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My Take: I don't know if Jesus was married (and I don't care)
September 21st, 2012
09:28 AM ET

My Take: I don't know if Jesus was married (and I don't care)

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

A few years ago I wrote a book about Jesus in the American imagination. What I learned along the way is that the American Jesus is a Gumby-like figure who can twist and turn in almost any direction.

Our Jesus has been black and white, gay and straight, a socialist and a capitalist, a pacifist and a warrior, a civil rights activist and a Ku Klux Klansman. Over the American centuries, he has stood not on some unchanging rock of ages but on the shifting sands of economic circumstances, political calculations and cultural trends.

Part Proteus, part Paul (who called himself "all things to all men"), he became during the Victorian period a sentimental Savior. During the Progressive era of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, he flexed his muscles and carried a big stick. During the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s, he grew his hair long and strummed his guitar for peace.

Now, in an era in which Americans are debating who can marry and have sex with whom, we are given a Jesus who has given his body and soul in marriage, at least if we are to believe the scrap of ancient papyrus soon coming, via Harvard Divinity School professor Karen King and the Smithsonian Channel, to a television set near you.

“Jesus said, ‘My wife,'” this Coptic papyrus reads, and since King announced her finding at a Coptic studies conference in Rome on Tuesday, the world is trying to imagine not only what manner of man (and god) this might be, but what sort of woman he might have taken into his marriage bed.

As for the question everyone is asking — was Jesus married? — the only correct answer is that we do not know.

There are all sorts of reasons to be skeptical about this find. First, according to King it is owned by an anonymous dealer who is willing to give the fragment to Harvard, but only if it buys other parts of his collection.

Second, we don’t yet know anything about where this fragment was supposedly found or by whom, and the world of ancient Jewish and Christian manuscripts is replete with fakes and fakers.

Third, even if the papyrus is genuine, it points only to one author quoting Jesus as referring to his wife. Perhaps that author was simply trying to push the early Christian tradition away from a preference for celibacy over marriage.

Or perhaps the reference is to some symbolic or spiritual “wife,” rather than one of the flesh-and-blood type. (In the New Testament Jesus already refers to himself as the bridegroom.)

In the end, what intrigues me about this tiny fragment (it measures roughly 1.5-by-3 inches) is the huge hype. The original Belief Blog piece on this story has over 4,000 comments and counting. And a Smithsonian documentary is in the works for September 30.

Jesus may be one of the best attested figures in the ancient world, but we still know hardly anything about him. And because he is the key figure in the largest religion in the world, we are keen to fill in the blanks.

The Jewish tradition has a name for this: midrash, which refers to a way of storytelling that fills in the gaps. This is what Americans have been doing for centuries with Jesus. Not sure where he was during his “lost years” from the end of his childhood to the beginning of his ministry? Send him off to India. Not sure how he looked? Draw a painting or carve a statue.

What is going on here, as I see it, is a reluctance to say, “I don’t know.”

The truth of the matter is that we don’t know what Jesus looked like. We don’t know where he was or what he was doing when he turned 18. And we don’t know if he was ever married or divorced.

What we do know is that we live in a country besotted with Jesus and in an age obsessed with marriage and sexuality and the body, which is why this tiny papyrus is making such big waves.

As for me, I don’t much care what Jesus thought about marriage, or whether he engaged in it. I think we as a society tend to collapse religion far too readily into bedroom questions, as if Jesus came into the world to tell us with whom we should be having sex, and how.

I’m more interested in what Jesus has to say about wealth and poverty, the rich and the poor. And there is plenty in the available record to read and heed, "if only we have ears to hear."

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Belief • Christianity • Coptic • Jesus • Sexuality • United States

soundoff (2,026 Responses)
  1. uwa

    if this was about some other religious symbol, a fatwa would have been issued against the writer

    February 2, 2013 at 1:56 pm |
  2. sad

    It's sad that the authors views are shared by many a religious person. You would rather have blind faith than a faith based in truth and facts. If new historical information has been discovered about your religion, you guys should be eager to learn what it is.

    October 18, 2012 at 11:19 am |
  3. james bennett

    Belief that Jesus, the Christ of God was married, that is sooooo sad!!!!Just saying

    October 14, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
    • pockets

      Let's face it the guy called jesus loved banging women also. Is that so bad. He could have been gay and that's ok to. What is the problem here people, you have to remember your dealing with a fairy tale here. its all a myth, so have fun with it. There is no god, so relax and enjoy your lives and your bedrooms. Get it on bang a gong, get it on.

      October 18, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
  4. GOOD NEWS

    My take: I don't know if Jesus was married (and I don't care);
    What I know (and I do care) is:
    Jesus was a true Prophet, and what he foretold here (=John 6/27, 40) has absolutely come True now:

    http://www.holy-19-harvest.com

    ==UNIVERSAL MAGNIFICENT MIRACLES!

    October 11, 2012 at 6:06 am |
    • james bennett

      Just a thought, I one does not know whether Jesus was married or not and does not care it is prima facia that one does not know Jesus at all. Jesus is engaged!! Scriptures conclude that his church faithful is His intended and the consumation will occur after the resurrection. Just saying.

      October 14, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
  5. ChrisVC

    The bigger question is: Did Jesus actually exist? Aside from the Bible, (which in and of itself is not evidence), there is not evidence that Jesus of the Bible was ever an actual person. It's striking how much he, and many people in the Bible read like fictional, or fictionalized characters.

    October 1, 2012 at 8:48 am |
    • soduh2

      Denying Jesus' existance is the nontheistic equivalent denying global warming. Whether or not he was the Christ is a matter of faith, but most historians (regardless of the faith or lack thereof) agree that he existed.

      October 1, 2012 at 11:20 pm |
    • james bennett

      Such a response is indicative of ones like of knowledge of secular history!!!

      October 14, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
  6. Smooth Criminal

    My Take, the fictional carictor you refer to as Jesus could of been marrid, maybe not, it dose not matter because he was not REAL.

    October 1, 2012 at 6:33 am |
    • BWANA DIK

      Bubba, have some more moonshine

      October 4, 2012 at 10:40 pm |
    • james bennett

      Ignorance of the law is no excuse, even of Christ's law, read your secular history, secular historians account for the reality of Christ. Jesus did by account of secular historians and as to what one believes about him, is of course, the individuals concern.

      October 14, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
  7. Henry Peter

    It is such a simple derivation yet people seem to make it complex.....there is no reason to hide if Jesus was married and hence from the approved Gospels themselves it is clear he is not married.....if you start looking for evidence that explicitly it says jesus was not married, that is not he right approach. If he were married it would be clear. However Jesus views on marriage is very serious in the Gospel (one cannot say one cannot care) and in fact he uses his authority that no one ever has...even going to the very beginning....when people asked him about Moses Law on Marriage, he says, "it was for your hardened heart....in the beginning it was not so.." (Mt 19). In fact Jesus clearly shows how highly esteemed marriage is and what sort of commitment is expected. One cannot conveniently walk away from this view of Marriage and still hold other things about Jesus.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:59 pm |
  8. O

    In this day an age this seems such a supreme waste of brain power. The irony of looking for historical/ archaeological/ miraculous evidence should speak volumes to anyone wishing to understand the world and how it works. Fifty years ago some folks were talking endlessly about flying saucers, a few thousand years back, Quetzalcoatl was popular in some quarters. Witness Joseph Smith a mere hundred-fifty years back. etc etc etc. The fact that we happen to have preserved written "proof" and a continuous- albeit historically shifting- set of religious beleifs i.e. Christianity etc, means merely that those stories really lucked out- or at least greatly benefited from the human interest stories and cultural successes within which they thrived. I liken this discussion to the nitpicking over say, the quality of lead pipe at an ancient Roman plumbing convention. Wake up folks. There are a lot of moral lessons incorporated into most religions. Some good, some not so much. They can stand alone without the necessity of a fantastical conduit.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:37 pm |
  9. Bri

    If Jesus was married, why would he want it to be a secret? It makes no kind of sense. As much as he loved children, if he had some, why would he not want people to know?

    September 30, 2012 at 8:52 pm |
    • G.I. G.I. Joe

      I don't know whether the historical Jesus would have had a problem. The real problem is with the established religions. If Jesus had children and was God, then there could be a race of demigods walking among us. If we reduce the argument a step back, then a married Jesus who became one with his partner elevated that partner to divine status. Also, the purpose of marriage is procreation, which is the next logical leap for a married Jesus.

      I know that I am arguing against the bible as it reads today, but I think the historical Jesus did not think of himself as God. ...or he was nuts. If I assume that he was reasonably sane, then I think that he saw himself as a man clarifying God's message. The divine stuff got twisted and mixed in by later generations.

      October 4, 2012 at 10:49 pm |
  10. Anybody know how to read?

    'Jhn 12:32 And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all [men] unto me.' Looks like swarms of mocking antichrists as usual.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:20 pm |
    • james bennett

      Ah! but these things must be. Those who deride do not realize that they themselves are fulfilling God's words, that in the last days mockers would rise and wax worse and worse. Actually, though sad for some it is wonderful to view the fulfilling of prophecy wouldn't you say??

      October 14, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
  11. MarriedToMaryM

    In some scholarly circles, it is well-known that Jesus was not only married to Mary Magdaline, but survivied the Cruxifion with the assistance of Pontius Pilot, was smuggled with his family through various countries, eventually ending up in France where he lived into his 80s.

    Nonetheless, the early (and present) Catholic Church considers such perspective a heresy.

    There is much evidence that Mary Magdaline continued Jesus' ministry in France for many years.

    September 30, 2012 at 7:06 pm |
    • lotus_notes

      Do you believe Jesus was the actual Son of God? If so, why would he fake His death? He purpose was to eventually die and resurrect His body to break the bands so that all of us can be resurrected one day. Where is the Glorified Savior in your theology? He was more than just a man!... and by the way... I believe Jesus was married too.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:02 pm |
    • simpletruth

      Jesus wasn't white. That picture looks like Kenny G-sus

      September 30, 2012 at 8:38 pm |
    • lotus_notes

      You're right. Jesus was a Jew. His heritage was from the House of David. His line didn't come from Europe, Africa or China. He was Jewish.

      September 30, 2012 at 9:54 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.