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Questions from Readers, September 26

For a six-week devotional full of stories that will raise your motivation to share Christ with others, check out The Unexpected Adventure: Taking Everyday Risks to Talk With People About Jesus, which I co-authored with Mark Mittelberg. It’s also available in e-book or audio.

Questions from Readers

— Was Jesus married?

— What happens to Christians after death?

— Was Jesus’ resurrection stolen from mythology?


Q. People are asking me if Jesus ever had a wife. I say no. But there are some who think he did. I need your advice! — Kellie via Twitter

A. This issue has surfaced again because of the discovery of a purported fourth-century Egyptian papyrus in Coptic that quotes Jesus as referring to a wife. However, that discovery is fraught with problems. The fragment is smaller than a business card, so we don’t know its context or even its genre. The fragment hasn’t been fully authenticated yet — for example, no ink tests have been performed — and some experts are debating whether it may be a forgery. Most importantly, if it’s from the fourth century, it comes so long after the life of Jesus that it lacks historical credibility. The scholar who announced the finding, Karen L. King of Harvard, has repeatedly stressed that the papyrus is not evidence that Jesus was married.

Even the word “wife” in the document can be misleading. Ben Witherington III, a professor at Asbury Seminary, told the media that Gnostic texts of the second, third and fourth centuries used “the language of intimacy to talk about spiritual relationships.”

“What we hear from the Gnostic is this practice called the sister-wife texts, where they carried around a female believer with them who cooks for them and cleans for them and does the usual domestic chores, but they have no sexual relationship whatsoever” during the strong monastic periods of the third and fourth centuries, Witherington told the Associated Press. “In other words, this is no confirmation of The Da Vinci Code or even of the idea that the Gnostics thought Jesus was married in the normal sense of the word.”

Still, sloppy newspaper headlines and wild speculation have put the issue of Jesus’ marital status back in the news. Of course, this topic was the buzz several years ago when Dan Brown’s fictional work The DaVinci Code gained notoriety. In 2006, Garry Poole and I wrote a rebuttal, called Exploring the DaVinci Code, which refuted Brown’s claims.

At the time, I interviewed Katherine McReynolds, who earned her doctorate in religion and social ethics at the University of Southern California, has been a faculty member at the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University and co-authored the book Women as Christ’s Disciples, in which she and A. Boyd Luter analyze historical information about Mary Magdalene, the woman Brown claimed was married to Jesus.

I said to McReynolds: “Dan Brown says that the marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene is part of the historical record, and that the biggest cover-up in human history is that he fathered a child through her. Do you believe there is credible historical evidence that Jesus and Mary Magdalene really were married?”

“There is not a shred of credible evidence at all,” she replied. “Not in the four Gospels, not in Paul’s writings. And Paul even writes about marriage. If Jesus were married, you would certainly think that Paul would at least mention it since he addresses marriage in the book of 1 Corinthians.”

In 1 Corinthians 9:5, Paul was defending the right to have a wife: “Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a wife, as the other apostles, and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas [Peter]?” The clear implication is if Jesus had been married, Paul would have undoubtedly cited him as the prime example: “If the Master was married, then we can be too.” But the silence speaks volumes.

Keep in mind that Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians was written within about twenty-five years of Jesus’ death. The other Gospels — again, which never mention a spouse of Jesus — were all composed in the first century. Their proximity to the events they describe amplifies their reliability, unlike something written hundreds of years later.

Even the Gnostic writings cited by Brown, such as the Gospel of Mary (second century) and the Gospel of Philip (second or third century), don’t actually say Jesus was married. Scholar Craig Evans of Acadia University told me that although Brown and author Michael Baigent tried to use those writings to make their case for Jesus’ marriage, “they utterly fail. Those texts are not only unhistorical, but even they don’t say [Jesus and Mary Magdalene] were married. Only the truly gullible — or those advancing their own theological agenda — buy into that.”

Even though there’s no reliable evidence Jesus had a wife, scholars have varying opinions about whether it would pose any theological problem if somehow we discovered he had been married. Historian Paul Maier told me:

“I don’t think there is anything wrong with the concept of Jesus being married. Marriage, after all, was invented by God. The problem is this: One of the functions of marriage is to produce children, and that leads to a theological problem. Can’t you see Jesus talking to his oldest son, saying, ‘Well, Samuel, you are only one-quarter God and three-quarters man, and your son, Jacob, in turn, is only going to be one-eighth God.’ We’d have a terrible theological problem. So I think it’s much better that Jesus didn’t get married. And he did not.”

McReynolds does believe it would make a theological difference if Jesus had been married. “It’s not that there is anything wrong or sinful with the idea of marriage,” she told me. “The point is that Jesus had a special mission — a very unique mission— as the Son of God and the Savior of the world, and he stands in a long tradition of prophets that were set aside by special vows to God. And so I think it does make a theological difference that he remained single and totally devoted to his mission.”

I said: “So, you’re saying that he was in a line of tradition where people would consecrate themselves to God or have a vow of chastity so that their lives would be focused only on God and his mission for them here in earth?”

“Absolutely,” she said. “He definitely stands in that tradition, much like John the Baptist.”

I asked, “What about Dan Brown’s assertion that a rabbi in the first century would never be single and, therefore, Jesus must have been married?”

“Well, that doesn’t hold much weight because in the community of saints in the first century, you had many rabbis and Jewish teachers who were not married. It was not required that they marry. In fact, there is quite a bit of evidence that there were many rabbis who weren’t married.”

So while the discovery of the Egyptian papyrus is undoubtedly interesting, it is far from being a “smoking gun” that Jesus had a wife. Again, even the scholar who announced the discovery has repeatedly emphasized that. The earliest and most reliable documents we possess about Jesus — including the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, as well as the writings of Paul — never suggest Jesus had been married, which certainly was a detail you would expect them to mention if it were true.

Q. Your Case books have helped me immensely. I considered myself a Christian back in my teens but left the faith for thirty years. The recent death of my ex-boyfriend, who was a Christian, knocked me to my knees and I found my grief unbearable. I turned to Jesus again and become a genuine Christian, I’m happy to say. But I’d like to know what has happened to my friend since he passed away from cancer. I know that he is in heaven, but I’m unclear on the details. For example, does he see us now? Any help or thoughts would be greatly appreciated. — Lisa

A. Thanks so much for writing, Lisa. I’m so sorry about the loss of your former boyfriend, though I’m grateful he was a follower of Jesus and that you’re now part of God’s family. Your grief at the death of your friend is understandable — and don’t let anyone tell you that you shouldn’t experience heartbreak at the death of a Christian.

Said theologian Wayne Grudem in his book Systematic Theology: “It is not wrong to express real sorrow at the loss of fellowship with loved ones who have died, and sorrow also for the suffering and hardship that they may have gone through prior to death. Sometimes Christians think it shows a lack of faith if they mourn deeply for a brother or sister Christian who has died. But Scripture does not support that view.”

Grudem points out that when Stephen — clearly a believer — was executed, Acts 8:2 says: “Devout men buried Stephen, and made great lamentations over him.”

“Their sorrow,” said Grudem, “showed the genuine grief that they felt at the loss of fellowship with someone whom they loved, and it was not wrong to express this sorrow — it was right. Even Jesus, at the tomb of Lazarus, ‘wept’ (John 11:35), experiencing sorrow at the fact that Lazarus had died.”

What happened to your believing friend at the time he passed from this world? “Death is a temporary cessation of bodily life and a separation of the soul from the body,” said Grudem. “Once a believer has died, though his or her physical body remains on the earth and is buried, at the moment of death the soul (or spirit) of that believes goes immediately into the presence of God with rejoicing. When Paul thinks about death he says, ‘We would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord’ (2 Corinthians 5:8). He also says that his desire is ‘to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better’ (Philippians 1:23).”

Also, Jesus told one of the criminals being executed next to him on the cross, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43).

So your former boyfriend is presently in a state of perfect happiness with God, and that should cause you to rejoice even in the midst of your sadness over his leaving this world. However, as Grudem points out, “the application of Christ’s work of redemption to us will not be complete until our bodies are entirely set free from the effects of the fall and brought to that state of perfection for which God created them.”

The apostle Paul says in 1 Thessalonians that the souls of those who have died and gone to be with God will be reunited with their bodies when Jesus returns and the dead are resurrected. As Paul says in Romans 8:11, “He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit which dwells in you.”

I don’t see any biblical evidence that your ex-boyfriend currently has contact with this world. And certainly no attempts should be made to consult the dead, which is forbidden in Deuteronomy 18:11. Nor should we pray for the dead, a practice mentioned in the non-canonical 2 Maccabees but not taught in the Bible itself. There’s no evidence that early Christians prayed for their departed brothers and sisters in Christ.

Grudem summed it up this way: “Once believers die they enter into God’s presence and they are in a state of perfect happiness with him. What good would it do to pray for them anymore?”

Instead, I’d encourage you to thank God for him, for his life and for his influence — and how even in death God used him in your life, bringing something good out of something bad, even as God promised his followers that he would do in Romans 8:28.

Q. How can I answer skeptics who claim that the resurrection of Jesus is a story taken from mythology? — Todd

A. I asked historian Michael Licona, who earned his doctorate at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, a similar question when I was researching my book The Case for the Real Jesus. Currently an associate professor in theology at Houston Baptist University, Licona has authored The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach and co-authored (with Gary Habermas) The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. His website is www.risenjesus.com.

“Why,” I asked Licona, “should the story of Jesus’ resurrection have any more credibility than pagan stories of dying and rising gods — such as Osiris, Adonis, Attis, and Marduk — that are so obviously mythological?”

Licona is well-versed on this controversy. “First of all, it’s important to understand that these claims don’t in any way negate the good historical evidence we have for Jesus’ resurrection,” he pointed out. “You can’t dismiss the resurrection unless you can refute its solid core of supporting evidence.” I agreed that was an important caveat to keep in mind — and one which “copycat” theorists typically forget.

“Second, T.N.D. Mettinger — a senior Swedish scholar, professor at Lund University and member of the Royal Academy of Letters, History, and Antiquities of Stockholm — wrote one of the most recent academic treatments of dying and rising gods in antiquity. He admits in his book, The Riddle of Resurrection, that the consensus among modern scholars — nearly universal — is that there were no dying and rising gods that preceded Christianity. They all post-dated the first century.”

Obviously, that timing is crucial: Christianity couldn’t have borrowed the idea of the resurrection if myths about dying and rising gods weren’t even circulating when Christianity was birthed in the first century AD.

“Then Mettinger said he was going to take exception to that nearly universal scholarly conviction,” Licona continued. “He takes a decidedly minority position and claims that there are at least three and possibly as many as five dying and rising gods that predate Christianity. But the key question is this: Are there any actual parallels between these myths and Jesus’ resurrection?”

“What did Mettinger conclude?” I asked.

“In the end, after combing through all of these accounts and critically analyzing them, Mettinger adds that none of these serve as parallels to Jesus. None of them,” Licona emphasized.

“They are far different from the reports of Jesus rising from the dead. They occurred in the unspecified and distant past and were usually related to the seasonal life-and-death cycle of vegetation. In contrast, Jesus’ resurrection isn’t repeated, isn’t related to changes in the seasons, and was sincerely believed to be an actual event by those who lived in the same generation of the historical Jesus. In addition, Mettinger concludes that ‘there is no evidence for the death of the dying and rising gods as vicarious suffering for sins.'”

I later obtained Mettinger’s book to double-check Licona’s account of his research. Sure enough, Mettinger caps his study with this statement: “There is, as far as I am aware, no prima facie evidence that the death and resurrection of Jesus is a mythological construct, drawing on the myths and rites of the dying and rising gods of the surrounding world.”

In short, this leading scholar’s analysis is a sharp rebuke to popular-level authors and Internet bloggers who make grand claims about the pagan origins of Jesus’ return from the dead. Ultimately, Mettinger affirmed, “the death and resurrection of Jesus retains its unique character in the history of religions.” Unique — as in one of a kind.

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