Martin: Could Jesus have had a wife?

"Through the centuries, Christians have needed to come

"Through the centuries, Christians have needed to come up with new versions of Jesus, made to fit their own times," writes Dale B. Martin. (Credit: Janet Hamlin)

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So, was Jesus married?

That question was raised on cable channels, in newspapers and across social media last week, as news emerged about a small piece of papyrus that quoted him referring to a wife.

The short answer is, probably not. But of course, we don't have the kind of documents historians would really like to have -- such as marriage licenses, newspapers or letters -- to be sure.


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But have some Christians speculated that Jesus was indeed married? Yes. And with the publication by Harvard professor Karen King of that (probably) fourth-century papyrus fragment, we may be able to say that such speculation started at least in the second or third century.

If the reports are accurate, the papyrus is likely a small piece torn or cut off a document about Jesus, possibly a noncanonical "gospel." We now have many of them -- the Gospels of Thomas, Philip, Mary and, published in 2006, Judas.

Many such documents were discovered in 1945, in the so-called Nag Hammadi library, books discovered in a tomb on a bank of the Nile in Egypt. The newly trumpeted papyrus fragment would be right at home, apparently, among other such Christian -- though not always thoroughly "orthodox" -- literature from the second to fourth centuries.

But to the punch line. The fragment presented by King is in Coptic, the main language of Egypt at the time. It is likely a translation from an originally Greek text. In its very few words, Jesus speaks of "my wife" and says that "she will be able to be my disciple."

That's about it. Not much to go on. And thus, the bad news: It provides no reliable evidence at all about the life of the historical Jesus of Nazareth.

Scholars are just about unanimously agreed that all the data we have for reconstructing the life and sayings of Jesus come from the four canonical Gospels, as well as the letters of Paul and possibly the Gospel of Thomas. It comes as a surprise to many that, as far as we know, no non-Christian contemporary of Jesus wrote anything at all about him, but that's the fact. Even our earliest Gospel was written by someone who didn't know him and published 40 years after his death.

The papyrus fragment doesn't change that. So, as King and other scholars have emphasized, it provides no evidence whatsoever that the historical Jesus was actually married.

 

But it does indicate that some Christians, perhaps as early as the second century, thought Jesus could have been married -- and perhaps even wanted to believe that. So while we learn nothing more about Jesus, we do learn more about them.

The recently published Gospel of Judas gives us no real information on the historical Judas or the historical Jesus, but it does show us how some Christians were speculating about Judas and revising his role for their own beliefs. Likewise, some Christians seem to have imagined that Jesus was married and that he honored his wife with a special place among his disciples.

And once we think about it -- and place the fragment within the context of other documents, such as many of those in the Nag Hammadi collection -- we may propose a reason such Christians thought Jesus must have been married.

Some of these documents provide elaborate mythologies about how the world came to be, including a large pantheon of many different divine beings at many levels of divinity. According to some of them, most of those divine beings existed in pairs of male and female. Male gods had their female consorts and vice versa. These couples "emanated" or "generated," still more divine beings.

According to one book, the "Apocryphon [Hidden Book] of John," a female divine being Sophia tried to emanate a divine child of her own, but without the cooperation of her male consort. The product was a monstrous, demonic god, Ialtabaoth. The name, in Coptic, sounds suspiciously like the Hebrew name for the God of Israel, Yahweh, and this character probably was understood to be the "God" described by Genesis as the creator of the physical world. Sophia tried to hide her mistake from the other divine beings, but it went on to make all sorts of mischief, including creating the physical world and arrogantly claiming to be "the only God."

All the evils of our universe, according to this myth, came about because a female deity tried to produce a child without her male counterpart. This is not such an odd idea in the ancient world. In the Greco-Roman world, ancient men knew they couldn't produce offspring without women, but they sometimes feared that women might be able to do so without men. Men invented "facts" of their own to warn that any offspring created by females without male cooperation would be sickly or deformed. The myth of Sophia emanating a monstrous, evil god fits into this ancient male anxiety. The belief was widespread that male and female were supposed to go together.

 

It all makes sense of why, to some people at that time, Jesus needed a wife. If Christians in the second or third century had come to worship Jesus as a god, as they certainly did, they may have thought that he needed a female consort. If they were the kinds of Christians who produced some of the literature of the Nag Hammadi collection, they may have assumed that most divine beings had to exist in male-female pairs. If Jesus was one of them, even if he was one of the highest of them, he probably needed a wife. So they invented one for him.

Through the centuries, Christians have needed to come up with new versions of Jesus, made to fit their own times. Jesus the warrior king. Jesus the prophet of love. Jesus the judge. Jesus the shepherd. Today in America, many people make a single Jew out to be a man of family values. Some Christians apparently also did so in the church of late antiquity.

Dale B. Martin, a professor of religious studies at Yale University, is the author of "Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation."

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