In Search of Mrs. Jesus

All right, I referenced a couple of articles about this question last Friday, and it’s getting a lot of Internet and news action right now, so I’ll rush in where angels fear to tread and dive into the question of whether Jesus was married or not. The quest to know Jesus as He was means being open to any possibility, any proof, so there’s no reason not to explore this. Pondering the question can tell us a lot about ourselves and what we believe, so I think it’s worthwhile.

What the Gospels say

The New Testament Gospels say nothing about Jesus having a wife; we can read between the lines a bit and get some notion, but nothing conclusive.  There’s nothing in the non-canonical Gospels about Jesus having a wife either before the recent discovery. Matthew 19: 9-13 would sound rather strange coming from a married man:

“I say to you,whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) and marries another commits adultery.”  [His] disciples said to him, “If that is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” He answered, “Not all can accept [this] word,but only those to whom that is granted. Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so; some, because they were made so by others; some, because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it.”

However, this is right after a question about divorce and right before to Jesus telling his disciples to let the children come to Him, so the context doesn’t tell me much more about the intent of the passage. I won’t get into a Jesus Seminar style evaluation to deduce the likelihood this is an original quote or something put in His mouth by the Gospel authors or editors. It doesn’t prove anything about Jesus personally whether this is an original saying of His or not.

Personal aside: As a seminarian, I spent two months in the Holy Land as part of a Bible study; almost everyone in my group were priests, religious and seminarians. We visited a Bedouin museum in southern Israel, and the Bedouin said to us: “I understand that you do not marry or have children. This is a very good thing. I have three wives and eleven children.”

Back to business: St. Thomas Aquinas loved to walk around questions like this, looking at different arguments from each side to see what he could learn. Since I’m an occasional Thomist, let’s do that and see where it leads us. I make no claim to originality of any of these ideas, or that I’ve covered them all here. Feel free to skip the historical digression if you want, but I’d rather you didn’t.

Reasons for

The vast majority of Jewish males at Jesus’ time were married, particularly rabbis. Jesus’ parents would probably have made arrangements when he was a late teenager, betrothed him to a girl next door, and when Jesus got to the point he could support a household, they would have celebrated the union publicly with the village. Conjugal rights began with betrothal, so they could have started a family right away. We don’t know what Jesus did between the ages of 12 and 30; he could have had a completely normal life with a family of his own until he met John at the River Jordan.

Peter was married: we know because Jesus healed his mother in law. Other disciples were likely married as well, and it might be interesting to speculate on who was and who wasn’t. Why would Jesus be different?

There was a clear distinction between what men’s work and women’s work was, and all the tasks maintaining life like cooking, making clothing, and so forth were not only woman’s work, but so time consuming a man couldn’t do it and do justice to the work of teaching and study expected of a rabbi. or Jesus’ trade He inherited from Joseph. There aren’t many true Lone Rangers through history, unless you were rich enough to have slaves to take care of you, you needed to be married in the real world.

Jesus was fully human, and sex is part of being fully human. He would have had a normal sex drive and would need to express it. It would be unjust to think Jesus would indulge in illicit sex, to put it nicely. A key part of marriage is providing the “proper” avenue of sexual expression, and Jesus surely would have been proper.

The absence of mention of Jesus’ wife and possible children in Scripture probably meant they had no prominent role in the later Christian movement, unless you accept the possibility Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ wife. Since they had no special role in the message, had no essential insight, they would have been largely forgotten as most of the rest of Jesus’ family was. (I think we need to resolve the possibility of Jesus being married before we tackle Mary Magdalene as his wife.)

Early Christian leaders were generally ascetics who led radical lifestyles, and barely accepted marriage when it became clear Jesus’ return wasn’t immanent. When Christianity became legal and persecutions ceased, the “White Martyrdom” of the growing monastic movement was see as the highest ideal of faith by almost the entire Church. It was in the interest of the leadership to suppress the idea of Jesus being married, just as some radical ideas were suppressed in early Christianity.

Reasons against

Throughout history, a lot of people didn’t get married because they couldn’t afford it: it’s still true today. Jesus’ times were marked by a lot of people being thrown off their land and into less stable jobs, if work could be found. We don’t know what Jesus’ social status was exactly, but we know he wasn’t rich or part of the elite. His family could have started out middle class and sank in the economic stresses of the time. He and his family may have been too poor to contract a marriage when he came of age.

There were Jewish men and women at that time who lived a celibate lifestyle by choice: the Essenes. A better case could be made that John the Baptist was an Essene than Jesus, however, their teachings had a significant influence on early Christianity.  It probably wouldn’t have been that strange for a radical teacher with Essene sympathies to be unmarried.

Prophetic action that’s out of social norms was known throughout Biblical times. Hosea married a prostitute, Isaiah walked around Jerusalem naked, Jeremiah carried an ox yoke on his shoulders, Ezekiel laid on one side and John the Baptist lived in the desert on locusts and wild honey. Jesus was considered a prophet by many of his contemporaries, and did some things that were considered odd, like socializing with unclean and socially unacceptable people.

Scripture does talk about the women in Jesus’ company in multiple places, who not only took care of his needs and those of the disciples, but also provided support funds. If one was married to him, there was no reason to conceal this. Scripture also talks about other members of Jesus’ family where a wife could be mentioned, and doesn’t.

I don’t believe the early Church was organized enough to suppress a fact such as Jesus’ wife; enough different people were involved in creating the New Testament for such a bald fact as Jesus being married to be completely suppressed. Many things made it into Scripture that are internally inconsistent, and probably got there because Jesus did or said it and the authors felt they had to include it even if they didn’t understand how it fit.

Historical digression: At times, it seems that folks assume the Church arose as a fully functioning entity with tight control over doctrine from the beginning: this was not so, and the arguments over specific beliefs in the first centuries in mainstream Christianity bear witness to that. Once Christianity became legal, dissident Christians lost civil rights, however I don’t think enforcement was that universal since paganism endured (especially in the countryside) after it was outlawed in 395 AD, and there were Christians outside the Empire that could and did preserve unusual traditions and scripture (such as the Ethiopian Church). Arian Christianity competed for primacy for centuries, counted Roman Emperors as its members (perhaps Constantine himself) and outlasted the Empire in some places. (Aside: I think the Arian Christians could have accepted a married Jesus, if a valid tradition of that reached them.) Augustine was accused by some contemporaries of bringing Manicheanism into the Church, and Gnostic ideas hung around for centuries after the movements were suppressed. As Christianity went north, it absorbed a lot of local pagan practices, sometimes with permission from above. Paganism lasted in Europe until around 1000 when subdued by force of arms, and in some places it could be said most ordinary people were Christian in name only even past the Reformation.

The Popes didn’t have the last word in Church disputes regularly (especially political disputes) until after the mid 8th century, when a document called _The Donation of Constantine_ came out: the Popes before that were ordinary subjects to the Empire or Gothic Kingdoms until then, and at times disputes in the Church were frequently referred to the secular ruler even when he was an Arian Christian.  The Byzantine Emperors had to ratify the election of the Popes from the mid 6th to mid 8th centuries. The Iconoclast controversy of the 8th Century is a good illustration of the Pope’s influence but not his authority at that time: the Second Council of Nicaea was needed to settle the issue. The question of the Pope answering to a civil authority lasted until the 12th century, at least, since it was unclear if the Papal States were part of the Holy Roman Empire. The Bible as we know it wasn’t officially “voted in” until the Reformation and Trent.

Mandatory celibacy for priests in the Western Church was first legislated in the 12th century, and never for the Eastern Church. There is a long tradition of bishops being celibate, however in the first centuries there were many married bishops, even if most separated from their wives at consecration or were already widowers, so it would be reasonable to assume that a large part of the Church’s leadership in the first Centuries had a positive experience of married life.

So I think non-mainstream ideas that had some validity (or even proof) had a chance for broader preservation in the chaos of those times. We’ve undoubtedly lost a lot of facts about Jesus’ life over time, but I doubt we’ve lost anything important or essential. A theology of a married Jesus could have survived intact if it were True.

Back to topic: Jesus used metaphor extensively. At one point, He said that those who did the will of His Father were mother and brother and sister to Him. Even if He said something about a wife, and there were probably a few sayings that didn’t make the Canonical Gospels (a couple made it into Paul’s letters), there is no certainty He would mean it literally.

Canonical and non-canonical scriptures give Mary Magdalene a special role in early Christianity. Some call her the Apostle to the Apostles because she told them of Jesus’ resurrection. This role, even at its largest, would make her the equal of the Apostles in spite of the fact she was a woman, a radical thought. But it makes her a key follower of Jesus, not necessarily his wife.

Sex isn’t as essential to human existence as shelter, food or drink, no matter what any opinion may be. It is possible to live large stretches of time without sex, and even do so happily. The ramifications of this go beyond space available here, but Jesus’ didn’t live in the 21st century culture with the same expectations we do, and Freud’s ideas are pretty recent. The Romans and Greeks were known for being licentious, the Jews generally weren’t. We need to be careful in distinguishing between what’s necessary for life and what’s desirable. I wouldn’t want to live without music, but I admit it’s possible.

My points to ponder

First, I think this issue has to be considered in light of the question of when Jesus knew He was the Christ. If He didn’t know until He was an adult, such as the time of His Baptism by John, then the possibility of Jesus being married is more reasonable. Things could have happened for him as most young men of his day, and he easily could have been married with children by the age of 30. His wife and children could have stayed with his extended family in Nazareth when he went on the road and faded into history with them after the events of his life played out. However, the Gospels generally imply that Jesus always knew He was the Christ from the beginning, especially the Gospel of John. His parents, Mary and Joseph, are told before His birth that He was the Messiah. Jesus would have known the path of His life would be extremely difficult on a wife, and probably would have spared any woman the stress and ultimate widowhood, which was a terrible state at that time. If Jesus always knew He was the Christ, then the likelihood of Him being married is very small in my book, if not impossible.

Second, Christ loves each of us totally, completely, perfectly, as we are, from the beginning to the end. The Gospels do not record Jesus giving anyone special privileges, and playing favorites doesn’t seem to work with what we know and believe about Jesus. It’s tough to imagine Him being in a married relationship, intimate with one person in many ways exclusively, that’s different than His relationship with the rest of us.

Third, we tend to project ourselves on Jesus. It’s nothing to be especially ashamed of, it’s just how we are: we want to see ourselves in Christ, and we’re willing to go to some lengths to make Him like us. There’s two thousand years of history to demonstrate people can use the Bible to prove almost anything they want if they want to badly enough. The challenge of Christian living is to see Christ as He really was, as difficult as that can be, because the search for Christ is a great opportunity to grow and because we are called to imitate Christ, so knowing Him as He was is essential to this effort. Sometimes we need to recognize our desire to re-shape history and Christ to our wishes and work against it.

It wouldn’t destroy my faith or change my commitment to Christ as a Catholic Priest if it could ever be proven beyond doubt that He was married. The validation of Christianity is Jesus’ Death and Resurrection, pouring our His blood for us, His choosing us to be His family, sending us to be His presence in the world; the issue of Jesus having a wife doesn’t touch this.

It’s possible to find a healthy, balanced, complete human model of married life in Christianity without a married Jesus, in spite of the hostility of some Church Fathers to the institution. From the original vision of Man and Woman as joint stewards of Paradise, to Christ’s first miracle at the marriage at Cana, to Paul’s call for reciprocal relationships in his letters, it’s not hard work to find the ideal, especially if both parties are willing to check their egos at the door.  Not easy to live, of course, but it’s not easy to be a Christian in the first place.

A new parlor game

James F. McGrath suggests in Patheos we could fill in the blank of how the verse in the disputed Gospel could be finished ourselves. Sounds like fun to me. Tell you what, if you want to play fill in the blank, I’ll buy the first round and promise not to report you to your religious authority and/or parents:

Jesus said: “My wife______________”

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One comment

  1. Gerry Downs · · Reply

    Really good summary, Keith. Thanks for your input to a story that is making the rounds. I agree with you that married or not makes no difference in Jesus’ relationship with us and ours with him. The facts of Death and Ressurection are the most relevant to us.

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