“It is an embarrassing insight into human nature that the more fantastic the scenario, the more sensational is the promotion it receives and the more intense the faddish interest it attracts,” biblical scholar Raymond Brown wrote nearly two decades ago. “People who would never bother reading a responsible analysis of the traditions about how Jesus was crucified, died, was buried, and rose from the dead are fascinated by the report of some ‘new insight’ to the effect he was not crucified or did not die, especially if his subsequent career involved running off with Mary Magdalene to India.”
This week, this embarrassing aspect of human nature has been on full display once again on television screens and news headlines. A scholar from Harvard University has presented a fragment of papyrus, allegedly copied about three centuries after the days when Jesus walked on the earth, that includes this clause: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife.’” The news media reacted as if the five Coptic words underlying this clause had suddenly reset the entire field of biblical studies.
Public Radio International suggested that this fragment might “challenge hundreds of years of religious belief” by re-igniting “a centuries-old debate about the role of women in the Christian faith.” (Never mind that the fragment tells us little, if anything, about the role of women in Christian faith or that this debate isn’t exactly in need of re-ignition—it’s remained fairly well-ignited for a long time.) According to Bloomberg Business Week, “evidence pointing to whether Jesus was married or had a female disciple could have ripple effects in current debates over the role of women.” (Never mind that the New Testament is filled with examples of female disciples and that their existence has never been in question.) The Washington Post claimed the papyrus had renewed debates “about scholarship focused on Jesus’s marital status and the veracity of early church documents.” (What the text has to do with the truthfulness of early Christian texts, I am not sure; what it has to do with the marital status of the historical Jesus is, as it turns out, practically nothing.)
Dr. Karen King—the scholar presenting this fragment at International Congress on Coptic Studies—did admit, to her credit, that the fragment “does not … provide evidence that the historical Jesus was married.” At the same time, her decision to name the fragment “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” didn’t exactly lend itself to reasonable discussion and consideration.
Other scholars have already raised legitimate and pressing questions about the fragment’s authenticity as well as pointing out the irregularities in how the research was publicized. All of this kerfuffle will soon die down, quite possibly with the revelation that the fragment was a forgery in the first place.
And yet, the publicity may have raised a legitimate question or two in the minds of Christians and others—questions such as, “Why do Christians assume that Jesus wasn’t married? And would it matter if he was?” With that in mind, let’s take a quick look at the earliest historical traditions about the Messiah’s marital status.
:: What Early Christians Had to Say About the Singleness of Jesus ::
Dr. King has presented the so-called “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” as evidence that arguments over the singleness of Jesus were a pressing issue among second-century Christians. The fragment provides “direct evidence,” according to King, “that claims about Jesus’s marital status first arose over a century after the death of Jesus in the context of intra-Christian controversies over sexuality, marriage, and discipleship.” In other words, second-century Christians were arguing about issues related to sex and marriage. In the midst of these arguments, some Christians claimed Jesus was married while others said he wasn’t.
The second- and third-century sources do not, however, support this supposition. In the first place, while certainly possible, it’s far from certain whether the fourth-century fragment known as The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife was translated from any second-century text. More likely than not, this fragment is a modern forgery. Even if we assume for a moment that the fragment is authentic, Coptic texts of this sort did not emerge in the context of “intra-Christian controversies” but from breakaway Gnostic sects, groups that had already rejected the testimony of apostolic eyewitnesses. The primary concern of the Gnostics would not have been whether Jesus was actually married but how they might portray Jesus in a way that would illustrate their own myths and rituals.
Yet what of the earliest Christian mentions of Jesus and marriage? Do they suggest intense “intra-Christian controversies” that resulted in competing “claims about Jesus’s marital status”?
In fact, in the first Christian references to Jesus’s marital status, I find no hint of competing claims about whether Jesus was married or single.
The earliest Christian writer to refer explicitly to the singleness of Jesus seems to have been Clement of Alexandria. Clement was a theologian who began teaching in Alexandria around A.D. 180. In the closing years of the second century, Clement wrote against false teachers who had declared marriage taboo; these false teachers had claimed that “marriage is the same as sexual immorality.” While arguing against these heretics, Clement commented that Jesus “did not marry” (Stromata 3:6:49).
About the same time that Clement was writing against false teachers who regarded marriage as immoral, a lawyer named Tertullian became a Christian and quickly turned his rhetorical skills toward defending the Christian faith. In a treatise urging monogamy for Christians, Tertullian of Carthage mentioned that Jesus, a lifelong celibate, had made God’s kingdom accessible even to those who—like Jesus—never engaged in sexual relations (“… ipso domino spadonibus aperiente regna caelorum ut, et ipso spadone, quem spectans et apostolus…,” De Monogamia 3). Later in the same treatise, Tertullian termed Jesus “entirely unmarried” and “voluntarily celibate in flesh” (“innuptus in totum…spado occurrit in carne,” 5).
What is noteworthy in all of these references is the fact that neither author feels compelled to defend the singleness of Jesus. Both Clement and Tertullian, in treatises focused on other subjects, mention this status in an offhanded manner, as if both they and their readers assume the singleness of Jesus.
:: What About Jesus and Mary? ::
The only potential evidences of alternative perspectives on Jesus’ marital status turn out to provide little, if any, real evidence at all.
The Gospel of Mary—a text that probably originated in a Gnostic context around the time of Tertullian, long after every eyewitness of Jesus had passed away—merely mentions that Jesus “loved [Mary] more” than he loved other women (10). The Gospel of Philip seems to have been written a little later, in the first half of the third century. The Gospel of Philip describes a “bridal chamber” initiation ritual by which spiritual mysteries were passed from one person to another in a Gnostic sect known as the Valentinians (The Gospel of Philip 67). As such, much of the language in the book is metaphorical in the first place. According to this text, Jesus “was kissing” Mary Magdalene (63-64). A small hole appears in the manuscript after the word translated “kissing.” As such, it’s impossible to know where or how Jesus supposedly kissed Mary. In a culture where kissing served as a common greeting (Acts 20:37; Romans 16:16; 1 Corinthians 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:26; 1 Peter 5:14), kissing would have suggested close friendship—not necessarily or even primarily a marital connection. The Gospel of Philip also calls Mary Magdalene the “companion” with whom Jesus was “joined” (59). The term translated “companion” is a Coptic loanword from the Greek word koinonos. In some cases, the word could suggest a spouse. Far more often, the word denoted a fellow participant in a shared goal. Paul had koinonos connections with Titus, Philemon, and the entire church at Corinth (2 Corinthians 1:7; 8:23; Philemon 1:17), and Simon Peter called himself a koinonos in God’s glory (1 Peter 5:1). (For further examples of the functions of koinonos in the New Testament, see Matthew 23:30; Luke 5:10; 1 Corinthians 10:18, 20; Hebrews 10:33; and, 2 Peter 1:4.) Most important of all, texts such as The Gospel of Mary and The Gospel of Philip—and most likely The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, in the event that the fragment turns out not to be a forgery—originated among Gnostic sects that were far more concerned with describing arcane myths and rituals than with preserving any historical information about Jesus.
:: “The Lord…Already Had a Bride” ::
Despite multiple media melees over the past few years that have implied otherwise, there is simply no reliable historical evidence to support the supposition that Jesus was married. The earliest references to Jesus’s marital status assume his singleness, and the writers seem unaware that anyone might think otherwise. Suggestions that Jesus had an earthly wife originated in historically-suspect sources, written a century or more after Jesus walked the earth.
There is, I would add, one more historical hint that Jesus was single. This evidence dates even earlier than the writings of Clement and Tertullian. The evidence simply this: The consistent testimony from the first century forward was that the church was to be considered the bride of Christ.
The apostle Paul made this point in the mid-first century (Ephesians 5:24-33). In his description of the end of the age, the apostle John likewise depicted the church as the bride of Christ (Revelation 21:2). In the earliest surviving Christian sermon—preached in the early-to-mid-second century—the pastor proclaimed, “‘God made man male and female.’ The male is Christ, and the female is the church” (2 Clement). Clement of Alexandria himself gave this as the primary reason for Jesus’s lifelong virginity: “The Lord…already had a bride, the church”—and these are only a few of many such references from the first centuries of Christian faith.
So what do all these metaphors have to do with the marital status of the historical Jesus?
If Jesus had been married, it seems that these references to the church as his bride would have—at the very least—required some further explanation. Perhaps a reference to his “spiritual bride” and his “earthly bride,” or some other shade of distinction offered to distinguish the church’s relationship to Jesus. Yet these statements, some of which can be traced back to eyewitnesses of the life of Jesus, are made with the assumption that the church is Christ’s bride and he has no other bride, whether spiritual or terrestrial. This is admittedly a suggestion from silence, but—given the consistent metaphorical references to the bride of Christ in early Christian documents—this silence regarding any earthly marriage is significant.
:: Why the Singleness of Jesus Makes the Most Sense ::
Several years ago, The Da Vinci Codebreaker—a book I cowrote with my friend Jim Garlow—hit the bestseller lists about the same time that Sony Pictures released the movie The Da Vinci Code. As a result, dozens of television and radio stations interviewed one or both of us in the space of a few weeks. At some point during that flurry of interviews, one interviewer asked me, “Why are you so against the idea that Jesus was married?”
“I’m not,” I replied after a second or two of reflection. “If I woke up tomorrow morning and saw that archaeologists had exhumed incontrovertible evidence that Jesus was married, it wouldn’t destroy my faith. Jesus would still be the crucified and risen Lord. But, as I examine the historical evidence, I find absolutely no substantial evidence to suggest that Jesus was married. And I find even less evidence of some sort of church-wide cover-up. I’m not against the idea that Jesus was married. What I’m against is the weak historical basis of such a supposition.”
The idea of a married Messiah wasn’t rejected among the earliest Christians because such a revelation would cause the Christian faith to fall apart—it might cause theologians to rethink the way they frame some doctrines, but no essential belief in the Christian faith hinges on the singleness of Jesus. A married Jesus wasn’t rejected because early Christians wanted to degrade the gift of sexuality—with few exceptions, they didn’t. The marriage of Jesus didn’t become part of the church’s story of Jesus for a single reason: In all the eyewitness testimonies to the life of Jesus and later reflections on his life, no reliable proof exists for such a marriage. The announcement of a so-called “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” has done nothing to change that fact.