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Suggestion That Jesus Was Married Sends the Christian Right into a Tizzy

When a papyrus mentioning Jesus's wife surfaced, the revelation that he Son of God might be married posed a great challenge to the Church.

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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.

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