Podcast discussion with Eric Barreto, Cameron Howard, and Sarah Henrich. Article written by Sarah Henrich.
Was Jesus married -- and why do we care?
In the wake of the recent publication of a small (1.5-inch x 3-inch) piece of a Coptic (an ancient language of Egyptian Christians) manuscript, we suddenly have "The Gospel of Jesus' Wife" along with speculation about Jesus' marital status and the presumption that the Church -- that mythical, monolithic entity -- is suppressing the whole truth.
Let's just start with some very basic facts about this Coptic fragment:
- Its age. Even if we trust that the fragment is genuine -- that it comes from an original manuscript and is not a forgery -- we are left with what seems to be a 4th century translation into Coptic from a 2nd century Greek original. Even the original Greek would come from a later time than any of the New Testament documents. The Coptic version would follow by another two hundred years.
- The very small fragment contains very little text and supplies no context for the bits of dialogue that were able to be translated.
- The text is full of gaps, increasing the sense of uncertainty about how to understand its meaning.
This fragment, even if genuine, cannot be trusted to share historical, biographical information about Jesus. What it does tell us is that certain persons in perhaps the 2nd century and surely in the 4th considered it important to claim that Jesus was married, probably to support human marriage as appropriate for believers and blessed by God. Early believers disagreed about marriage, sex, and procreation for as many different reasons as there were different theologies. As beliefs were developing, being sorted out, attacked and defended, many documents were written in support of particular behaviors.
As believers tried to express their identity and devotion by living as their Savior (and his disciples) had lived, the gaps in the New Testament stories became problematic. Stories of Jesus’ childhood appear in which he manifests his divine powers from an early age (The Infancy Gospel of Thomas). The early centuries of Christian development offer many such documents which are not taken as historically revelatory about Jesus. Instead they speak to us of their time.
The New Testament does not speak of Jesus as married, ever. Is an argument from silence trustworthy? The various documents of the New Testament come from different authors, communities, localities, and times periods. In none of them do we have a hint that Jesus was married, even in those letters that clearly advocate marriage for believers. Why would the persuasive example of Jesus’ own life be omitted when it would have been so useful?
Perhaps a more significant question for us is whether it would matter if Jesus had been married and why. If fragments like the one recently published have resonance among us, what do we learn about ourselves?
Many of us, like those early Christians, want to know more about Jesus and his disciples so that we can live as Jesus wanted us to live. Jesus becomes our model as well as our savior. No longer do we have to imagine that Jesus blessed human marriage on the basis of the wedding feast in Cana (John 2:1-11), but we would have Jesus’ own marriage to provide sanction for our own. For the devout, a married Jesus could be seen as "more like us" or "more human."
For some, the Church (that mythical monolith again!) seems to have devalued sexual intimacy and used that devaluation to control all sorts of things and people. Mary's virginity and that of Jesus established their ideal humanity over against sexual activity -- the drives, lusts, joys, and vulnerability that most humans know as part of daily life. In our own time, attending to our sexual selves is highly valued and connected to our sense of identity. Might there be some excitement about Jesus as a married person because it makes likely that Jesus was also a sexually active person?
For a lot of folks, mistrust of the Church is very high indeed. Were this fragment taken as pointing to a historical truth about Jesus, it would indicate to many that the Church had hidden this information for its own purposes until today. This would underscore the validity of mistrust for the faith as it has come to us from our forebears and enhance a "conspiracy theory" approach to Christian history.
Finally, for a few people (ardent followers of the Da Vinci Code, for example) to hear of Jesus' wife raises the question of Jesus’ progeny. Was there a Jesus gene passed to later generations that might carry special powers, divinity in some way? To raise this issue is deeply to misunderstand the witness of believers to the nature of God's power. But it is entertaining to let one's imagination run free: humankind has been doing it for a long time!
But does it change anything? Whether or not Jesus was married, Christians have long enjoyed the opportunities for marriage and raising of children. Whether or not Jesus was married, Christians have long experienced the joys and tribulations of sexually active lives. Whether or not Jesus was married, churches have struggled to interpret his life, death, and resurrection as a promise for humankind and for creation. Must we find that Jesus engaged or refused to engage in certain behaviors in order to claim them for ourselves? Is his life alone a model for us? The New Testament, like the old, is full of promises whose fullness we cannot see. It alludes to signs that are not described, God's Holy Spirit whose activities are not predictable according to old formulas for getting it right.
In a world loved by such a Holy One, the question of Jesus' marriage (which I find very doubtful) ought not occupy our attention so much as attending to the very real relationships of ourselves and our neighbors.
 For a look at the text, check out the website of the Harvard Divinity School where Karen King, who analyzed the fragment, teaches. http://www.hds.harvard.edu/faculty-research/research-projects/the-gospel-of-jesuss-wife (accessed January 21, 2013).
 For an excellent, thorough article looking at the question of Jesus' marriage in New Testament documents and in many later ones from the early church, see http://www.patheos.com/blogs/markdroberts/series/was-jesus-married-a-careful-look-at-the-real-evidence/ (accessed January 21, 2013).
Sarah Henrich is Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minn.