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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. Vikram

    http://danielbwallace.com/2012/09/21/reality-check-the-jesus-wife-coptic-fragment/

    September 21, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
  2. Mike

    test

    September 21, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
    • Athy

      Loud and clear, Mike.

      September 21, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
    • palintwit

      *Like*

      September 21, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Fail

      September 21, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
  3. palintwit

    I'm a teabagger
    I'm a teabagger
    Watch the world go by
    My, my, my
    I'm a teabagger
    I'm a teabagger
    Come and watch me bag
    Do do do do do
    Do do do do do

    September 21, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
  4. Tom, Tom, the Other One

    I don't know why people insist that Jesus was gay. Maybe he was, but his only obvious attraction was for feet. I think it started with a seamy encounter in John 12:3 and escalated to an orgy of shrimp-jobs in John 13.

    September 21, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
    • Dr. Donnel Johnson

      @Tom

      He was a monk, and according to Timothy, an enthusiastic nudist. "...without concern nor bashfulness, the fullness of our Lord cannot be contained by his tunic."

      September 21, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
  5. ChuckB

    The inhabitants of the Middle East during the proposed lifetime of Jesus would feel more comfortable in the company of the present day inhabitants of that area than they would with us. If there were an historical Jesus and he showed up today at an airport he would be profiled and not let on any plane; he probably looked more like Yasser Arafat than the fair haired Adonis depicted in Renaissance art.

    September 21, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
  6. Gil-Ann Wilder

    Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. John 14:6

    September 21, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
    • Amniculi

      So?

      September 21, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
    • hmm..

      such a modest guy.. "doesn't matter if a man lives his entire life helping others.. if he does not bow to me, he goes to the fire pit and BURRNN" can't you feel the looove in it all?

      September 21, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
    • srose

      Jesus was an arrogant claim who claimed to be the Messiah.
      And many of the world's most devout Catholics are descendants of the people who killed him, the Romans. Funny, huh?

      September 21, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
    • Dr. Donnel Johnson

      @Gil-Ann Wilder

      Actually Gil-Ann, if we read in the Gnostic "Gospel of Jesus" we find this, "...I have the key and the charge. Care not of wine or pity but for me."

      Scholars agree that this passage was clearly the ancestor of John's gospel and was poorly interpreted. In fact what is being said is the following;

      Jesus and his friends ('disciples") were involved in one of their many endeavors, in this case the ancient equivalent of a "door man" and a "bartender".

      September 21, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
    • David

      every god or savior says the same crap. I am the only god and blah blah blah

      September 21, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
    • Antje

      And how was that organised before he came to earth and people didn't and couldn't know about this requirement?

      September 21, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
    • llɐq ʎʞɔnq

      Mithra. The way. The Truth. And the Life

      http://www.truthbeknown.com/mithra.htm#.UFzUkK5R7wc

      September 21, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
  7. j

    If he was married, did he have children? Were they jewish just as he was? If so, were his descendants killed by the church inquisition, in pogroms and in Auschwitz?? Christianity would loose any legitimacy if Jesus was married.

    September 21, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
    • Solitairedog

      Naw, I think it would not make the slightest bit of difference to a real Christian whether or not the fellow married. Do you really think that they would fold their arms across their chest and turn from him? It's not like that would discredit the New Testament, because it was never mentioned one way or the other. Does a man have to be a virgin to receive the holy spirit? I suspect not.

      September 21, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
  8. MrApplesauce

    There is another version of The Lord of the Rings where Frodo gets married.

    Sorry to ruin everyone's love of that fantasy book.

    September 21, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      To whom?

      September 21, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
    • Solitairedog

      Ooo, details, details!

      September 21, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
  9. llɐq ʎʞɔnq

    So Jeebus had an ole ball and chain. No wonder he was so happy to die. 😈

    September 21, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
  10. wolfpackbob

    That's an easy question. Obviously, CNN cares whether Jesus was married. Lots and lots of hits and trolls and bucks sure to follow.

    September 21, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
  11. Don

    I don't care.

    September 21, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
  12. hiruu

    Hmmm...well, considering that marriage is SOOOOO IMPORTANT to conservatives, this would be put into question, if the God of your faith was proven to have been married, and didn't mention it! I guess marriage isn't that important after all.

    September 21, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
  13. tisok

    so what difference does it make???...worry about something that is important.

    September 21, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
    • Amniculi

      Yeah? What difference does it make – besides shattering the premise that a whole religion was built upon?

      September 21, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
  14. lauradet

    You should care, because the Bible that you people interpret as being "the word of god" must not be accurate if they left out a small detail that the man who walked on water was actually married. To me it should change the dynamics of what one should believe.

    September 21, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
    • Athy

      There's probably a lot you don't know that would change the dynamics of what you believe. Luckily, we atheists don't have that problem.

      September 21, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
  15. oh well..

    How many more holes are needed to conclude once and for all that bible is a book written by man.. weird bunch these believers are..

    September 21, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
    • lauradet

      Good one.

      September 21, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
    • Mike

      It's a scrap of paper of unknown origin or authorship. It's not enough to make to draw a conclusion or even an inference. It's hardly a "hole" in the faith.

      September 21, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
    • hmm..

      That fits the description of bible as well, Mike.. is there any proof to disagree that a bunch of drunkards in the first three centuries got together and wrote it all to pass time?

      September 21, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
  16. mike58

    I care if he was married did they have kids there is a blood line

    September 21, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
    • oh well..

      ooh the holy grail and the da vinci code!! It is written in a book, it has to be true!

      September 21, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
    • Amniculi

      Does that mean Dan Brown is God?

      September 21, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
    • hmm..

      No.. don't you know that god influences some people to write his message.. Dan brown is not god.. he is a prophet!! or apostle.. or whatever..

      September 21, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magical Underwear

      No, it means the Black Knight could kick Dan Brown's a-ss

      September 21, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      Dan Brown's great mischief is the page labelled:

      FACT:

      The priory of Sion –
      is a European secret society blah blah ...

      ... Opus Dei ... blah blah

      All Descriptions of artwork, architecture, docvments and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.

      September 21, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
  17. JZthatsme

    God works in different ways God is physics, scientists are no where near discovering the origin of the universe or how the natural forces interact, there is always a negative particle to balance the positive, without this balance nothing works. Jesus is a packet sent from God, who preached peace. Prophet Mohammad preached confrontation. None is dominant, but balanced

    September 21, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
    • hmm..

      is the argument, "We are trying to understand the workings of the universe in small steps, validating each find before proceeding to the next" makes more sense or "Magic daddy dunnit. 'nuff said" makes more sense? Think.. Think.. Think..

      would it be possible to build a quantum super duper giga computer that can do a gazzilion computations each nano second directly? or would it be possible to build iteratively more powerful computer that is an improvement over its previous incarnation?

      September 21, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
  18. MagicPanties

    Who cares if Santa Claus was married?
    Same thing.

    September 21, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
  19. Bob

    Jesus was not married! This makes me so mad I think I'm going to march down the street saying death to islam and burn their flags and set fire to a KFC lol

    September 21, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
    • Athy

      That's a good way to change history!

      September 21, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
  20. High Way

    I do care if Jesus was married because he could be a role model for the men who get married. How could you give the words of wisdom about marriage, if your not an example yourself?

    September 21, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Jesus was a gay Palestinian.

      Like Yassir Arrafat in a dress

      You want that as a role model?

      September 21, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      You ask a Catholic Priest that question.

      September 21, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Because marriage is about more than seex. It is about acceptance, forgiveness, reconciliation, compassion, commitment, sacrifice, empathy, ministry etc. Catholic priest know a lot about these things

      September 21, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      @Bill
      That was a very eloquent argument in favour of gay marriage.

      September 21, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
    • hmm..

      Would you go to a man who read about combustible engines to get your car looked up? or would you go to a mechanic experienced in working on engines?

      why would you go to a man who had no experience in something for advice when he never had first hand knowledge about? why would you go to a priest? you are weird!

      September 21, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      hmm, i've done both. Not gone convinced they could not help and gone with an open mind to the message. Going was better.

      September 21, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      That was not my intent Doc but feel free to misinterpret as often and as much as serves your own purpose.

      September 21, 2012 at 4:56 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.