The Sounds of Silence: Mr. and Mrs. Jesus Christ
by James Tabor
But does this mean that Jesus was married? Probably not. It is more likely that Jesus was celibate. Rev. James Martin, Jesuit Priest
There’s no indication we have that Jesus was married. The New Testament is silent on Jesus’ marital status because there was nothing to say. Prof. Darrell Bock, Dallas Theological Seminary
There is zero evidence that he was married. Prof. Lawrence Schiffman, Yeshiva University
While gripping fiction, the idea that Jesus was married with children is long on speculation and short on evidence. James D. Tabor, University of North Carolina at Charlotte
Here we have a Catholic Priest, an evangelical Christian, and an Orthodox Jew agreeing on something–with me chiming in back in 2006. These quotations appeared in response to the discussions of the newly discovered Coptic papyrus fragment in which Jesus apparently addresses a woman named “Mary” as his “wife,” see the story here and here.
One point has been repeatedly made by the experts, including Harvard’s Karen King who published the fragment, is that this text does not prove or even indicate that the historical Jesus was married. After all, this text, written in the 4th century, but dated to the late 2nd century, is still 150 years removed from the time of Jesus. What it tells us is that Christians were battling over the question of whether Jesus was married or not around 200 CE.
So is there any early evidence that Jesus was married? Is there anything in the New Testament or other contemporary sources? Back in 2006, when I published my book, The Jesus Dynasty, I was convinced the answer was no. I have since been convinced otherwise.
The primary evidence we have from the 1st century are our New Testament gospels and the letters of Paul. These texts are notably silent about Jesus being married. Mary Magdalene is mentioned, but certainly never identified as Jesus’ wife, and most assume, based on this silence, that Jesus, like Paul, was celibate. For many of my colleagues this is enough to close the discussion of whether the historical Jesus was married–later traditions not withstanding. I find reason to question this consensus. Consider the following:
1. None of the wives or children of any of the apostles are named in the Gospels or letters of the New Testament. This hardly means that none of them were married. It says more about the ways in which the role and voices of women were often muted or downplayed in ancient culture. We don’t know the names of any of the wives of famous Rabbis of the time, but we can be quite sure that most all of them were married and had families.
2. Jesus was Jewish. As a rabbi or teacher being married would be the norm. In fact, a Jewish male who failed to marry was judged as deficient in fulfilling the very first mitzvah or commandment of the Torah: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28). Celibacy is neither honored nor upheld as an ideal spiritual path in Jewish texts of the period–in other words, there are no Jewish monks. Even though some have argued that the Dead Sea Scrolls uphold celibacy there is not a single indication of such in the Scrolls themselves, in fact marriage and sexuality are both addressed and assumed. Most scholars would question the historical accuracy of the ancient references by Josephus, Philo and others to the Essenes, a Jewish sect of the time, as practicing celibacy. Such idealized descriptions were apparently attempts on the part of these hellenized writers to portray the various Jewish groups, whether Pharisees, Sadducees, or Essenes as parallel to Greek schools of thought–Platonists, Epicureans, and Pythagoreans, respectively.
3. Paul strongly recommends celibacy as the ideal spiritual state of life in an extended defensive discussion in 1 Corinthians 7 but he is notably silent about Jesus in this regard. He is never hesitant to bring in Jesus to bolster his positions on divorce, caring for the poor, supporting the ministry, or any number of other points. In fact in this very chapter, on the subject of marriage and divorce, he says, explicitly, “This I say, not I but the Lord...” referring to Jesus when he thinks it will support his views. Those not familiar with this important chapter in 1 Corinthians would do well to read it through. The lengths to which Paul goes and the ways in which he equivocates back and forth in defending celibacy in his own case is to me an irrefutable a indication that Paul knew he could not use Jesus as his prime example of the non-sexual life, simply because Jesus was not celibate.
4. Although Mary Magdalene is never called Jesus’ wife, in our earliest source, the gospel of Mark, she mysteriously appears “out of nowhere” at his crucifixion as an intimate and faithful follower, linked with Jesus’ mother and sister. Most important she takes the lead in arranging for the Jewish rites of burial, which involved washing Jesus’ naked corpse and anointing it with spices and oils. Such an intimate act is one reserved for close family members, not women outside the immediate family, no matter how devoted they might have been. Finally, she was the first witness to Jesus’ resurrection, addressing him affectionately as “Rabboni,” an intimate endearing term for “master,” and clinging to him in a culture where unmarried men and women do not touch one another.
I am convinced these “sounds of silence,” are in fact indicative of a muted story. We need to realize how all four of our Gospels are theological treatises not biographies. What they fail to tell us far exceeds what they proclaim as the “Gospel” (Mark 1:1). There is no grand conspiracy here, just a tendency among the pious post-Pauline Christians who wrote the New Testament gospels to present Jesus as the divine Son of God, and thus necessarily non-sexual. The figure of Jesus as a Jew living a normal sexual life was seen to detract from his new divine heavenly status as an enthroned deity sitting at the right hand of God in heaven. That either he or his mother could have ever lived a normal sexual life became unthinkable. Celibacy in the wider hellenistic culture was often equated with a higher spirituality, as Paul himself tries to argue (1 Corinthians 7:32-35). After all, how could Jesus, however “fully human” the orthodox Christian creeds declared him to be, leave behind any trace of his humanity? Here we have theology to thank for the silence, not history, but the hold it has on people, even in our day, is considerable, and thus some of the controversy over Prof. King’s latest find is thereby fueled.