Was Jesus married? The question is ancient—perhaps as old as the question of his divinity. On September 18, at a conference in Rome, Harvard historian Karen L. King, unveiled an ancient scrap of papyrus with Coptic script in which Jesus refers to his wife. As they do in such situations, academics began debating whether the scrap was authentic or fraudulent and discussing the features and tests that would incline them one way or the other. Scholars of religion are interested in two sets of questions. One set has to do with the papyrus itself: Who wrote it, when, and why? Which of the many early Christian traditions might it derive from? Does it inform our understanding of Christian history and if so, how? The second set of questions has to do with Jesus: Assuming the existence of a historical Jesus, (some scholars don’t) what are our best hypotheses about who he was and how he lived? Was he indeed married? How should such a question affect the priorities of Christians today?
While antiquities scholars await further test results, popular Fox News commentators and conservative Christian clergy went into high gear dismissing the relevance or authenticity of the scrap – or both. The Vatican called it a fake. They don’t like the idea of a married Jesus, don’t really care what the scholars ultimately conclude, and so have gone straight into damage control mode. Why?
What is the threat? Here’s what: At a symbolic level a Jesus with a human wife would be a polygamist. Conservative Christianity is scripted around a Jesus who metaphorically is “married” not to some short, illiterate Semitic woman of the first century, but to believers themselves. Evidence aside, the thought of competition for his affections simply doesn’t sit well.
The Church is the bride of Christ. Since the time of early Jesus worship, Christians have used the language of man and wife to represent the relationship between and Jesus his followers. For example, in the gospels of Mark and John , Jesus and John the Baptist call Jesus the bridegroom .
Still later, in the wild and apocalyptic book of Revelation, another writer revives the metaphor:
One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” 10 And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God (Revelation 21:9-10).
The Apostle Paul likens the Church to a virgin bride as he exhorts early Christian communities in Corinth and Rome to be faithful:
I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him (2 Cor. 11:2).
Nuns are married to Jesus. The Catholic tradition takes the pure virgin concept beyond mere metaphor. Many nuns describe themselves as “married to Jesus” and some even wear wedding rings to symbolize their devotion. When Oprah did a segment entitled, “Marrying Christ” one mother commented,
My daughter joined the sisters five years ago . . . . At her “wedding” we were moved by the change from white to black veil and by the prostration. She is truly married to Jesus Christ and her joy is so evident! I would encourage all parents to welcome the opportunity to allow and even encourage their daughters to explore the life of consecration to Jesus and see if your lives are not transformed as well!
At their commitment ceremonies, nuns take vows of poverty, obedience and chastity, but the vow of chastity can also be thought of as a vow of fidelity. In times past, some mystics were more explicit than they are today in comparing union with Christ to the peaks of carnal pleasure. The famous vision of Saint Teresa of Avila offers a graphic example:
I would see beside me, on my left hand, an angel in bodily form … He was not tall, but short, and very beautiful, his face so aflame that he appeared to be one of the highest types of angel who seem to be all afire … In his hands I saw a long golden spear and at the end of the iron tip I seemed to see a point of fire. With this he seemed to pierce my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails. When he drew it out, I thought he was drawing them out with it and he left me completely afire with a great love for God. The pain was so sharp that it made me utter several moans; and so excessive was the sweetness caused me by the intense pain that one can never wish to lose it, nor will one’s soul be content with anything less than God.
Jesus Loves Me. Given the precedent set in past centuries, it should be no surprise that modern Evangelicals are doing everything they can to channel America’s sex obsession into religious devotion. The phrase, “falling in love with Jesus” brings up pages of search engine hits. I am not the first to point out that Christian rock can be almost indistinguishable from the kinds of songs humans croon about and to the objects of their fleshly desire. Grammy winning band, Jars of Clay, wrote a song entitled, “Love Song for a Savior,” which is exactly that. The theme of romance with Jesus is so prevalent that a blog called Jesus in Love has pages littered with found art that falls at the intersection of iconography and erotica. In her monologue, Letting Go of God, Julia Sweeney confesses discovering the pleasures of her own body under the sensitive gaze of the Jesus hanging on the wall beside her bed.
But even setting aside the sublimated (or not so sublimated) sexual energy in the personal savior relationship, Jesus being married just doesn’t work with modern pop theology. In born again lingo, Jesus loves me wholly, completely, and utterly which means that my love for him in return should be all consuming. Yes, he loves other people in the same way. He is God, and he can do that. But he’s not allowed to love someone else in a different way, a special sexual way that includes desire and physical intimacy and exclusivity– and leaves me out. That breaks the trance.
Furthermore, since Christians believe in individual immortality, if Jesus had a wife that means she still exists, and it means he likely has kids. When we think about this, our neural networks activate concepts and memories related to typical nuclear family relationships. The pattern includes the fact that spousal intimacy is unique. Also no matter what parents may say, deep down they love their own kids better than anyone else’s.
The dilemma is both psychological and theological. In times past there may have been variants of Christianity which taught that Jesus was married. Their other teachings would have been compatible with this notion. But if so, those versions of Christianity are largely extinct, and the Jesus-concepts that have won out aren’t optimized around a married savior. They are optimized around one who is eternally single–able to make the unconditional, euphoric bond that we yearn for with a perfect lover. In fact, the kinds of Christianity that are growing—evangelical, Pentecostal, “emerging”- – tend to be less cerebral than average and more about this rapturous union. The availability of Jesus may be one key to Christianity’s viral success.
The Messy Evidence. The notion of Jesus having a wife wouldn’t be a threat to rhapsodic, body-swaying, Jesus-loves-me bornagainism if it weren’t so darn persistent. Frustrated conservative theologians and commentators keep reassuring the world that Jesus was single, and the topic lies in the tomb for three metaphorical days and then gets resurrected. A few years back the trigger was The Da Vinci Code, wildly entertaining, wildly improbable fiction. Now it is a historian with a small scrap of papyrus. Da Vinci may have been silly fun, but some other evidence suggests that if you don’t have a theological or psychological need for Jesus to have been single, the idea of him having a wife is at least worth entertaining.
One kind of evidence comes from Jewish history and culture. Orthodox Judaism takes very seriously the command to be fruitful and multiply and considers it a prescription not only for the flock but for religious leaders. In this regard, Judaism stands in stark contrast to Catholic Christianity or Buddhism or Hinduism, all of which encourage abstinence as part of spiritual eminence. Even today, it is unusual for a single Jewish man to earn the title of Rabbi, which Jesus is assigned in gospel stories. Other than one snapshot at age twelve, the Bible offers no indication of how Jesus spends his time until he emerges as a teacher age thirty. Although marriage isn’t specifically commanded by the Torah or subsequent texts, Jewish history tilts against the likelihood of an unmarried Jesus.
A second kind of evidence comes from early non-canonical Christian writings. The Gospel of Philip, for example, identifies Mary Magdalene as the companion that Jesus often kissed. The Gospel of Mary also puts Mary Magdalene in a privileged position. In it, Peter says, “Sister we know that the Savior loved you more than the rest of women.” These gospels espouse Gnostic theologies and so were rejected by the ecclesiastical authority of the Roman church. When the Roman version of Christianity finally won out, other Christianities were declared heretical and writings such as these were suppressed or destroyed. Consequently, few heretical manuscripts remain. But those that do suggest strong differences between the kind of Christianity that became “catholic,” meaning universal, and some kinds that vanished.
A third kind of evidence lies hidden in the canonical gospels themselves. For example, in the story of the wedding at Cana, where Jesus turns water into wine, Jesus and his mother Mary engage in behavior that have led some to argue that they were hosting the festivities. In the book of John, Mary Magdalene weeps outside the tomb in the garden where Jesus has been buried. As she weeps, he appears to her and asks why she is crying. She mistakes him for the gardener, but he reveals himself and then warns her not to touch him. This story, according to at least some symbologists, is a standard script, one that would have been familiar to readers of John’s gospel, and in the mythic template, the woman in the garden is the wife of the God-king. Today we might expect that if Jesus and Mary Magdalene were spouses then the writer simply would have said so. But early Christianity was like other mystery religions of the time period, reserving some kinds of knowledge for those on the inside.
The case for a married Jesus may be far from definitive, but the reaction of conservative Christian commentators should give us pause. It is precisely the same reaction that the arbiters of orthodoxy have had since the beginnings of time: dismiss competing perspectives; ignore or –when possible — destroy contradictory evidence; denigrate and marginalize dissenters (aka heretics). It is the same reaction that conservative Christians have had to archaeological and scientific findings that call any of their prized beliefs into question. Indeed, this reaction—played out through millennia—may explain why so little evidence for a wife of Jesus exists.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles can be found at Awaypoint.Wordpress.com.