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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. BuschCheiney

    I care if he was married becuase all along we have been lied to that he was not. So I care very much!

    September 21, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
    • Athy

      Why do you care? What possible difference could it make now?

      September 21, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
  2. ryan

    I don't know if ______was _________(and I don't care). Typical statement that explains why we have so many Christians in this country.

    September 21, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
  3. flafreethinker

    who cares? Religion is a farce. If we can ever get rid of all of it, maybe the world would get along a little better. Nothing makes a person an atheist faster then reading the bible. pure garbage.

    September 21, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
    • Amniculi

      Yeah. That or hearing all the time how good God is and then seeing all the senseless violence and hatred that takes place in the world, much of it in his name. Or, you know, seeing those who are supposed to be representatives of God on earth stealing the innocence of children and then hiding in the Church. But that's ok because they'll be judged by God in the end, right? Bullsh1t!

      September 21, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
  4. Shawn Larson

    So what does the do for the moonies. It wasnt bad enough that their messiah died but, that after all jesus may have had a wife too..It has been a tough year for them.

    September 21, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
  5. The real message..

    Stop blaspheming, you dirty heathens and follow the one true god Zeus... It is never too late to shy away from these other charlatans and beg forgiveness from the one true god Zeus (and his family of gods, of course)..

    I am telling this for your own good.. or you will be lightning fried bacon after you die.

    September 21, 2012 at 2:45 pm |
    • Shawn Larson

      mmm bacon.. i love bacon..

      September 21, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
    • Shawn Larson

      Other than the three letter word is there anything better than bacon in this world?

      September 21, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
  6. Mike

    Even if this is legit, there is no context. In canonical scripture, Christ is often portrayed as the Bridegroom with the Church as his bride.

    September 21, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • John

      Nice try, but "wife" is different than "bride".

      September 21, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
    • Evenstar13

      He gets portrayed differently in gay p0rno flicks too. Jesus OMG OMG OMG there's some good additional context for ya.

      September 21, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
    • Shawn Larson

      Moreover.. Jesus was a common name of the day.. How do we know it was talking about that Jesus.. Second does it really matter? Marriage was not outlawed withing Jewish law.

      September 21, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
    • Mike

      @john...you do understand that this wasn't written in English, right? Or are you an a Coptic linguist who knows how the distinction is made?

      September 21, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
    • llɐq ʎʞɔnq

      Yahweh had a bride too. Ahsura.

      September 21, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
  7. swcondcoming

    Lord Jesus Christ answers in http://www.TheWarningSecondComing.com

    September 21, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • The real message..

      lord zeus will smite you!

      September 21, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
  8. Norman

    Who cares? Oh, probably the Pope. It would sure blow a hole in his story, don't you think?

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

      Jesus, as an observant Hebrew of his day, probably was obliged to marry and begin raising a family as soon as he was able. Who knows why he suddenly dropped everything and began a wandering ministry? Perhaps he was trying to escape a nagging mother-in-law?

      September 21, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
  9. citizenUSA

    I don't care who's married to who but I can understand that this news can knock out some of the diviness surrounding Jesus. God sends his only son to save the world but he stops to get married?

    September 21, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • old ben

      Well it could have been one of those, you know, Michele Bachmann marriages, just for show.

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

      "The Last Temptation of Christ" was a great movie! Willem Dafoe is a genius actor.

      September 21, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
  10. Way Out There

    I do not know what is more annoying....people trying to push their God beliefs, or people trying to push their no God belief. Two sides of the same, close-minded, insecure coin.

    September 21, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
    • SeanNJ

      I do.

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

      I have no problem with people pushing reality.

      September 21, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
  11. Cronos

    Jesus who?

    September 21, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
    • E

      Most evidence points to the fact that Jesus didn't even exist or was a combination of people over 100's of years that were combined to make a more interesting character for the fiction story the bible. Those in power wanted to make sure he was likable so they would blindly do what they were told. So was he married? Doesn't matter he is not important to life in the future, he is just an archaic toll used to lobotomize people into not asking too many questions or learning to much.

      September 21, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
  12. AvdBerg

    Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6) and neither is there salvation in any other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved (Acts 4:12).

    The Jesus figure portrayed by Stephen Prothero is not the true Christ. His books and articles are a mere heresy. He might be a so-called scholar at Boston University but he is spiritually blind and unless he repents he is unable to understand the Word of God as it is spiritually discerned (1 Cor. 2:14). For a better understanding we invite you to read the article ‘Boston University – School of Theology and Stonehill College’, listed on our website http://www.aworlddeceived.ca and learn how teachers and students alike have been deceived.

    Also, are those that are referred to as ‘Christians’ by the media really the followers of Jesus Christ or do they follow after a false Christ (Matthew 24:24) and why is there so much division amongst religions? Please read on.

    The above mentioned article by Stephen Prothero is a good example how distorted things have become in society with the media industry as the main culprit.

    The local media, including CNN, Fox and your local TV stations and newspapers are a very important element of social and political behavior, as society is shaped by what it sees, hears and reads and it is conditioned by the events that influence the mind of every person. You reap what you sow.

    To allow anyone to be directed by public opinion is dangerous because most public opinion is the view of the media. If the media does not like something, their bias taints information getting to the public, and this forms public opinion. Public opinion is never based on research and facts. The public uses the media for its sole source of information and for this reason social behavior will continue to deteriorate and wax worse and worse (2 Timothy 3:13).

    For a better understanding of the role of the media we invite you to read the articles ‘Influence of the Media’ and ‘CNN Belief Blog – Sign of the Times’, listed on our website http://www.aworlddeceived.ca

    The media does not provide accurate information on ‘Religion’ as it continues to ignore the truth and the history of deceptions (John 14:17). They only report how they want you to hear things. They have created the big chasm that now exists without offering any solutions.

    Consider the truth about Catholicism, Islam, Mormonism, Judaism, Evangelicals and Christianity and all other religions and ask yourself the following question.

    Are so-called Catholics, Muslims, Mormons, Israelites and Evangelicals and all those that call themselves ‘Christians’ followers of the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ and the Word of God, or do they follow after an image of a false god and a false Christ (Matthew 24:24; 2 Cor. 11:13-15; Gal. 4:8)?

    For a better understanding of the history of Catholicism, Islam, Mormonism, Christianity, and Judaism and its spread throughout the world, we invite you to read the articles ‘The Mystery Babylon’, ‘Can Christianity or Any Other Religion Save You?’, ‘World History and Developments in the Middle East’ and ‘Clash of Civilizations’, listed on our website http://www.aworlddeceived.ca

    Mitt Romney’s and Barack Obama’s faith does not stand in the teachings of Christ but rather in an image of the spirit and the god of this world and a false Christ (Matthew 24:24; 2 Cor. 11:13-15; Gal. 4:8).

    For a better understanding of the history of the Mormon Church and Mitt Romney’s quest for the Presidency of the USA, we invite you to read the articles ‘Mormon Church – Cult and Spiritual Harlot’ and ‘Barack Obama – President of the United States of America’, listed on our website.

    All of the other pages and articles listed on our website explain how and by whom this whole world has been deceived as confirmed in Revelation 12:9.

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

      sorry bub, you've wasted your entire life on nonsense words. Go plant a garden...

      September 21, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
    • mama kindless

      Revelation?? Everyone knows whoever wrote that was high as a kite. St. John the Opium Addict, evidently..

      September 21, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • Patti

      You are loquacious to the point of ad nauseum when it comes to quoting fair tales.

      September 21, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
  13. rlj

    The so-called religious people today live and preach the opposite of the philosophy that Jesus lived by.

    September 21, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
  14. xnmt

    If you only see Jesus as a teacher, then yes, his marital status is fairly, although not completely, irrelevant. On the other hand, if you also see him as God incarnate and as a sacrificial offering, if you see him as more than a teacher but as a savior, then his marital status has metaphysical implications.

    September 21, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
  15. SeanNJ

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

    I have no doubt this is because you don't actually care if what you believe is true.

    September 21, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
  16. Jesus in the 21st Century

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rLRlFdZ49ls&feature=related

    September 21, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
    • Parfin Woodell

      Thanks for posting that,
      Hysterical.
      The look on peoples faces is priceless.

      September 21, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
  17. Eric G

    Just in case the Christians are feeling a little persecuted again......

    Mohamed was a child molester and his god does not exist.

    There. Feel better now?

    September 21, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      Same god as the Christians' god.

      September 21, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
    • Timmy

      They shouldn't because it is the same god, and you just told them their god doesn't exist.

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

      I'm not religious but even I know that Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all believe in the same god.

      September 21, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
    • Sinfully Yours

      So if Jesus had a wife, that opens the doors for priests to marry in Christianity. Since if Jesus could offer love to his wife and not have it affect the love he had for his father.

      I guess the walking dead at the Vatican now need to rewrite their book again to make it fit.

      September 21, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
    • meemee

      I think the implication that this idea of a "God" is phoney no matter what label he goes under was there for those who can understand subtle insinuation.

      September 21, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • Parfin Woodell

      Eric,
      some people just dont have a sense of humor.

      September 21, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
    • Eric G

      @Parfin: And yet, they wonder why we mock them?

      September 21, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
  18. Pickles

    He was a regular man, why should be have been married?

    September 21, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
  19. Evenstar13

    "And Jesus answered him, saying, It is written, That man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God." Luke 4:4
    "For we walk by faith, not by sight" 2 Corinthians 5:7

    September 21, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
    • Eric G

      "Father, forgive them. For they know not where they left the step ladder and claw hammer to get me off this cross."

      September 21, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
  20. rockysfan

    It matters to just about every organized christian religion. Do you really think the Catholic church would abide Christ having a wife? That would put women on an equal footing with men! And by God, the church will make darn sure THAT never happens!

    September 21, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      It wouldn't put women on equal footing with men. Wives were property back then. The problem is that a married Jesus would have had children. That would seriously question his divinity, because he would either not be the son of god, or there would be millions of baby Yahwehs living today.

      September 21, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
    • William Demuth

      So Rational

      Does that mean Obama may REALLY be the Savior?

      September 21, 2012 at 2:39 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.