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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. Rob-Texas

    Nice article. One of few on CNN!

    September 21, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
  2. DandyStryker

    Agreed. After all, he was just a man. Most men get married. He probably had kids, too. Most men do.

    September 21, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
  3. John

    As every married man knows there are at least some arguments that you can never win against your wife. Can anyone seriously imagine Jesus from the gospels ever losing an argument? That's why the whole idea of a married Jesus is just ridiculous. 🙂

    September 21, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
  4. Tom, Tom, the Other One

    Think of Jesus as a complex number: Yeshua the radical eccentric rabbi is the real part and Christ is the imaginary part.

    September 21, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @TTTOO

      Funny!

      The analogy almost works. Do you like the math or engineering notation? (I like j instead of i )

      j^3 = –j

      September 21, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
  5. Cody

    You're last two paragraphs don't make sense, you say you're not interested in what Jesus has to say about marriage, and that any interest in that is due to our society's obsession with the bedroom, and then you go on to say that you want to know what Jesus said about wealth and poverty. I'd argue that our culture is equally obsessed with that. I'm interested in why Jesus came into the world...and according to Jesus's conversation with Pilot it was to testify to the truth

    September 21, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
  6. hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

    Figure of hindu, fabricate Jesus is nothing more than a , innovation by use of Son of blessed Mary, twisted and molded by hindu's, deniers of truth absolute in any direction to justify hinduism, denial of truth absolute, hinduism criminality of hindu criminal Roman Kings and their hindu criminal self proclaimed prophets, fortune tellers, forced upon hindu's, ignorant by force to deny human equality by corruption of truth absolute. Way of hindu Magi's, criminal tricksters to hind, fool humanity by making them believe in some one who never existed. Why hindu pagan french of hindu pagan Persian heritage source of hindu Mithra ism, pagan savior ism labeled as Christianity hate Muslims and Isalm. to learn more visit limitisthetruth.com/blog.html and click on word Choice to open file.

    September 21, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
  7. hectorisking

    Jesus who?

    September 21, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • Mecrob

      Jesus Gonzales

      September 21, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
    • Amniculi

      Lol, I went to school with a Jesus Gonzales.

      September 21, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
  8. bspurloc

    it doesnt much matter HOWEVER when anyone tries to yet again prove these religions are bogus people will die....

    September 21, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
    • Jeremy

      the only way that people will die over this is if the religious right finally grows a pair and attack non-religious people... much like the christians in ireland did.

      September 21, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
  9. Observer

    Hom0phobic Christians should be glad if this is true. It sounds much better if Jesus, who never condemned gays and never dated in the Bible and hung around with 12 men, actually did get married.

    September 21, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
    • Sam Yaza

      their just trying to hold on to his purity, its to late he killed a fig tree

      September 21, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
  10. Sam Yaza

    yeah why are we even focused on this guy hes dead move one

    fact Jesus already came back; in the 17th century Christians thought he was a witch and burned him at the stake; can we move on now

    September 21, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Good question sam, why are you discussing HIm? I find it so interesting that He is this compelling to people who despise Him.

      September 21, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
    • hawaiiguest

      @Bill Deacon

      Maybe if the religious zealots would quit trying to put this religion, and your Jesus everywhere and have everyone pay for it, we wouldn't need to discuss him at all. Don't be disingenuous, and don't be a condescending fuckstick. Oops, too late.

      September 21, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
    • Sue

      Bill, the real case is that we have to combat ass hats like you that keep foisting the disgusting superst-ition known as Christianity on the rest of us, so that we then have to deal with the many negative ramifications of your beliefs on our society and the sheer backwardness that belief in your pathetic myths represents.

      September 21, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Well since CNN can hardly be called religiously fundamentalist and they ran the article, I guess your issue should be with them, not me. But way to uphold the atheist civility creed.

      September 21, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
    • Quincy

      Sue, "ass hat" is a bit over the top since Bill mostly seems like a nice guy in his posts, but otherwise I agree with what you are saying.

      September 21, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      You shouldn't go calling people ass hats. Jesus would never do that. I'd put a hat on my ass but it sags too much.It's better to be nice to people when you preach bullsh!t at them.

      Amen.

      September 21, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
    • oh well..

      Ah so, talking about anyone means the person is divinely compelling us to talk about them? have you talked about Muhammad or islam? does that mean he was compelling you to talk about them with their divine power? does that invalidate your own god's compelling? was muhammad more powerful than your god that he was able to compel you to talk about him?

      see how a$$ upwards your logic is.. thats why they say religion mushes your brain up!

      September 21, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • Mecrob

      you don't have to capitalize he or him... if god were real he wouldn't punish you for it...or maybe he would depending on which "christian" religion you're talking about.

      September 21, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
    • Sam Yaza

      "Good question sam, why are you discussing HIm? I find it so interesting that He is this compelling to people who despise Him."

      um i usually only talk about Yahweh i hate that guy, i don't usually talk about JC unless someone brings up that subject. he is just a man in history to me; hes just the father of socialism. i don't follow human

      nor do i follow Demi-gods and
      if i were their would only be two i wold follow

      Farrokh Bulsara; aka the real missiah son of Sun Wu Kong and a virgin
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lR2Xhg6A4GQ

      or
      Scáthach; aka the perfect woman(brains/brown/heart/body/mind/soul all is perfect)

      September 21, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
  11. Amniculi

    "The question remains; without evidence, without argument, without promise, as Jesus asked Peter "Who do you say I am?'"

    I say Jesus was a fictional character in a book designed to comfort people lacking scientific reasoning and give laws in a scary and violent world. As that character Jesus provided a service – but his time has passed. The same can be said for any religion. It is time to embrace the modern era and leave Bronze Age mythologies behind.

    September 21, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      So your contention is that Secular Humanism has advanced to the point that we can be assured of a better society through law and technology without spiritual consolation or guidance? I find that rather 2 dimensional.

      September 21, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
    • Amniculi

      What is two dimensional about it? Living through science and reason is waaaay more exciting than focusing on myth and superst'ition. At the very least it gives you tangible evidence.

      September 21, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • Clarence

      Actually, Bill, that was the case before your religion existed. Google "golden rule".

      Furthermore, the reality is that our present law is mostly not based on your religion (nor any other one) anyway, so yet again in this sense, your religion has no purpose to it, nor any point, nor any substance, nor any evidence for its silly claims.

      September 21, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
  12. Ken

    Up yours Stephen you atheist fruitcake

    September 21, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • Observer

      How Christian of you.

      September 21, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      What a great point Ken! I am surprised no one else had thought of that. I bet you win a lot of arguments with your profound conclusions.

      September 21, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      Hmmmm, atheist fruitcake, yum.

      Does that have fondant frosting? At least it will have rum for sure.

      September 21, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
  13. blaz102003

    After all the discussion of whether Jesus was married or not. To me with all thats going on in the world the elephant in the room is..........."Why didnt Christians riot, kill, and attack because of this?" Curious as to hear from the Scholars.

    September 21, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • John

      For the same reason why Muslims aren't rioting here, "over there" isn't the same secular, democratic place that protects free speech that we are familiar with. We have laws to keep religious fanatics in check, including Christian ones. I have no doubts that, if they thought they could get away with it here, more abortion clinics would be bombed and more doctors murdered.

      September 21, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
  14. Jesus

    hai giys! Don't listen to these people saying I was married. It's obvious I have no geneta|s so i couldn't have had s3xua| relationships with anyone. My mom never had s3x either...immaculate conception? lolz, the only thing immaculate is the size of my dad's willy whacker. biy!1!!

    September 21, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
  15. NYOMD

    I wouldn't care about this even if Jesus existed. I only care that we shouldn't call this kind of BS news.

    September 21, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • Ken

      He does fool

      September 21, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
  16. patch vader

    Sam Kineson has already discussed this subject, in great detail.

    September 21, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
  17. Daniel

    Jesus was the greatest salesman in the history of mankind. Could you imagine what he would be like today? WOW...

    I doubt he truly ever existed. He is a fabrication of the power hungry Dark Ages churches and has nothing to do with the reality of existence. Many before him told absolute truths about the nature of suffering, cause and effect, and how to escape the cycles of life and death; and as science and technology grow, open-minded people understand that this thing we call "life" is based on the inter-connectivity of everything around us. I am sure glad I wised up.

    September 21, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • Mecrob

      no one wised up. Look at who we have in political offices trying to push their "moral" (read religious) beliefs into laws that effect people who do not agree with their religious beliefs?

      September 21, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
  18. asdf

    jesus is a child m0lesster

    September 21, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
    • Ken

      Gonna burn

      September 21, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
  19. katremark

    Santa Claus has a wife. Why not one for Jesus?

    September 21, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • WASP

      @kat: because jesus was god and god can't marry women.............only empregnant them. ROFLMFAO
      (i love sarcasim) 🙂

      September 21, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
  20. blaqb0x

    Because if he was married it was probably to a teenage kid(much like Mohammed). Would that be considered statutory?

    September 21, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
    • bspurloc

      they were not considered KIDS back then when the average human died in their 50's
      just like Pocahontas sits on the US Dollar with a BABY Pocahontas was what 14? and that is 200years ago...

      September 21, 2012 at 1:45 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.