Did Jesus have a wife – and does it matter?

Short answers: probably not, and not hugely.

Now for the longer answers if you’re interested…

So we’ve probably all heard about the recent discovery of a papyrus fragment that’s being called the ‘Gospel of Jesus’s wife’, based on its inclusion of the words “Jesus said to them, ‘my wife…'” (in Egyptian Coptic). Initially expert papyrologists proclaimed it to be genuine, though now other scholars have thrown doubts on its textual authenticity. Either way the fragment is only a 4th-century copy of what’s thought to be a late 2nd-century ‘gospel’, hardly making it an early eyewitness source.

All of which means that even if the fragment is genuine, it doesn’t provide any reliable first-hand evidence as to Jesus’ marital status. It just shows that the speculation over whether Jesus might have been married goes back to possibly within 100-150 years of his death. The suggestion that Jesus was married is hardly new – we just hadn’t realised it was that old.

Of course, there have been plenty of other speculations and suggestions about Jesus over the years: that he was gay, or that he was entirely fictional, or even that he was not really human at all – an alien, an angelic being, an apparition or an Ascended Master. None of these alternative versions (including his alleged marriage) have ever been mainstream views accepted by the majority of historians, scholars or theologians. Nor have any of these ideas ever had more than the flimsiest supporting evidence.

The possibility that Jesus may have been married particularly fascinates people, partly just because it makes a great story – as famously realised by Dan Brown. Whether we view Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God or just as a great teacher and healer, the idea that he might have had an earthly romance and possibly even human offspring (i.e. that he may have HAD SEX!) is exciting, shocking, even scandalous. It also of course makes Christ more human and like us – which is perhaps the best and only theological argument for Jesus having been married.

The identity of Jesus’ supposed wife sadly isn’t disclosed in the papyrus fragment. These days, Mary Magdalene is the usual candidate – largely on the basis of her being the first to see the risen Jesus, and her conjectured connection with the woman who poured perfume on Jesus’ feet in Luke 7:37-38, plus some ambiguous references in various apocryphal or Gnostic gospels.

Arguments for Jesus having been married

Some have argued that it would have been highly unusual for a Jewish rabbi at the time not to have been married, and that it would have incurred remark. They therefore see the lack of mention of Jesus’ marital status as evidence that he was in fact married. I don’t know whether they’re correct about this, but either way it seems a little too much like an argument from silence to me. It would seem far more surprising to me if he had been married and it had never once been mentioned throughout the gospels or epistles.

Some argue that Jesus couldn’t have been fully human if he hadn’t experienced a marital/sexual relationship or been a parent. However, by that argument, if Jesus didn’t (say) have a physical disability, or have to care for an elderly parent, then he also couldn’t be fully human. So while I do have some sympathy with the argument, I don’t think it really holds water.

There’s also the somewhat inconclusive evidence that most of Christ’s apostles were married. Paul once complains, “Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas?” (1 Cor 9:5). This obviously doesn’t prove anything either way though; it just shows that celibacy wasn’t the norm for Christ’s first followers, nor was it a requirement of spiritual leadership or authority. So Christ could have been married, but that doesn’t mean he was.

Why it doesn’t matter (much)

So does it actually matter at all whether or not Christ was in fact married, to Mary Magdalene or someone else unknown?

I’d say it maybe matters a little, but not hugely. It matters slightly more than his hair colour or astrological birth sign, but it’s certainly not of central importance either way.

It matters a little theologically because the Church is the true Bride of Christ. Of course, this is in a symbolic or spiritual sense rather than a literal or physical one. Nonetheless, some would argue that if Christ were married his physical wife would somehow take precedence or priority over the rest of humanity. It seems to me that this objection is dealt with by Jesus’ own teaching that there is no marriage in heaven.

Related to this, whether or not Christ was married may also have some implications for the celibacy of the priesthood (depending on your theology, as Catholics and Protestants have very different notions of priesthood). For Catholics, priests represent Christ to the people and so (like him) they should be celibate, ‘married’ only to Christ (or to their flock, or the church). However, in the early church the requirement for elders was that they be the husband of just one wife (i.e. not polygamists, or just not adulterers, depending on translation of Titus 1:6). You could possibly read back from this to a view that Christ was also married, but Paul had a rather different understanding of priesthood and that doesn’t seem to have been his implication at all.

Other objections against Jesus having been married are that it would have been a distraction to his ministry, and that it would have also implied some favouritism during his earthly life. I don’t see these as weighty objections. However, it does seem a little unlikely to me that Jesus would have married, knowing as he did what he would have to do and that within a very short time he would leave his wife a widow (and any children fatherless). Unlikely, but not impossible – after all, he called all of his friends and followers to make great sacrifices.

Finally, some simply react against the idea that Jesus might have had sex, objecting that this would soil him with a degree of ungodly concupiscence or lust. I think it’s highly unlikely that he did have sex, but I don’t see that there would be anything inherently wrong with him doing so within marriage – quite the contrary. We need to accept that Jesus was fully human, with all that that entails, including sexual organs and sexuality (whether physically expressed or not). It’s an uncomfortable thought for many of us, but we need to get away from an Augustinian view that sex is inherently tainted and tainting.

God’s grandchildren?

And what of the idea that Jesus may have had children? Along with the sex, this of course is what most excites sensational novelists and conspiracy theorists. Is there a secret bloodline of Jesus continuing to this very day, perhaps holding secret positions of influence in the world?

Well, again if we knew that Jesus had married we couldn’t rule out the possibility of physical offspring and descendants, some of whom might still be alive today. But firstly, Jesus always made it totally clear that he considered his ‘true’ family (mother, brothers, sisters) to be his spiritual family – those who put their trust in him and followed his ways (see Luke 8:19-21). For Jesus, his own human blood-ties were never of primary significance.

And secondly, Jesus’ power and authority came from his spiritual union with the Father; they weren’t inherent in his genes or cells. The human ‘part’ of him (however we understand that) was fully and only human, not superhuman with x-ray vision and laser eyes. So any blood descendants of Jesus would have neither special status nor special powers (spiritual or otherwise). Above all, they certainly wouldn’t be some kind of secret ruling elite – that would go against everything Jesus did and stood for.

What really matters

In the end we don’t know for sure whether or not Jesus was married. However, we certainly don’t have a shred of reliable contemporary evidence that he was, and on the whole it seems fairly unlikely. Whether or not he was married is undeniably interesting, but it isn’t of any huge spiritual or theological importance.

What really matters is whether or not Jesus was who he said he was – the Messiah, God’s chosen and anointed king, the divine Word made flesh – and whether or not we ourselves do anything about that.

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Bible, Controversies, Heresy/blasphemy, Liberalism, Religion, Theology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Did Jesus have a wife – and does it matter?

  1. Great article, well argued. What struck me from the minute I first read the news of this papyrus fragment, was how people were so keen to grab these six words, completely out of context, and jump to conclusions about what they mean. The argument about whether or not it’s true that Jesus was married might quickly become totally redundant if we could read the rest of the passage.

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    • Thanks very much! Yes, I totally agree – the full sentence might say something like ‘And Jesus said to them, “My wife is the church”‘ (rather like he says in Luke 8:21 “My mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice”).

      But of course if the fragment isn’t genuine, or is from an apocryphal/gnostic gospel, or just isn’t that early a source, it doesn’t really carry much weight even if it does turn out to say something like ‘My wife is Mary Magdalene’… or maybe ‘My wife would like a bottle of wine for her birthday’. 😉

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