Was Jesus married? Does it matter?

It looks like there’s some skepticism among scholars about the authenticity of the already much-discussed “Jesus’ wife” papyrus–said to be a fragment from a non-canonical Coptic gospel that has Jesus referring to “my wife” and saying that she will be a “disciple.” Much of yesterday’s breathless reporting on the papyrus centered around its potential to “shake up” debates about women’s role in the church. So if the fragment is spurious, does that mean no such re-thinking is necessary?

To start with, we should be clear that, even if it’s authentic, all the papyrus would seem to show–at most–is that there was an early tradition that Jesus was married. (Curiously, few people seem to have considered the possibility that the wife “Jesus” refers to might be the church–an image that goes back to the NT itself.) It wouldn’t, as even the professor who discovered it acknowledges, show that Jesus was in fact married.

Second, even though Christian tradition has long held that Jesus was unmarried and celibate, it’s not clear to me that anything of theological significance stands or falls on this. How would the central Christological doctrines–the Incarnation, Atonement, Resurrection, Ascension, etc.–be affected by the discovery that Jesus was married? It’s true, as one Twitter-friend pointed out, that it may call into question the reliability of the gospels since you’d think they might mention such a significant fact about Jesus. But against this we should remember (1) the gospels don’t provide “biography” in our modern sense; they are theological-confessional documents intended to witness to faith in Christ, and (2) historical criticism has already called the reliability of the gospels into question in many respects, and yet they still function as the Word of God for people in the church.

All of this aside, I think it’s wrong to suggest that we need certain facts about the historical Jesus to be true in order to authorize things like the full equality of women in the church. As theologian Clark Williamson has written,

The problem with feminist theology is that in its constitutive assertions it is right. Women are fully human, clearly the equal of men, and need liberation from sexist oppression. But if the only way to warrant being a Christian feminist is by appeal to the empirical-historical Jesus as a norm, then Jesus will turn out to have been a feminist. . . . [But i]f Jesus was not a feminist, am I still not free to be one? Is it the role of Jesus . . . to authorize our conformity to him or to author our freedom and creativity, our right to reform the church? Dare we allow the historical Jesus to be himself, a first-century Jew, different from us, or must he reflect our concerns and ideals back to us? If so, how can he ever correct us? (Williamson, A Guest in the House of Israel, p. 190).

Williamson is concerned to correct the tendency in some feminist theology to portray Jesus as the egalitarian, feminist liberator from an oppressive, patriarchal Judaism, an opposition that in effect “de-Judaizes” Jesus and reinforces the long history of Christian anti-Judaism. But his point has broader application, I think. If modern Christians want to be feminists (and they should!), they don’t need to justify it by appealing to a shaky historical reconstruction of a “feminist Jesus.” Many churches, drawing on the resources of the canonical scriptures and Christian tradition, have come to see sexual equality as a gospel issue–and that provides a much stronger foundation. Christians shouldn’t be threatened by historical research, but neither should they build their faith on it.

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6 thoughts on “Was Jesus married? Does it matter?

  1. I think your last point is spot on. I was thinking much the same reading the HuffPo article saying that Jesus being married would make Christianity more pro-woman and pro-sex. It totally depends on the nature of the marriage. Buddhist legend tells of the Buddha abandoning his wife to seek enlightenment, and that she nonetheless stayed loyal to him and eventually became a nun. This says a lot about both Buddhism’s pro-celibacy stance and the Indian ideal wife.

    However, the fact that Buddha’s wife has a legend — as do the wives of Muhammad and various Old Testament heroes — throws doubt on the theory that the Gospels don’t mention Jesus’ wife just because it’s not central to the theme. Since when have these legends valued economic storytelling? If Jesus’ wife was forgotten or covered up, it does have some significance, although at this distance it’s hard to tell exactly what.

  2. 2000 years and no one noticed? Seems kind of unlikely that it wouldn’t at least exist in some of the other writings. Actually, very unlikely. In your research, have you ever encountered a text that hinted at this? I assume you’ve read the doctrines omitted from the bible, and the research done on other materials uncovered from that time. I don’t believe any of them mentioned a wife.

    But let’s say it was true. If so, when would it have occurred, and why didn’t the letters of the disciples ever mention it? It seems like it would be an important detail. (It seems like the marriage ceremony itself would be important). So if it were true, then did the disciples omit it for a reason. Did they not know? (Unlikely). Did it not factor into their writings to the churches? (Possible). At what point in Jesus’ life would it have occurred?

    I find your theory that a”wife” might represent the church far more likely. These writings are rife with analogies and metaphors. Nice for a conspiracy theory though. In that regard, it would have plenty of company. Wasn’t there something in the holy grail mythology suggesting that the Knight’s Templar were actually hiding the child of Christ and his family line? I seem to remember something along those lines. No documentation or evidence, just the idea that the grail might be a metaphor for the son or daughter of Christ.

  3. I think it’s probably unlikely that he had a wife, but on the other hand, how often is it mentioned in the gospels that most of the disciples were married – just a couple of innuendos about that. Maybe it was so taken for granted that it didn’t get mentioned – it would have been a real oddity if a man his age was *not* married.

    About the idea that Jesus was married to the church, unless I’m wrong, the word church is only mentioned in one of the gospels, and the idea of Jesus being married to the church is nowher explicitly ststed in the gospels.

    I think it’s true, though, that we can decide some things are good, like feminism or vegetarianism, without back-up from Jesus.

  4. Would it matter if he were married? So what if he was. It is not mentioned in the scriptures because if it were true and people being like they are, they would start worshiping his linage as more than what they are. The focus of the scriptures are on his person as the son of God and his reason as the savior of man. Just like he did not acknowledge his mother at one point to curve Mary worship, and the loss of the “Shroud of Turin” to prevent thing worship, and John the Baptist statement of “He must increase and I must decrease” is to point to Jesus. The Non-mention of certain things in the Bible are meant to be obscure or omitted i.e. “his marriage or not”, so as to keep men, (and women), where the true message of the scriptures are to be, The person of Jesus the Christ.

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