I would like to offer some gentle push-back on the recent talk concerning “Jesus’ wife” that I have come across. In many of the circles I frequent, there are a lot of friends and other voices who have been quick to accept the idea of a wife for Jesus. Given the arguments I have heard in favor of this (so far), I think jumping on this bandwagon is premature. Please let me begin with a full disclosure: I cannot pretend to know if Jesus did or did not ever partake of marriage. Nevertheless, I find assertions that he did to be highly dubious, so I’ve put together just a few counter perspectives on arguments that seem to be trending in favor of the notion. Whether you find this helpful or think I have made some mistakes, I invite constructive feedback. Thanks in advance. -CL
Making Jesus in Our Image? Our cultures, religious and otherwise, seem to have an obsession with insider information about Jesus. Whatever our motivations may be, we all want more, and when we run out of the sparse, early, credible evidence, it seems to be in our nature to fabricate more or latch on to any new tidbit or hearsay we come across (at least when we like it). If any here have read Bart Ehrman’s recent work “Forgery and Counterforgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics,” then you know what I am talking about and can see that fabricating new narratives about biblical characters (or alleged biblical characters) is not new. At all.
Even in the past few centuries, conspiracy theories have exploded about the Roman Catholic Church and its (alleged) rewriting of early Christian history. This has given rise to everything from Joseph Smith and his Mormons to Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code and all points in between (ossuaries with mysterious inscriptions, fabricated “gospels,” hallucinated Jesus-ghosts along with clandestine children and wives, etc). It all makes for great entertainment (and marketing), and inspires the “Ah-ha, I knew it!” moment that feeds so many inner conspiracy theorists, but the truth is often far less juicy than our imaginations. We may want more (I do), but that doesn’t give us license to unhinge our understandings of Jesus from history and legitimate evidence.
But, on with the show:
Argument 1: Rabbis (and other Jews like Jesus) were commonly married, therefore, Jesus was probably married.
Criticism: This is a classic inductive argument, and with all such arguments, it hinges on probability. Clearly the largest sample-set will indicate that the majority of people (rabbis or otherwise) have been married in their lives. Nevertheless, it does not follow that all people are married/ have been married. I don’t think I need to beleaguer the point to make it. The question, therefore, is not about whether most people or rabbis were married in general, but rather, “Was Jesus married in particular?” To answer that question, we have to look beyond large-scale probability and sociological trends. And to do that, we have to consider evidence that directly relates to Jesus.
So, is there evidence for Jesus having been married?
Argument 2: The archaeological evidence recently promoted by media outlets claims “authentic” evidence that Jesus was married.
Criticism: The Jesus-Wife hypothesis is a sensationalized and unsubstantiated claim at best. At least so far. What we actually have is a fragment of a text that dates (at the very earliest) to the mid 7th century, at least 600 years after the ministry of Jesus. The scrap of papyrus features a Jesus character who refers to his “wife.” The author of the text is unknown. It is written in Coptic (not Jesus’ lingua franca) and is commonly held to have originated somewhere in Egypt. That’s all we’ve got, and scholars who are familiar with the extra-biblical writings, hagiography and tertiary “gospels” about Jesus that proliferated in the centuries after his life (especially in the deserts of Egypt) know better than just to presume they contain early, authentic details about Jesus of Nazareth.
As far as textual evidence for Jesus of Nazareth goes, this papyrus shred is late to the party, in the wrong language and from a location far removed from Jesus’ provenance. In fact, it is as distant in time and proximity from the Jesus of history as is the Qur’an’s account of the crucifixion (Sura 4:157, circa 632 AD/CE).*
Is it reasonable to presume that the Qu’ran (600 years and hundreds of miles removed and with its own agenda) offers a more accurate portrayal of Jesus’ crucifixion than does the Bible? If the answer is “no,” then why are we so quick to presume that a fragment of papyrus, suffering from even greater authoritative deficiencies, offers some new and authentic details about the life of Jesus?
I believe that is a fair question, but if that doesn’t grab our attention, I would think that a quote from the much earlier (mid-2nd century) Gospel of Thomas just might:
“Simon Peter said to them, ‘Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.’ Jesus replied, ‘I myself shall lead her in order to make her a male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.’” (Thomas saying 114).
How many of us, especially those of us who consider ourselves Christian feminists, are apt to believe that this purported “saying of Jesus” truly connects with the Jesus of history as revealed in the pages of Christian canon? I am personally very skeptical that this saying, indeed the entire Gospel of Thomas, is anything more than an intentional re-casting or fabrication of a Jesus figure to meet certain Gnostic presuppositions and needs. Given the plethora of late, conflicting, and often obviously forged documents purporting to reveal “truth” about Jesus, I think it best to focus on what we know from the earliest and best sources about Jesus of Nazareth (the Bible), while treating lesser quality texts and fragments with a heavy dose of suspicion and incredulity.
Even Karen King, Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School and one of the researchers of the Jesus-wife textual fragment, says the script does not mean that Jesus had a wife, but rather affirms, “that women who are mothers and wives can be disciples of Jesus — a topic that was hotly debated in early Christianity as celibate virginity increasingly became highly valued.”
In summation, we have no biblical evidence for Jesus’ wife at all and next to nothing from extra-biblical sources. Even the latter is subject to understandings and interpretations that do not require a literal wife for Jesus. This should not be understated.
Argument 3: The editors, compilers, and redactors of the biblical material are likely to have either purposefully excluded or eliminated the evidence and references pertaining to Jesus’ wife as part of their patriarchal biases or cultural limitations and sensitivities. As such, the Bible is not an authoritative source regarding Jesus’ marital status.
Criticism: This argument has several significant problems, chief among them is that it seems to make the evidence fit the conclusion rather than the other way around. Stated another way, it starts with a presupposition (that Jesus had a wife) and then rejects the earliest and best evidence (the Bible) because that evidence does not reinforce the presupposition. This is not how historians go about their work.
The edited-Bible argument also fails to consider the numerous, potentially problematic details that were left within biblical narratives and letters, especially those that give primacy to women and their unmistakeable importance in the early church. For example, it is women who first tell / teach the 11 remaining apostles that Jesus is risen. Women in the NT are also called “Apostles” (Junia), “Disciples” (Dorcas/ Tabitha), “Deacons” (Phoebe), Pastor of a church community (Prisca or Priscilla), and “Prophets” (Anna). If we are asked to believe that Jesus’ “wife” was edited out due to patriarchal or anti-women sentiments, then it begs the question regarding why these other women were allowed to remain with their positions of honor and authority intact. It should also be pointed out that at least some of the disciples were married. That the Bible apparently made no effort whatsoever to erase mention of these relationships or make them of special significance is also worthy of note. If Jesus had a wife, it is reasonable to assume that the Bible would have mentioned this, at least somewhere. It doesn’t.
So it seems to me that we should not presume that Jesus had a wife just because the Bible never said that he did not. To do so is to construct an argument from silence, and if that is the door we open, it can make room for some wonky ideas (like The Life of Brian or that Jesus had a shaggy dog named “Biff” that he confided in). That is a hyperbolic argument, and of course contemplating a wife for Jesus is not as far-fetched as The Life of Brian, but I hope you take my meaning.
Argument 4: We need a Jesus who is more human, not less, and marriage does that.
Criticism: Asserting that Jesus took a wife might seem to make the man more human, at least initially. I understand the impetus for the sentiment since marriage is so prevalent among us bipeds and thus more of us can relate to a married character rather than one who chooses to be single and celibate. Nevertheless, the inverse and not-so-subtle implication of this is that folks who choose to be single and celibate are less human or that Jesus would be less human if he remained single his whole life. I have a problem with that, and I think the rest of us should as well. Jesus does not need to be married to be fully alive or fully human any more than any of the rest of us do. Marriage is not the end-all be-all of life, and I am confident that this was not lost on Jesus. We don’t need to round up a wife for Jesus to make Jesus Jesus.
Furthermore, it is inherently problematic to let our comfort levels, desires or projections dictate the “facts” about Jesus (or any other historical figure). Of course I wish we had a biography of Christ, replete with lengthy splurges of detail and a clear timeline from cradle to ascension with multiple attestations, but the absence of such material does not give us permission to create our own. That is the territory of fiction writers like Dan Brown but not scholars, historians, or serious students of the Bible.
What if the tables were turned? Finally, I ask that we consider a scenario wherein a historical heroine had inspired millions of people to believe in her and consider themselves to be her students. Imagine with me that among those followers, a cadre of folks got together, and based on questionable, very late evidence, decided that to have been complete and fully representative of her cultural position and role, their matron saint must have had a man in her life in a sexual, married relationship. After all, there is nothing in the historical record that rules this out, it would have been normal for such a woman to have been married, and it helps these people relate to their heroine better anyway. So from that point on, they just assumed that she had a husband and wrote him into the story.
As a Christian feminist, I suspect my co-feminists would not be impressed with such efforts to force a husband on the hypothetical matron saint. Among the reasons outlined above, this is why I think it is a mistake for us merely to assume that Jesus had a wife. Until we discover some early, authentic, and substantive evidence that Jesus was married, I see no reason to think that he was. And please believe me, this isn’t because I want to see women or other underrepresented groups excluded from the Christian play.
Thanks for reading me,
*Qur’an, Sura 4:157 And [for] their saying, “Indeed, we have killed the Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, the messenger of Allah .” And they did not kill him, nor did they crucify him; but [another] was made to resemble him to them. And indeed, those who differ over it are in doubt about it. They have no knowledge of it except the following of assumption. And they did not kill him, for certain.