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. Pingpong

    Why does it matter? He was here to do what he did the best. Show the path to God. Why does it matter how did he lived his life? The Best of the best teacher can show the path but to keep your faith unshaken and travel on that path is only and only to individual. No one can help if you loose your faith and no one can help if you can not travel the path shown. So, my personal view...this is useless topic to discuss.

    September 28, 2012 at 11:07 am |
    • Seyedibar

      it matters because hundreds of millions have died in the name of a man who most likely never existed. It's important to uncover the origins of these religions and why their followers are willing to upturn reality and logic and life to make room for such beliefs.

      September 28, 2012 at 11:44 am |
  2. Eugene from Town

    More to the point why are we still talking about another mythical figure who wasn't mentioned by any historians of his time (propagandists, yes, historians,no) who is just another continuation of the December 25, virgin birth tradition?

    September 28, 2012 at 11:05 am |
    • rmiller

      With all your infinite wisdom, can you please name a few historians of his day. Can you name ONE book of his day that says anything about the new testament being mystical. Last count I have is 70plus books of his day saying it is the truth to Zero. And unless you are going to public school in Chicago you will understand the uphill climb you have.

      September 28, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • Eugene from Town

      Books from his day? You have 70+? But were unable to name anything besides biblical references? Really, belief is the refuge of those who's senses have departed. Guess the planet is 6000 years old too? There is no infinite wisdom, only finite foolishness such as your's. With 1/2 a clue and a dollar you might be able to buy a cup of coffee!

      September 28, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
    • Small "c" christian

      In fact, there are two near-contemporary works which mention Jesus.

      Flavius Josephus (37-100 AD) was a 1st Century Romano-Jewish historian whose chief works include "Antiquities of the Jews". While written after the events depicted in the Gospels, "anitquities" at least mentions Jesus twice (and John the Baptist once). Another of Josephus' works – " Testimonium Flavium" contains a passage that purports to refer to the execution of Jesus. Historians now generally beleive that the original manuscript was altered much later by proponents of the newer Christian sect, but that the 'nub' of Josephus' text remains .

      The other reference to Jesus is in the works of Roman Senator and historian Gaius Tacitus (56-117AD). In his chronical "Annals" , Tacitus provides the earliest "authentic" non-Christian description of the events surrounding Jesus' execution by Pilate.

      While neither Tacitus nor Josephus were exact contemporaries of Jesus, they do provide non-biblical, non-Christian evidence of the existence (through execution) of the man Christians came to call divine in a time before the Council of Nicea codifed the various books and manuscripts (and rejected many others) into what we call the New Testament. .

      Both texts are available online and in most libraries.. Feel free to examine them yourself.

      September 29, 2012 at 3:21 am |
    • A Frayed Knot

      small "c",
      "...they do provide non-biblical, non-Christian evidence of the existence..."

      No, they do not. They report what the new Christian sect *claimed* and *believed* about their hero. Josephus also mentions Hercules in his writings. Do you think that means Hercules (and his feats and powers) was real?

      September 29, 2012 at 3:35 am |
    • Small "c" christian

      Frayed- Neither Joesphus nor Tacitus was a member of the new Christian sect, so my "non-Christian" statement stands on that.

      Josephus was Jewish, whileTacitus, a Roman senator, lived in a time when being a Christian was anathema to Romans, esp the ruling class. However, while it is generally conceded that the mention of Jesus' execution in Josephus' "Testimonium" is flawed, and may well have been "clarified" by another scribe at some point after it was written, the simple fact is that both authors were non-christian, thus satisfying the original request for non-biblical references.

      Like almost all historians of the time (and even many modern ones), both authors relied on the evidence they had. Was it perhaps flawed? Possibly. But that was not the question. The question was for non-Biblical references. As the New Testament was still a hundred years in the future at that time, these guys fit the bill.

      September 29, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
    • A Frayed Knot

      small "c",

      No, their writings prove that Christians existed - that's all.

      If a reporter or historian today writes a piece on Scientologists and what they believe, would that mean that Xenu is real?!

      September 29, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • Small "c" christian

      RMILLER asked us to name "a few historians of his day" I named two, both of whom mention Jesus existence in their texts, whether from hearsay or other writings. Maybe I fudged a bit because one did not arrive on scene for about twenty years, but both men existed. Neither was a member of the new sect. RMiller's request was satisfied.

      Now I have to leave and paint my garage doors.

      September 29, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
  3. Chris

    Come on, Jesus was gay. He had men put their heads in his lap and say that they loved him. He did hang out with 12 other guys. He was caught with a naked man kneeling in front him, then the guy ran away. He was invited into a roman soldier's tent to 'visit' his boyfriend. My gadar is just screaming.

    September 28, 2012 at 3:37 am |
    • Bill

      The pastor at Saint Bartholomew Catholic Church in Katy, Texas, says that Democrats are professional killers.He said this in front of a church full of little children. Is he correct?

      September 28, 2012 at 10:59 am |
    • rmiller

      I certainly understand the need for some to denigrate christ, do you all feel better about your lives now? Can you look yourselves in the mirror now and feel good about yourselves? If only this country was build on atheism it would be such a better place to live. If only our founding fathers how the insight of some of the people on this post...good grief.

      September 28, 2012 at 11:19 am |
    • Seyedibar

      @rmiller This country was founded on atheism, or rather a form of skeptical deism. The founding fathers made that very clear in writing, even if society tends to forget their words.

      September 28, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • rmiller

      Interesting response, perhaps what the founders meant by creator was a blue whale in the ocean or our parents or a camel in the desert. Believe or not that is your choice and that is the greatness of our country. If you want to make the strech to deism, fine, but atheism? ooook

      September 28, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
  4. Chris

    Jesus has no birth certificate. He must be born in Kenya.

    September 28, 2012 at 12:06 am |
  5. caesaro

    My humble opinion is who cares...are we asking the same thing about Santa Claus? What next? People want to see the marriage certificate? Marriage didn't exist back then. Marriage was not part of Christians or religions or rather priests didn't stick their noses in marriage until 1563. Why is it important to know if the son of the old invisible man that lives behind the clouds was married. How about worrying about stopping the church from protecting pedophiles or the laundering drug money by the Vatican. How about sharing some of their wealth with the poor and needy?

    September 27, 2012 at 9:48 pm |
    • Bill

      our pastor at Saint Bartholomew Catholic Church in Katy, Texas, says that Democrats are professional killers.He said this in front of a church full of little children. Is he correct?

      September 28, 2012 at 11:00 am |
  6. 54StaryNights

    The only people whose interests are served by insisting Jesus wasn't married are those who use religion to oppress women. The followers of those religions care because a change would improve the lives of many and diminish the privilege and power of a few. Historians would be interested in the answer simply because it is interesting to know more about a pivotal person in history, but beyond these groups, who really cares?

    September 27, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
    • Bill

      The priest at Saint Bartholomew Catholic Church in Katy, Texas, says that Democrats are professional killers.He said this in front of a church full of little children. Is he correct?

      September 28, 2012 at 11:01 am |
  7. Leftcoast

    Hey Steve,
    Shouldn't you be more interested in what Jesus had to say about salvation and entering the kingdom of heaven rather than wealth and povery, the rich and the poor?

    September 27, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
    • Twisting Mecury

      Jesus actually had quite a lot to say on the subject of wealth, poverty, rich, and poor.

      September 28, 2012 at 10:43 am |
    • Seyedibar

      If you want to get technical, those talking points were added to the gospels by Matthew almost 80 years later. The sermon on the mount and the love speeches weren't gospel before that. But of course not a single gospel is actually an eyewitness account, so it's quite silly to believe any of it as truth anyway.

      September 28, 2012 at 10:54 am |
  8. Your Panties in Texas

    Jesus was married to my 18th cousin, twice removed. And, she was very precious. Tiny teats are always best.

    September 27, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
  9. MnTaxpayer

    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.

    What does that say abougt the 'study' of theology?

    September 27, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
  10. SueP

    God the father was not Anti Marriage, and he sent his son down to live as a Real man with Real human experiences so how is it that we have adopted this image that excludes this most intimate relationship. It defies logic, logic that God himself gave us.

    September 27, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
    • sam stone

      The logic that "god" gave us would result in denial of god

      September 27, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
    • Seyedibar

      The idea of gods existing defies logic.

      September 28, 2012 at 10:55 am |
  11. jyves95

    Well, you should care, so priests can get married, have children and stop messing with children...
    For the rich, poor, wealth.. we all know his feelings about this.. at least the ones who read the new testament.

    September 27, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
    • sam stone

      some priests can marry and have children

      September 27, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
    • caesaro

      Pedophiles are not just priests there are plenty of regular married men that are pedophiles..the problem is the vatican protecting them.

      September 27, 2012 at 9:50 pm |
  12. augustghost

    He was married to Mary, had a child and off she went to France (good choice) which means Jesus had a woody at least once a got him some holy p*ssy......deal with it

    September 27, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
    • Your Panties in Texas

      Woodies are great. I always have mine with me.

      September 27, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
  13. Gabriel Malakh

    Sam Stone: Not by words, by deeds!

    September 27, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
    • Gabriel Malakh

      Luke 10:27
      27 In answer he said: “‘You must love Jehovah* your God with your whole heart and with your whole soul* and with your whole strength and with your whole mind,’+ and, ‘your neighbor as yourself.’”

      Example of how one shows love for Neighbor whom they never met:

      Luke 10:29-37
      29 But, wanting to prove himself righteous, the man said to Jesus: “Who really is my neighbor?”+ 30 In reply Jesus said: “A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jer′i·cho and fell among robbers, who both stripped him and inflicted blows, and went off, leaving him half-dead. 31 Now, by coincidence, a certain priest was going down over that road, but, when he saw him, he went by on the opposite side.+ 32 Likewise, a Levite also, when he got down to the place and saw him, went by on the opposite side.+ 33 But a certain Sa·mar′i·tan+ traveling the road came upon him and, at seeing him, he was moved with pity. 34 So he approached him and bound up his wounds, pouring oil and wine upon them.+ Then he mounted him upon his own beast and brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 And the next day he took out two de·nar′i·i,* gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him, and whatever you spend besides this, I will repay you when I come back here.’ 36 Who of these three seems to you to have made himself neighbor+ to the man that fell among the robbers?” 37 He said: “The one that acted mercifully+ toward him.” Jesus then said to him: “Go your way and be doing+ the same yourself.”

      September 27, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
    • sam stone

      That doesn't make sense

      September 27, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
    • sam stone

      gabriel: can you make a point without quoting the bible?

      September 27, 2012 at 4:25 pm |
    • sam stone

      Apparently not

      September 28, 2012 at 6:50 am |
  14. Dillard


    The ivory smuggling investigation was prompted by an article in the October issue of National Geographic magazine that quotes Monsignor Garcia as telling a U.S. reporter how to smuggle illegal elephant ivory figurines into the United States.Religious icons and statues are popular among Catholics in the Philippines, and those made of pure ivory are among the most treasured. Religious specialty shops openly sell pure ivory icons, and many parishes will have a treasured ivory statue of the infant Jesus or one of the saints that are celebrated during festivals. I don't think Jesus would of killing one of God's creations for their tusk or molesting his children.

    September 27, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
  15. Everett Wallace

    nope joshua was NOT married and he had NO children, joshua means jesus in greek you all like to translate the Holy Bible in greek any way. I am NO jesus I am GOD in the flesh on Earth the only human GOD!

    September 27, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
    • caesaro

      Do you believe in Santa Claus?

      September 27, 2012 at 9:51 pm |
    • Rook

      Of course Santa Claus is real. Ask anyone to describe him. Ask anyone to tell the approximate location of his house. More letters are written to him a year than you will receive in your lifetime. When you are long forgotten, his name will still be known. How is that not real?

      September 28, 2012 at 6:22 am |
  16. McOlans

    Is the 'Jesus'referred to, the same JESUS CHRIST, Our Lord?

    September 27, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
  17. whattheeff

    Jesus never existed, you dolts. It's an allegory.

    September 27, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
  18. allfaith

    Any individual can accomplish great things by being themselves. Why not be yourself and see what happens. Treat others with respect and as equals and there will be no reason to fear having done something wrong. This is the grace of God, that there is no sin, only denial of truth. Live your life free of judgement and you will be fulfilled.

    September 27, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
  19. NativeUSA

    I found a scrap of paper on old papyrus it says the Obama man is the son of Satan, must be true huh? Duh.........Jesus was also a very popular common name during his time.....maybe it was a letter from someone's aunt wose nephew was named Jesus and he was going to buy some persimmons? Egads this has almost zero historical context........

    September 27, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
  20. From the heart

    I understand the idea of Jesus having never existed. But if he had existed I would have wanted to have thanked him, or done something to help him. What a horrible way to die. I don't care if he was married or short or whatever. None of that's relevant...again, images I've seen of this guy....a dude in severe pain. Nothing cute about agony.

    September 27, 2012 at 11:42 am |
    • sam stone

      Well, when you attempted to help, the Romans would probably have put up with you.....or put you up

      September 27, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
    • ME II

      Unfortunately, I think there are even worse ways to die, mostly diseases, and it happens every day.

      September 27, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
    • What IF

      From the heart,

      Yes, the story is pretty gruesome, but lots and lots of people have suffered just as badly, if not worse. You can even look up the horrific tortures and deaths of hundreds of thousands during the Inquisition and witch executions and other rampages by the followers of this "Christ"... and by other disgusting zealots (religious or non) all over the world all throughout history and even today.

      There is most certainly someone out there (many, in fact) that you could help right now, if you have the heart.

      September 27, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Yes, some places to start if you want to help:

      Young Mens Christian Association
      St. Vincent DePaul Society
      Sisters of Mercy
      Samaritan's Purse
      Catholic Relief Services
      Lutheran World Relief
      Christian Aid Society

      September 27, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
    • Gabriel Malakh

      There is a difference in dying in agony for people who hates you and are the ones who requested for the death sentence for you, and dying for those you love.

      Jesus Christ even died for atheists who don't even believe his Father exist so in turn denies his existence.

      John 3:16
      “For God loved+ the world* so much that he gave his only-begotten Son,+ in order that everyone exercising faith+ in him might not be destroyed+ but have everlasting life.

      September 27, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
    • NativeUSA

      You should use the name from the ice cold non heart. Jesus did exist it's you I worry about existing soon enough.

      September 27, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • sam stone

      Gabriel: How can you love those you have never met?

      September 27, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • What IF

      Bill Deacon,

      Yes, and also:

      Doctors Without Borders
      The Red Cross
      The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
      St. Jude's Children's Hospital

      and many others...

      September 27, 2012 at 2:22 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.