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. Earl

    To CNN
    Please read this link: http://www.thename.ph/thename/testimony/jes06-en.html

    From the said link you will learn the prophecy in the Bible(Yes, In the Bible alone) about jesus that He was not a Son of God and God did not let him die for the sins of Mankind as religions claim- Jesus was under God's decree in the prophecy that If he (Jesus) commits wrong , He will be punished with the floggings and beatings of men.

    September 22, 2012 at 7:59 pm |
    • Dr. Donnel Johnson

      In the Jesus Gospel he discusses long journeys east of the desert where, "....there I encountered great wisdom and peace among the monks. They removed the sand from my sandals and blew upon my feet with flowered breath"

      He goes on to say that, "...we meditated together for many days, fasting but joyful in the divine and always mindful of odor."

      As a matter of fact as I pointed earlier, he brought these teachings to his 12 plus Mary and his parents saying, "...know me and know the many lives of the snake, the lizard, and the beasts of all previous lives. Mine is the journey of a God. Perfection can be found through self-sacrifice."

      This is well doc.u.mented but sadly, few too people understand that Jesus was no more a rabbi than me.

      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 22, 2012 at 8:05 pm |
    • llɐq ʎʞɔnq

      Any Biblical scholar knows that prophecy is not fortune telling. It's not about predicting the future. Prophets were "mouth pieces", thought to have been sent by god to speak to the people of their own times, ... to "speak truth to power".
      The idea of "Madame Zelda, and her crystal ball" type of "prophesy", (fortune telling, or telling the future), is a Hollywood invention/fiction. All you're doing, is showing you never received a Biblical education.

      September 22, 2012 at 8:09 pm |
  2. hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

    Gentleman, meet me at the club after you leave the firm. I have some cubans and single malt. Caio!

    September 22, 2012 at 7:47 pm |
  3. islam source of islamfilthystupidity

    Absolut 180? Is that a new kind of high octane vodka?

    September 22, 2012 at 7:46 pm |
  4. Mo Hawk

    Religious people are afraid to face the actual violence and beauty of the Universe and themselves.

    Truth is always stranger and more wonderful than fiction.

    September 22, 2012 at 7:38 pm |
    • islam source of islamicscabriddennastiness

      @Mo Hawk "Religious people are afraid to face the actual violence and beauty of the Universe and themselves."

      Atheists should be afraid to face the actual violence and beauty of the Universe and themselves. 🙂

      15 Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. 16 For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. 17 The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.

      September 22, 2012 at 7:54 pm |
    • Mo Hawk

      @islam source of islamicscabriddennastiness

      "Atheists should be afraid to face the actual violence and beauty of the Universe and themselves." – Why?

      15 Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. – Says who?

      16 For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. – I agree 100%

      17 The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever. – You are half right.

      September 22, 2012 at 8:04 pm |
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      hinduism, absurdity of a hindu, crook..

      September 22, 2012 at 9:23 pm |
  5. islam source of islamicscabriddennastiness

    @hinduism... Racist Jew virginal there are not many pigs must breed with pigs pagans Hindus.

    Gould NOMA non-hindu one GOD Son. Get it?

    Religion is too important to too many people for any dismissal or denig ration of the comfort still sought by many folks from theology. I may, for example, privately suspect that papal insistence on divine infusion of the soul represents a sop to our fears, a device for maintaining a belief in human superiority within an evolutionary world offering no privileged position to any creature. But I also know that souls represent a subject outside the magisterium of science. My world cannot prove or disprove such a notion, and the concept of souls cannot threaten or impact my domain. Moreover, while I cannot personally accept the Catholic view of souls, I surely honor the metaphorical value of such a concept both for grounding moral discussion and for expressing what we most value about human potentiality: our decency, care, and all the ethical and intellectual struggles that the evolution of consciousness imposed upon us.

    September 22, 2012 at 7:32 pm |
    • islam source of islamfilthystupidity

      Morals are not derived from any "god." They are merely the result of life experience, empathy. Hmmm, how would I feel if someone were trying to murder me or sleep with my wife? Probably the same way someone else would feel if I were trying to do that to them. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to come to this conclusion. No make-believe sky fairy is needed to make this possible. It is merely an electrochemical reaction in the gray matter in our skulls (or at least most of us). Furthermore, there is no proof of a soul. There is, however, consciousness - something that did not exist before birth and something that will return to the void of nothingness after death. The end.

      September 22, 2012 at 7:51 pm |
    • islam source of islamicscabriddennastiness

      @islamfilthystupidity "There is, however, consciousness – something that did not exist before birth and something that will return to the void of nothingness after death."

      How on earth do you know this? Have you been dead? 🙂

      September 22, 2012 at 8:02 pm |
    • Mo Hawk

      I have decided to convert from atheism to Solipsism. The ceremony is going to be a blast, I will be having all my friends and family over and un-validating their existence. Then it will just be a free-for-all. I will also be getting a tattoo of my own face on my a.s.s.

      September 22, 2012 at 8:12 pm |
    • islam source of islamfilthystupidity

      islam source of islamicscabriddennastiness: How on earth do you know that your alleged "soul" will "live on" when you're dead? Have you been dead? No, but you have been unborn. And you (don't) remember what it was (not) like then because nothing existed for "you" to remember because "you" didn't exist.

      September 22, 2012 at 8:25 pm |
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      hinduism, stupidity of a hindu, lair

      September 22, 2012 at 9:23 pm |
    • islam source of takemyyoungestdaughterness


      September 22, 2012 at 9:41 pm |
  6. David and Solomon were murderers and ra.pists.


    September 22, 2012 at 7:20 pm |
  7. Moses was a homicidal maniac.


    September 22, 2012 at 7:19 pm |
    • llɐq ʎʞɔnq

      Moses never existed. Moses was a myth.

      September 22, 2012 at 8:19 pm |
  8. Jesus was a jerk.


    September 22, 2012 at 7:17 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      he really was sometimes. people always think of Jesus as this perfect being of love and compassion. but Jesus really said he was there for the his people, the Jews, not others. a Canaanite woman wants Jesus to heal her sick daughter. Jesus tells his disciples he only heals Jews. he calls the woman's race dogs and won’t heal her daughter until she agrees that she’s a dog.

      Mathew 15:21-28
      21 Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.
      22 A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”
      23 Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”
      24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
      25 The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.
      26 He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
      27 “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
      28 Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.

      yup, definitely a jerk to that poor woman and her daughter...

      September 22, 2012 at 7:26 pm |
  9. Gottheball

    So someone knew F O U R H U N D R E D Y E A R S A F T E R the death of Christ that He was married, yet this hugely salient fact went unnoticed/unrecorded by all of the gospel authors, Peter or Paul??? Really?! LOL! I mean, what IDIOT would jump on this as proof of anything? Answer: an idiot!

    September 22, 2012 at 6:57 pm |
    • fail

      you fail/

      September 22, 2012 at 7:02 pm |
    • save the world and slap some sense into a christard today!

      As are idiots who put stock in the politicians Peter and Paul.

      September 22, 2012 at 7:04 pm |
    • G. Zeus Kreiszchte

      Your precious gospels were not written down until decades after the death of your Jeezus. How accurate could that be? We're talking up to 80 years or so after! And not only that, but how many languages has your bible been translated through? Do you realize that what you consider to be the bible has been edited by Roman Catholic Cult leaders? Are you not aware of apocryphal texts? Of the Dead Sea Scrolls? Etc.? Stuff like this comes up quite often now that the RC Cult's power is waning.

      September 22, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
    • Dr. Donnel Johnson

      In my research I have found that Mary Magdalene was in fact both consort and wife. A consort was simply a companion. If you read the scriptures, you will find that in the late BE and early CE, it was actually possible to both be married and single simultaneously.


      You must refer to the Gnostic versus attributed to Phillip who said, "Be it spouse or alone, we are only that which our threshold allows on the Sabbath."

      Loosely translated it means a woman can be beholden to a man one day, and quite free the next. This makes polygamy possible without breaking God's law against Adultery.

      September 22, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
    • Layne

      Jesus was single, yet this hugely salient fact wasn't mentioned by Peter or Paul?

      September 22, 2012 at 8:01 pm |
  10. hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

    Have you seen my Mohammad? Last time I saw him singing Bollywood songs with Aisha Khan in public park!!

    September 22, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      NO DOGS! Bing bang, allah allah bing bang!

      September 22, 2012 at 7:07 pm |
  11. truth be trolled

    Penn Jillette on God, No!, Atheism, Libertarianism, & More

    September 22, 2012 at 6:26 pm |
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      pardon me Sir, do you have any grey poopon of Mohammad?

      September 22, 2012 at 6:33 pm |
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      Answer to me you dumb fat.as.s. I am talking to you.

      September 22, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
  12. truth be trolled

    Ricky Gervais – Losing Religion and Becoming An Atheist

    September 22, 2012 at 6:18 pm |
  13. hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

    Islam is healthy for anyone but Humans, b'cause other living things don't give a $.hit to 72 hoors in Jannat.

    September 22, 2012 at 6:13 pm |
  14. Eric

    I don't care one bit. He may have been a human being, and one with morals, but that is about all that he really was until its proven otherwise. He could do whatever he wanted and I really don't care. Just like civilization does now. Kind odd how that works isn't it? I think old George Carlin was onto something and is probably 100% right.

    September 22, 2012 at 6:13 pm |
  15. hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

    pardon me, do you have any grey poopon of Mohammad?

    September 22, 2012 at 6:10 pm |
  16. hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

    hindu love, fllthy love, atheist mormonism. closeted gay pig lover, longing for hindu but love, dog DOGS. filty dog love in the naughty place. hindu dreaming, i desire hindu man goo

    September 22, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
  17. islam source of islamfilthystupidity

    Islam denial of truth absolute 360 from gutter land middle east. islam ripped off ism from hindu christ ism ripped off from juda ism ripped off from pre existing mithra egypt ism, greek ism and zoroastrian ism, deniers of truth absolute, absurdity called islam! religion written by a pedophile opportunist arab nationalistic self-important megalomaniac business man ism, islam absurdity of false prophet mahound. go, slay the infidels where ever ye may find them ism! lie in ambush for them infidels and be sure they're killt good ism! and if you can't kill infidels be sure you destroy lots of property at random and who cares if you kill other muslims in the process ism! just destroy all you can ism to show you're pi$$ed off ism!

    Mohammed A Dar: Did you watch George Carlin yet? You really should. Learn and grow up already!

    September 22, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
  18. hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

    Have you seen the keys to my Maserati? My tennis racket is locked in the trunk.

    September 22, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      Use your own ID, hindu, ignorant.

      September 22, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      Have you seen the keys to my apartment? I have locked up my mama with filthy Belief Blogger "Hindu", denier of truth Absolute 180*. I am really worried.

      September 22, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
  19. G. Zeus Kreiszchte

    Well, if you'll admit that you don't know if Jeebus was married, then it's not a stretch to start admitting that Jeebus might not have been the son of any "god," and from thence to conceding that your god and indeed all gods are all just made up BS! C'mon, join us in the 21st century! Mankind has moved on and left you behind with your archaic, unprovable, invisible sky fairies! Jeezus!

    September 22, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
    • Gottheball

      Mankind has moved on? Says who? You? Half of the greatest scientists in history professed a belief in God. Really, who the H are youi to say mankind has moved on? Those of us that believe - billions of us - see God every day and everywhere. You see only the reflection in the mirror. Keep your mouth shut and do us all a favor.

      September 22, 2012 at 6:43 pm |
    • G. Zeus Kreiszchte

      To use past scientists' purported "belief" in "god" is a fallacy! Just think about it. Wouldn't you pretend to "believe" in "god" if that was the only way you could eat? YEP, you would! Historically, what enti-ty held the purse strings? The CHURCH! And guess what? A great many enlightened minds in this world's history realized that and did not rock the boat too much (except for a few folks like Galileo). Einstein, for example, was not a firm believer in any "god" but only pandered to the ma-sses because he knew they needed to hear "god" in a few statements now and again or else he'd be excommunicated from society, as it were. So up yours, dude!

      September 22, 2012 at 7:08 pm |

      Debating Jesus, the Creator, out of existence? Sounds delusional.

      September 23, 2012 at 9:39 am |
  20. truth be trolled

    George Carlin – Religion is bullsh it

    September 22, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
    • G. Zeus Kreiszchte

      Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things and all you other brainwashed, head-up-your-@$$ religious fvcks:

      PLEASE WATCH THIS! Want an excellent, spot-on answer to just how much "prayer changes things"??? WATCH THIS!

      HA HA HA HA! George rocks!

      September 22, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      Everyone please begin sending 10% of your gross earnings to me so I may spread the word of Joe Pesci.

      September 22, 2012 at 6:13 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.