The discovery of an ancient piece of papyrus, now known as the "Gospel of Jesus' Wife," has reignited debate over whether Jesus was married.
A year ago I helped lead a Jewish-Christian study tour to Israel. One of the highlights was a visit to Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity.
There, in the famed grotto, I gazed at the 14-point star installed on the spot where it is believed Jesus was born two millennia ago.
And I had an odd, almost sacrilegious thought—for a Protestant Christian. Why 14 points on the star? Well, I thought, maybe they stand for the 12 tribes of Israel plus Jesus plus, uh, Jesus' wife.
Wait. Jesus had a wife?
Probably not. But as Mike Graves, a theology professor at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Missouri, says about the idea that Jesus was married, "There's nothing to contradict that claim in Scripture, no reference to his being celibate per se."
This whole topic was stirred up some months ago when Harvard scholar Karen L. King displayed at a conference of Coptic scholars in Rome what she said was a fragment of a fourth-century gospel. The papyrus contained the phrase: "Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …'"
Since then many experts have raised doubts about whether the tiny piece of ancient writing is authentic. Indeed, Francis Watson, a New Testament scholar at Durham University in England, posted an online paper (http://markgoodacre.org/Watson2.pdf) in which he asserted that the text is a fraud, patched together from words in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas.
But let's ignore the question of authenticity. Instead, let's think about whether it matters if Jesus was married.
First, would being single have made Jesus an oddball among 30-something first-century Jewish males?
"Celibacy in first-century Judaism was by no means anomalous," says Amy-Jill Levine, an Orthodox Jew who teaches New Testament at Vanderbilt and is author of The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus. "There are attestations of (celibacy) in the Dead Sea Scrolls and in Philo's description of the Therapeutae (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Therapeutae), an idealized Egyptian Jewish community of celibate Jewish men and women. Paul commends the celibate life in 1 Corinthians (7). And the Book of Revelation (14:4), which has a strong Jewish background, celebrates the 144,000 male virgins."
So it wouldn't have been weird that Jesus was single. But why is the notion that he might have been married so intriguing and, for many, off-putting?
Says Graves: "I think whatever resistance modern Christians might have (to Jesus being married) … can be attributed most directly to our Gnostic tendencies. So many Christians today have wrongly embraced this ancient heretical tendency that values things of the Spirit and next world as more meaningful than things of the flesh and the present … Some early heretics, in an effort to extol Jesus' divinity, said that if he walked on the seashore, he wouldn't even make footprints. If no footprints, then we certainly can't have him married to a real woman."
Beyond that is the fierce need on the part of some to protect the Jesus depicted in traditional Christian creeds.
David May, who teaches New Testament at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Shawnee, Kansas, puts it this way: "If Jesus were married, one theological anxiety is: How could he be the Messiah or Son of God? There seems to be some feeling that Jesus' role and ministry would be diminished if he were married."
Mark Noll, a renowned evangelical scholar, author, and historian who teaches at Notre Dame, adds: "People get excited over such matters because these assertions seem to distort, dislodge, or disprove some aspect of a Whole that they regard as their Faith, which is what they base their life upon."
And Prof. Beverly Roberts Gaventa of Princeton Theological Seminary offers this thought about why a married Jesus might make some Christians uncomfortable: "For most Protestants, I suspect that what is at stake is more a set of unexamined assumptions; we've just never thought about Jesus as married and it's hard to change how we think."
Don't, in other words, challenge my view of the way things are. Or at least the way I have been taught they are. (The papal inquisition of Galileo for his research proving that the Earth revolved around the sun comes to mind.)
The Catholic Church, plus a few smaller branches of Christianity, of course, has created rules about having a celibate priesthood based at least partly on a belief in an unmarried Jesus. As Gaventa says, "For some Christian traditions, the celibacy of the clergy is modeled on the celibacy of Jesus. If it were clear that Jesus was married, then his marriage might open up the question of clerical celibacy."
So the Catholic Church has special reasons for debunking the idea of a married Jesus.
Duke Tufty, senior minister at Unity Temple on the Plaza in Kansas City, Missouri, thinks something else may have been at play: "The (early) church observed that many of its parishioners were leaving large sums of money to the priests and their families when they died instead of to the church. The solution was an easy one. Every priest was forbidden to marry; each had to take a vow of poverty; and priests had to be celibate. Why? Because that's what Jesus was, they claimed."
At the same time, many scholars seem to feel it doesn't much matter if Jesus was married.
One exception is former Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong. In his book Born of a Woman, he asserts that Jesus may have been married to Mary Magdalene—a fact that holds significant implications for women and women's rights.
In that book, Spong says the story of the virgin birth has helped create an unhealthy perspective on women. By dismissing a literal reading of that part of the story, Spong is free to offer his preferred "midrashic" (think: imaginative retelling of old stories) approach to the biblical text. That approach yields all sorts of possibilities, including Jesus being married to Mary Magdalene. As Spong writes, "Once you enter the midrash tradition, the imagination is freed to roam and to speculate."
Noll says he doesn't care whether Jesus was wed:
"As a Protestant Christian … it makes no difference to me at all … As a historian, I'm skeptical about ‘eurekas' in general but … even in the improbable case that this speculation proves to be credible, so what?"
Some are concerned because "the bride of Christ" has typically referred to the universal church itself—not a flesh-and-blood woman.
Leroy Huizenga, director of the Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota, pointed to this in an article (http://bit.ly/OHjjGj) in the journal First Things: "Scripture and Tradition affirm that the Church is the bride of Christ who surrenders sexuality (Catholics believe) so that he might pour out all his divine love upon his Church in a covenant relationship reconsummated … in every celebration of the holy sacrifice of the Mass."
But Catholic biblical commentator Patricia Datchuck Sanchez, who regularly writes for the National Catholic Reporter, suggests that the focus on whether Jesus was married or single misses the point.
"None of the canonical New Testament authors thought it significant enough to mention Jesus' status," she says. "Whether married or single, the message and mission of Jesus would be the same. Granted, given Jesus' transient lifestyle and absolute dedication to his mission, it may be that he, like Paul, chose to forego the joys and comforts of married life so as to be single-heartedly given to the service of others. However, rather than speculate about the unknown and inconsequential in order to press an unrelated agenda, we may better direct our efforts at attending to the daily challenge of integrating the truth of Jesus' teachings with the lives that we lead."