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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. geopat

    Such deep thoughts, feelings and insights.... but more germane to the topic is if Jesus was married, it would undermine the catholic church's practice of priest celibacy, which is based on economics.

    September 29, 2012 at 10:08 am |
  2. bo starr

    ISAIAH 53;2 FOR HE SHALLGROW UP BEFOREHIM A TENDER PLANT;AND AS AROOT AS OF DRY GROUND; HE HATH NO FORM NOR COMELINESS; AND WHEN WE SHALL SEE HIM, THERE IS NO BEAUTY THAT WE SHOULD DESIRE HIM. REV. GARY 'BO' STARR

    September 29, 2012 at 9:36 am |
    • End Religion

      Leviticus 2:4
      "Take my wife - please!"

      September 30, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
  3. nottolate

    Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation,"

    And he is just as ignorant of the bible and Christianity as most everyone here. Scholar?

    September 29, 2012 at 9:35 am |
  4. citizen bob

    what? you're telling me Jesus was married? well then........Mazzeltov!

    September 29, 2012 at 8:38 am |
    • Hawkings

      Frankly, to me, it does not matter if Jesus was married or otherwise, because if you really really know him, and has experienced him, everything else is just immaterial, lame and irrelevant, just like this story.

      September 29, 2012 at 9:27 am |
  5. Elizabeth

    “Jesus said, ‘My wife,'” this Coptic papyrus reads, and since King announced her finding at a Coptic studies conference in Rome on Tuesday....."

    This quote is incorrect. The Eastern Orthodox Church DISMISSED this scrap of parchment approx. 1600 years ago. This piece of parchment was NOT found recently. Protestants and atheists keep trying to recreate the wheel and re-argue topics that the oldest Christian church on Earth discussed and dismissed 16 centuries ago. Come home to the original Church. Visit an Eastern Orthodox Church.

    September 29, 2012 at 4:19 am |
    • 0G-No gods, ghosts, goblins or ghouls

      Does your cult have better or more proof for its silly beliefs that the others? Does it have any?

      September 29, 2012 at 4:32 am |
    • 0G-No gods, ghosts, goblins or ghouls

      I didn't think so. Your beliefs are no more valid than astrology.

      September 29, 2012 at 8:30 am |
  6. Elizabeth

    Study Jesus in the earliest Christian church and learn the Truth. Attend an Eastern Orthodox Church.

    September 29, 2012 at 3:55 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      The Eastern Orthodox Church has a slightly different understanding of the Trinity from that of the RCC and most protestant churches. Are you familiar with it?

      September 29, 2012 at 3:59 am |
    • Elizabeth

      The Holy Trinity is the same in the Eastern Orthodox Church, RC, and the Protestant churches. The Eastern Orthodox Church believes that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father. The RC Church believes that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.

      September 29, 2012 at 4:13 am |
  7. Gabriel Malakh

    @ Sam Stone

    Is this not a Biblical discussion? The point of using scripture is to show that you're not saying anything different from what the Bible pointed out thousands of years ago. So you are not saying anything original.

    September 29, 2012 at 1:29 am |
    • Gabriel Malakh

      @ Sam Stone

      I understand your frustration of not being able to argue against "the truth," God's word.

      September 29, 2012 at 1:35 am |
    • sam stone

      Gabriel: I understand your pompousness in claiming to know "the truth".....it makes you feel like you are god

      October 1, 2012 at 3:20 am |
  8. Chut Pata

    Nope. Yeshu'a did not marry. Yohan'a was his partner.

    September 28, 2012 at 10:30 pm |
  9. Jordan Johnson

    Very biased article. I find the last paragraph of this article completely inaccurate. Jesus was less worried about who was poor and rich, he was more concerned with the spiritual issues in life, not tangiblesubjects like money.

    September 28, 2012 at 8:04 pm |
    • Claire

      That's not true. He frequently mentioned the poor; one of the most famous quotes that comes to mind is him saying it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man make it to heaven (I'm paraphrasing).

      September 28, 2012 at 9:16 pm |
  10. Magdalena

    Jesus was not married. There is absolutely nothing in the scriptures i.e. Old & New testament that makes such a statement.
    You are right, you are "religiously confused." You need Jesus Christ in your life.

    September 28, 2012 at 7:57 pm |
    • Babs

      But where does it specifically say he was NOT married? Don't get my wrong, I am a religious person, but you also need to keep an open mind and be skeptical. However tough it is to be religious and live this way...

      September 28, 2012 at 11:12 pm |
  11. genpretty

    I don't think its makes a difference if Jesus, is married or not. For me I'm a Roman Catholic what I believe is He save the world.

    September 28, 2012 at 7:32 pm |
  12. Catie

    Now, Jesus was not an uncommon name. It is possible there were a few married Jesus'

    September 28, 2012 at 7:18 pm |
  13. Catie

    So you're saying God was married. Unlikely

    September 28, 2012 at 7:17 pm |
    • Hawkings

      Marriage is a worldly desire and made by society, Jesus was completely out of both these aspects throughout his life. Do not judge the man who is revered, praised and worshiped by two of the world's largest religions, and both are now at conflict with each other, but what's ironic is both mentions in their scriptures about His second coming.

      September 29, 2012 at 9:32 am |
  14. Mikey

    Almost a fair presentation. Shocking. How did this guy get a job.

    September 28, 2012 at 5:07 pm |
  15. David N

    Well, the media is nothing if not predictacle. Is another lame brained jesuitic/masonic Da Vinci Code movie on the way to further confuse the world? Even CNN is Vatican-centric, but I have been calling them Catholic Network News for about 10 years now. Fox is "all catholic, all of the time." NBC is the Notre Dame Broadcasting Corporation. It all gets very, very tiresome.

    September 28, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
    • niknak

      I would say Fix news is all fundamentalist xtian all the time.
      Catholics are revilled amoung the vast majority of fix news watchers.
      I know, cause I work with fundies and they tell me that to them, catholism is a cult.

      September 28, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
  16. Tony Hicks

    Rather than being more concerned about what Jesus thought about wealth and poverty, you should should be more concerned with what Jesus had to say about sin and man's obligation to God. That was his primary mission in accordance with the Gospels. It seems that the "gumby-like" Jesus that the writer speaks about must include his own projections of the social reformer onto Jesus.

    September 28, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
    • niknak

      You must not have gotten the memo, jesus never existed.
      But that is not surprising, as most of your religion was ripped off from previous ones.
      Face it bro, you have been hoodwinked. You fairy tale is just that, a big myth.
      It is cute when a young child believes in santa claus, but creepy when an adult does.....

      September 28, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
  17. Avinash

    I personally don't think it makes a difference if Jesus was married or not. When he lived on earth he lived his life as a human being. He got angry, he slept, he had a mother, a brother, he worked. So why can't he be married as a normal human being. Him being a married Messiah doesn't undermine his divinity in any way. In fact it reaffirms the belief of many Christians that he was "fully" man and "fully" God.

    September 28, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
  18. GuyFromEarth

    Jesus WILL be married to humanity, and therefore was not married when He was here. That would be adultery.

    September 28, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
  19. See-El

    If Jesus actually existed, and, except for the New Testament, there is little to support his status as a historical figure, he was likely married. Jesus was a Jew. Christianity did not exist at that time. As a Jew, he likely would have learned his father’s trade (a carpenter?), been married by his late teens, and had multiple children.

    September 28, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
  20. jim

    Yes Jesus is married: with his church, the church is jesus's wife.

    September 28, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • teresa

      @jim: yes, thats the way I understand it too

      September 28, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
    • biff

      The fact that a metaphor is used with Jesus being the bridegroom and the Church being his bride does not address the issue of whether Jesus had a literal wife. Different metaphors are used to describe Christ with his people like Christ is the Shephard and his people are his sheep. The issue here is not one of metaphor.

      September 29, 2012 at 1:19 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.