Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Mrs. Jesus?

It's all over the news and social media: did Jesus have a wife?

A friend of mine, a pretty good New Testament scholar in his own right, has commented on Facebook: 
... for Christians Resurrection is the defining action/miracle/fact. Whether or not the historical Jesus was married has always been an argument from silence. The Gospels (and Paul) display on interest in the subject. His culture (1st Century Judaism) held marriage in high regard. He was not Greek. So I imagine the topic was simply irrelevant to the writers of the New Testament. It is an interesting historical question but throws no new light on faith, or even the practice of celibacy.
I agree with him, mostly. Certainly for Christians, the crucifixion of Jesus and then what happens on the third day is at the core of our proclamation of the "good news."  We are an Easter people. 

It is also true that as a first-century Jew, Jesus would have held marriage in high regard. I remember my own professor of New Testament saying in seminary that the argument from silence can cut in both directions, but that it would have been very unusual for a first-century Jewish male to NOT be married, and that if Jesus was not married it would more than likely have been mentioned. So, he concluded, he probably was. This was more than twenty-five years ago, so none of this is really "breaking news."

The only place I really disagree with my friend here, however, is that it at the very least re-frame not only questions about the practice of celibacy but about Christian marriage and even more especially about the full inclusion of women in the life of the Church. If Jesus was married (and if his wife was a disciple) then it definitely challenges the notion that only celibate males should be priests, as is still argued by some. 

Professor King herself notes that this fragment does not "prove" that Jesus was married. And it is pretty unlikely at this stage that we will be able to uncover any solid evidence that would do so. But I think it's usefulness is more in inviting a conversation and in checking out the energy such a possibility generates within us, especially if we are practicing Christians.

What if Jesus was married? Does that anger us? Frighten us? Make us feel even more connected to his humanity? If he was married, how would that change our understanding of him? How might it challenge our understanding of marriage? And if the whole idea of this possibility offends us, what does that say?

As a married priest, I certainly am not offended or even surprised. I suppose that all things being equal I'd probably be glad to learn that he was, but that even if he wasn't it helps to remember in reading the Gospels that we are not reading a biography and most of his private life is not shared with us in any of the canonical Gospels. The focus is on his public ministry. And the cross.

And, of course, the resurrection.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting op-ed piece I had not seen when I wrote this in The New York Times by the Rev. James Martin, S.J.

    Of particular interest to me, are these words which I believe echo what I tried to say above:

    "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 only difference I see is that he, as a celibate priest and me, as a married priest, each see this from our own perspective. But on what it means for the holy, catholic church we are pretty much on the same page.