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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. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things

    September 21, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      like rain dances change the weather.

      September 21, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
    • Tom H

      Right, I'm sure the other 1.5 million species of life on this planet would be in terrible demise if organized religion fell apart....errr wait no, humans (the almighty religious beings) are the ones causing their destruction.

      September 21, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
    • truth be told

      Atheists have murdered more people in the last 100 years than were killed in all previous centuries.

      September 21, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
    • ScottCA

      Prayer changes otherwise rational sensible adults into children speaking to their imaginary friends for which they have no evidence of existing.

      September 21, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
    • SillyBoy

      tbt. You should change your tag as you never post the truth. Atheists have not killed because of religious beliefs. As has been posted on here many times – Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, etc. may have presided over many deaths but few if any were motivated by religion. Typically it was power struggles, misguided policies that resulted in death but weren't designed to do that.

      September 21, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
    • truth be told

      They killed because they were atheists, it is a common occurrence. All atheists in power are mass murderers.

      September 21, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
    • ScottCA

      Truth be told, you sound like a fool saying things that are so clearly demonstrably wrong. The Nazi's killed because they believed Aryans were chosen by god to rule the world. The J@panese justified the atrocities they committed as being done in the name of their god emperor on earth.

      And even more d@mning is the fact that the communist belief in a infinitely malable and changable human consciousness, was the direct result of the churches espousal of the "Ghost in the Machine" concept and its partner concept "The blank slate" It was the church holding back scientific progress and fighting against the study of our true evolved human nature, that is based in evolved components of the brain, with instincts and an unchangeable human nature, that led to the misconception that caused most of the 20th century atrocities. All the major atrocities of the 20th century were linked to attempts to engineer society and human beings, based in the idea of the blank slate and the ghost in the machine that is infinitely malleable and changeable. Had science not been held back, and had people understood better our innate human nature and those components of it that are instinctual and unchangeable, many of these atrocities would not have occurred. And the church is heavily to blame for the abundant ignorance regarding evolution and human nature at the time.

      September 21, 2012 at 6:07 pm |
    • hal 9001

      I'm sorry, "Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things" and "truth be told", but your assertions regarding atheism and prayer are unfounded. The degree to which your assertions may represent correct statements is 0.0. To help you understand the degree to which your assertions may represent correct statements, I will access my Idiomatic Expression Equivalency module (IEE). Using my IEE module, the expression that best matches the degree to which your assertions may represent correct statements is: "TOTAL FAIL".

      I see that you repeat these unfounded statements with high frequency. Perhaps the following book might help you overcome this problem:

      I'm Told I Have Dementia: What You Can Do... Who You Can Turn to...
      by the Alzheimer's Disease Society

      September 21, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
    • ScottCA

      Truth be told, Thomas Jefferson was a mass murder?

      September 21, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      Q. Why does @tbt always respond to threads started by the prayer-bot?

      A. @tbt is a sock-puppet!

      September 21, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
    • ScottCA

      not a GOPer I believe you are right about @TBT, only posts in response to the bot. The religious seem to be running out of humans to recruit, so now they are turning to a computer following of bots.

      September 21, 2012 at 6:33 pm |
  2. Mr. Obvious

    Anybody who has actually studied the scriptures knows there is no mention of Jesus having a wife (or a wedding day, father-in-law, mother-in-law, brother-in-law, or sister-in-law). When Jesus dies on the cross his mother and beloved disciple John are present. Again no mention of a wife. That's because Jesus did not have a wife. I'm not saying Jesus did not have a wife: the gospels tell us he did not have a wife (by omission of everything wife-related).

    September 21, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      interesting that the fragment mentions the wife's name is mary.
      anyone called mary around at any point?

      September 21, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
    • Tom H

      Precisely the problem with Christianity. If its not in the bible it isn't true.

      September 21, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
    • JC

      And of course when the bible says it's so (or doesn't) it must be so, right? The bible is a good book because the bible says its a good book. LMAO.

      September 21, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
    • Ting

      Of course he doesn't mention his wife. He was divorced.

      September 21, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
  3. Bill Deacon

    Here is my evil plan – Create a fictional character, have him born into poverty in a part of the world full of strife with no recorded history, cast some doubts on his conception (that will keep them guessing), leave a decade or so gap in his life story, re-introduce him in the middle of nowhere and tell everyone he has all these amazing powers, he confounds and confuses all his followers and tells them not to tell anyone about what he does or where he is going and Oh yeah, they are all prostiitutes and tax cheats and lepers and the really lowlifes of society, deny them the chance to follow him, set him at odds with both the government and the church powers of his time, cast doubts on his seexuality and intelligence, make it so he refuses anyone to come to his aid and kill him in the most horrible way imaginable, then hide his body, make it so nothing he does can be historically proven.

    Voila, in 2000 years I will rule the world!

    MUAHAHAHAHAHA!

    It's genius I tell you pure GENIUS!

    September 21, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
    • Mr. Obvious

      You seem to understand story points - but not the big picture. Go back and read the gospels again. Note how the religious leaders considered that the disciples could steal the body and so asked for Roman guards to be appointed. Why did they fear this? "This man said, 'I am able to destroy the Temple of God and rebuild it in three days.'"

      You can chose to believe the independent accounts that testify to the actions of the man called Jesus or you can choose to believe your own fiction. That is what faith and free-will are all about.

      But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether it be yourself or mankind in general. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.

      September 21, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
  4. Bazinga

    Religion is for fools

    September 21, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
    • ScottCA

      Faith based religion is for fools there are more enlightened forms of religious. Philosophies such as the belief in Spinoza's god. Which sees god as the natural laws that govern the evolution of the universe. The Indian religion of Janism is a less dangerous belief, since the more fundamentalist a Janist becomes the less we need to worry about them. Buddhism is not a dangerous belief system either. Buddhists wisely self contained the concept of an afterlife by asserting that you do not depart this world, but return to it in another form, thus if you build tyranny in one life, you may suffer under that same tyranny in your next one.

      September 21, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
    • ScottCA

      I forgot to mention Janism is a pacifist religion that is why the more fundamentalist they get, the less and less likely they are to ever harm anyone or anything. Extreme Janists end up unable to do anything out of fear that they may destroy something like a bug by mistake.

      September 21, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @Bazinga

      Not necessarily fools. Sheep perhaps.

      September 21, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
  5. Moohu-mad

    Did someone say Jesus was married. We need to riot at this outrage, I need to go burn an embassy or something!

    September 21, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
    • wow!

      You're an amazingly talented comedian!

      September 21, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
    • ScottCA

      You have aptly pointed out the difference between Modern Christianity and modern day Islam.
      Christianity in its current form is a less overtly violent religion. Islam is still quite overtly violent

      September 21, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
    • tell that to a few million Rwandans

      who were chopped up by their Christian brethren........

      September 21, 2012 at 7:29 pm |
  6. puppypumper

    Who cares about jesus anymore?

    September 21, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Over one billion Christians

      September 21, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
    • JC

      One billion christians? I highly doubt it. I was baptized catholic, but am no longer catholic or christian. And yet the church still records me that way, and in fact, there is no way to become unregistered as a catholic. Given the fact people are leaving religion by the droves but are still included in the count leads me to believe that one billion is significantly overstated. As far as I'm concerned, the sooner we get to zero the better.

      September 21, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
    • SillyBoy

      Theoretically they could excommunicate but if they don't do that to their own child-molesters I guess you need to do something really terrible like start your own religion

      September 21, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
  7. steve505

    "I don't know if Jesus was married and I don't care"..... LOL! Well, it's kind of a big part of the story. The story of a god-man who was "without sin" and never married. It kind of changes things. You might as well say "I don't know if Jesus was really the son of God, and I don't care!".

    That's right...... stick your heads in the sand, Christians. Nothing to see here! This completely changes what we've always thought we knew about Jesus Christ, but it's ok! Nothing to see here! This directly contradicts what is said in our precious scriptures, but.... nothing to see here! Lalalalalalalalalalalala!

    Your religion is on it's deathbed. Give it time. The human race will eventually cure itself of this disease, and no amount of "faith" is going to prevent that.

    September 21, 2012 at 5:26 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      You haters have been saying that since the crucifixion

      September 21, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
    • JC

      I really don't care if people want to believe in god, or santa clause, or the tooth fairy. Religious nut cases can have their religion, they just need to keep it the h 3 l l away from everyone else, and that means separate and apart from government and from the laws of this land.

      September 21, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
  8. *frank*

    "the world of ancient Jewish and Christian manuscripts is replete with fakes and fakers."
    Careful, Prothero!
    You said more than you meant to there...........

    September 21, 2012 at 5:26 pm |
  9. JUGGERNAUT

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rH8O5NIyit4&feature=related

    September 21, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
    • Bazinga

      Fox News, or as John Stewart called them, "Bulls*** Mountain!

      September 21, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
  10. hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

    Sanskrit is hinduism, corruption of language of truth Latin, by pot head hindu sanatans, filthy goons, man god's of hindu's, ignorant s. language of truth absolute Latin, also known as divine language or Hebrew had only 27 letters and 9 letters were added to fool humanity. hindu corrupted language Sanskrit to be the oldest language is hinduism, absurdity of hindu's, liars to deny truth absolute, GOD to promote hindu filthy evolution, foundation of hinduism, denial of truth absolute in support of hindu Atheism, secularism, visit Truth absolute is the way of human and hinduism, denial of truth is of animals. Word hindu is based on Latin word hindered, negative, Hun, Great, Han, to be in greatness, hind, to be negative to both of them, hinduism, way of negativity. Stay away from a hindu denier of truth and his hindu Atheism, criminal self center ism, secularism, to be human. Visit limitisthetruth.com/blog.html to learn more.

    September 21, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      seriously, you are one of the most twisted individuals that visits these forums.
      others thing you are just a bot and i can believe it with the nonsense you spout.

      September 21, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      a hindu ignorant owl of hindu dark cave could not have said any better than you hindu, ignorant.

      September 21, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      someone please save my Mohammad hurry; airport police have locked HIM up for travelling with no picture on his passport.

      September 21, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      "a hindu ignorant owl of hindu dark cave could not have said any better than you hindu, ignorant."

      er, yeah, nuff said i think

      September 21, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      hinduism absurdity of a hindu, ID thief.

      September 21, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
    • Mohammad in size 5 Foot Magical Underwear

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

      September 21, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
    • Mohammad in size 5 Foot Magical Underwear

      you Hindu Boy, if you got Mohammad's picture show it to me. The guy was born with no face like dark lord in Harry Potter.

      September 21, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
  11. And now a word from our sponsor...

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xffOCZYX6F8

    September 21, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
    • ScottCA

      This one is not bad either
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=XKFUcEkIbEg

      September 21, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
  12. maristella

    Very interesting with regards to this discussion are the articles on http://www.thewarningsecondcoming.com

    September 21, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
    • llɐq ʎʞɔnq

      I like your name. It came from the Roman god who also was the Star of the Sea.

      September 21, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
  13. dred

    surely the best and only way to settle all useless controvesies once and for all, is to bring Jesus back in the flesh, on clouds of glory with all His elect and angels .
    Then, CNN reporters can interview Him, papparazzis can snap Him, and every knee will bow and every tongue will confess He is Lord.
    Even the muslims are waiting for Jesus to come to rescue them from the antichrist, so it has been prophesied.
    And with His return, Satan will be imprisoned for a 1000 years...now that should make the ayatollahs happy also.
    As the song goes..'Listen to Jesus, Jimmy....and Tom, Dick , Harry, Ahmed, Sally, John, Tigerlilly, Nicole, Amanda, Chin, Chong,Amit, Manuel, Romeo, Bassel, Mohammed, Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah, Amos, Obadiah,Isaiah, Abraham, Obama and every other drama king and queen . He is the way , the truth and the life, no one can come to the Father except through Him.
    You want God? Then Moses and the other Mo' will do. But the Father?...Only Jesus.

    September 21, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      I like to think of Jesus as a mischievous badger

      September 21, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
  14. Colin

    "Jesus may be one of the best attested figures in the ancient world, but we still know hardly anything about him." That is actually very true. The 4 gospels are highly, highly suspect. The oldest complete copies we have of them date from over 300 years after he died and the originals themselves (the contents of which we will never know) were written between 40-60 years after he died, in an age with scant record keeping.

    There is little doubt that the miracles and other supernatural acts attributed to him were dreamed up by early Christians, but, of what's left, we simply don't know where the myths stop and historically accurate events start.

    September 21, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
    • Chad

      The Shroud of Turin is a miracle by anyone's definition and no one can say it isn't a miracle of Christ.

      Particle physicist Isabel Piczek thinks that the image was created in an infinitesimally small fraction of a second. But, she says, the image may have been created by a complex process arising as Christ’s body passed from one form of existence into another. She notes that it may be "Something akin to the Big Bang, but at the opposite end of the creation continuum—a portal opens into a new science and eventually into a new form of human existence.”

      September 21, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
    • Colin

      It is a 14th Century forgery

      September 21, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      "The Shroud of Turin is a miracle by anyone's definition and no one can say it isn't a miracle of Christ."

      actually i think most people can say that really.

      September 21, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
    • Chad

      Made with a 14th century particle beam? lol 🙂

      September 21, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
    • Huebert

      @Chad

      That image could easily be created without a particle beam. I think a paint brush would do nicely.

      September 21, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
    • Athy

      It's been carbon dated to about the 14th century. For those of you that are mathematically challenged, that's 1400 years after Jeebus died.

      September 21, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      dont forget athy, they say that was because they tested a part from a 14th century repair section, because apparently they think the experts cant spot a patch.

      September 21, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
    • Athy

      Yeah, right. And they're not going to allow any more tests, either. Too afraid of what they might reveal.

      September 21, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
    • Colin

      Carl Sagan wrote a good chapter on the Shroud of Turin in one of his books (I forget which one). It was been pretty comprehensively dated to the 14th Century and uses simple, then available paints. Ridiculous assertions, such as the one Chad made, are periodically made but lack any evidence to support them. By the way, even if it were from the peiod that Christ lived, the fact that the image has been painted on pretty much disproves Chad's "flash fried" account.

      September 21, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
    • Chad

      @Chad "The Shroud of Turin is a miracle by anyone's definition and no one can say it isn't a miracle of Christ"

      TomTom, you impersonating me again?

      bad boy..

      September 21, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @Chad,

      perhaps more than once today.

      September 21, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
  15. hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

    someone help my Mohammad to get a passport, they are asking for his picture and he got none.

    September 21, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
    • Mohammad Help Comiittee

      tell Mohammd to use Burka. it's legal here!!!

      September 21, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
  16. HeavenSent Army

    Help raise money to lift HeavenSent from her couch. Join today!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mq6FsOCdadI&feature=player_embedded

    Stay Carnal!

    September 21, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
  17. Sam Yaza

    FYI Jesus is also a Palestinian,... but you Christians insist on the genocide over their,. why do you hate Jesus blood relatives so much

    Palestine is the oldest consecutive county in Arabia, Palestine was Palestine when Israeli was Canaan, when Iraq was Babylon, when Iran was Persia, when pritannica, was Avalon, when china was "our land",
    Nazareth is in Palestine it has been in Palestine since the pre-iron age the Israeli never conquered Palestine
    Bethlehem is in Palestine it has been in Palestine since the pre-iron age the Israeli never conquered Palestine

    my point is Jesus is a Palestinian on the roman censers; Palestinians are the real tribe of Judea; the tribe of Judea fled to Palestine when Israel was conquered by the Babylonians; the rule family of Dah-veed is Palestinian.

    you will not complete revaluations if the Palestinians die hen the last of JC blood spills the ground you lose

    September 21, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
    • Ryan

      Christ was also a Jew – those that were persecuted there at the time, were Jews.

      Islam as a religion, wasn't around in the time of Christ, and while there are Palestinian Christians, the issue in the area, is the struggle between Hezbollah and Israel.

      When there is a common stance in opposition that one should not exist and be wiped of the Earth, a two state solution, will indeed be difficult to achieve and fault here lies on both sides and the religions are in contrast with one another.

      Fighting over religion, is an absolute waste, the notion of defending the faith by spilling blood, is abject stupidity. If though you want to look at which religion is indeed, far more radical, then look no further than the issues in the Muslim world of the past few weeks. Killing innocent people over a video, shows how far that area of the world hasn't evolved, even if the killing and rioting over a video is simply an excuse, the perception it creates in the civilized world does not help the cause.

      September 21, 2012 at 5:26 pm |
  18. TheBard

    There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

    (something the "gumby Jesus" twisters tend to forget far too often)

    September 21, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
  19. JZthatsme

    Give some proof to prove the origin of the universe, scientists are getting wiggly bottoms with the Halydron Collider, after being on line for just 2 years. They now need a 55km tunnel instead of 17km. I bet they didnt even find the Higs Bosson, Just a little manipulation of information to justify the billions spent

    September 21, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
    • HAVE MUD WILL TRAVEL

      Scientists are mere technicians engaged in reverse engineering, who like to spout, 'I think I figured out how He did it, therefore there is no He!'.

      September 21, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      so you believe scientists are liars then that dont actually do anything other than supposedly spend money, or what?

      September 21, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
  20. hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

    someone save my Mohammad hurry; airport police have locked HIM up for travelling with no picture on his passport.

    September 21, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
    • CC

      tell muhammed to put Borka and take a picture, if he/she does not want to show his/her face

      September 21, 2012 at 5:19 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.