Mr. and Mrs. Jesus Christ?
AT an academic conference in Rome on Tuesday, Karen L. King, a church historian at Harvard Divinity School, presented a finding that, according to some reports, threatened to overturn what we know about Jesus, as well as the tradition of priestly celibacy. She identified a small fragment of fourth-century papyrus that includes the words, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…’ ” Another clause appears to say, “she will be able to be my disciple.” Some experts have concluded that the manuscript, written in Coptic, is authentic.
But does this mean that Jesus was married? Probably not. And will this fascinating new discovery make this Jesuit priest want to rush out and get married? No.
It is more likely that Jesus was celibate. Remember that Dr. King’s papyrus dates from the fourth century — roughly 350 years after Jesus’s life and death. The four familiar Gospels, on the other hand, were written much closer to the time of Jesus, only a few decades away from the events in question. They have a greater claim to accuracy — even if the new manuscript is, as has been surmised, a copy of an earlier, second-century text. The Gospel of Mark, for example, was written around A.D. 70, only about 40 years after the crucifixion.
And what do the Gospels say? For one thing, the Gospel of Mark describes Jesus, who had settled in the town of Capernaum, on the Sea of Galilee, as receiving a surprise visit from his family, who had come from his hometown, Nazareth. “A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, ‘Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.’ ” Why no mention of a wife?
The Gospel of Matthew, written only 15 or 20 years after Mark, recounts how the people of Nazareth were shocked by Jesus’ preaching. “Is not this the carpenter’s son?” they asked about their former neighbor. “Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us?” At this time, Jesus is presumably around 30 years old. Again, in this long catalog of his relatives, why no mention of a wife?
And why, with so many women present at the crucifixion (various Gospels include Jesus’ mother, Mary Magdalene, another woman named Mary, Salome and “the women who followed him from Galilee”), is Jesus’ wife omitted?
The silence in the Gospels about a wife (and children) in this context most likely indicates that Jesus did not have a wife and children during his public ministry, or in his past life in Nazareth.
What about the most popular candidate for the role: Mary Magdalene? Could she have been Jesus’ wife, as supposed by Dan Brown’s novel “The Da Vinci Code”? (By the way, I’m not equating Dr. King’s careful scholarship with the novels of Mr. Brown, though the conclusions some might draw are similar.) Mr. Brown’s hypothesis fails by another criterion: Mary would have been referred to, like every other married woman in the Gospels, by her husband’s name. She would have been identified not as “Mary Magdalene” but almost certainly as “Mary, the wife of Jesus.”
Why might Jesus have remained unmarried? Jesus, who knew the fate of other prophets, may have intuited that his public life would prove dangerous and end violently, a burden for a wife. He may have foreseen the difficulty of caring for a family while being an itinerant preacher. Or perhaps he was trying to demonstrate a kind of single-hearted commitment to God.
The Rev. John P. Meier, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame who is widely considered the dean of historical studies of Jesus, favors that last explanation in “A Marginal Jew,” his monumental study. “The position that Jesus remained celibate on religious grounds,” he concluded after sifting through the evidence, is “the more probable hypothesis.”
Dr. King herself cautioned that the papyrus fragment did not constitute proof of Jesus’ marital status. But it may represent evidence of a debate among the early Christian community (say, from the second to fourth centuries) over whether Jesus was married.
What if corroborating evidence of marriage is found from an earlier date? What if scholars unearth a first-century papyrus with additional lines from, say, the Gospel of Mark, which states unequivocally that Jesus was married? Would I stop believing in Jesus, or abandon my vows of chastity?
No and no.
It wouldn’t upset me if it turned out that Jesus was married. His life, death and, most important, resurrection would still be valid. Nor would I abandon my life of chastity, which is the way I’ve found to love many people freely and deeply. If I make it to heaven and Jesus introduces me to his wife, I’ll be happy for him (and her). But then I’ll track down Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, who wrote so soon after the time of Jesus, and ask them why they left out something so important.
The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest, is a contributing editor to the Catholic magazine America and the author of “Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life.”