walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: October 17, 2012
Was Jesus Married?

Once in a while a more or less esoteric academic event is picked up by the media. This has happened in September following a gathering (of all places in Rome) of a scholarly association of Coptic studies. This must be a small and exclusive club. (It must be satisfying to belong. I’m a little envious. Sociological meetings are attended by thousands of people.) Coptic is an ancient language, derived from the Egyptian spoken at the time of the Pharaohs. It is still the liturgical language of the Coptic Church in contemporary Egypt (much in the news these days). But the main scholarly interest in Coptic studies concerns a sizable body of literature in that language, most of it emanating from Gnosticism, a diffuse religious and philosophical tradition which influenced and competed with Christianity in the early centuries of the common era.

At the aforementioned gathering Karen King, a historian of early Christianity at the Harvard Divinity School, reported on a recent finding which, understandably, quickly drew widespread media attention. The report concerned a very small papyrus fragment (described as “receipt-sized” in one story, “about the size of a business card” in another). It contains a total of 33 words, in incomplete sentences (the words are torn out from the original text). None of this would have excited anyone not professionally immersed in Coptic studies, except for two separate phrases: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…”. And “…she will be able to be my disciple…”.  Needless to say, for lots of people unrelated to Coptic scholarship this immediately evoked the association with Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code (2003) and the film based on it, which revolved around a fictitious source purporting to prove that Jesus had been married and the equally fictitious effort by a secret Catholic order to suppress this dangerous information.

Anyone wanting a succinct overview of this episode will find it in this release by Religious News Service (of course it was also splattered across the secular media).

As is to be expected, the original excitement wanes as one knows more about the document in question. King estimates that the text comes from a fourth-century Coptic translation of a second-century Greek source—that is it is dated around two centuries after the life of Jesus. This would be like, say, the publication of a page torn out of an unknown Russian newspaper from the 1930s, which seems to quote from a French article from the early 19th century, which seems to allege that Napoleon had an affair with the Queen of England. By all accounts King is a careful scholar: She asks whether her Coptic business card proves that Jesus was married, and answers that of course it does nothing of the sort. All it shows, she says, is that there were some Christians in the fourth century who may have thought so. (Even that is speculative: The “marriage” may be metaphorical—for example, referring to the frequent description of the church as “the bride of Christ”—and the female “disciple” may not be a wife.)

The question of how Gnosticism related to the shaping of what became Christian orthodoxy (mostly by the latter defining itself against the former) is a very interesting one, theologically as well as historically. King’s find almost certainly comes out of the large body of Gnostic writings. Partly because of some dramatic discoveries, such as the one in 1945 of the so-called Nag Hammadi Library in Egypt, we now know a lot about Gnosticism (some of it avowedly Christian, some not). It appears that Gnostic Christians were more open to women taking leading roles in the church. Another reputable scholar of Gnosticism, Princeton historian Elaine Pagels, has made this point in a number of her writings. (Incidentally she and Karen King were co-authors of a book about the Gnostic Gospel of Judas—Reading Judas, 2007.)  Feminists have of course picked up on this interpretation and used it as a counter-image of the alleged “phallocracy” of Christian orthodoxy. Roman Catholic feminists (some of them among the angry nuns that are currently upsetting the Vatican) have found this interpretation of early Christian history congenial in their advocacy for women priests. There is also a long history of the notion that Jesus was intimate with and perhaps married to Mary Magdalene.

Was Jesus married? I am not a historian, but it seems very improbable to me. It is not so much that there is no trace of this in the canonical New Testament—after all, if the philo-Gnostics are right, references to Jesus’ marriage would have been edited out of the Gospel sources. Rather, marriage (let alone parenthood) does not fit well with the picture we get from all the sources of an itinerant preacher announcing the cataclysmic coming of the Kingdom of God. Mary Magdalene as Jesus’ lover or spouse is as implausible as the “beloved disciple” in the role of Jesus’ gay partner (as has also been suggested). Jesus has been redefined many times for this or that ideological purpose—as nationalist symbol (Franco’s troops in the Spanish civil war went into battle in the name of Cristo Rey, “Christ the King”), as a successful capitalist salesman (in Bruce Barton’s 1925 bestselling novel The Man Nobody Knows), as a sort of premature Che Guevara (in Liberation Theology), and in many other disguises. As the record of the “quest for the historical Jesus” shows, he keeps escaping all these attempts at ideological entrapment.

Does it matter? The answer will obviously depend on one’s Christology, or lack of it. What will always remain at the core of the Christian faith is the astounding assertion that the God who created the galaxies was incarnate in a human infant born at a particular time, “in the days of Herod the king”, in a provincial corner of the Roman empire. I don’t think that anything discovered by historians can either support or falsify this assertion.

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  • John Barker

    The assertion I find most interesting in my reading is the claim that Jesus was a Jew and a strict follower of the Torah and never wanted to found a new religion.
    What do the historians say about this?

  • Kavanna

    The real question is, if married, who did the catering? :)

    The focus on Mary Magdelene as a possible wife of Jesus makes sense. Careful scholarship has laid to rest the idea that she was a prostitute. Rather, her last name almost certainly implies that she was from Magdala (modern Migdal) in the Galilee. She was probably simply a follower of Jesus. It’s likely that under other circumstances, she would have married Jesus.

    However, the nature of Jesus’ career and message make it unlikely that Jesus was married. He very probably spent time as an Essene in his late teens and/or twenties, precluding marriage at the otherwise normal age for that. His apocalyptic message and expectation made marriage pointless, as it was for the first one or two generations of Christians.

    Our conception of Jesus is blinkered by what happened later to Christianity, as it became part of everyday life, and apocalypse didn’t happen; and by the later near-monopoly of rabbinic Judaism on Jewish life in later antiquity. The excited expectation of a complete break in the normal order of things was forgotten.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    Reply to Kavanna
    Mary Magdalene is described from the town of Galilee as you state. But her name has many meanings.

    From the perspective of Roman occupiers circa 66- 70 A.D., any woman named “Mary” from Magdala would be a rebellious female. Mary meant “rebellious.”

    Did the Jesus portrayed in the Gospels marry the Jewish rebellion against Rome? Whoever wrote the Gospels wanted to make it clear that Jesus was a pacifist who paid taxes and had no part of the Jewish revolt against Rome, which was raging at the same time but is curiously never mentioned.

    These clues might assist us in deciphering who wrote the Gospels more than the question of concern to gender activists of today who seize on the inflated news that a scrap of paper may indicate Jesus was married.

  • Robert
  • kirk farrar

    What everyone here is overlooking is really as obvious as the nose on your face. Of course Jesus was married. Remember, he was a Jew, living amongst Jews at a time when EVERYONE was married. It was/is a tradition that is still common in many cultures today – arranged marriage. If Jesus was not married, he would have stuck out like a sore thumb. In my opinion, this (being single) would’ve hindered his sermonizing and his overall mission. He was one of the people, and, according to Scripture, drew large crowds wherever he went. Do you think he would have had such a dedicated following, especially from the twelve disciples who so ardently followed him, if he was considered some kind of weirdo who had never taken a wife? He would be considered a pariah in many parts of Jewish culture.
    When you think about it from a cultural point of view it is just common sense.

  • Gary Novak

    Although Robert is helpful in pointing to the latest report that the fragment is a fake, Berger’s post remains interesting and relevant. His purpose was not to draw our attention to an important new development in early Christian studies but to suggest that, because the Christ of faith cannot be derived from the Jesus of history, the activities of historians are not decisive for Christian faith. It is the forgers and “fact checkers” alike who are uninteresting in that realm.

    But even in the realm of empirical history, the knowledgeable person develops an immunity to fakery as his “hermeneutic circle” expands. “Facts” which are too discrepant with our existing broad-based knowledge are themselves suspect. So when Berger opines that an itinerant preacher focused on the imminent Kingdom of Heaven is not likely to be sharing domestic duties with Mary Magdalene, he is not denying that new evidence could falsify our understanding of Jesus in some respect. He is simply pointing out that not all hypotheses are created equal. Jesus’ marriage is a long-shot.

    But Berger’s bottom line (literally, his last sentence) is: “I don’t think that anything discovered by historians can either support or falsify this assertion [that the God who created the galaxies was incarnate in a human infant born at a particular time . . ..] Even if the suspect, long-shot “fact” turned out to be a fact, it could not falsify our faith. Nor would our faith suddenly become “blind faith” if we kept the faith. The kenotic God who emptied Himself to share our suffering would not, in my view, acquire a different ousia just because His incarnation, which already included eating (and presumably eliminating), weeping, and various bodily functions, also included carnal love. It could only be a joke to say that if He came to suffer, he would have to get married, because, of course, His would be a “marriage made in Heaven.” Erotic love can serve as a signal of transcendence, but when the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, a gender-neutral, role model marriage would not seem to be a top priority.

    But we get a hint of what a marriage made in Heaven might be like in that extraordinarily intimate meeting of Jesus and Mary by the empty tomb. She asks “the gardener” where they have taken her Lord, and He says, “Mary.” She has her soul pierced by the sound of her name spoken by the risen Jesus. In an instant, she moves from bereavement to cosmic confirmation. That is too much. How could she bear it? He apparently responds to her advance by warning her not to touch him because He is not yet ascended. Feminist Mary Gordon writes (in “Reading Jesus”): “When she finally recognizes him, it would seem that she reaches out to him . . .. He replies harshly—‘Don’t hold on to me.’ ‘Don’t cling to me.’ ‘Touch me not.’” “It is a cruel command, ‘don’t cling to me.’” Leave it to a feminist to take the most joyous moment in Mary’s life—perhaps the most joyous moment in the history of the world—and turn it into a rant against cruel men scolding clingy women!

    Not being knowledgeable about the physics of pre-ascended molecules, I don’t understand the logic of Jesus’ prohibition of touching, nor would Mary have understood it. But I don’t need any new parchment discoveries to know that she was not offended by it! Indeed, the impossibility of a physical relationship at that point may have facilitated the I-Thou intimacy which is the true telos of erotic relationships, which are best understood as signals of transcendence.

    In “The Four Loves” C. S. Lewis says, “It is as if Christ said to us through Eros, ‘Thus—just like this—with this prodigality—not counting the cost—you are to love me and the least of my brethren.’” And, “This [erotic] love is really and truly like Love Himself.” “But Eros, honored without reservation and obeyed unconditionally, becomes a demon.” Eros is only a signal of transcendence, not the Transcendent Himself.

    So, Berger was not surprised by new evidence that the fragment is a forgery, but he might have been surprised (and pleased) that his counsel of its insignificance would receive such speedy confirmation.

  • Tom Sramek Jr

    It would be common sense that Jesus was married IF he was simply a common rabbi of the time. However, he can much more be likened to John the Baptist rather than just another itinerant rabbi. John was also not married. Keep in mind, both Joseph and Mary knew about Jesus’ special origins–they would not have betrothed Jesus figuring that he would either be a carpenter like his earthly father or simply an itinerant rabbi.

  • Robert F

    Mr. Novak,
    I’m glad to see that we are in complete agreement on this one. Although the Coptic fragment is not authoritative for determining any facts about Jesus’ life, both because of its late dating and its apparent lack of authenticity, even if a truly authentic text indicating that Jesus had been married were to be found, it would not undermine Christian faith. We should remember that the gospels say almost nothing about Jesus’ life between the ages of, say, 13 and 30. It would not have been unusual for a man or woman to marry at 14 or 15 years of age. Perhaps Jesus married as a teen, his wife died, and he became a widower. If so, why didn’t the gospels mention this seemingly important fact? Who knows? But then, who knows why the fate of Joseph is not given in the gospels? He simply drops out of the narrative(s) without explanation. The gospels are not out to satisfy our curiosity, or to give us a complete biographical outline of Jesus’ life. They exist to engender and support faith by witnessing to the Word made flesh. Certainly there would be nothing sinful in a young Jewish man having a wife, just as there is no sinfulness in wholesome married sexuality. The practice of marital sexuality on the part of Jesus would not have contradicted the doctrine of the Incarnation.

  • thedoctor2001

    A more convincing discovery would be a scrap of papyrus which translates as: “JC, pls get some gefilte fish and jug wine on way home from shop. xoxo MM”.

  • derfel cadarn

    For a Jew of his age at this time in history not to be married would have been scandalous. Why would his being married have any affect on his teachings? These teachings are either desirable to follow or they are not. It is clearly the concern of male authority in the church and their possible loss on the reigns of power that drive this issue,both 2000 years ago and to this very day. “Churchmen” have a huge vested interest through their avarice of power and riches cannot be denied, they have done and will continue to do whatever is needed to maintain the status quo.

  • paul wright

    What matters is not whether it is true but the fact that the whole edifice of catholicism could be brought down by a single historical fact. 2000 years of enforced clerical abstinence would be made ridiculous. The evil doctrine of orignal sin would be undermined and the Paulian perversion of christ exposed as anti-christian. And all from one tiny empirical fact. The fact that this could happen shows how fragile the remnant of christianity is.

  • Mehmet Iksel

    The Dan Brown story about Jesus’s marriage to Mary Magdalene is taken directly from the wonderful novel King Jesus by Robert Graves.
    (maybe out of print )

  • M. C. Mykel

    A friend of mine who had the appropriate PhDs, academic credentials, and publications that one would expect a Bible scholar to have once told me that everything in the canon was included therein for political reasons; not religious ones.

    Also, I wonder why all of the comments so far assume that there was in fact an historic Jesus?

  • Surendra Mahaling

    Know not whether Jesus remained a Bachelor or was a married one.But the information that Jesus was married is interesting to know.

  • Shalom Beck

    I don’t know if Jesus was married, though Kirk Farrar’s argument has some weight.
    But if Christianity is true, His fatehr was an adulterer.

  • Robert F

    No serious historian purports that Jesus didn’t exist. There is more reliable documentary evidence, biblical and non-biblical, that Jesus bar-Joseph existed than there is that Socrates or Siddhartha or Julius Caesar existed. And after you and I and your PhD friend die, there will likely be more reliable documentary evidence that he existed than that we did. If you believe what your friend told you, it proves something that Peter Berger has written repeatedly: we live in an age of extreme credulity.

  • Fred Rob

    Improbable? No, you aren’t an historian, nor a theologian, I would surmise. First, Jesus was a Jew. According to the New Testament he was a rabbi, aas well. Rabbis used to be required to be married.

    Second, The absence of a mention in the New Testament does not preclude the possibility. After all, we have no information whatever from the time he was 12 until he was 30.

    During that time, this “itinerant preacher” apparently devdloped a profession as a carpenter, at least according to somd information that refers obliquely to his life in Nazareth.

    Abd to Kavanna: Who did the catering? I think in those days the family of the bridegroom did this. Now think about Cana and the water/wine thing. If this was not Jesus’ wedding day, why in the world was Mary so worried about running out of refreshments? ;-)

  • John T

    To Robert F – Siddhartha the Buddha, like Jesus, was careful not to write anything down. However, Julius Caesar wrote down plenty in his spare time (“The conquest of Gaul”, “The civil war”) apart from actually conquering Gaul, winning the civil war, placing his stamp on the world for centuries, and certainly existed.

  • Bill Burke

    Wives being rife in the Bible and elsewhere, the real search among these scholars should be for evidence of a sense of humor in it and related wirings. The bible being as it were famous for putatively having none.

    Since Jesus was a Jew, there almost must be jokes there someplace, one would imagine.

    So I suggest they reread the fragment and see if it might actually have said, “Take my wife … please.” Perhaps if they read this late at night and stand while doing so, the words will be clearer.

  • Earl R.

    Was Jesus married? Interesting to think about.

    Would it have been wrong for him to be? Not at all, but that would have divided his loyalty between three “women”!

    First, he was already married before he was born. He was married to the children of Israel through the covenant entered into at Mount Sinai (which was a marriage covenant!).

    Second, he was in a sense “dating” his new love and being seen with “her” and proclaiming his eternal devotion to “her” to the whole world. Who was “she”? The greek calls “her” the Ecclesia, the called out ones, the church! The church is Jesus’ Fiance, and will be wedded to him at his return according to Paul and John.

    Was Jesus married? He absolutely could have been without a theological problem. But we get hung up on the physical union in a salacious way.

    Jesus’ actions from pre-history through the present and especially beyond prophetically demonstrate to us that marriage is first and foremost a spiritual relationship that demands loyalty and sacrifice.

    The question of Jesus and marriage is timely.

  • Robert F

    John T
    Nevertheless, the documentary evidence itself for Jesus existence is far greater in volume and far more widely attested and of greater antiquity than the documentary evidence concerning Julius Caesar. There is no other literary artifact from the classical period that has anywhere near the amount and variety of documentary support that the New Testament has, and the New Testament is about Jesus. Yes, Julius Caesar certainly existed. But it is far more certain that Jesus did, based on historical evidence and documentation.

  • maria b

    To Earl R: well said

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