Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Could Jesus have had a wife?


In the wake of the DaVinci Code release, I thought it would make for a nice thought experiment to ask whether Jesus could have had a wife. Does it matter? What's at stake in the question? What significance does Jesus' marital status have for his identity as Lord and Savior of the world?

Note that I am not asking the very different question "did Jesus have a wife?" Such a question is rightly established by historical inquiry.

For instance, I find the specific suggestion that Jesus hooked up with Mary Magdalene highly dubious, as there are no trustworthy documents that make such a claim. Even those that hint at it do so in a mythological way that has little to do with history and are embedded in a gnostic philosophical schema that identifies their relationship as a sort of mind-meld, and therefore the furthest thing from fleshy relations. In light of the historical record, a cover-up surrounding a marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene is pure fantasy .

The broader historical question of whether Jesus had a wife (other than Mary Magdalene) is best left open. Most of the documentation makes no mention of Jesus' marital status. To say conclusively that Jesus was single is an argument from silence. We hear about his father, mother and brothers, and therefore could say that if he had a wife she would have been at least mentioned as they are. It is thus probable that Jesus was single. But probability is not conclusive certainty. What we can say with certainty is that if Jesus had married, we know nothing of it nor was it particularly relevant information to those who preserved his memory.

The stark silence on the matter from the Gospels and other records makes possible the pure speculative (i.e., not historical) thought experiment I want to explore: Could Jesus have had a wife? Is there some reason why Jesus must be single to be who he is and do what he does?

Some would be inclined to say that Jesus' singleness is connected to his sinlessness. Jesus was sinless and so therefore does not engage in the "necessary evil" of sexual intercourse. Needless to say, I think such a connection is an incredibly bad idea. I do not believe that sex is inherently sinful. Therefore, there is no logical necessity requiring Jesus to abstain from sex in order to be a sinless sacrifice.

More to the point, some might say that Jesus' divinity is at stake in this matter of his singleness. If Jesus had a wife, then he could not be divine. This seems to the assumption of The DaVinci Code, which incorrectly and unimaginatively represents the problem of Christology as a choice between the divinity and humanity of Jesus. Orthodoxy Christianity has from early times affirmed both the divinity and the humanity of Jesus. It is not a coincidence that The DaVinci Code focuses exclusively on Nicaea 325, which affirmed the full deity of Christ, but makes no mention of Chalcedon 451, which affirmed the full humanity of Christ. Christians need not feel threatened by the suggestion that Jesus led a fully human life, which in principle could have included marital relations. Of course, I am not saying that he did have a wife. I am just saying that Christians can handle the thought that he could have had a wife.

Of course, this is just a thought expiriment. We ought not to speculate about such things for too long. Precisely because the Gospels do not speak about the matter, we should be careful not to focus too much on these distracting lines of inquiry. We are called to attend to Scripture in what it does say, not what it could have said.

Nevertheless, this thought experiment hopefully shows what is at stake in the ideas and objections that are floating around today: namely, not that much. The drama of The DaVinci Code might make it seem like a big deal, but Christians have dealt with greater challenges than this before. In the face of such "heresy lite," we can calmly but confidently respond to the objection by pointing back to the truth of Jesus Christ.

Any thoughts?
Have I misrepresented the historical record concerning Jesus' marital status?
Is there some good theological reason for denying even the possibility that Jesus was married?
Does the sheer vehemence of Christian reaction to The DaVinci Code reveal something about our own forgetfulness of the full humanity of Christ?
How do we best respond to such tantalizing alternatives?

26 comments:

The AJ Thomas said...

I guess my theory has always been that it would have been socially irresponsible for a man who knew for a fact that he would die young to get married. On the other hand if you tried hard enough you could argue that Jesus must have been married in order to be tempted to cheat on his wife in order for it to be true that he was "tempted in all ways like we are". I don't see any serious theological issue with a married Jesus. However if he had kids that's a whole different story. Which leads us back to my first point. To leave a young widow without kids to take care of her would be pretty low. To leave little (potentially) divine ankle biters around is also problematic. So if not "doing unto others..." and not showing love and compassion are sin then I guess you could argue that Jesus could not have been the sinless Lamb if he chose to marry. Ok I'll shut up now.

Eric said...

Great thoughts as always. Many Christians have argued that we can simply dismiss the book as fiction, that it has no spiritual value for faithful followers of Christ. While I don't think the book in any way provides us a new vision into who Christ is, I do think it provides a poignant moment for reflection along the lines of your post. Why is our knee-jerk reaction to reject that Jesus could have been married? Certainly, the historical improbability of it in light of the textual evidence is partly behind the response, but I wonder if there is something more. Have we so calcified our vision of the "historical Jesus" that when jarring counter-visions come into view, we simply reject them? Is such a strict demarcation of who Jesus can be healthy to our faith? Are we closing ourselves to new possibilities?

Amanda said...

Hmmm--you've got me thinking (again).

I can't think of any theological reasons why marriage would be a problem; although I would be surprised if that were the case.

It would seem strange for Jesus to tell John to take Mary as his mother while on the cross and not hand over his wife for someone to look after as well.

Amanda

Ken Schenck said...

Hear, hear! It cuts both ways, the conservative who gets angry because he or she assumes it is unbiblical to suggest Jesus was married (wrong) and the self-proclaimed "subversive" who thinks it's somehow enlightened to suggest, "You know Jesus might have been married" (boring). Probably not, but no sweat.

Mark W. said...

If Jesus was married, doesn't that kind of dismiss the whole symbolism and theology of him as the Bridegroom and the Church as his Bride?

Wouldn't that be adultery on his account?

ap said...

If the connection between procreation and marriage is as strong as I think it is, then I don't believe Jesus would have married without intending to procreate. And hindsight reminds us that a procreating God raises issues of ontology that can cross one's eyes.

Kristopher said...

he wouldn't of had time for a wife.

Denise said...

It seems that Mark 10 does need to be taken seriously here:
7 For this cause a man will leave his father and mother, and will join to his wife,
8 and the two will become one flesh, so that they are no longer two, but one flesh.


This seems pretty problematic when considering the coming together of a fully divine/human husband and a strictly human wife. Of course, we do have the virgin birth... but does that work in reverse?

Aaron said...

It is of no consequence to my faith ... I think you are right on most if not all accounts. Children don't really bother me either ... I don't think there were any, nor do I think he was married ... but neither would shake my faith.

Ben Robinson said...

Mark W. beat me to the point I intended to present. I have read both the book and seen the movie (of the daVinci Code) and after considerable reflection am concerned with whether the marriage of Jesus with an earthly wife would undermine his marriage with the Church. To me that's the most serious issue that arises with such speculation.

Dave & Lynnette Mason said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Dave & Lynnette Mason said...

When Jesus said "Who is my mother and who are my brothers?" He shows his lack of need for regular human relationships, replaced with spiritual ones. I think Jesus would have been "married" to the Father and not have the need for a human marriage. Although I guess I agree that it would not have been sin for him to have taken a wife.

Being able to perform miracles probably would have really helped with his "honey-do" lists...later

The AJ Thomas said...

I don't think there is an issue with Jesus being married and his bride being the church. Death releases the bonds of marriage and only after his death did the church as we know it start.

Ben Davis said...

I see the point that an earthly marriage complicates the "bride of Christ" metaphor. But, it's a metaphor, so it is not ruled out necessarily by the possibility of a wife. The church can be the "body of Christ" even though Jesus had a physical body too.

taj said...

I have to say that I really would not have a problem were we to learn that Jesus had a wife. I cannot think of a better husband.

As far as how this might undermine the whole church-as-bride business, I think we're worrying a little too much about the issue. The writers of the Gospels still felt compelled to include this metaphor in their accounts, regardless of Christ's marital status, of which I am sure they were aware. No worries on my end.

Ben Robinson said...

I don't think we can so easily dismiss the complication of the Church as Christ's bride by simply appealing to "metaphor." Perhaps we are not taking seriously enough the implications of what it means to speak in such a way.

I would think it of no consequence that Jesus had a wife if there was no mention of the Church being Christ's bride. I would not even be that concerned with the ontology of Jesus' progeny. There is nothing about Jesus having a wife that would jeopardize his ontology, nor his work. But I have to refrain from saying there would be no theological conflict with Christ having a bride and the Church as Christ's bride.

God often related himself in marital language to the nation of Israel. The book of Hosea, for example, presents its message by viewing God as a faithful spouse even unto an unfaithful spouse. The prophets long spoke of God's relationship with Israel in marital terms before the incarnation. If the Church is the new Israel, then God has not severed his marriage relationships with Israel nor has the marriage motif begun solely after Christ's death. The marriage motif is strung out throughout the entire biblical narrative.

If we want to understand the Church as Christ's bride only metaphorically, fine. But we ought also acknowledge that metaphors are not used flippantly. They express something of great significance. The relationship that Christ has with the Church is of such intimacy that the chosen descriptive is marriage.

It seems it would be irresponsible for God, who has consistently shown himself faithful in the covenant with his people, to enter into another marital covenant with a woman during his earthly ministry.

Sniper said...

For all the hype... great director, and a historically good actor to boot... the movie was just terribly done. But anyway, I wonder how the early church would have responded to allegations that Jesus was married. John, help me out here, let me know when the gnostic texts suggesting his close relationships with Mary were discovered, and how the church reacted (other than, "they burned the books.") I wonder if we are responding in a way that the early church would have found nearly blasphemous.

For some reason, I find the argument from silence here much more compelling than I normally do. One would think that Paul would have made a comment about it when telling people 'that it's best to stay
single...' That would have really been a good point to say "Sure, Jesus didn't, but that's because..."

JohnLDrury said...

Sniper,

Isn't your example exactly a place where the silence on the matter proves the opposite? If early Jesus-traditions stated emphatically that Jesus was single, wouldn't Paul be likely to substantiate his preference for singleness on the basis of Jesus' singleness. Yet Paul strikingly makes no such appeal in I Cor 7, suggesting that Jesus' marital status was at minimum irrelevant and possibly even unknown to Paul.

As for the proper response to DaVinci Code and other contemporary heresies, that is the bigger issue at hand that interests me. Generally speaking, in the course of history book burning kicks in after hundreds of years of argument. We should consider pampleteering and dialoging for a while before we start burning (if ever). I believe one can support a robust account of heresy without burning books.

JohnLDrury said...

Ben & Ben re: Marital Metaphor

I think you guys have hit on a deep theological issue concerning the marital status of Jesus. I beleive it is especially insightful to identifty this as the locus of consequence instead of some ontological puzzle surrounding progeny (which betrays Hercules-like misunderstandings of Christology).

Ben Davis is probably right that, logically speaking, there is no inherent necessity requiring Jesus to be single for the bride of Christ metaphor to work.

Ben Robinson is probably right to warn us against using the designation "metaphor" in a minimalistic way and encouraging us to take seriously the theological implications of Biblical imagery.

I think this avenue of discussion raises a question about how much theological claims can guide us in making historical judgments. In other words, what are the limits to such speculations? This post-&-comment string was certainly lively, but was it fruitful? Have we come to know and understand our Lord in a deeper way because of the train of thought instigated by yours truly? I would like to think it has been edifying, at least in as much as it has propelled us to search the Scriptures. What do you think? What is the purpose and/or benefit of a speculative inquiry?

JohnLDrury said...

Ben & Ben re: Marital Metaphor

I think you guys have hit on a deep theological issue concerning the marital status of Jesus. I beleive it is especially insightful to identifty this as the locus of consequence instead of some ontological puzzle surrounding progeny (which betrays Hercules-like misunderstandings of Christology).

Ben Davis is probably right that, logically speaking, there is no inherent necessity requiring Jesus to be single for the bride of Christ metaphor to work.

Ben Robinson is probably right to warn us against using the designation "metaphor" in a minimalistic way and encouraging us to take seriously the theological implications of Biblical imagery.

I think this avenue of discussion raises a question about how much theological claims can guide us in making historical judgments. In other words, what are the limits to such speculations? This post-&-comment string was certainly lively, but was it fruitful? Have we come to know and understand our Lord in a deeper way because of the train of thought instigated by yours truly? I would like to think it has been edifying, at least in as much as it has propelled us to search the Scriptures. What do you think? What is the purpose and/or benefit of a speculative inquiry?

brookssayer said...

From a passage that has traditionally been highlighted as a reference to Christ: Isaiah 53:8 "By oppression and judgment he was taken away. And who can speak of his descendants? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was stricken." (NIV) This "who can speak of his descendants" talk MIGHT be some biblical evidence for Jesus not having any offspring, but is far shy of eliminating marriage as a possibility. (Notice that this verse comes through to the English differently in some other translations)
But of note is the fact that this profile of Jesus foretold in this passage does not lend to me, as a modern day reader, that Jesus was a great piece of "marriage material." But that's just to my 21st Century ears. (no beauty in appearance, despised, rejected by men probably doesn't appear often @ eharmony.com) That's all I have.

Thinking in Ohio said...

I simply want to compliment you on this post, John. You've handled a very contoversal issue with tact, wisdom and depth! Your point about Chalcedon is especially helpful in any discussion of church tradition and our doctrinal view of Christ's dual nature. Thanks for pointing out the obvious (but missed on my part) lop-sided emphasis on Brown's part.

So just keep thinking and writing so we can learn with you!

Siarlys Jenkins said...

You are getting more interesting than Keith Drury! And he's awfully good. I've had this discussion informally with a Coptic friend who abhors the idea that Jesus "defiled himself by having sex." I too don't see it as defiling. He WAS both fully human AND fully divine, according to orthodox doctrine. I don't adhere to whatever those church councils said -- they were human after all. But no, there is no fundamental reason Jesus could not have had a wife. If he did, it wasn't important enough to mention. Therefore, why should we care?

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that since God called Israel his wife, albeit unfaithful, and the church is the extension of the faithful saints and is referred to as the bride of Christ and we are at present the body of which He is the head that we need to accept that we are His espoused bride. Those who are tempted to believe Christ was married just don't know the Scriptures and will fall for strong delusions as the Scripture predicts.

Anonymous said...

I have read all of the above. Some way I dodnt have alott of history knowledge, but I think that Jesus came to earth as a man, Not as a God. He went trought all the so called earth like emotions, pain and happines, just like we do.
There will be alott of things which is not docemented in his life. If have 2 points here.
1. Im sure he felt love for people like his father and mother on earth Mary and Joseph. Im sure as a joung man he fell in love just like people do. Maybe he wasnt Married but had a female companien.
All people need people and He was send down a person.
2.I may be wrong but just like history repeats itself people did not officialy got married. Especially in those days.I think like today some people just ecsepted other people as a companien in thier life, and to asnwer the main question, I think Jesus had a companien and not a so called official wife. Thanks for reading.

lolsmilie31 said...

1 Corinthians 7:32-34

32 I want you to be free from the concerns of this life. An unmarried man can spend his time doing the Lord’s work and thinking how to please him. 33 But a married man has to think about his earthly responsibilities and how to please his wife. 34 His interests are divided. In the same way, a woman who is no longer married or has never been married can be devoted to the Lord and holy in body and in spirit. But a married woman has to think about her earthly responsibilities and how to please her husband.
___________________________________________________

So if Jesus did have a family there's no way he could be a 100% there with God. When you are married, most of your time is devoted to your wife and children and God expects man not to spend as much time with him because he knows a married man(or woman) has to fulfill his/her duties husbanding/nurturing their family. Jesus didn't marry but remain pure(virgin)to fulfill the prophecy or the Lord's work.