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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. llɐq ʎʞɔnq

    Not to worry. You do not to believe or do anything religious. Just be a good person.

    Romans 2 : 14-15
    "For when the gentiles who do not have the law, by nature observe the prescriptions of the law; they are a law for themselves even though they do not have the law.
    They show that the demands of the law are written in their hearts, while their conscience bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even defend them on the day, when , according to my gospel, God will judge people's hidden works."

    September 23, 2012 at 10:34 pm |
  2. Good day

    Let me share a poem ...... Oh mother nature. Oh mother nature! Forgive me i produc e organic material every day! And to the same soil that one day i will myself fertilize you with organic material..Worms and putrefaction when my body that so perfect you made and sustain why do you make me old morher nture But please mother nature Take my skeleton and let it rot slower please so we can be together longer! Mother nature! Dnt let them be disrepectful to you! Because i actually love You but how will you keep us together when i dust become. Oh mother nature

    September 23, 2012 at 10:23 pm |
  3. Joe

    People need to stop thinking they know everything because they took a 10th grade science class and let "to each his own"

    September 23, 2012 at 10:02 pm |
    • truth be trolled

      I think I smell a disgruntled ex Evangelical Fortune Cookie Co. "writer". . .

      September 23, 2012 at 10:08 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Joe would have been fired even by a 2nd rate fortune cookie factory. What a doofus!

      September 23, 2012 at 10:37 pm |
  4. jason

    who cares if he was married or not he was a human like everyone else via an exploited one

    September 23, 2012 at 9:47 pm |
  5. Niknak

    Jeebus was a wife beater

    September 23, 2012 at 8:54 pm |
  6. m1

    blah blah blah
    believe if you want, if not, don't
    hard to figure out, I think not

    September 23, 2012 at 8:40 pm |
  7. thecollegeadmissionsguru

    I KNOW that Jesus was NOT married, no way.. couldn't happen... the reason: Myths are not allowed to marry and Jesus was a myth, plain and simple. So, NO he wasn't married.

    September 23, 2012 at 8:11 pm |
  8. nobull4u

    Jesus was too smart a man to get married.

    September 23, 2012 at 7:45 pm |
  9. What???

    If Jesus is the Son of God why would he get married knowing he would be sacrificed on a cross in turn leaving a wife as a widow at a time where there was NO gov. subsidies, wealfare or gov. housing. How can that come from a "loving God"? A "loving God" delivers from burdens He dosen't add to them? He ministers to the widow, He doesn't create them?

    September 23, 2012 at 7:25 pm |
  10. Millennium3

    Good News!

    The Son of Man has already come, as Jesus prophesied about him,
    in the beginning of this most critical Third and Last Day (=Millennium; John 6/27, 40) now!

    http://www.holy-19-harvest.com
    with UNIVERSAL MAGNIFICENT MIRACLES!

    September 23, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
  11. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things,

    September 23, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
    • llɐq ʎʞɔnq

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jk6ILZAaAMI

      September 23, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
    • Veritas

      So pray for some imagination

      September 23, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
    • itsallaloadofbollocks

      Like Perry brought all that rain to Texas??
      Pray for something measurable – for example prevent child starvation. Let us know when you're on the case.

      September 23, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
    • truth be told

      Child starvation solution was delegated to you. God told you to feed the hungry in His name. You are doing a lousy job of it.

      September 23, 2012 at 7:20 pm |
    • truth be told

      You are totally without knowledge as to what prayer is bucky. You should run along little fella till you can converse intelligently.

      September 23, 2012 at 7:23 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      bucky could run rings around you, TuBeTop, even if he was unconscious and had no limbs.

      September 23, 2012 at 7:29 pm |
  12. Nohelia Aguilar

    I like the perspective of a Jesus changing according to the time and idealogical situation of the american culture, that gives so much light about the problems with religion then and now. I am christian and I don´t care people trying to prove Jesus was married or not, that is not important. The important fact is what Bible says about him and how HE is still changing people´s life. If we all followed Jesus this would be a better place.

    September 23, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
    • itsallaloadofbollocks

      Exactly – just ask the Spanish Inquisition

      September 23, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
    • truth be told

      The Spanish inquisition as in a lot of questionable history was conducted by atheists hiding behind religion. Truth be told atheists have tortured and murdered more people in the last 100 years than were killed in all previous centuries.

      September 23, 2012 at 7:27 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Oh, brother. You're desperate.

      Nobody cares, TuBeTop. Your posts are drivel and pap.

      September 23, 2012 at 7:28 pm |
  13. Buckhippo

    WHY ARE RELIGIOUS IDIOTS GIVEN A VOICE ON CNN TO SPEW THEIR IDIOCY?!?!?! WHY DON'T WE LET SCIENTOLOGY ON THE CNN WEBSITE THEN or ISLAMIC RADICALS!!! IT's ALL BS PEOPLE!!! TIME TO BE F-ING ADULTS AND TAKE CARE OF OUR PLANET AND FELLOW HUMAN BEINGS WITHOUT ANY RELIGION TRYING TO INTERFERE, TAKE CREDIT, ETC. THing I hate most? These self-serving religion MISSION trips. OH PLEASE!!! Go to downtown detroit and volunteer there instead of going to some poor country and thinking that's your way into heaven by spreading your divisiveness to desperate famished people. All you f-ing religious people just make me sick. you're no better than muslims. I know you think you are, but to those of us who see you for what you really are, trust me, you are just as bad as islam.

    September 23, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
    • Francisco d'Anconia

      How very tolerant of you Bh. Let me guess...in the next breath you'll claim to be an ardent defender of the 1st Amendment.

      September 23, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
    • m1

      Rabid mad dog alert
      Try waiting until you have a rational thought next time
      Your post is hatred filled drivel

      September 23, 2012 at 8:41 pm |
  14. Martin

    "I’m more interested in what Jesus has to say about wealth and poverty, the rich and the poor."

    Why are you interested in that? He obviously didn't solve anything. His statements on lending indicate a poor understanding of finance. He lived in an era that was very different from our modern economy.

    September 23, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
  15. no_name

    help me to understand, americans ( majority christians ) endores their family so much, why the heck they don't want to think jesus was married ? please explain this to me.

    September 23, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • Eric

      It would have been pretty unusual if a man of his age was not married.

      September 23, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
  16. AJ

    The author does not care because it is likely bunk. I don't care because religion is bunk in general.

    September 23, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
  17. HAVE MUD WILL TRAVEL

    When my pastot told me to lick his butthole I did it for Jesus. Obuma the communist is a dirty moslelm. Jesus will conger all wirth his powers.

    September 23, 2012 at 11:57 am |
    • HAVE MUD WILL TRAVEL

      stolen HMWT

      September 23, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
  18. G. Zeus Kreiszchte

    The discovery of this scroll must mean that folks like Martin Scorsese and Dan Brown are prophets! Hallelujah!

    September 23, 2012 at 11:52 am |
  19. Jim

    A lot of Catholic priests (or potential priests) who were told they could not marry because Jesus remained unmarried probably care. Besides, CNN would be jumping up and down in glee if Jesus's wife was another man.

    September 23, 2012 at 11:01 am |
    • Skeptical

      And what about all the nuns who are "married" to Christ?

      September 23, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
    • Muhammad

      Maybe all the caholic priests were following in the footstpes of jesus when they molested all those little boys since they tried to be like him by not been married.

      September 23, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
  20. Earl

    To the writer of this blog;

    How about reading this Biblical revelation from According to Maestro Evangelista of http://www.thename.ph
    2 Samuel 7:12-14
    New International Version (NIV)

    12 When your days are over and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 I will be his father, and he will be my son. WHEN HE DOES WRONG, I WILL PUNISH HIM WITH A ROD WIELDED BY MEN, WITH FLOGGINGS INFLICTED BY HUMAN HANDS

    In the said verses: 2 Samuel 7:12-14 – we can read that God speaks of a coming son of David and not a literal son of God as what the religions preach

    Is it really true that Jesus was a descendant of David?

    …to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David.
    The virgin's name was Mary.
    Luke 1:27 (NIV)
    Jesus' true father is Joseph who belongs to the house of David. So if we are to believe the teaching of the religions that Jesus is the “son of God,” then it should be Mary who should belong to the house of David.

    And:

    You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus.
    Luke 1:31 (NIV)

    And who was Jesus' father?

    He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David,
    Luke 1:32 (NIV)

    "will be called" – As you have read it, Jesus was only a son or a descendant of David not a real"son of God;" he was just a man.

    Is this true –That Jesus is a son of David? In Matthew 1:1

    A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham:

    Now we can see that the prophecy in 2 Sam7:12-14 about a coming descendant of David and not a son of God was now fulfilled

    Considering the prophecy in II Samuel 7:12-14 that if the descendant of David commits a wrong or an iniquity he will be punished with the rod of men, Maestro Evangelista says Jesus was also punished by men, what is the proof?

    All the people answered, "Let his blood be on us and on our children!" Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.
    Matthew 27:25-26 (NIV)

    He was punished by men, what was his offense?

    The Jews insisted, "We have a law, and according to that law he must die,
    because he claimed to be the Son of God."
    John 19:7 (NIV)

    However Jesus was flogged (Matt.27:25-26)
    This is what christianity failed to reveal to mankind – Jesus is in reality –not a genetic son of God but only a descendant of king David. And what’s horrifying here that Jesus was tortured and beaten not for our sins but for his own iniquity.
    Read this link: http://www.thename.ph/thename/testimony/jes06-en.html

    know How Jesus claimed to be a son of God which led to his failure in this link:
    http://www.thename.ph/thename/testimony/jes09-en.html

    September 23, 2012 at 10:22 am |
    • NanH

      CNN could you please limit responses to 100-200 words?

      September 23, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
    • Leo

      II Samuel 7:12-14 was written about Solomon Davids son who build the temple. Solomon built the house in Gods name, which was the first temple.

      September 23, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
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About this blog

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.