“Nihil sub sole novum”, or rendered into English, “There is nothing new under the sun”, is a phrase that came to mind just recently, thanks to the news that emerged about a 4th-century Coptic document.
The fragment, exhibited at a conference in Rome, has re-ignited a debate about whether or not Jesus was married. The same question that was raised some years ago by Dan Brown’s hugely popular novel, The Da Vinci Code, which depicted a marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene.
The current debate has arisen thanks to a piece of papyrus where researchers believe they have identified the words “Jesus said to them, ‘my wife’”.
Other experts have now weighed in and either dismissed the fragment as inauthentic, or said that eccentric writings such as this are common in early papyri.
However, it is worth looking at why the question of whether Jesus was actually married does matter, with the help of Mark Brumley, president of Ignatius Press:
Dan Brown’s wildly popular novel The Da Vinci Code postulates that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married. Brown argues that Mary Magdalene was the true “Holy Grail”—not some piece of dinnerware from the Last Supper. His many other absurdities, which he apparently intends to be taken by readers as fact, not fiction, are amply refuted in such works as The Da Vinci Hoax by Carl Olson and Sandra Miesel.
Most people assumed until recently that Jesus wasn’t married. Like so many other things people believe, they didn’t give much thought to the basis of their idea. But that’s changing. The assumption of the unmarried or celibate Jesus is now under considerable fire.
Brown isn’t the only one who has argued for a married Jesus. While virtually no mainstream scholar holds such a belief, many fringe scholars and popular neo-Gnostic, feminist, and New Age writers do. Of course, many of these writers also believe other extravagant notions—that Jesus was an extraterrestrial, for instance. Why, then, bother with the question of a married Jesus?
The answer is that unfounded notions often become popular misconceptions if they aren’t addressed at the outset. It’s unlikely that many people will fall for the idea that Jesus was an alien. But the idea of a married Jesus may be more susceptible to acceptance, and the work of Christians will be all the more difficult if people come to believe it. Why? Because Christianity holds that Jesus gave himself wholly to the mission of inaugurating the kingdom of God through his teaching, passion, death, and resurrection. If Jesus were married, then at some point he compromised his mission in the interests of married life or compromised his marriage in the interest of the kingdom. Neither scenario fits the Christian view of Jesus, which sees him as completely dedicated to doing the Father’s will—and to forming the Church to be his Bride.
Furthermore, if Christianity could get wrong something as basic as whether Jesus was married, what else could it have gotten wrong? More insidiously, perhaps Christianity hasn’t simply gotten it wrong; perhaps it has, as The Da Vinci Code claims, concealed and suppressed the truth about Jesus. In either scenario, the Church’s credibility suffers, and so does its ability to bring people to the full truth about God and man.
What the Bible Doesn’t Say
Catholics, of course, have Tradition as well as Scripture to which we can appeal to settle the matter of Jesus’ celibacy. And celibacy is not, for us, such an odd thing as to require elaborate explanation. Neither of those points is true, though, for many other Christians. They are uncomfortable with celibacy. They may have given little thought to why they believe Jesus was celibate. They will try to substantiate their view by appealing to the Bible. Indeed, looking at the biblical evidence on the subject can help us to help them—while it helps us, too. It shows us how Scripture and Tradition mutually support one another.
Appealing to the Bible when talking with non-Christians has its challenges, because non-Christians don’t necessarily accept what the Bible says as authoritative or historically reliable. Still, Christians have no place else to go. Nor, for that matter, do non-Christians. The fact is that the New Testament writings get us as close to Jesus, historically speaking, as anyone today can get. The New Testament documents were written far closer to the events and people they describe than the non-canonical gospels. Some non-Christians don’t accept that idea, but many do, and many don’t take the spurious and so-called “lost gospels” at face value or regard them on a par with New Testament writings. When talking to such people, Christians can and should use the New Testament as a set of historical documents—rather than as the word of God—to make the case for Jesus’ celibacy.
The New Testament doesn’t say that Jesus had a wife. There’s no hint of a wife in the Gospels, the book of Acts, the writings of Paul, or any other writings of the New Testament.
Supporters of a married Jesus argue that the absence of evidence in the New Testament isn’t necessarily evidence of absence. Of course, this could be true, unless the situation under consideration causes us to expect to see something we don’t see. For example, if a man is thought to be rich, but a thorough review of his bank account, his property holdings, and his lifestyle shows only average wealth, it’s a safe bet he’s not rich. Absence of evidence of wealth implies evidence of absence of wealth.
Similarly, if we find nothing where we would reasonably expect to see some reference to Jesus’ wife, then the absence of such evidence should be taken as evidence that Jesus was unmarried. In fact, we find no word of a wife of Jesus in places where we would surely expect to see such a mention if he had, indeed, been married: Jesus’ call to his ministry; his discussion of marriage, divorce, and celibacy; his death on the cross; and his resurrection. There are no explicit references in the Gospels to a wife of Jesus.
Sometimes it’s claimed that the wedding in Cana in John 2 is really Jesus’ own wedding. But that’s not what the text says, as a careful reading of it makes clear. On the other hand, it can be argued, as spiritual writers sometimes do, that Jesus’ “marriage” to the Church is hinted at in the way John tells the story of the wedding in Cana. In other words, on a figurative, spiritual level, the story of the wedding might lead us to think about how Jesus is united with his Church in a way similar to how a husband is united to his wife in marriage. But that’s very different than saying that Jesus married a woman in the story. According to the text, he didn’t.
Nor does Paul mention a wife of Jesus when it would have been helpful for him to do so. When Paul discusses the relationship between husbands and wives in 1 Corinthians 7, being able to cite the example of a married Jesus would have come in handy. Likewise, it would have been useful to point to Jesus’ wife when Paul argues that he and his collaborators have the right to bring a Christian sister along on their missionary trips to help with temporalities. Paul certainly drew on the example of the other apostles who brought their wives to help (1 Cor 9:5). Surely if Jesus had been married his example would have trumped that of Peter.
In Ephesians 5, we have the famous exhortation for spouses to model their relationships on the relationship between Jesus and his Bride—not a woman but the Church. It’s hard to understand why this analogy would have been used if Jesus had a wife.
The manifest absence of a wife continues in the book of Acts. It is true that there is no mention of Peter’s wife here either, but Luke had told his readers of Peter’s mother-in-law in his Gospel (Lk 4:38-39), so her existence was known. When Peter tells Jesus that he and the others have left their homes to follow him, Jesus says, “There is no man who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive manifold more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life” (Lk 18:29-30).
Jesus’ statement accounts for why we don’t see spouses of the apostles mentioned in the Gospels and in Acts; the apostles and their wives were separated for the sake of the apostolic ministry. Some apostles later took their wives along to assist them, as we have seen from Paul’s comments in 1 Corinthians 9:5. Yet we have no similar mentions of Jesus separating himself from a wife as the apostles did, no mention of a wife assisting him during his ministry, and nothing about a wife continuing Jesus’ work in the early Church, as later the apostles’ wives seemed to have done. The Gospels mention the putative father, mother, and “brothers” and “sisters” of Jesus (actually kinsmen of Jesus, not “blood” brothers and sisters). They mention his hometown of Nazareth and the people’s response to him there. They mention how some of Jesus’ family thought he was out of his mind, at least at one point during his ministry. But we find absolutely nothing about a wife. There is as much historical evidence for Jesus being married as there is for him being a professional surfer.
Evidence of Absence
Supporters of a married Jesus still object. Most Jewish men of Jesus’ age were expected to marry and had wives, they say. The Jews, they add, rejected celibacy, so, in the absence of explicit testimony to the contrary, we should assume that Jesus had a wife.
These are weak arguments. Celibacy was rejected by later Judaism, but whether it was widely rejected in Jesus’ time is not clear. At least some of the Essenes of Qumran—of Dead Sea Scrolls fame—practiced celibacy. Old Testament prophets such as Jeremiah were celibate. John the Baptist appears to have been celibate. Furthermore, some Jews of Jesus’ day thought Moses had lived as a celibate after his encounter with God on Mount Sinai. We have no reason, then, to rule out a celibate Jesus based on a supposed universal practice of Judaism.
Furthermore, Jesus talks about those who are radically committed to serving the kingdom of God—those who are “eunuchs” for the kingdom of God (Mt 19:12). Since Jesus saw the kingdom as embodied in his ministry and his actions, it makes the most sense to see Jesus himself as the quintessential “eunuch for the sake of the kingdom.”
Regarding the particular claim that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ wife, no extant document written within 150 years of Jesus’ death depicts or even implies such a relationship. Some might argue that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ lover rather than his wife. But surely someone during Jesus’ lifetime would have to have known this in order for us to know it today. If so, we should be able to find evidence of this in the gospel accounts written by Jesus’ enemies, where other accusations against Jesus are clearly recorded. But Mary Magdalene is nowhere called his lover. Furthermore, if such a claim were widely known in the early Church, there would be a body of polemics in the canonical Gospels against those making the charge. If it were true, why would the evangelists have even mentioned Mary Magdalene and risked giving credence to the very idea the Gospels supposedly want to suppress?
Only in a few obscure and very late apocryphal gospels is Mary Magdalene depicted in romantic terms. But these writings were generated by sects known to have specific ideological agendas and axes to grind. As they were attempting to counter the canonical Gospels and existing Christian beliefs in their “gospels,” we have no reason to think that they give us reliable information about the Jesus of history.
What’s more, none of the writings of those who immediately followed the New Testament writers—writers such as Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and Irenaeus of Lyons—refer to Jesus as having been married. We have to jump a century or more, ignoring all the evidence in between, to find even the slightest support for a married Jesus.
Absence of evidence is not, as we have said, evidence of absence. But neither is it evidence of evidence. The assertion that Jesus was married puts the burden of proof on those making the claim. Those who argue for a married Jesus simply haven’t met that burden. What evidence we have—even when considered apart from the Church’s Tradition—all points in the other direction.