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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. dantia

    who in the hell would know? some dumb people and some idiot need to give his opinion. get out of here. CNN there's got be better news

    September 21, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
    • Huebert

      If you want news i suggest staying off belief blog.

      September 21, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
  2. myreply

    It does make a difference because certain groups teach it. Mormonism teaches in the Book of Mormon that Jesus was married to other women, however the Bible doesn't support that idea at all.

    September 21, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
  3. chazzz

    I think it probably went this way: When seen with a certain lady, someone said " Who is that lady?" and he may have replied: " That is NO LADY, that is MY WIFE ! "

    September 21, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
    • My Man John

      Who was that piccolo you were with last night?

      That was no piccolo, that was my fife!

      September 21, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
  4. time

    I've listened to all 4 vynyl 33 spinners back in the day over&over and not one song mentioned that Jeeze is married, unless Mary resurrected and is back to claim her fame...

    September 21, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
  5. hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

    Faith means book, and only a jew's hindu ignorant can put his faith in a forgery, such as the book of Mithra ism, pagan savior ism called Bible denier of woof woof woof woof 180*

    September 21, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
    • svscnn

      You're drunk right now, aren't you?

      September 21, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Mohammad's Underwear

      Hey Hinduism boy! – look – a cartoon of the prophet! Go get it boy!, Attack!!! Bark, bark, bark, bark, bark!!!!!!!

      September 21, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
    • svscnn

      180 proof.

      September 21, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
  6. JZthatsme

    The universe is expanding to fast, proof, likein all physics there are to many empty pockets

    September 21, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
    • ................

      Good one. I didn't know this was "show how stupid I am" day.

      September 21, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
    • llɐq ʎʞɔnq

      It's not your pockets that are empty. Look in the mirror.

      September 21, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
  7. Lawless4U

    Everyone of faith should care if Jesus was married because if he was, it means that the Catholic church is and has lied.

    September 21, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
    • sam

      Um, if people haven't caught them at it by now, this story won't do a bit of good for them.

      September 21, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
  8. stephen douglas

    The rest of the line:

    "And Jesus said, "My wife....

    ....get that damn burka off and jump onto the sleeping mat!"

    ....yeesh, put that burka back on!"

    ....where's your younger sister?"

    ....I will not ask for directions, I can find Jerusalem on my own – I turn right at Golgatha and pass some garden."

    September 21, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
  9. hamburgerOnFrybread

    Jesus wasn't White either, but brown skinned and not at looking like at all a WASP!

    September 21, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
  10. Quid Malmborg in Plano TX

    No God for America! We have had too much God In America. Away with God!

    (goes back to reading James Joyce)

    September 21, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
  11. svscnn

    Who cares? Um... I'm thinking his descendents might.

    September 21, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
  12. hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

    Expose Christianity ism, illegality of Jew's, criminals, Jesus's crooks cause of mayhem among humanity.

    September 21, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      hinduism, absurdity of a hindu, ID thief.

      September 21, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
    • TROLL ALERT

      Every time you respond to a troll god clubs a baby seal with a koala bear.

      Stop the slaughter of baby seals and koala bears.

      Don't feed the troll.

      September 21, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      Koalas are not bears. They are marsupials.

      September 21, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
  13. JFritz

    It is easier to join the cult of Jesus than to listen to the philosophy behind his words. Worshipping the virgin Jesus is a whole lot simpler than turning the other cheek, sharing wealth, and caring for "the least of these." It is a whole lot easier than seeing to it that every child is fed and well. And it pulls in a whole lot more money for those folks on tv and the guy in the funny hat in Rome, sitting on their golden thrones. For centuries, if not millenia, scaring people into believing nonsense has made money for the unscrupulous posing as holy. Pretending that there weren't other "avatars" who somehow figured it all out and demanding that following their man-made rules will lead to heaven is a simple way to riches indeed. Jesus married? Maybe love for a wife taught him that glorious caring for others he tried to teach the rest of us, just as did his fellow avatars. We're clearly more interested in the cult.

    September 21, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
  14. JZthatsme

    Some Scientists will theorise a lot more fictious white papers than your ever read in the Bible to justify there beleifs. The Big Bang is a theory no one can ever prove but is all the human brain can comprehend

    September 21, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
    • ................

      Have you ever considered going to school ?

      September 21, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
    • Huebert

      You do realize that their is evidence for the Big Bang Theory, don't you?

      September 21, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
    • Johnny B

      So instead, you believe a magic man that lives in the clouds created everything over the course of a week.. then "rested" ?? Really ?? Have you seriously lost your mind ?? Take a step back.. do you have any clue how utterly ridiculous that sounds ?? The bible is nothing more than conglomeration of fun stories. The Cat in the Hat is a cute story too but you do not see 6 foot tall cats walking around with Thing 1 and Thing 2.. Or maybe you do.....

      September 21, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
    • Religion is Not Heathly for children or ANY living things

      A mind is a terrible thing to waste...

      September 21, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
  15. happyfrenchman

    NAMBLA would care.... did I say NAMBLA? I meant the Holy Roman Catholic Church... they would care.

    September 21, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
  16. HAVE MUD WILL TRAVEL

    P T Burnem's last dying words:'“How were the circus receipts in CNN's comment section?”

    September 21, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
    • HAVE MUD WILL TRAVEL

      Tis true, I found it on a ticket receipt on ebay.

      September 21, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
    • SillyBoy

      Why would P T Burnem's ask about circus receipts?

      September 21, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
  17. us_1776

    Jesus was a fictional person made up in order to tell morality stories.

    .

    September 21, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
    • Huebert

      I'm of the opinion that he was an amalgamation of various revolutionary preachers and mythological characters. Like Joan of Ark, their is a real person in there some where but it is impossible to separate it from the legend.

      September 21, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
    • Johnny B

      Incorrect.. I do not think anybody doubts the existence of Jesus as a man/person who lived several thousands years back. What is contested, is that he is the son of a the magic man who lives in the clouds, that needs money and supposedly loves all of us.. yet tortures many with disease, famine, destruction and horrible atrocities. That is the part that is complete and utter nonsense.. Oh, sorry, I left out the part that he allows his wonderful flock of priests to touch and fondle young boys.. How so many can still believe in this is beyond me... very sad..

      September 21, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
    • time

      I guess St Johnny Baptist is fictional tOO !

      September 21, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
  18. Mike

    Personally, I don't care if Jesus was married or not. The biggest impact I see it having is changing the celibacy clause imposed by certain religions (i.e. catholic priests) to show they are devoted to god. If Jesus, the guy they founded their entire idealogy around and you could argue was the most devout of them all was allowed to be married and not be celibate, than wouldn't it suggest if you weren't married then and are a religious figure then you really aren't following the truth path of Jesus?

    September 21, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Then imagine Jeebus had a wife named Achmed!

      September 21, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
  19. Brandon

    To me Jesus is Lord and all I care about is that. It has been disputed for years about if he had a wife but, that would change everything that many believe about him. At the end of the day the real question is what he asked Peter and the disciples " who do you say that I am"?

    September 21, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
    • William Demuth

      So the fact that I am Jeebus' one and only living descendant dosen't matter to you either MORTAL?

      September 21, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
    • Johnny B

      I can answer that question... How about ridiculous to start it off..

      September 21, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
  20. V

    Ha! How many time facts have to fly in face of Religion. Religion has nothing better to offer ....and there is no god ... just good people and bad people. Some time bad people take advantage of good people and that is what happened here Jesus was taken advantage of by.

    September 21, 2012 at 4:40 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.