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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. jimmy

    it matters a great deal because it touches on the question of jesus's divinity. if he was god-become-man, born of a virgin, died and rose again, and was truly divine, it seems at least reasonable that he would never have married or had offspring. if he was married, he was more than likely "just a man," and i don't care how nice his teachings were, i am not gonna change my life or give all my money to the poor for "just a man." but i doubt that a 4th century writing is gonna settle the argument.

    September 21, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
    • So

      if he was actually a lesbian woman you'd really be in trouble

      September 21, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
    • Larry

      Just seeing the words "My wife" means nothings. Israel was God's bride and the church in the new testament has also been referred to as his bride. Without the full quote, the words "My wife..." is meaningless.

      September 21, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
  2. nst101

    I bet the celibate priests of the world (who remain so in imitation of Jesus, or so they thought) would probably care...

    September 21, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      They are not imitating Christ in that regard. They are forgoing the sacrament of marriage here on earth in order to prepare themselves for the heavenly banquet. It's called delayed gratification. There would probably be less intolerance if there were less ignorance.

      September 21, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
  3. Jesus Jr.

    I am the last living descendant of Mr & Mrs. Christ. Please send your seed money so that I may answer all your prayers.

    September 21, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • AvdBerg

      Show us the birth certificate.

      September 21, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
    • Jesus Jr.

      It's with my tax returns.

      September 21, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
    • .

      Oh, Shyte. You asked too late. I sent it to your buttman Osteen.

      September 21, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
    • Jesus Jr.

      Thanks for letting me know, I'm headed over to the little b*stards house right now!

      September 21, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
  4. Striker

    If its not in the bible then 9 times out of ten its more then likely not true, but then again who really knows. All you can do is have faith.

    September 21, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • Eric G

      Have faith? Yes, I suppose that is one option.

      Personally, I choose to stick with knowledge.

      But hey, good luck with that.

      September 21, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
    • hawaiiguest

      And yet your using the product of things not in the bible.

      September 21, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
    • Steve

      You are trust the Bible as it was a tool of rulers to manipulate the masses - if Bible was so true – we would so many priests moleste children!!!

      September 21, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
    • exlonghorn

      That is NOT "all you can do". You can learn and try getting information from a place other than the Bible. Novel concept, but you should give it a try.

      September 21, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
  5. hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

    Expose Mohammad, illegality son of Slave's, criminals, mother's crooks cause of mayhem among humanity. visit my link whowasMohammad.com/blog.html and click on ChainGange to open file.

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

      Hey idiot. Kiss HeavenSents' butt. Maybe some booty will shut your idiotic rants.

      September 21, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
  6. Rational Libertarian

    William Demuth

    I'd severely doubt that humanity's savior would be such a d.ouche.

    September 21, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
  7. Small "c" christian

    The biggest single issue brought forward by the idea of a married Jesus is the chance of procreation. Unless the man/woman happened to be sterile, marriage meant kids, some of whom may have reached the age of majority, married and ultimately had their own children, etc, etc, etc. This raises the serious possibility that somewhere in the world, there are folks who bear the genes of Jesus in their DNA. For some reason, this disturbs the Church(es). For the life of me, I don't know why. It's perfectly natural, and in my mind, if one believes in Jesus' divinity, really changes nothing of the tales told in the New Testament. That all took place much later in his life.

    All of this would likely have taken place during the 'lost years' between childhood and the events chronicled in the Gospels. If he had married at say, 17, produced an heir within two years, he could well have been a grandfather in those times by the time of his death. There no stories of his life in those years (at least, none that have been discovered to date). In the end, all we can do is speculate.

    September 21, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
    • a slozomby

      lets see, had wife and kids and ran out on them to become a prophet. doesnt seem very churchlike to me.

      September 21, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      Atheist fool, your Hind hurts, Mohammad (PBUH) was married to a nine years old Aisha, and fathered several, absurd children, but we muslims never made any issues, criminals, mother's crooks cause of mayhem among humanity. For more for more read my link TruthaboutMohammadand Aisha.com/blog.html and click on MohammadBasterd to open file.

      September 21, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
    • Small "c" christian

      Slozomby, while we're speculating, it could be something like this- Has a wife, she dies -naturally (say, in childbirth) or otherwise (killed by Roman marauders), so he shuns civilisation and wanders the desert.... the rest is, as they say, Biblical.

      Face it, there are a million and one possible scenarios for events that may or may not have taken place during those years between boyhood and the time of the Gospels (all of which are "edited for content"), but until someone unearths a papyrus or three that tells the tales of his teen years, we'll simply never know.

      September 21, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
  8. y22nxdf2

    For a true understanding of how seriously religions and religious people should be taken, watch Monthy Python's Life of Brian. Never depicted better. CRAZY NUTS.

    September 21, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      ^bump^

      September 21, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
  9. tony marchese

    P.S. sorry, didn't mean to turn that deceptive demon loose & attack everyone with its ranbling & croacking noise testament. Glad when they're seized & chained up for a 1000 yrs!! Stick to the bible, nothing to lose & everything to gain!!!

    September 21, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      nothing to lose! just turn your brain off! wooohoo!!!!

      September 21, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
  10. nazareno32

    The middle east goes up in flames and demand respect for their god and their religion whenever we or someone else offends them. Here, some one come up with a piece of paper saying "Jesus was married and had kids" and no one cares. We should not resource to violence but that kind of faith and zealousness is admired. Where is our faith?

    September 21, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
    • martiniano

      Faith is for weak people. Strong people know.

      September 21, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
    • boocat

      "It's all bull**** and it's bad for ya." – George Carlin

      September 21, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
  11. martiniano

    If all Christians would admit that the Bible as they know it is the result of tweaking by a pagan, that Constantine decided what would be in the Bible and what would be thrown out – that his motive was to unify his realm under one religion so he had to muck with it so that it appealed to the Female Divine followers, that Christ needed to be half-God to appeal to the ancient demi-god followers we would be in a better place. Christ may not have actually married Mary but he was clearly in a romantic relationship with her. Jesus and Mary sitting in a tree...

    September 21, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
  12. Josh

    It was Joesph and Mary's duty, as Jewish parents, to ensure that Jesus had a wife. If they failed in their duty, the Jewish community would have scorned them.

    You have to remember, that Jesus, himself, was raised to be a Jew, and was a Jew. He would have clearly known what was expected of him, by Jewish tradition and by Hebrew law.

    September 21, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
    • martiniano

      Well said Josh.

      September 21, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
    • rcroeder

      He also died a Jew and not a christain, if fact he never was christian.

      September 21, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
  13. Lisa

    Ignorant to think that he wasn't. And Very sad to 'not care'... Sad indeed...

    September 21, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      why? like hercules, jesus was a mythological figure that likely never existed.

      September 21, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
  14. Bootyfunk

    My Take: I Don't Know If Jesus Existed And I Don't Care

    September 21, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
    • martiniano

      I really don't like your pen name. Reminds me of a time I was camping with my wife and we had not showered for several days. We made love doggy style and damn if I didn't have to hold my nose. Bootyfunk...

      September 21, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
  15. Honey Badger Dont Care

    I'm sure that there were plenty of people named Jesus who have been married. I knew one when I lived in Texas and another when I lived in California.

    Guess what, I don't care either!

    September 21, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
  16. doug

    If people put faith in man and man only, just think how prosperous this world would be. This so called 'god' myth has done nothing for mankind but cause bloodshed. If he were real, then he has gone to great lengths to hide himself. What a dick.

    September 21, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      HAHAHAHA. OK, this is where we ask you to give an example of a society with no religion that has flourished at any time in history

      September 21, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
  17. Ridiculous Blog

    I .... ugh... I got to the Ku Klux Klansman statement and I stopped reading... thanks for the insight but I'm going to continue on with my life now.

    September 21, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
    • rcroeder

      i agree but gumby more like godby

      September 21, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
  18. Brenda

    If you are female this matters. It is the church and its culture that keeps women behind men in our culture. If Jesus was a daughter what a different world we would have. Why can't the pope be a woman? Why choose the gender that goes to war as leaders? Do you think a woman pope would sit in beautiful robes in Rome with millions in the bank while people starve? She would be right out there in the fields with dirty hands teaching how to plant, harvest and prepare food to share. Being male or female is not just about who you sleep with it is how we perceive each other. It is how we approach the work we do.

    September 21, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
    • Derek McGinty of 9News Now

      Brenda honey!
      Here in Washington, D.C., our newsteam believes in the good gospels of Obama because Obama will be God and rule the world on October 21st of this year and we can make Tennessee courts christian through the good gospels of Obama. If you have any questions, you can call our station at 202–895-5932 and speak to one of our staff. We thank you for your service if you can be a part of our good Obama worship!

      September 21, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
    • ssmon

      Well Brenda to start off with: I think most of us can all agree that its not a good idea there arent women with their finger on the button ready to unleash nuclear fire upon the world as 1 wrong stare by another woman leader at a UN meeting means all out warfare. How bad are women with each other in day to day life and you want to equip them with a modern military at their disposal? As for being pope well that really doesnt matter either way as its a fairly pointless position in todays world but are you saying a woman would give up expensive clothes and millions in the bank and sitting on her ass and bossing people around through fear and lies to get her hands dirty planting crops? Ohh i get it sorry..... you were telling a joke.

      September 21, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
    • Mike

      This notion that the Church subjugates women is absurd. If you were Catholic, you would know this. If it weren't for the women, there would be no Catholic Church. They are the ones who teach CCD, manage schedules, organize functions, and, most importantly, get their families up and ready for church on Sunday mornings. And they do all this for no other reason than Christ.

      In the Kingdom of God, the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Great their reward will be for their humble devotion.

      September 21, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
    • HAVE MUD WILL TRAVEL

      Previously I put out a warning about Russian brides.

      September 21, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
    • HAVE MUD WILL TRAVEL

      But alas, they infiltrated Athena's domain.

      September 21, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
  19. llɐq ʎʞɔnq

    So if the Church is the bride of Christ, I guess that means she is a f-g hag.

    September 21, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
    • .

      Yep.Fugly too.

      September 21, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
  20. tuvia suks

    Hey Mennoknight. How come you Jeebus healed your sick brain?

    September 21, 2012 at 3:18 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.