Did Jesus have a wife? Five years ago a tiny papyrus scrap in the Coptic language appeared to suggest he did. It bore the incomplete words: ‘Jesus said to them, my wife…’
Bit of a bombshell. The canonical Gospels do not refer to a Messiah’s spouse, nor do indeed the other New Testament writings. The multifarious Gnostic texts that are known to us, as well as ancient Jewish polemicists, which might have had a mischievous interest in mentioning such a person, also are silent about a Mrs Jesus of Nazareth. Needless to say, the traditions of the Christian Church have maintained hitherto that Jesus was unmarried. What to make of the papyrus’ claim?
Harvard Professor Karen King, addressing a conference in Rome, gleefully nicknamed the find ‘The Gospel of Jesus’ wife’. A feminist, she rejoiced in the supposed setback to a certain Christian ideal of celibacy as superior to the married life. The Council of Trent had actually issued an anathema against those who held the contrary. Although the Catholic Church no longer teaches that, the impression that sexuality and holiness may be difficult to reconcile still holds sway in some quarters. Regardless, the Vatican called the papyrus a forgery. Radiocarbon dating cast doubt on the find’s authenticity. A scholar thought it absurd that in the text the words ‘My wife’ are written in bold type as if to emphasise the meaning. Karen King herself later admitted the papyrus was of spurious origins. However, the challenge remains: was Jesus married? And, if not, why not?
First, nowhere does the New Testament state that Jesus was unmarried. Hence the argument that he had no wife is an argument from silence. A notoriously weak type of reasoning. Nonetheless, if the lucky lady ever existed, she must have kept a very low profile for having escaped notice so thoroughly. It won’t do to argue that the early Church covered up the evidence. The Gospels, for example, do refer to Jesus’ brothers and sisters. On the face of it, a difficulty for the Christian belief in Jesus being God’s only son. Yet, the reference was not omitted. Nor was the embarrassing assertion of Jesus’ relatives that ‘he is beside himself’. Such passages prove that, had Jesus had a consort, the Gospel writers could have mentioned her, however unpalatable the idea. Similarly, they undermine the quirky claims of novelists like Dan Brown, author of the entertaining Da Vinci Code, according to which the Messiah’s wife had been doctored out of history by scheming male clergy.
It may also be worth pointing out that Jesus appears several times in the Qur’an, in the narrations (ahadith) and other texts belonging to Islam. They too, as far as I know, never speak of a ‘Jesus’ wife’. Given past theological controversies between our faiths, had there been evidence of such a spouse, why not mention her, to stress the Prophet Isa’s humanity? On the contrary, I learn from a distinguished Islamic scholar that in the Nahjul Balagha, Sermon 160, Imam Ali declared that Jesus had neither wife nor children.
Second, although celibacy and virginity have been honoured vocations in Christianity, equally has marriage. Jesus performed his first miracle – turning water into wine – at a wedding ceremony, not at a monastic ordination. The historical marriage service in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer says that marriage was instituted by God and that it signifies ‘the mystical union that is between Christ and his Church’. A similar imagery is evoked by St Paul, himself a married man. Denigration of marriage has usually been a characteristic of weird heretical sects, such as the Cathars and the Albigensians. The Catholic Church considers marriage one of the Seven Sacraments and even maintains, alone in Christendom, its indissolubility. Thus, there would have been nothing essentially undignified about a married Messiah. It is important to say that.
Doctrinally speaking, matters are far from being simple. Being married normally implies having children. Jesus’ hypothetical offspring – what would their theological status have been? Namely, Jesus being the Son of God, as Christians believe, what would that make of his children? Grandchildren of God? That would be nonsense. Mary became pregnant by the supernatural action of the Holy Spirit and that was a one-off, unique, unrepeatable. Still, Christology – the study of the nature of the incarnate Christ – asserts the perfect union of two natures, the human and the divine. They cannot be separated or confused. How would Jesus’ physical children have fitted into that? The mind boggles.
Another, more mundane but real problem, is that among the Hebrew Semites into which Jesus was born marriage was absolutely and universally the norm. Everybody got married. That was the accepted, universal custom unless a man suffered from impotence or malformation. Yet, there were Hebrew sects and communities where celibacy was pursued, such as the Essenes. The Jewish historian Josephus testifies to their existence and practices. Could Jesus have belonged to them during his youth? The Gospels say that Jesus was about thirty years old when he came forward publicly as the Messiah. Prior to that, the last time there is a reference to him is the Gospel of St Luke, where his age is given as twelve. So, there is an eighteen-year gap between the two recorded events. What was Jesus of Nazareth up to during that time? His earthly trade, the Gospels suggest, was that of a carpenter. But he might conceivably have done something more, apart from work.
The truth is that Jesus’ sentimental life – call it married life, or ‘love life’, if you wish – is a mystery and I suspect will always remain so for us mortals. Of course, God knows best.