Sunday, September 23, 2012

Did Jesus Have a Wife? Probably Not. But, Here are My Thoughts Anyway.

The blogosphere has been aflutter for the past week over the publicizing of a newly translated shred of 4th century Coptic papyri, which appears to read, "Jesus said to them, 'My wife..." Karen L. King is a well respected historian of early Christianity and Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School. She presented her findings  in Rome at the International Congress of Coptic Studies. Despite the flurry of interest and sometimes truly wild speculation surrounding this discovery, King is to be commended for her restraint and professionalism. She submitted her findings to a number of reputable colleagues before taking the papyrus translation public and she has repeatedly cautioned against sensationalism. The New York Times article about King's publication describes her comments as follows:

She repeatedly cautioned that this fragment should not be taken as proof that Jesus, the historical person, was actually married. The text was probably written centuries after Jesus lived, and all other early, historically reliable Christian literature is silent on the question, she said.
But the discovery is exciting, Dr. King said, because it is the first known statement from antiquity that refers to Jesus speaking of a wife. It provides further evidence that there was an active discussion among early Christians about whether Jesus was celibate or married, and which path his followers should choose.
“This fragment suggests that some early Christians had a tradition that Jesus was married,” she said. “There was, we already know, a controversy in the second century over whether Jesus was married, caught up with a debate about whether Christians should marry and have sex.”

In the midst of the discussion regarding this lightening rod of a papyrological discovery, a friend of mine, David Sessions, who writes for The Daily Beast and Newsweek (and founded the Christian culture and politics blog, Patrol) contacted me to ask my point of view. He was thinking of writing a piece on the subject and wanted my opinion. I typed up my best off-the-cuff response and sent it on. Later, he asked if he could quote me, sent me the portion of my statement that he wished to quote, and I agreed. David's op-ed has now been published on The Daily Beast and will be appearing in the print edition of Newsweek. Please take the time to read the whole piece (it is quote short). But, the pertinent part with my quote is as follows: 

Even if Jesus didn’t have sex with the woman mentioned in the new fragment, a close female partner in ministry would undermine the Christian tradition of seeing women as temptresses who should be kept under male authority. “It certainly gives Mary Magdalene a leg up among the saints—maybe even over the Virgin Mary,” said Emily McGowin, a doctoral student in religious studies at the University of Dayton. “Who is more important, the woman who birthed Jesus, or the one who became ‘one flesh’ with him?”

I have no problem with David's piece as it stands. He has a particular "take" on the discovery that he wanted to tease out and part of what I said helped him to say that. What I said was definitely a provocative turn of phrase (!) especially, I would imagine, for my Catholic brothers and sisters. In retrospect, I fear that what I said, appearing as it does without the larger context, may give the wrong impression as to my meaning. So, I'd like to use this blog post to explain myself. I am a scholar, after all. I make a living explaining and explaining and footnoting and qualifying just about everything I say. So, here goes...

First, I want to say that in my opinion, it is highly, highly improbable that Jesus was married. Certainly the existence of this and a number of other late documents on the life and teachings of Christ suggest that there were some differences of opinion within some later Christian communities regarding Jesus' marital status. Most of the late gospels that suggest Jesus had a female consort of some kind are grouped into the (rather broad and often inexact) category of Gnosticism. That being the case, these gospels represent, in my opinion, aberrant versions of Christianity that do not hold anywhere near as much authority as the four Gospels of the New Testament (all of which are essentially silent on the matter of Jesus' marital status). So, I am rather unbothered by this new finding and don't find it particularly unsettling. Interesting?--yes. Helpful for better understanding the variant groups within early Christianity?--yes. Going to change anything having to do with the central tenets of the Christian faith?--not a chance. 

Second, I want to say more specifically that I find it highly, highly improbable that if Jesus was married, the Gospels writers would have intentionally left out that biographical tidbit. There was just no good reason to do so. It was typical for a Jewish man of Jesus' age to be married. Moreover, we hear later in the NT letters of the apostles having wives and traveling with them. Even though Paul was an advocate of remaining unmarried, he did not find married persons shameful or somehow less Christian than unmarried ones. Although the church would later come to have some significant debate over the comparative value of marriage versus celibacy, the writers of the NT were not, in my opinion, yet concerned with those matters. So, I think the idea that the authors of the NT intentionally suppressed the truth that Jesus was married (and to Mary Magdalene, no less!) is, frankly, absurd. (I'm looking at you, Dan Brown.) To come to this conclusion requires a level of suspicion regarding the NT writers and the early church that I simply don't possess.  

Third, even if we were to somehow come across totally incontrovertible, undeniable evidence that Jesus was married (and that's a big if), then I don't think that such a finding would jeopardize any of the central tenets of the Christian faith. Certainly, it goes against the way Christians have imagined Jesus for 2,000 years. A change of imagination would certainly be in order. And, yes, it might call into question the Catholic commitment to celibacy for its priests. But, because the NT simply doesn't speak of Jesus' marital status, it won't call into question the trustworthiness of the NT; nor will it change the facts of the Gospel. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ is coming again. That doesn't change just because the Son of God had a spouse. 

So, I must say that theological speculation about what the discovery of a wife for Jesus would mean to Christianity is just that: speculation. It's highly, highly unlikely. Dr. King's 4th century Coptic papyrus fragment certainly doesn't prove anything. And, even if Jesus did have a wife, it wouldn't change the core of the Christian faith. But, if I were asked to say what impact the possibility of a married Jesus would have, I would offer the following thoughts.  

First, it seems that a married Jesus would be able to identify with the struggles of married Christians, the demands of family life, and more. A married Jesus would open the possibility of having a married life without sin--something most of us can't imagine! Now, even if Jesus were married, some scholars have suggested that he could have been a part of a celibate marriage. (Don't shake your head in disbelief. These things were real in days gone by. Just because our oversexed culture can't imagine married life without sex, that doesn't mean it did not and has not existed.) For reasons of purity and devotion to God, it is possible that a married Jesus could have refrained from sexual intercourse with his spouse, particularly given the stringencies of his calling to travel and preach the Gospel. That said, if it were not that way and Jesus did engage in what we would call a "normal" married life (with sex included), then it certainly changes the way most Christians think about sex (almost always, I think, tainted with at least a touch of sin). If the God-man could have a wife without sinning, then that says something about the goodness of married life and married sex. It is admittedly jarring to think of Jesus in this way. But, it is not necessarily bad.

Second, if Jesus were definitely married and if we found incontrovertible evidence that he was married to Mary Magdalene (two major ifs!), then as I said rather indelicately in the Newsweek piece, "it certainly gives Mary Magdalene a leg-up among the saints." What I meant by this is that the union (whether spiritual or sexual or both) with Jesus might place Mary Magdalene in a different "classification," if you will, among the communion of saints--particularly in the Catholic tradition where the saints play a much more prominent role than in the Protestant tradition. It seems to me that she would have to take on greater importance if she were someone who shared an intimate life with God incarnate. She would, it seems to me, become at least as important (if not more) as Peter, James, and John, Jesus' so-called inner circle. And, she might even become as important as the Virgin Mary. 

Now, with the benefit of hindsight, it is clear to me that the last part of my statement about the Virgin Mary is unnecessarily hyperbolic: "Who is more important, the woman who birthed Jesus, or the one who became ‘one flesh’ with him?” I overstated things--something I have been known to do at times.  In the Christian tradition, the Virgin Mary did much more than simply birth Jesus. Speaking christologically, she provided the human flesh with which the divine nature of Christ was united. Moreover, Mary's "yes" to the announcement of the angel Gabriel was the narrative reversal of Eve's "yes" to the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Mary's active cooperation in the redemption plan of God, offering her own body and soul for the sake of the mission, deserves honor and reverence. Thus, even if it could be proven that Mary Magdalene was Jesus' wife, I don't really think she could possibly surpass the Virgin Mary in importance within the Christian tradition. Mary Magdalene would become important. Very important. But, her relationship with Christ would remain qualitatively different than that of Mary's. 

In conclusion, I want to say that I'm grateful to David for being interested in my perspective. (Who am I to be quoted in Newsweek, anyway?) Of course, he's not to blame for my lack of clarity and ill-advised hyperbole. I hope that this post helps to clarify the context of my thoughts from his Newsweek piece and explain more fully what I think about this new papyrological discovery. And, of course I'm happy to discuss the other aspects of this recent discovery with any interested readers.