Saturday, September 22, 2012

Was Jesus married?

A professor at Harvard Divinity School, Karen King, has translated a small (about 1.5 by 3 inches) fragment of parchment which includes, in Coptic, the language used by Egyptian Christians this partial sentence: “Jesus said to them, My wife…” The word used for wife is unambiguous and has only the one meaning.

Was Jesus married?

King’s article, summarized here, carefully states her conclusions:

·         The fragment appears genuine, though tests continue;

·         The fragment is the earliest evidence of Jesus having a wife;

·         The fragment, from the fourth century, is too far removed from Jesus to have any value as historical evidence;

·         Nevertheless, the fragment does support evidence showing that early Christians debated the proper role of sex in marriage.

Previous claims that Jesus was married, of which Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is the most notorious though a work of fiction lacking scholarly foundations, have ignited major ecclesial and theological controversies:

·         If Jesus was fully divine and fully human, why would he marry?

·         Would any children from such a union be partially or fully divine, i.e., in what way would a child from that union share in the ontological identity of each parent?

·         Are Jesus’ descendants (if there were any) the rightful head of the Church on earth (the Shiites make this claim regarding the descendants of Mohammed as the rightful leaders of Islam, whereas the Sunnis believe that Islamic leadership belongs to the most capable/devout)?

·         Did Jesus abandon his wife when he began his public ministry?

·         Conversely, how many first century Jewish males living in rural Palestine did not marry?

·         Was Jesus gay (this would explain him not having a wife, but not the affection that he seems to have had for Mary Magdalene, especially according to non-canonical sources)?

As the last of those questions illustrates, the questions can become increasingly far reaching. The truth is that nobody has any data from which to draw any conclusions, no matter how highly tentative, about Jesus’ marital status. Arguments based on an absence of information are worthless in this and all other instances. Professor King, an excellent scholar, is careful to make this point.

Personally, I do not find the idea of Jesus having a wife problematic. The gospels note that Jesus, while dying on the cross, made provision for his mother. There is no reason to suppose that he could not then, or previously, have made provision for his spouse and any children. Culturally, marriage was normative for first century Jewish males. If nothing else, imagining a married Jesus will generally give one a more human image of Jesus, a healthy antidote to the excessively divine image of Jesus found in much art and theology.

Theological issues linked to Jesus’ ontological status – fully human and fully divine according to orthodox Christianity – are not necessarily obstacles to Jesus having had a wife – if one interprets orthodoxy metaphorically or mythically rather than literally. Recent textual studies by Bart Ehrman (e.g., Misquoting Jesus and Jesus Interrupted) and other scholars add support to rejecting a literal interpretation.

Was Jesus married? I don’t know. I do know Jesus was fully human and a man of his time and place. Authors like Dan Brown tell entertaining stories; scholars like Karen King offer careful analysis of sparse data; historians widely agree that more evidence of Jesus having been a real person exists than does for most other historical figures. Ultimately, therefore, individuals must decide who Jesus was and what, if any, significance he might have for them or for life in the twenty-first century. In any case, his marital status contributes nothing to contemporary debates about marriage.

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