a wife, possibly in childbirth, could have been the catalyst for what eventually developed into a prophetic calling. Wow.

  • Joshua Smith

    This is pretty close to the theory advanced by Anthony Le Donne in his book The Wife of Jesus: Ancient Texts and Modern Scandals (OneWorld, 2013).

  • AAG

    I’ve wondered about the widow(er)hood possibility for Jesus and some of his followers (both male and female).

    However, are you (or anyone else reading this blog) familiar with Michael L. Satlow’s book “Jewish Marriage in Antiquity”? In the book he makes the case that it was actually pretty typical for Jewish men in Jesus’ day/culture to wait until their late 20s/early 30s to marry. The book can be previewed on google books, and I’d recommend checking out page 106 in particular. It’s pretty compelling. It also kinda makes sense of John 8:57, in which “the Jews” appear to be ridiculing Jesus for his youth. A 30-year old Jesus, rather than being perceived as a middle aged and experienced family man, was still a young/eligible bachelor.

    • Andrew Dowling

      I haven’t read the book, but this seems slightly implausible. The life expectancy of most people in the 1st century was probably around 60 or so. That the average Jewish man would’ve waited that long (basically at mid-life) to start a family . . you don’t see that as the norm in ANY other culture I’m aware of save our modern, Western one in the last 15-20 years, and our life expectancy is significantly greater.

      • AAG

        But remember, a woman’s window for childbearing isn’t that great, and it was even shorter in a day and age before modern fertility treatments. If a 30-year old man married a 15 year old girl/woman, she would already be 35 and past her peak childbearing years by the time he was 50. What would a man gain from marrying younger and having to remain married to an older infertile woman for so long? A man might feel it is more proper to invest his youth to accumulating resources than being married.

        Philo of Alexandria said a man reached his “season for marriage” at age 35 (“On the Creation” XXXV). I really feel like this whole idea that the ancients valued early marriage for men is being oversold.

        • Andrew Dowling

          I’d imagine Philo was talking more about a philosophical ideal than the majority practice of Jewish men. Death was much more of a regular, unexpected occurrence 2000 years ago. Wars, uprisings, natural disasters, drought, disease, . . .mortality rates were simply much much higher than today. It would make no sense for a 1st century Jewish man to wait so long to marry and sire offspring when by 35 there was a fair chance (a minority % but a significant one) he would not be alive.
          Also in terms of accumulating resources, in a largely agrarian society children were the most important resource. One would’ve wanted to start fairly “early and often” in order to both have assistance with work and also to have a legacy to pass onto.

  • Jon Altman

    My maternal grandfather was a childless widower when HE turned 30. His first wife had died in childbirth-and that was in 1925. An “argument from silence” will always be difficult to establish, but it’s worth pondering.

  • From Jeremiah 16:2, we know that the prophet Jeremiah was commanded not to marry and have children, with the reason being that destruction on the land was soon to come. If, as many scholars think, Jesus also believed that destruction was soon to be visited on Israel, it would make sense that he also believed that he should not marry. If we add to this the view that Jesus believed that he was destined to die an early, violent death, we can see further reason why he would choose not to marry. Thus, given the silence on the existence of his wife, I see no strong reason to think that Jesus was married or a widower.

  • brianleport

    It seems possible, though maybe impossible to verify. Joseph seems to have quietly disappeared from the narratives of the Evangelists by the time of Jesus’ public ministry, so it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine other important people would have been deemed simply irrelevant for telling the story of that part of Jesus’ life.

  • Ronald Slyderink

    There is not enough evidence from Scriptures to determine with any certainty whether Jesus was married, only speculation.

  • arcseconds

    If he was married, and known to have been married, then where does the notion that disciples ought not to be come from? It’s hard to see how this could possibly get off the ground if the divine Jesus had been married, especially as it’s never been a problem in Judaism, and in fact my understanding is that it was expected for priests to marry, as it is now expected for rabbis to do so. ‘Our Lord was married, therefore it must be OK’ seems like a knock-down argument here, and the most plausible source for the idea that chastity is virtuous would seem to be Jesus being chaste.

    Or if not exactly the source, which could conceivably be Paul’s hang-ups, then at least an important and early argument for it.

    I submit that he was actually divorced. This would explain why it’s never mentioned either way, as it’s deeply embarrassing, and it also explains the anti-marriage ethos. It’s the longest-ever “I’m through with women!” 😉

  • John MacDonald

    It’s interesting how many of the great geniuses like Jesus never married. Among the Philosophers who never married, there were: Plato, St Augustine (“grant me chastity, but not yet”) fathered an illegitimate child, but then became a celibate priest. Aquinas and the philosophers of the middle ages were all churchmen. In the 17th and 18th centuries, virtually all of the canonical figures were domestically unconventional. Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Adam Smith, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant and Bentham all went unmarried. More recently, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre and Wittgenstein were all unmarried and childless. Maybe there is a connection between brilliance and not seeing marriage as particularly important.