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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. Mike from Toronto Kanada

    .."no one knows if this Jesus Christ existed, and if he did, NOTHING is known about him!" Why I am not a Christian
    Bertrand Russell 1928

    September 24, 2012 at 9:37 pm |
  2. Bruce

    According to my (non scholarly) read of the Bible, Jesus was a thirty something Jewish Guy. Now, as I think it also was then, Thirty something Jewish Guys are expected to be Married, and to have started producing grandchildren for their Mothers. I find no evidence of Mary complaining about a lack of Grandchildren. Ergo, Jesus, the eldest son had done his duty before he started wandering around, preaching.

    September 24, 2012 at 6:38 pm |
    • charles davis

      There is a possibility that you are slightly wrong in this respect. From the age of 13 to 32, nobody knows where he was.
      (that is if he existed at all).

      September 24, 2012 at 10:03 pm |
  3. bob

    This reminds me of when george lucas changed star wars

    September 24, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
  4. Lee Oates

    Christ is a composite of many religions current at the time period he lived in. Nice fairy tale however. I rank it right up there with shrek but without the green.

    September 24, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
  5. j

    When you've got almost two thousand years of infallible doctrine and dogma predicated on Jesus being unmarried, and a religion that has many policy that place women below men as far as leadership, not to mention is the basis of non-marriage for priests, it seems like a big deal.

    But maybe that's just me.

    September 24, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • Joel

      Personal Faith: The immovable belief that regardless of evidence, facts, or direct observations to the contrary, I will never stop or change my beliefs to reflect what is real.

      September 24, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
    • The Eternal Satyr

      Jesus' wife's name is Sophia. Just ask any Gnostic and they'll tell you all about it.

      Oh and by the way http://www.jesusneverexisted.com

      September 24, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
    • charles davis

      If he existed at all, he couldn't be a priest. There are no priests in the Jewish religion. They do have Rabies, which really means "teacher".

      September 24, 2012 at 10:09 pm |
  6. lindaluttrell

    Bravo to the author for not getting his knickers in a wad over this! There IS the gap in Jesus's life from about age 12 to when he began his preaching. To date, no scholars or historians have been able to find any fully intact ancient texts to fill this gap. Belief systems all embrace the ideology of marriage, yet want to deny a person they claim to love so much the simple life step of having a family of his own. I never will understand why his marital status should matter so much if you faithfully follow his teachings...

    September 24, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
    • charles davis

      Not 12 yrs old. It would be 13. An orthodox Jewish boy would not shame his gather and leave before he his Bar Mitzvah

      September 24, 2012 at 10:15 pm |
  7. william

    "We don't know" if Jeus was married because all records about it have been destroyed through the centuries of re-writes, votes, and edicts by the powers to be of such things. I don't know how anyone can believe the inerrancy of such a book, which has been through so many changes.

    September 24, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
    • Mike

      You'd be surprised what you can get people to believe if you start on them early enough...

      September 24, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
  8. Moeen

    Ofcourse Jesus was human (but pious of highest order to be appointed as prophet since his birth) and by nature all humans need a companion, as God did make a compnaion Eve for Adam. And marriage is the sacred way of having a companion. Remember all prophets are pious and pure/innocent and they never defy God. Prophets not only preach by words but also follow the way of living as per guideline laid by God. Thus marriage of Jesus is surely a natural way of living just as ordained by God for all of us.

    September 24, 2012 at 11:26 am |
    • The Eternal Satyr

      Thanks for that rambling load of crap.

      September 24, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
    • charles davis

      I think you are writing this with "tongue in cheek.

      September 24, 2012 at 10:18 pm |
  9. granny

    Jesus is married His Bride is the Church of Belivers Revelation 19 7

    September 24, 2012 at 11:24 am |
    • Mary

      Amen.

      September 24, 2012 at 11:29 am |
    • I think Jesus is frowning on this corrupt world

      AMEN!!!

      September 24, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
    • Anybody know how to read?

      Rev 19:7 Let us be glad and rejoice, and give honour to him: for the marriage of the Lamb is come, and his wife hath made herself ready.' Lay off the 'shrooms, granny. No Church in that verse.

      September 25, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
  10. skippydog

    Jesus could not have been married. Lamb of God or not, no woman would allow her husband to bum around for years with 12 unemployed guys.

    September 24, 2012 at 10:41 am |
    • weezer

      OK, Sam Kineson....I've heard that routine.

      And I think it was, "No wife would believe that story of being gone for three days and coming back on Sunday looking all dragged out..." "And what about your 12 friends who can't keep a job? They're losers..."

      September 24, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
  11. jdk

    This is an excellent "teachable moment". If CNN published something like this that was as obviously sacrilegious to one of the muslim religion's most sacred beliefs there would be riots, death threats, and murders. Remember that next time someone tries to tout "equivalency" between religions or calls a peaceful Christian an "extremist".

    September 24, 2012 at 10:08 am |
  12. WhatWouldJesusDo

    I'm not at all religious, but if there was a Jesus and it was written that he was married, I think that's a pretty big deal.

    Ask yourself why a God would need a wife? Wasn't it that the first man Adam was lonely and God created a human female companion for him out of Adam's rib? If that's so, then females never existed before Adam. If so, why did God take a liking to females when he came down as Jesus in his body form? He never needed females before.

    September 24, 2012 at 10:06 am |
    • gtalum06

      God created Eve because Adam was not yet complete. It wasn't an emotional creation, she was created because He was trying to make His creation perfect. It wasn't perfect to Him until he had a way for man to not be alone. Genesis 2:18 says "The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”"
      It wasn't in response to a lonely man.

      September 24, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • Bliss

      Just think how different the world would be ahd he just created a dog for companionship

      September 24, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
    • charles davis

      Did you ever see a painting of Eve. My question is "why does she have a belly button"?

      September 24, 2012 at 10:23 pm |
    • Momof3

      God created Eve, so Adam would have someone to blame his stupidity on...

      September 25, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  13. John D lamb

    Comments please .....

    September 24, 2012 at 10:00 am |
  14. twmac1

    Stephen Prothero religion scholar ? Remind me not to send my children to Boston University! This article is one of the worst I have read from MR. Prothero, a religion scholar who doesnt care what Jesus said about marriage. Thats like a CEO of a company not caring what steve jobs thought on business. WOW!

    September 24, 2012 at 9:38 am |
    • notagoodanalogy

      Or did I miss the iSermon on the Mount

      September 24, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
  15. incredulous

    The author of this article is at least honest and has a firm grasp on reality, well, for the most part as there is really no evidence Jesus ever existed. He at least writes he doesn't know what Jesus was like, married or not, unlike most christians who claim they do. They vehemently deny Jesus was married, as that would destroy their faith in their belief system, aka, the bible, and they can't have that. That book is the means by which they claim the authority to rule and legislate everyone else's life.

    September 24, 2012 at 8:32 am |
    • Jim

      lol

      There is plenty of evidence that Jesus existed, and it comes from those who were anti-Xian such as Tacitus the Roman historian from the late first and early second century who recorded that Jesus was killed by Pontius Pilate.

      The evidence is there so it is not being incredulous if one denies that Jesus existed, it is being opinionated and against all the evidence.

      September 24, 2012 at 9:02 am |
    • WhatWouldJesusDo

      Jim, get your fact straight. Not a single historian wrote about Jesus. The information we get is from the bible and ancient transcripts etc.

      They never put Jesus in the history books because the historians and everyone else at the time knew it as fiction. It wasn't until the Crusades and the Dark Ages where they used this fiction novel as a road map to human slavery, so to speak.

      September 24, 2012 at 10:20 am |
  16. Millennium3

    Jesus has already RETURNED, as he promised (John 6/27, 40)
    in the beginning of this most critical Third and Last Day (=Millennium) now! (John 6/40)

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

    September 24, 2012 at 7:51 am |
    • some guy

      Wrong.

      September 24, 2012 at 9:27 am |
    • I think Jesus is frowning on this corrupt world

      Jesus will Return again, it is written in the Bible and the word of God dont lie.

      September 24, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
    • I think Jesus is frowning on this corrupt world

      Jesus will Return again........ it is written in the Bible and the word of God dont lie.

      September 24, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
    • SchoolMarm

      Grammar dude.

      September 24, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
  17. some guy

    "My Take: I don't know if Jesus was married (and I don't care)"

    Then why did you write up an article, Mr. Prothero?

    September 24, 2012 at 7:25 am |
  18. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things ,

    September 24, 2012 at 5:28 am |
    • Jim

      Stopping troolling uselessly. You are making Xians look stupid of which we are not.

      September 24, 2012 at 9:05 am |
    • Jesus

      Prayer does not; you are such a LIAR. You have NO proof it changes anything! A great example of prayer proven not to work is the Christians in jail because prayer didn't work and their children died. For example: Susan Grady, who relied on prayer to heal her son. Nine-year-old Aaron Grady died and Susan Grady was arrested.

      An article in the Journal of Pediatrics examined the deaths of 172 children from families who relied upon faith healing from 1975 to 1995. They concluded that four out of five ill children, who died under the care of faith healers or being left to prayer only, would most likely have survived if they had received medical care.

      The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs!^

      September 24, 2012 at 11:19 am |
    • hal 9001

      I'm sorry, "Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things", 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 24, 2012 at 9:10 pm |
  19. Bill in Anza

    God answers all prayers.
    Sometimes the answer is "No".

    September 24, 2012 at 12:22 am |
    • itsallaloadofbollocks

      Actually the response is always the same – no reply because there's noone home.

      September 24, 2012 at 2:36 am |
    • nope

      @itsalla...
      nope

      September 24, 2012 at 5:28 am |
    • snopes says

      nope to nope

      September 26, 2012 at 8:45 am |
  20. Reality

    Only for the new members of this blog:

    As a continuation of putting Stevie P out of the book selling business and also transferring him to Boston U's Department of Myths and Legends: (i.e. It appears that he believes in angels and Satan)

    AND THE INFAMOUS ANGELIC CONS CONTINUE TO WREAK STUPIDITY UPON THE WORLD

    Joe Smith had his Moroni. (As does M. Romney)

    "Latter-day Saints like M. Romney also believe that Michael the Archangel was Adam (the first man) when he was mortal, and Gabriel lived on the earth as Noah."

    Jehovah Witnesses have their Jesus /Michael the archangel, the first angelic being created by God;

    Mohammed had his Gabriel (this "tin-kerbell" got around).

    Jesus and his family had/has Michael, Gabriel, and Satan, the latter being a modern day demon of the demented. (As does Obama and his family)(As does Biden and Ryan)

    The Abraham-Moses myths had their Angel of Death and other "no-namers" to do their dirty work or other assorted duties.

    Contemporary biblical and religious scholars have relegated these "pretty wingie/horn-blowing thingies" to the myth pile. We should do the same to include deleting all references to them in our religious operating manuals. Doing this will eliminate the prophet/profit/prophecy status of these founders and put them where they belong as simple humans just like the rest of us.

    September 24, 2012 at 12:18 am |
    • ....

      BULL SH IT

      September 24, 2012 at 5:29 am |
    • Reality

      Jesus was married? So what ? Read below for added details:

      The Apostles' Creed 2012: (updated by yours truly and based on the studies of historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

      Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
      and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
      human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven??

      I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
      preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
      named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
      girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

      Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
      the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

      He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
      a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of
      Jerusalem.

      Said Jesus' story was embellished and "mythicized" by
      many semi-fiction writers. A descent into Hell, a bodily resurrection
      and ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
      Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
      grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
      and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
      called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

      Amen
      (references used are available upon request)

      September 24, 2012 at 8:31 am |
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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.