What would it mean if Jesus had been married?

What would it mean if Jesus had been married? September 20, 2012

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.

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  • Jurgan

    Good point.  Of course, the term “disciple Jesus loved” is used only in John, which some speculate is an egotistic way for John to refer to himself.

  • Carstonio

    I appreciate Fred’s take on the issue, because I remember the more hysterical reactions to The Da Vinci Code. These were either “OMG he’s attacking religion!” or “Ha ha, your bible is a bunch of lies!”

    In a patriarchal church, Mary serves as a kind of abstract ideal of the sort of woman that the patriarchy can tolerate.

    I’ve read that veneration of the female image is common in patriarchal cultures, particularly the power of females to bear children. Perhaps that’s from male resentment of that power, or else the veneration allows the males to rationalize their treatment of females or soothe their consciences.

  • Carstonio

    I had to read your first sentence twice to be sure you weren’t identifying yourself as an aromatic non-Christian. I immediately imagined colognes marketed to atheists.

  • It would be kind of funny if his carpentry was crap, but the horrible products thereof were still holy relics of some kind. Like some sad, lopsided chair given pride of place in a grand cathedral adorned with gold. 

  • This would seem to make the core religious book of millions into the Adam Sandler comedy ’50 First Dates’. 

  • “One does not simply….FIST the Virgin Mary!”

  • EllieMurasaki

    In a patriarchal church, Mary serves as a kind of abstract ideal of the sort of woman that the patriarchy can tolerate.

    That explains so much. Virgin? Not mother! Not good enough! Mother? Not virgin! Not good enough! Married woman, not yet mother? Tolerable provided there’s either intent to become a mother or eternal grief at inability to be a mother. In either event: not good enough! Unmarried and not virgin, or neither virgin nor planning to be a mother? OUT DAMNED WHORE.

    I’m not sure where a virginal adoptive mother would fit into this. Probably ‘not good enough!’ because if she’s married, why is she a virgin, and if she’s single, why is she a mother, and God forbid she be virginal on the technicality that her sex partner either hasn’t got a penis or hasn’t stuck it in her vagina.

  •  Ah.  Okay.  I didn’t realize that we were trying to make Joseph young *and* Mary a virgin. 

    ‘Cause when you said, “The Perpetual Virginity idea wasn’t made Official Catholic Doctrine until the 19th century though,” I assumed that up until then it was okay for Mary to have had sex. 

    I’m a Protestant. We are taught that the Perpetual Virginity is current RCC doctrine but not how long it has been so. 

    FWIT, I was taught that Mary and Joseph were sexually active on Matthew 1:25, “But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son” (NIV).  The Bible doesn’t say that they never consummated their marriage; just that they didn’t until after Jesus was born.

  • maggiekb

    That is the set-up for either a HILARIOUS comedy or a really depressing drama. 

  • EllieMurasaki

    FWIT, I was taught that Mary and Joseph were sexually active on Matthew 1:25, “But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son” (NIV). The Bible doesn’t say that they never consummated their marriage; just that they didn’t until after Jesus was born.

    Next question: why not? Sex is perfectly possible during pregnancy. Gets more awkward the bigger the baby bump is, but not even a gargantuan baby bump actually rules out sex. (Woman lies on side, man enters from rear. Or the blasphemous suggestion of having sex that doesn’t involve connecting penis and vagina.) Did anyone around the Mediterranean, at any point between sometime BCE and when Matthew wrote, hold the belief that a baby is or could be related to any man who’s had sex with the mother at any point up till the baby’s birth?

  •  From Earth (The Book): A Visitor’s Guide to the Human Race:

    The questionable workmanship of the Holy Spice Rack suggested that Jesus’s first miracle was getting hired as  a carpenter

    This captioned a rather slipshod wooden frame with one side much higher that the other. Holding myrrh, frankincense, and paprika. I’m pretty sure two of those are not usually eaten.

    Here’s hoping Disqus doesn’t eat my formatting.

  • Or perhaps a benzene molecule. ;)

  • Silly_pl4c3

    Are there compelling reasons that this fragment couldn’t simply be a random text about some random other Jesus? It’s not like it was an extremely uncommon name…

  •  Hold on to your hat, because I know this one. According to catholic tradition, before the fall, women were equipped with an, irm, retractable, irm, uh, “gate”. Mary, having been born without sin, was issued the original factory-spec hymen, rather than the cheap aftermarket knock-off the rest of womankind gets.

    (There is an anecdote about St Ignatius of Loyola in which he meets a Moor while on his way somewhere, andthey get into an argument over the perpetual virginity of Mary. The moor could accept that Mary had been a virgin when Jesus was conceived, but refused to accept that her virginity (Insert disclaimer about ‘virginity’ meaning something different to them than it does to people who aren’t medieval and wrong) could have remained intact after delivery.  Unable to think of a good counterargument before they came to the crossroads where their paths diverged, Iggy left it to his horse to decide whether he would continue on to his destination, or follow the moor and attempt to kill him, probably dying himself in the attempt, as the Moor was rather a lot bigger and more fit than he was.  The horse wisely chose to let the matter drop.)

  •  Sex is perfectly possible during lots of times and under lots of circumstances that a couple in that time and place would have considered taboo.

    Or maybe she just didn’t feel like it. Some women don’t like having sex while they’re pregnant.

  • Isabel C.

     Well, pretty aromatic at the moment, too: bridesmaid favors included a bottle of “Dark Kiss” body mist, which is awesome.

    But that would also be kinda cool.

  • banancat

     I don’t know much about specific groups in history, but there have been some cultures that believed sex during pregnancy could contribute “extra” paternity so it’s not out of the question.

    However, I always assumed that Mary and Joseph didn’t have sex until after Jesus was born because they weren’t married yet.  They weren’t married when Jesus was conceived; does the Bible say when they did actually get married?  Did they do it while she was pregnant or wait until after?

  • banancat

    Ok, I have a question for all the language experts out there.  Did “virgin” even have the modern meaning back in Mary’s time?  I thought that in many languages and cultures it simply meant an unmarried women and wasn’t so focused on the physical sex part of it.  Yes, I’m sure that it would have been assumed that Mary had not had sex since she was not married, but was the term “virgin” really focused on just sex?  For example, a woman wouldn’t necessarily be considered a virgin in the time between marriage and the consummation, right?  So even if Mary and Joseph never had sex, Mary still wouldn’t have been considered a virgin at the time because she was married.  Does anyone know the roots words that were used to describe Mary and what connotations they had at the time?

  • EllieMurasaki

    Don’t know, don’t particularly care, but the line from the Tanakh that Christians say is a Jesus prophecy foretelling the virgin birth? The word there just means ‘young woman’. No implication of sexual behavior whatsoever.

  • Anton_Mates

    Next question: why not? Sex is perfectly possible during pregnancy. Gets
    more awkward the bigger the baby bump is, but not even a gargantuan
    baby bump actually rules out sex.

    Perfectly legit according to the Talmud, too.  I believe it actually says that sex is a good idea toward the end of the pregnancy, because it helps get the baby out.  I don’t think there was any law against non-PiV sex with your wife; some rabbis thought it would cause various deformities, others diagreed.

  • My Jewish upbringing always told me: Jesus was probably married. An unmarried rabbi would have been a thing worthy of note, not the other way around.

  • Adam Pack

    Yes, the Uniate clergy in the east are allowed to marry, though they’re under the See of Rome. It’s an administrative rule, not a theological one, as I understand it.

  • LE

    I don’t get why it matters how old Joseph was?  The bible doesn’t say one way or another, although it’s implied that he’s older than Mary or at least died when she was still relatively young.  He doesn’t need to be elderly to have been previously married and have several kids already – he could have been all of 5-10 years older than her for that to work.  I get that him being elderly provides a convenient excuse for why they didn’t have sex, but I’m not sure why it’s required for Mary to remain a virgin?  I mean, when you’re dealing with stuff like a virgin that gets pregnant, a hymen that manages to stay intact after going through labor and birth, and angels dropping by with personal messages from the divine, it doesn’t seem like that big a miracle for her husband to be inspired to keep it in his pants.

    (Full disclosure – raised RCC, so we were always taught that Joseph was older, but no one ever implied that that was connected toMary’s virginity as far as I can recall.  Mainly I got the idea that that’s why Mary was widowed young).

  • PJ Evans

    Did they do it while she was pregnant or wait until after?

    I’d think, based on more modern customs, that they married pretty quickly. There’s really no reason to wait once the legal contracts are done.

  • Lori


    My Jewish upbringing always told me: Jesus was probably married. An unmarried rabbi would have been a thing worthy of note, not the other way around. 

    But he was never a rabbi in any formal sense. He was a homeless guy who talked about God, not the same thing at all and not exactly subject to the same expectations.

  • Tricksterson

    That’s uncertain.  He is referred to as “Rabbi” a couple of time.  That may have been a formal title or maybe not.  He also debated the scholars in the temple when he was only twelve.  Everyone assumes he followed his father’s profession but who knows?  It’s entirely possible that a gifted child like him would have been grabbed for training.

  • Lori

    There’s no indication that the the use of “rabbi” in those verses was anything other than his followers saying that he was their teacher. Getting into it with the folks in the temple one time does not a rabbi make, you know?

    It seems to me that if he had been formally trained as a rabbi someone would have mentioned it. I just can’t imagine that Paul wouldn’t have done so, for example.

  • EllieMurasaki

    He doesn’t need to be elderly to have been previously married and have several kids already – he could have been all of 5-10 years older than her for that to work.

    Way I understand it, Mary was thirteen. Maybe older, but not by a hell of a lot. And I don’t have the impression that men tended to marry before they were capable of supporting a family, so Joseph was probably twenty or older when he first married. I doubt he was younger than thirty when he married Mary. What was the life expectancy then for folks who survived childhood?

  •  I don’t know if we have statistics for Galilee – probably not. But one suggestive bit of data comes from the Romans. Roman law said that all the family property belonged, at least technically, to the oldest living man, father or grandfather or whatever. He could allow his sons to manage part of it, just as he could allow his slaves to manage part of it, but when push came to shove it was still his to control. He also, technically, had power of life and death over his sons and grandsons, even if they were adults.

    Sounds like a pretty untenable way to live, doesn’t it? It appears that one reason the Romans put up with this structure as long as they did is that very few grown men had living fathers. Married around twenty-five or thirty, dead by forty or fifty at best seems to be the pattern – not for everyone, but for most people. (And, of course, many of them didn’t live to be thirty. Many of them didn’t live to be five years old. But that’s a different kind of issue.)

  • LE

    Oh, I’m sorry, that’s not what I meant to imply – I realize that statistically, in that culture, Joseph would have been at least 10 years older than her, if not significantly more.  My point was simply that there’s no logical  reason for him to need to be elderly (and therefore somehow uninterested in or unable to get it up – which is a stupid assumption to make about older men) in order for him to be a widower with other children.

  • firefall

    I met this guy in Bethlehem who promised to sell me some of Jesus’ original chairs and tables, I can get you hooked up with him if you like :)

  • firefall

    That’s surely an apocryphal anecdote – Loyola is possibly the most intransigent and fanatical of ‘saints’, and him letting a Moor get the better of a religious argument without resorting to violence seems massively unlikely.

  • This is why he needed the horse as an excuse. Obviously *he* would never do such a thing, but if the horse clearly indicated that he should not pursue, that was obviously a sign from God, and Iggy would never ignore such aa direct sign from God. (The anecdote is in his autobiography, I think, and it very much has the character of “And I *totally* would have given that guy whatfor and was totally not chickening out or anything, it’s just that this was clearly divine intervention and also I had a headache.”)

  • The_L1985

    The whole perpetual virginity thing is oen of th0se weird Catholic doctrines that was commonly-held belief for centuries before being officially encoded, largely due to the medieval belief that All Sex Is Evil.

  • The_L1985

     From what I heard, the ancient definition of “virgin” included the modern definition of “virgin” in many places, simply because the females were married off at puberty and thus were unlikely to have an opportunity for premarital sex.

    But, yeah, Mary’s “virginity” is never clearly defined by modern standards.

  • P J Evans

    elderly (and therefore somehow uninterested in or unable to get it up – which is a stupid assumption to make about older men)

    My mother told me about a family dinner at my father’s parents’ house. In the kitchen afterward, the women were talking, and one of the other daughters-in-law asked if men ever get too old for sex. My grandmother answered ‘When I find out, I’ll let you know.’ This had to have been in the 1950s, when she was about 70.

  • Joshua

    2.  Most of the NT was written in the 2nd century.  The only books we can definitively prove were written before 100 CE are 7 of Paul’s epistles. 

    I disagree, and am confused by what “definitely prove” could practically mean with respect to ancient history. No archaeological attestation of Paul’s letters has been discovered from the first century as far as I know.

    Earlier last century, gospel dates often stretched out even into the third century, but we have concrete evidence (as in, actual bits of papyrus with gospel text written on them) that kinda blows that out of the water. John is pretty universally regarded as the last canonical gospel written, even by such scholars, but the earliest papyrus for it is Ryland’s P52, dated in the first half of the second century, indicating that John’s Gospel was written and already spread across a chunk of the Middle East by then.

    So I’d pretty confidently put all the canonical gospels and the genuine Pauline letters in the first century. And therefore Acts – people may disagree with whether the author was the Luke mentioned in Acts, but it is pretty universally held these days that Acts and Luke had the same author, on the basis of literary style and vocab.

    John’s Revelation, usually thought to be one of the latest books of the New Testament, must surely have been written during the persecution it describes, otherwise why bother with the circumlocutory language to hide what is really being talked about? So I, with most theologians I think, put it during the reign of Domitian, who died in 96. (Not ’96. Yes I still find that joke funny.)

    Basically, I think that the whole New Testament was written in the first century except for letters written pseudopigraphically (ie, not by the person identified as author in the text.)

    3. The Bible wasn’t codified until the 15th century.  We’ve been using the particular 27 NT books that we use mainly out of convenience.  There were dozens of gospels in the 1st century; most of them were later declared heretical. 

    Well it was codified, it’s just that Martin Luther changed it for protestants. Even that was a simple “change from list A to list B” with respect to the First Testament, but both lists had a history longer than a thousand years by that time. While there are certainly a lot of non-canonical gospels, I’m not aware of any dated in the first century, apart from the Gospel of Thomas, and even that only in a minority view (which I don’t hold, alas, it would have been fun.)

  • Joshua

    Does anyone know the roots words that were used to describe Mary and what connotations they had at the time?

    Matthew describes Mary as a παρθένος (parthenos) by quoting Isaiah 7:14, following the Septuagint translation. Luke does also, 1:27, but does not quote Isaiah that I can see. This word definitely seems to mean virgin in a sexual sense in Greek. Athene is both a παρθένος and an immortal god, so it can’t mean anything about age. (And my personal theory about why Mary had to be a perpetual virgin, as opposed to just a virgin until the birth of Jesus.)

    Isaiah, as EllieMurasaki points out, used the word עלמה, almah, which seems to mean “young or unmarried woman”, so the Septuagint translators seem to have mucked it up there.

    I think, but can’t remember the details of the top of my head, that both Hebrew and Greek have words to mean “young woman” and “virgin”. However, since in both cultures all young women were required to be virgins, I think they probably shared connotations and it is legitimately hard to tell, after so long, exactly how much “young woman” would imply “virgin” to someone from that culture.

    Maybe this accounts for the Septuagint translators’ confusion, or at least our confusion about their word choice.

  • Hawker40

    As my Grandfather said it…
    “As you get older, you notice your desire for sex decreases.  You first notice it right after they close the lid.”

    On another ocassion (said when he was in his late 70’s…
    “Desire doesn’t decrease, but ability does.  It hasn’t reached zero yet…”

  • The Lodger

    Agnostic Dior comes to mind…

  • P J Evans

    And the Vatican has now come out with their opinion: they think the entire thing is a fake.

    Well, they have to, or half of their doctrine on sexuality falls dead, including all of their talk of why celibacy is necessary.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Wonder what would happen if it were proven real. Not that I think it can be; even assuming Jesus was married, there simply aren’t enough (or any) contemporary records to prove anything. But I wonder.


    Well, they have to, or half of their doctrine on sexuality falls dead,
    including all of their talk of why celibacy is necessary.

    To reiterate from a few posts ago, the celibacy of the priesthood is not part of catholic theology. Unless the missing bit of the scroll said “My wife, and by the way I think having a wife is absolutely necessary for leadership roles in my church…” then Jesus being married does not actually pose a problem for the celibacy requirement.

  • dadomatto888

    At that time people married early and had many kids..no wife and no kids were very strange fenomena especially among Jewish …no need to talk about obvious routines, just look at how important were genealogies. What really is missing from the bible is everything unconvenient and not usable by religions. Control is everything,even in bona fide