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Why is it important that Jesus wasn’t married?
Allow a personal disclosure first. I don’t think Jesus was married. But in the past month or so since a textual fragment was discovered that suggests he was married, I’ve asked myself the question above. I haven’t come up with a compelling answer. Perhaps you can help me.
The primary argument I’ve heard against a married Jesus is that the Bible is mute on the subject. But rabbinic scholars have argued just the opposite – saying that it was so common for rabbis to be married that an unmarried rabbi would have been mentioned while a married rabbi would have been taken for granted. The fact the Gospels say nothing one way or the other leads some to speculate he was married. (See, for example, David Bivin’s New Light on the Difficult Sayings of Jesus: Insights from his Jewish Context, En-Gedi Resource Center, 2005.)
I don’t necessarily buy that argument, but I wonder what difference it would make if he was married? What if some incontrovertible proof were found – I don’t know, maybe a photograph of the Last Supper that showed Jesus wearing a wedding ring? Would that rock your world or just cause you to shrug your shoulders? I guess another question is “How theologically important is it that Jesus was single?”
I wonder if there isn’t something else going on in the strong feelings some have on this subject. I’ll borrow another way to frame my question from Dale Bruner’s masterful two volume commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Eerdman’s, 2004) when, in a discussion of the “mythologizing of Mary,” Bruner asks, “What does Mary lose if she relates intimately to Joseph?” Here’s Bruner on Mary:
We are given the impression by some teaching that should Mary have later become a wife to Joseph physically she would have lost something spiritually. I believe that this persuasion is dangerous doctrinally and morally and that it is allied to other errors in the field of sexual ethics – from priestly celibacy and resisting women’s ordination to scientific contraception and annulment. Today, Catholic sexual teaching is in a shambles. The rehabilitation of a fully married Mary will be a step toward reconstruction. Matthew’s subsequent record of Jesus’ honoring but not requiring single life (19:10-12) will be another step toward the wholeness of NT sexual teaching. (vol. 1, page 49)
Can we ask the same question about Jesus? What would Jesus lose spiritually if he were, in fact, married?
I wonder if the knee-jerk reactions to the idea come from a deep seated shame about human sexuality or a Docetic inability to let Jesus be fully human. Does a married Jesus somehow become weak because marriage suggests he had human desires and needs?
I don’t find anything in the gospels that convinces me Jesus was married. And the recently discovered (probably Gnostic) fragment doesn’t provide the sort of proof needed to change my mind. But if such a proof were to come along, it would not cause me to radically alter my view of Jesus. How about you?
Well, Jeff, I just so happened to address this in my sermon on Sunday, October 7, and as long as you're inviting it, I will recount some of it. Towards the end of my sermon I claimed that for the Pharisees, marriage was absolute and cheap, but for Jesus, it was relative and precious. Please indulge me for the lead-up, which follows here:
Why are little children special to the Lord? Why does he make them examples for us? Well, first off, I don’t think it’s coincidental that, in the Greek original, all of Jesus’ words for children are in the neuter gender, neither masculine or feminine. You get this in other languages too, that their sexuality is undeveloped yet. There is something in this about the Kingdom of God, that our sexuality as individuals is not the most important thing about us, and that behind our gender is our more essential unity as human beings. You certainly see that in the Genesis story, how sexuality is relative, not absolute. Jesus draws the point out later in a debate with the Sadducees, in saying that in the Resurrection there will be no giving or taking in marriage, and that we will be single, like the angels of heaven. Which anticipates our freedom from the sociology of sex.
Which means that your marriage is temporary, it’s not eternal; it’s for this life, not for the life of the world to come. The Mormons get this wrong, with their doctrine of celestial marriage. Mr and Mrs Romney expect to be married forever and ever and ever, while Mr and Mrs Obama are only married till death do them part. (I’m just saying!) So while marriage is a wonderful gift and mystery of God, it is not absolute, it’s relative. It’s for our lives here in between, in between this creation and the new creation, for existing in between the angels and the animals.
No wonder the Lord Jesus did not get married. You know that his not being married will have kept him from being perfect among the Jews. But consider that he had figured out by this time that he was born to die, which would make it unfair of him to entangle any wife and children he might have. More than that, he was the Adam of the future, the Adam of the new creation, and in that new creation, to be single is not to be alone. How this will be remains a mystery, for then what about the remaining sexual characteristics of our resurrected bodies? We don’t know. The difficulty of this mystery led to later speculations, like that fourth century Coptic papyrus recently in the news, that Jesus must have been married. The Orthodox went the other way, to underplay his sexuality and his full humanity. The challenge is to aim down the middle, in between the sacredness of marriage on one side and its relativity on the other, the challenge is to live between the angels and the animals.
Thanks for inviting the discussion, and I hope this helps advance it.
I appreciate the insights Daniel posted above. I'd just add that if it is recorded that Jesus took pains to provide for the care of his mother Mary from the cross, would he not have done as much for a wife if he had one?
Wouldn't it make sense that Jesus included himself among those who "renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 19:12)?
Odd stories were written all over the Eastern Mediterranean about Jesus. Written accounts of Jesus as a child have been found, we don't find it proof that he blinded people and made clay pigeons fly, why should stories of his marriage be different? Even if this is found not to be a fraud, and the scholarship of the professor studying it suggest it's not, it only proves that some of the people in this region had a slightly different tradition. Interesting, but we already know this: his very essence meant different things to different regions until the councils started making decisions about what, exactly, a growing movement was going to believe (and how it would organize, etc).
An eldest Jewish son, in that time, was expected to take a prominent role in his family, not an American nuclear family but an old world family of parents, aunts, uncles, and all the dozens of children that might survive; and if the father died, as was common in the shorter lifespan of the time, to take responsibility for the family's income, as women had no way of earning money. Jesus abandoning his father's business and wandering the countryside to preach his "Father's Business" was already scandalous. Not worrying much about what others judge, bucking convention and remaining single seems entirely in his character. Yet this would have been highly unusual at the time, and as Jeff explains, and would be more likely to be mentioned since it would be so uncommon. It could go either way, and since we have only fragments collected into a story that details the minutes of his death but only a few brush strokes for his entire life, we'll probably never know. But I agree, that as intriguing as it is, and as Daniel, the last commenter, suggests, as healthy as it is for our modern whole-person understanding, it has very little to do with anything theological for me.
It's hard for our modern ears to hear, living in an age of respect to both sexes and more of a place that Jesus describes on that front, but back then, women counted to society as those who retold the tales as much as the farm animals you owned or the grain you stored. A wife, children, a whole family would be more likely to be assumed but not even worth mention, especially as Jesus was extremely poor. It is more likely, historically, that Jesus not only had a wife most of his life, but that he had children, and at his age, his earliest children would be considered "grown", allowing them to assist with family if many others were still young, and this could allow him to be baptized by John and take on a preaching life. His travels didn't have to be more than a day or a few days from home at most, the "town down the road" being culturally a different country in his day, and his trips simply being part of an "expanded" life now with a larger family of his own. Intriguing as it is, unless you fret about magic bloodlines and such, it has nothing to do with his life, his message, or even his death.
Since Jesus is fully human, there is nothing to preclude the idea that he was married. However, the argument that the mores of the day expected rabbis to have a wife overlook one important fact. There was a least one community in ancient Palestine that practiced celiabacy–ie. the Essenes of Qumran. In which case celibacy, while at the fringes of Jewish cultual norms, was at least a viable option. On such a reading Daniel Meeter's arguments make even more sense.