Was Jesus married? What would it mean if he was?
Although these aren’t new questions, lots of people are discussing them in the wake of this month’s unveiling of an ancient text fragment that contains a possible reference to a married Jesus.I can’t think of a better place to turn to for answers than Christian author and apologist Lee Strobel, who tackled this very question in his Investigating Faith newsletter this week. Here’s his response to a reader who asked him about this much-discussed topic:
Question: 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
Lee’s Response: 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.
Lee answers questions like this in each issue of his Investigating Faith newsletter, which goes out about every three weeks. You can sign up to receive it here.