Monday, January 5, 2015

Was Jesus married?

Photo: Karen L. King/Harvard/AP
Papyrus fragment of a lost gospel that supports claims Jesus was married.

Was Jesus married?

My answer to that question has shifted dramatically over the years, moving from a firm negative, to a tentative affirmative, and then to a confident affirmative. The shift reflects a broader shift in my thinking about Jesus, the Bible, and theology.

In seminary, and the years immediately following, I accepted much of traditional Christian theology, and the biblical interpretations upon which it rests, at face value. This resulted in an often uneasy, unacknowledged contradiction between that theology and some of my thinking, e.g., with respect to Christian exclusivity. Over the years, I've struggled to reconcile a growing appreciation of genuine pluralism, science, and Christianity. The result has diminished my acceptance of traditional Christian theology; I increasingly appreciate theology's dynamic rather than static nature and regard revelation in relationally rather than propositionally.

Traditionally, Christianity has asserted that Jesus never married. No evidence supports this assertion. The New Testament's silence on the subject is no help: arguments based upon silence have little if any logical force. Instead, the assertion that Jesus never married was a necessary correlate of the orthodox formulation of Jesus' ontological identity as fully human and fully divine. If Jesus had married, would his children have been fully (or even partially) divine, sharing both Jesus' dual nature and his wife's humanity? Furthermore, Christianity from its early days adopted a very negative attitude toward sex and procreation. How could a sinless Jesus engage in sexual intercourse? Jesus' bachelorhood also provides the most important basis for a celibate clergy, men who emulate Jesus by remaining single as in the Roman Catholic Church.

More recently, I've concluded that the stories of Jesus' divinity represent attempts by early Christians to talk in a meaningful, historically and culturally appropriate way about their experience of God's life-giving, liberating love in their encounter with the person and story of Jesus. Twenty-first century Christians still experience God's life-giving, liberating love in their encounter with Jesus' story, but find the concepts of a fully human/fully divine being incomprehensible and incompatible with modern scientific thought. In other words, those stories invite us into the mystery of ultimate reality and transformative power even though the metaphors and myths through which people attempt to communicate that reality have become increasingly anachronistic.

Sadly, the shift in my thinking was slow. Theologians and biblical scholars began arguing for those positions at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. Bishops like John A.T. Robinson in the Church of England and John Spong in the Episcopal Church (e.g., cf. his book, Born of a Woman) started popularizing those views in the mid-twentieth century.

If one accepts the validity of these updated perspectives, then Jesus was a first century Jewish peasant who lived in Galilee. It's almost inconceivable that he, like all of his peers, did not enter as a teenager into an arranged marriage. Most likely, that marriage resulted in children. Nothing factual is known of his children or spouse. Controversies about recently discovered documents lend credence to the supposition that Jesus was married (cf. Paul Wilkinson, "Lost Gospel? 'Deepest bilge' say historians," Church Times, Nov. 14, 2014; Joel Baden and Candida Moss, "The Curious Case of Jesus's Wife," The Atlantic, Nov. 17, 2014)

Speculation that Mary Magdalene was Jesus' wife originated in Christianity's early years and continues to attract considerable speculation, e.g., in Dan Brown's bestseller, The Da Vinci Code. If Mary Magdalene were Jesus' wife, it might explain why legend links her romantically with Jesus (legend most times has some historical basis) and why Christians have often condemned her as a prostitute (i.e., because to admit that she was Jesus' wife would be to introduce sexual pollution into the sinless Jesus).

Presuming that Jesus was married paints a picture of a human Jesus, a person who faced a life similar to mine and yet who embodied both a radical obedience to God and a radical love for others. This is the Jesus I want to know; this is the Jesus whom I want to emulate.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post. Thought you might be interested in a presentation Mark Goodacre (Professor of NT at Duke) gave at the 2013 Cadbury Lecture series, where he discusses the Karen King fragment referenced below.