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.
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?