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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. lawgrace

    I hope that the people who are involved with the Jesus quiz would find something better to do with their time and money. In view of the serious problem of poverty, unemployment, and the uncooperative congress, it’s exasperating for people to be talking about what amounts to “a frog went a courtin’ and he did ride, uh-huh” It would be different if the Jesus question was not generated by historians and researchers. I hope that next they won’t be studying to find out whether the cow really did jump over the moon.
    It would be wonderful if that would use that research money to stock some food banks, or they would research solutions to poverty or political corruption. I would further be good if the researchers and historians who are directing America’s focus on Jesus’s wife, would use their platforms for helping Americans see how badly their members of congress are doing –like leaving town when President Obama is trying to get employment bills passed. If the American public became aware which congress members are skipping out, people will know who to not re-elect.

    [excerpt from: “Organized Religion Farewell; Religion Divine, Hello!” http://www.lawgrace.org/2012/09/22/organized-religion-farewell-religion-divine-hello/ ]

    September 30, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
  2. How come???

    Ok, look I'm agnostic and I REALLY don't mean to be stupid but how come you never see a debate on wether or not Nero, King Tut, Ramsies II or any of those people existed (even as historical figures).

    Now we have Jesus..who (no offense to the Christians)..all of humanity is NOT on the same page on wether he existed.

    I admit fully to my own ignorance on the subject but just looking at this as an "outside party" the back and forth debate seems like the craziest thing I've ever seen.

    Can we atleast find out (much like we did with Joan of Arc or Plato or any other historical figure) wether or not this guy actually WAS? Please humans? Can you all be on the same page with that much...because I'm already confused.

    As far as marriage, I'm not sure why that would matter.

    September 30, 2012 at 2:27 pm |
    • ebwoodall

      Perhaps we ought to learn to spell first.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
    • Dave

      Did he exist? The year is 2012. Not 2012 since Nero. 2012 since Christ. Why did the entire world set their calendar after someone who "didn't even exist," according to your logic? He existed. The question each has to answer is who was He?

      September 30, 2012 at 6:29 pm |
    • A Frayed Knot

      Dave,

      The B.C./A.D dating system was the brainchild of a monk named Dionysius in the 6th century. The Church was very powerful in those days and controlled many aspects of society - political, social, financial, etc. - even still, his dating system took hundreds of years (nearly 1000) to be inst-ituted world-wide. Many cultures still keep their ancient calendars going on the side.

      September 30, 2012 at 7:11 pm |
  3. smk

    “Proclaim, He is the One and only GOD. The Absolute GOD. Never did He beget. Nor was He begotten. None equals Him." [112:1]

    “They even attribute to Him sons and daughters, without any knowledge. Be He glorified. He is the Most High, far above their claims.” Quran [6:100]

    “The example of Jesus, as far as GOD is concerned, is the same as that of Adam; He created him from dust, then said to him, "Be," and he was.” Quran [3:59]

    “No soul can carry the sins of another soul. If a soul that is loaded with sins implores another to bear part of its load, no other soul can carry any part of it, even if they were related. ... [35:18]

    It does not befit God that He begets a son, be He glorified. To have anything done, He simply says to it, "Be," and it is. [19:35]

    God will say, "O Jesus, son of Mary did you say to the people, `Make me and my mother idols beside God?' " He will say, "Be You glorified. I could not utter what was not right. Had I said it, You already would have known it. You know my thoughts, and I do not know Your thoughts. You know all the secrets.[5:116]

    The Messiah, son of Mary is no more than a messenger like the messengers before him, and his mother was a saint. Both of them used to eat the food. Note how we explain the revelations for them, and note how they still deviate! [5:75]

    (they are condemned) for disbelieving and uttering about Mary a gross lie. [4:156]

    Subsequent to them, we sent Jesus, the son of Mary, confirming the previous scripture, the Torah. We gave him the Gospel, containing guidance and light, and confirming the previous scriptures, the Torah, and augmenting its guidance and light, and to enlighten the righteous. Quran [5:46]

    Thanks for taking time to read my post. Please take a moment to clear your misconception by going to whyIslam org website.

    September 30, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • End Religion

      @smk: All religion is a fraud. If you suffer from a brand of this delusion, it is no less crazy than any other.

      September 30, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
  4. Voxhumana

    The history of Jesus, and even the gospels were subject to historical tampering by the early organizers of Christianity. Celibacy wasn't even put forward until hundreds of years after Christ. And it is purported that at that time, the gospels were "scrubbed" to remove any evidence that contained Jesus' marriage to Mary Magdalene. These actions and the arguments to accept them are only promulgated by organized religions trying to make a few more powerful over many. True devotion or holiness is done for its own sake, not for allegiance or devotion to a living leader.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:51 am |
    • Anthony Zarrella

      "It is purported..."

      By whom is it purported, and with what evidence? There are, to the best of my knowledge, fairly reliably attested manuscripts of most of the Epistles of St. Paul dating from the First Century (i.e. less than 60 years after Jesus died in AD 33, and within about 30 years of the lifetime of Paul) and Paul *certainly* wrote about celibacy.

      Now, I can't prove that Jesus *wasn't* married (and I do agree that it makes little difference – marriage is not at all looked down upon by Christians, at least not in my [Catholic] Church), but there's no evidence for the proposition that evidence of marriage was deliberately censored. What I *do* think the Gospels prove is that Jesus didn't have any female Apostles – i.e. if He was married, then He did not see fit to give His wife a leadership role in His new Church. Other than that, as long as no one's asserting that He had descendants, it makes little theological difference whether He was married or not.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
  5. Loggan44

    I'm a Buddhist but I don't see why it would matter if Jesus was married. According to Christian belief he was sent to earth to live as a man. I have no doubt he could have had a wife and see no reason it would detract from the theology.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:25 am |
    • Tricki

      Thank you! I'm Christian and I agree 100%! Does it really matter? Not at all. He is God in human form on Earth. HUMAN! He ate, drank, cried, experienced joy, sorrow, anger, and even fear. Why shouldn't he be married? Let's focus on his teachings and example of love, not on his social life. The fact that he suffered horrifically for all of us should be enough!

      September 30, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
  6. Edward

    Jesus was not married. It was not His intention or purpose for coming into this world. Jesus purpose was to save man from his sins, by living a sinnless life, dieing on the cross and being raised from the dead. This was his purpose for coming into the world. Of course Jesus performed supernatural miracles. Its a great sin to say Jesus was married and Satans goal to make Jesus look like a regular human, as Christ was God and Man in the flesh!

    September 30, 2012 at 11:09 am |
    • DavidInNC

      What proof do you have to support your veiws that Jesus never married? He was a human with human feelings. He felt pain, happiness and sadness as all humans do. Also, there is no great sin. To God sin is sin. Only mankind has put a priority on sin. Now as far as the belief in the Trinity goes, not once did Jesus ever actually say He was God. The refference most Christians use to prove that the Trinity was God, Jesus and the Holy Spirt were the same is a quote from Jesus " when you see me you see the Father". That quote is open to interpertation. I for one believe that what Jesus was saying was that the Holy Spirit is God and that the Holy Spirit dwells in all that believe in Him. Let me ask you one question. If Jesus was God, then who was Jesus praying to, Himself?

      September 30, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
    • Tricki

      Yes.

      September 30, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
  7. Consequence

    While it would seem to have an impact on celibacy, i don't see where it would make much difference whether Christ was married or not. It certainly would not detract from either his status or his mission and purpose. Conceivably, his marriage could have produced a blood line...but this too would not detract from his purpose, life and mission and would not bestow any special status upon his descendents since, by his own reckoning, we are all children of God. Married or single, none of it matters.

    September 30, 2012 at 11:01 am |
  8. Montesin

    Several years ago we asked a Catholic priest friend about the meaning of the golden wedding ring in his finger.
    His reply: "I am Christ's wife and this is my symbol." He was a man, of course, and his marriage was the metaphor for a spiritual marriage, not a real one. After two thousand years of Christianity the present question is irrelevant.
    The Vaticam would not change its current policies about women even f they found Jesus' invitation to his wedding. They would find another reason.

    September 30, 2012 at 9:36 am |
    • End Religion

      There goes any religious argument that marriage can only exist between one man and one woman.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
  9. Canadian Jack

    The name Jesus is not Hebraic. It is a Roman name. Who but the Romans back then could have launched a world religion.That was the plan to entrust them with the story. They took a story about a holy man who died on the cross into a man who defied death and lived again. That is a pagan story. Anyone who has read Greek and Roman myth knows well the story of the man born to a woman impregnated by God who gave birth to a son. That son could not die. Religion is good for kids not for grown ups.

    September 30, 2012 at 8:18 am |
    • jade

      wasn't that Dionysus?

      September 30, 2012 at 9:26 am |
    • Gabriel Malakh

      @Canadian Jack

      The name Jesus (Gr., I·e·sous′) corresponds to the Hebrew name Jeshua (or, in fuller form, Jehoshua), meaning “Jehovah Is Salvation.” The name itself was not unusual, many men being so named in that period. For this reason persons often added further identification, saying, “Jesus the Nazarene.” (Mr 10:47; Ac 2:22) Christ is from the Greek Khri·stos′, the equivalent of the Hebrew Ma·shi′ach (Messiah), and means “Anointed One.” Whereas the expression “anointed one” was properly applied to others before Jesus, such as Moses, Aaron, and David (Heb 11:24-26; Le 4:3; 8:12; 2Sa 22:51), the position, office, or service to which these were anointed only prefigured the superior position, office, and service of Jesus Christ. Jesus is therefore preeminently and uniquely “the Christ, the Son of the living God.”—Mt 16:16

      1 Corinthians 2:14-16
      14 But a physical* man does not receive the things of the spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot get to know [them],+ because they are examined spiritually. 15 However, the spiritual+ man* examines indeed all things, but he himself is not examined+ by any man. 16 For “who has come to know the mind of Jehovah,*+ that he may instruct him?”+ But we do have the mind+ of Christ.*

      September 30, 2012 at 9:49 am |
    • Tricki

      This gentleman's post shows how we as Christians are failing to spread Christ's message. I'm sorry for you, my friend, and I do pray for you. Your current belief is nothing but darkness and death. I was once where you are. It sucks. Christ will never give up on you. . .Christianity is not some scary, wacko fabrication. All you need to do are two things: 1) "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, [2] 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'" Just imagine how wonderful this world could be if we all did that!

      September 30, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • End Religion

      tricki, you don't need the threat of your sky daddy's eternal lava waterboarding in order to be nice to your neighbor.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
  10. tarheel1110

    As if any of this has any importance at all.

    What really matters is the philosophy of Jesus to be caring and respectful of others. Unfortunately, this seems to be missed by much of organized religion and many people.

    September 29, 2012 at 7:02 pm |
    • niknak

      But why do you need jesus, or the idea of some all seeing being to be a good person?
      Why can't you just decide on your own to be a stand up guy/gal?
      Nothing jesus "taught" is anything different then what had always existed, and that is choice.
      You can choose to be a good person, or choose to be a douch bag.
      I choose to be a good person, and I have never believed in god(s). I did so because I feel it is the correct thing to do.
      NOT because I am scared of some all powerful being, or trying to curry favor with it to get into something called heaven.
      Free yourself from relgion and be a stand up person because you want to.

      September 29, 2012 at 7:16 pm |
    • moi

      niknak..... so true.

      September 29, 2012 at 8:35 pm |
    • Tricki

      One question, Niknak. What do you think makes you "feel" that being a "good" person is the right thing to do?

      September 30, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • End Religion

      tricki, its empathy through evolution that leads us to understand pain in others, and to do what we can to keep others from feeling it. It is just known as "being nice" and atheists have been doing it a long time without the extortion of hell.

      September 30, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
    • Anybody know how to read?

      End Religion says, ' ...empathy through evolution...' Now there's a TWIST and spoken by a true believer! Sorry sweety children learn empathy from their fathers. Science says so and the evidence for the lack of it can be found in any ghetto. Time for your trip to the ER.

      October 1, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
  11. niknak

    I don't know if jesus existed, nor do I care.....

    September 29, 2012 at 6:56 pm |
    • Geoff

      I'm with you on that one.

      September 30, 2012 at 8:02 am |
  12. Rich

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

    This is the key statement of the entire article. It tells me everything I need to know in order to understand Stephen Prothero.

    September 29, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
  13. desertmedic

    Of course Jesus was married. HE was sent here to suffer wasn't he?

    September 29, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
    • Tricki

      Now that's funny! Good one!

      September 30, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
  14. Rose

    Who says married men commit sin? Who says Jewish children are different kind of human? Jesus was human because he had a physical birth and a physical death. For those who believe he rose again, I doubt that ever happened.

    September 29, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
    • NativeBornUSA

      I have no doubt it happened.......your doubts mean zip to me

      September 29, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
    • niknak

      And your belief means zip to me.
      What does mean zip to me is you trying to push your belief on me and the rest of us who choose NOT to believe.
      If you want to go on your hill with your hommies and howl at the moon, that is your right.
      But don't try to force the rest of us to do it too.

      September 29, 2012 at 6:54 pm |
  15. Rose

    who said married men commit sin or a different kind of human? For crying out loud, he was a man or else he wouldn't have been born or died.

    September 29, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
    • NativeBornUSA

      Married men sin as much as unmarried ones all except Jesus the original that is.........

      September 29, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
  16. David N

    If Stephen Prothero does not know or care if Jesus, (the Son of God, who said that if you have seen me, you have seen the Father), doesn't know if it would be okay for a father to sleep with his children, then how in the world did CNN go about hiring him? Getting a jobat CNN must be a breeze! No qualifications needed.

    September 29, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
  17. robCM

    Lets say that he was gay and his wife was another man, how would that fit in with the far rights standing on gay marriage?
    Then let say he was straight and he was married to a women, that would create a problem for the christians that like to think of women as a 2nd rate person not a principal of the church.

    September 29, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • duckforcover

      Think about the hassle trying to get some 'alone time' with the 12 other dudes hanging around all the time!

      September 29, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
  18. Jane M.

    The problem with interpreting ancient manuscripts is understanding the meaning of the words as they relate to the language and culture in which they were written. For example, Protestants believe that Jesus had brothers and sisters while Catholics do not. Why? It states in the bible that he does have brothers and sisters, however, in that area of the world there is no word for first cousin. The culture believes that first cousins are so genetically close, they are considered brothers and sisters. So it is difficult to know whether he really had siblings or not.

    The truth is we know very little about Jesus Christ. Luke's gospel was written about 40 years after his death. I don't think it matters whether he was married or not. If you believe in his teachings that should be enough.

    September 29, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • robCM

      But his teaching were handed down by word of mouth for the first 40 to 120 years. Like the game of telephone by the end of the line the original thought has changed completely.

      September 29, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
    • Rose

      Give me a break Vatican, if in fact Jesus existed, and if he was a Jew, there would be a 98% chance he was married. All Jewish men (especially rabbis were married), because Torah said to be married and replenish the earth, that was better to be married than to sin. Show me where an ancient rabbi was not married and I'll take this back.

      September 29, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
    • jack

      Rose, I agree with you. Of course he was a Rabbi, and as far as his teachings,and I emphasize his teachings, he was a good Rabbi. He was married, period. And I believe he loved his wife who was Mary Madelina.
      As we become better able to track DNA the truth will be learned.
      Yesterday, the Vatican denied the statements he made re "his wife". Bravo J.C. A Rabbi should be proud of your wife,coodos!

      September 30, 2012 at 6:48 pm |
  19. stephen l. walkinshaw

    Why are we talking about a person who we know was gay, if he lived at all, the gay catholic priests have pull the biggest scam in history on you poor straight people, they take your money and boss you around, a gay man dream world.

    September 29, 2012 at 11:23 am |
  20. st. kevin

    Jesus didn't have a wife since his children born would have been a different type human. Jesus was sinless & he would have created a super type race of people if he had children.

    "which of you convicts me of sin" Jesus

    September 29, 2012 at 11:18 am |
    • Rose

      why would making a person married seem to commit sin? Why would a married person change your beliefs? you believe in what he preached. He was Jewish and followed Torah, torah says to be married, that would not change his messages in the least. Why would his children be anything but human? He had a physical birth and a physical death – he was human, there is no God but God, Jesus was a man, a rabbi, a married man, a learned man who didn't agree with a lot two-faced religious people. People should look up the School of Hillel and see what the qualifications were to be a rabbi and then see the facts. It was like 300+ years after when Christianity came to being and screwed everything all up.

      September 29, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
    • YBP

      Really? Divine-men among us? With magical DNA? Is this Middle Earth? Is this the Lord of the Rings? Wow. The Age of Enlightenment started 400 years ago, Kevin. You have a lot of catching up to do. So get off that magical mystery tour bus that you're on at the very next stop, go to the library and and open a science book. You really do sound like someone from the Dark Ages.

      And, Rose, there's no evidence that a real-life Jesus ever existed. None. His name is allegorical. It means Yahweh saves. Jesus is an allegorical fictional character that represents the bible-mandated sovereignty of the kingdom of god (in other words, the holy land, not heaven, as you were probably taught to believe). The kingdom movement was a politcal/religious rebellion against ancient Rome. It has nothing to do with anything here and now. And your god's name, Yahweh, is also allegorical. It means I exist. Get it? And, I can't tell you here what Judas means because of censorship. Look it up. You'll get the idea what he stands for. (Hint, just pronounce the first syllable of his name.) Your religion, as well as the one that came before it and the one that came after it, is entirely bogus. Legends and lies based on other legends and lies. Look into it. Please. Because these three religions will eventually destroy this planet.

      Suggested Reading: M Borg, JD Crossan, R Carrier, R Dawkins, B Ehrman, P Fredriksen, R Funk, K Harris, C Hitchens, A Levine, J Loftus, B Mack, EP Sanders, E Pagels, R Price, G Vermes. Some are actually believerrs, some are not. All have made a career on Jesus.

      September 30, 2012 at 6:43 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.