Ariel Sabar, writing for The Atlantic, has presented clear and convincing evidence that the so-called Gospel of Jesus’ Wife is a forgery. Dr. Karen King unveiled the fragment in 2012 and suggested that the Coptic text came from a fourth-century copy of an otherwise-unknown second-century Gospel. The clause that gave the fragment its name was found in the fourth line, which read, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife.'”
Sabar’s careful investigation of the fragment’s origins reinforced arguments presented earlier by scholars such as Andrew Bernhard and Francis Watson that the text on the scrap of papyrus was a forgery. Now, even King has admitted that the fragment is probably fake, though she has seen no need to retract her earlier paper.
Sabar’s outstanding piece of journalism does, however, make a couple of minor missteps along the way. I’ve discussed the difficulties with his passing reference to the development of the New Testament canon in an earlier post. In this post, I want to take a closer look at what Sabar had to say about the potential impact of the suggestion that Jesus was married. According to Sabar,
Centuries of Christian tradition are bound up in whether the scrap is authentic or, as a growing group of scholars contends, an outrageous modern fake: Jesus’s bachelorhood helps form the basis for priestly celibacy, and his all-male cast of apostles has long been cited to justify limits on women’s religious leadership.
It is true that the singleness of Jesus has been used to support certain Roman Catholic traditions over the centuries. Prior to becoming Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger declared that priestly celibacy bears “witness to Jesus Christ … with this specific mode of existence.” And yet, when it comes to the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, the problem is that—even if this text had turned out to be authentic—the fragment revealed nothing that related to the actual marital status of Jesus.
Even when Dr. King argued that the fragment was authentic, she admitted that the fragment provided no historical evidence that Jesus was married. (At the same time, her decision to name the fragment “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” didn’t exactly lend itself to reasonable recognitions of its limitations!) Even those who considered the fragment to be genuine identified it as a fourth-century copy of a text written a century or more after the time of Jesus.
During this era in the second century, the eyewitnesses of the life of Jesus had passed away, and all sorts of sects had splintered off from the faith of the first Christians. These sects developed retellings of the life and teachings of Jesus that were never intended to represent historical realities. Whether genuine or forged, one more text about Jesus from one of these sects would have had no impact on the question of whether or not Jesus was married, because nothing about the text’s origins suggested that it might be traceable to any reliable testimony about the life of Jesus. Despite what Sabar suggested in his article in The Atlantic, “centuries of Christian tradition” about the singleness of Jesus were not bound up in whether or not Karen King’s fragment was authentic.
Still, all of these discussions and disagreements have raised legitimate questions in many people’s minds—questions such as, “Why do Christians assume that Jesus wasn’t married in the first place? And would it matter if he was?” With those questions in mind, let’s take a quick look at the earliest historical records that mention the marital status of Jesus.
What Early Christians Had to Say About Whether Jesus Had a Wife
Dr. King originally presented the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife as evidence that arguments over the singleness of Jesus were a pressing issue among second-century Christians. “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,” according to King. 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 had been married while others said he wasn’t.
And yet, these claims turn out to be quite tenuous when scrutinized in the light of writings from the second and third centuries A.D.
In the first place, these alternative Gospels did not emerge in the context of “intra-Christian controversies.” They came from breakaway sects such as the Gnostics and Cainites—splinter groups that rejected or reinterpreted the testimonies of the apostolic eyewitnesses. The primary concern of such sects 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.
But what about 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”? No, not really. Truth be told, it’s difficult to find any competing claims about the singleness of Jesus among any ancient writers.
Clement of Alexandria
The earliest writer to mention the singleness of Jesus explicitly was Clement of Alexandria. Clement was a Christian theologian who began teaching in Alexandria around AD 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 agreed with them that Jesus “neither married nor had any possession in this world” (“se imitari Dominum, qui neque uxorem duxit, neque in mundo aliquid possedit,” Stromata 3:6:49).
Tertullian of Carthage
Around 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, Tertullian of Carthage mentioned that Jesus, a lifelong celibate, had made God’s kingdom accessible 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 referred to Jesus as “entirely unmarried” and “voluntarily celibate in flesh” (“innuptus in totum…spado occurrit in carne,” 5).
What is noteworthy in each of these references is the fact that neither of these authors 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 assumed the singleness of Jesus.
What About Jesus and Mary?
The only potential proofs of competing claims aboutJesus’ marital status turn out to provide little, if any, real evidence at all. 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—suggests that Jesus “loved [Mary] more” than he loved other women but says nothing at all about Jesus’ marital status (10).
Gospel of Philip seems to have been written a little later, in the first half of the third century. This text describes a secret “bridal chamber” initiation ritual by which spiritual mysteries were passed from one person to another in a Gnostic sect known as the Valentinians (Gospel of Philip 67). As such, most of the language in the book is symbolic 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 this fictive 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, but not necessarily or even primarily a romantic connection.
- Gospel of Philip also calls Mary Magdalene a “companion” with whom Jesus was “joined” (59). The term translated “companion” is a Coptic derivative of the Greek word koinonos. In Greek, this word denoted a fellow participant in a shared goal, but not particularly a spouse or sexual partner. Paul had koinonos connections with Titus, Philemon, and the entire church at Corinth (2 Corinthians 2:7; 8:23; Philemon 1:17), and Simon Peter called himself a koinonos in God’s glory (1 Peter 5:1)—so, clearly, the Greek term did not require marital or sexual relations! (For further examples of the functions of the Greek word 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.) More importantly, texts such as Gospel of Mary and Gospel of Philip originated among Gnostic sects that seem to have been concerned with illustrating arcane myths and rituals, not with preserving accurate testimony about Jesus.
Jesus Already Has a Wife
“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,” Roman Catholic scholar Raymond Brown wrote more than three 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.”
The entire hubbub surrounding the forged fragment known as the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife has demonstrated once more the truth of Brown’s words.
Despite a deluge of books and movies and articles 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 explicit references to Jesus’s marital status assume his singleness, and the writers seem unaware that anyone might think otherwise.
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). 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 Jesus?
If Jesus had been married, these references to the church as his bride would have—at the very least—required some further explanation. Perhaps this would have taken the form of a reference to his “spiritual bride” in contrast to his “earthly bride,” or some other shade of distinction 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, seem to be made with the assumption that the church is Christ’s bride and he has no other, whether spiritual or terrestrial. This is admittedly a suggestion from silence. Still—given the consistent metaphorical references to Christians as the bride of Christ—the silence regarding any earthly marriage seems significant.
The idea of a married Messiah wasn’t rejected among the earliest Christians because such a revelation would cause “centuries of Christian tradition” to fall apart—it might have caused theologians to rethink the way they frame some doctrines, but no essential belief or practice in the Christian faith is dependent on the singleness of Jesus. The marriage of Jesus did not become part of the church’s story of Jesus for a single reason: No evidence exists for such a union in any witnesses that are traceable to reliable testimony about the life of Jesus. Even if the so-called “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” had been authentic, the fragment would have done nothing to change that fact.
Carefully read the article by Ariel Sabar. How should this exposé of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife change the ways that we respond to new discoveries that claim to change what we know about Jesus or the early church? How has the information in this blog post sharpened and enriched your understanding of early Christianity? How would you explain to a friend that, even if Gospel of Jesus’ Wife had been authentic, it wouldn’t have changed anything that you believe about Jesus?
For more on the lost Gospels and the reliability of the New Testament, take a look at my book Misquoting Truth.