Skip to comments.Why the Singleness of Jesus Makes the Best Sense of the Historical Evidence
Posted on 09/23/2012 1:33:02 PM PDT by SeekAndFind
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 nearly 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.
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 isnt exactly in need of re-ignitionits 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 Jesuss 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 Kingthe scholar presenting this fragment at International Congress on Coptic Studiesdid 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 Jesuss Wife didnt exactly lend itself to reasonable discussion and consideration.
Other scholars have already raised valid questions about the fragments 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 othersquestions such as, Why do Christians assume that Jesus wasnt married? And would it matter if he was? With that in mind, lets take a quick look at the earliest historical traditions about the Messiahs marital status.
:: What Early Christians Had to Say About the Singleness of Jesus ::
Dr. King has presented the so-called Gospel of Jesuss 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 Jesuss 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 wasnt.
Looking at the second- and third-century sources, Im not so sure. In the first place, while certainly possible, its far from certain whether the fourth-century fragment known as The Gospel of Jesuss Wife was translated from any second-century text. Furthermore, Coptic texts of this sort did not emerge in the context of intra-Christian controversies but from breakaway Gnostic sects, groups that had rejected the witness of the 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 Jesuss marital status?
In fact, in the first Christian references to Jesuss 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 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 Gods kingdom accessible to those wholike Jesusnever 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 Marya text that probably originated in a Gnostic context around the time of Tertullian, long after every eyewitness of Jesus had passed awaymerely 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 secret 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 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, its 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 friendshipnot 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 derivative of the Greek word koinonos. In Greek, this word denoted a fellow participant in a shared goal, but not necessarily a spouse or sexual partner. 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 Gods 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 Philipand most likely The Gospel of Jesuss Wife, if the fragment happens not to be a forgeryoriginated 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 Jesuss marital status assume his singleness, and the writers seem unaware that anyone might think otherwise. Implications that Jesus was married originate in historically-suspect sources, written more than a century 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 sermonpreached in the early-to-mid-second centurythe 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 Jesuss lifelong virginity: The Lord already had a bride, the churchand 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?
I suggest that, if Jesus had been married, these references to the church as his bride would haveat the very leastrequired some further explanation. Perhaps a reference to his spiritual bride and his earthly bride, or some other shade of distinction offered to distinguish the churchs 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 Christs bride and he has no other, whether spiritual or terrestrial. This is admittedly a suggestion from silence, butgiven the consistent metaphorical references to the bride of Christthe silence regarding any earthly marriage seems significant.
:: Why the Singleness of Jesus Makes the Most Sense ::
Several years ago, The Da Vinci Codebreakera book I cowrote with my friend Jim Garlowhit 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?
Im 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 wouldnt destroy my faith. Jesus would still be the 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. Im not against the idea that Jesus was married. What Im against is the weak historical basis of such a supposition.
The idea of a married Messiah wasnt rejected among the earliest Christians because such a revelation would cause the Christian faith to fall apartit might cause theologians to rethink the way they frame some doctrines, but no essential belief in the Christian faith is dependent on the singleness of Jesus. A married Jesus wasnt rejected because early Christians wanted to downgrade human sexualitywith few exceptions, they didnt. The marriage of Jesus didnt become part of the churchs 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 Jesuss Wife has done nothing to change that fact.
Timothy Paul Jones, Ph.D., is associate vice president and professor of leadership at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. He is author or coauthor of more than a dozen books in the fields of church history and Christian education. Dr. Jones blogs at http://www.timothypauljones.com.
See also related article here:
TITLE: Christian Scholars Not Fazed by ‘Gospel of Jesus’ Wife’
i agree this is much ado about nothing, but i find it very interesting that this non catholic is using the writings and opinions of the church fathers for backup.....
and yet wont refer to these same church fathers who unfailingly show the catholicity of the early church in terms of doctrine and dogma.....
I think you are confusing the Roman Catholic Church with the early catholic church fathers. They are not the same thing.
There is no evidence either way proving Christ was single or married. I go with married since it would be hard for a man of his age to be single in that time period.
Fine, let me rephrase, the early church fathers reflect pretty much unanimously, the early roman catholic church teachings of doctrine and dogma.....
“I think you are confusing the Roman Catholic Church with the early catholic church fathers. They are not the same thing.”
Of course not, but they do belong to the same True Church.
The guy in this lead article gives An awfully wimpy defense. This by a FReeper, Gen-X-Dad, from another thread, in but a few paragraphs does a much bettter job, in my opinion:
“Ancient documents written by gnostics, heretics, and opponents of the first century church get dug up by todays media in an attempt to demoralize Christians. Gnostics, heretics, and opponents of the first century church wanted to redefine Christianity in their time. They were booted out and their documents and alternative beliefs were not considered relevant by the early Christians.
Two thousand years later, these alternative documents are presented as more accurate, revealing, and credible than any other historical Christian document. Even though historical Christian documents have been scrubbed inside out by archaelogists and historians in an attempt to prove or disprove the Bible. This is being done because the alternative documents promotes the agenda of the anti-Christian faction, that permeates media and entertainment, to redefine Christianity in modern times. So in some sense, the modern day gnostics, heretics, and opponents of Christianity are picking up the baton from their ancient counterparts.”
Ray-gun and I really liked How this guy, Gen-X-Dad, put it.
ping for later
Try reading Scripture through faith in Christ to see what His Plan was for the Son.
Become familiar with the obvious veritable Scripture before placing misguided faith in another Gospel given from less veritable sources.
“For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”
I believe Our Lord was referring to Himself in that last phrase.
I recall reading, a long time ago, about some Muslims somewhere (Pakistan? Afghanistan?) who believed that they were descendants of Jesus. So the idea isn't new--but their belief may have nothing to do with some gnostics in Egypt.
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Well, Jesus was a rabbi and rabbis are supposed to be married men... And that is because the first command from God was to be fruitful and multiply...