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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. John Blackadder

    If Jesus had kids, and they had kids..... Maybe most of us have some divinity in our genes. Really spins organized Christianity around a bit! Now that's a thought!

    September 21, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
    • nazareno32

      Interesting thought, maybe we do.

      September 21, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
    • William Demuth

      So Mohammed might be an actual child of Christ?

      Obama might REALLY be the savior?

      September 21, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
    • nazareno32

      Wow...
      I was thinking more along the line of designers. All designers have a signature: D&C, Manolo Bahnik, Vera Wang, ect.. God has DNA everything that lives has it. That's his signature.

      September 21, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
  2. hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

    Truth absolute is the way of human and hinduism, denial of truth is of animals. Word hindu is based on Latin word hindered, negative, Hun, Great, Han, to be in greatness, hind, to be negative to both of them, hinduism, way of negativity. Stay away from a hindu denier of truth and his hindu Atheism, criminal self center ism, secularism, to be human.

    September 21, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Is this dude HeavenSent on a bad trip?

      Bad batch of Jeebus Juice and the wrong mix of meds?

      September 21, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
    • John Blackadder

      What claptrap!
      Latin derives from the early Indian language, not the other way round.
      This is pure racial bigotry!

      September 21, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
    • TROLL ALERT

      Every time you respond to a troll god kills a kitten with a puppy.

      Stop the slaughter of kittens and puppies.

      Don't feed the troll.

      September 21, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
  3. Don

    If Jesus married and had a child, who would be Grandpa, Joseph or God?

    September 21, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
  4. I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

    An observation on the comments here:

    It is interesting to see just how many self-professed Christians appear to have a pantheistic view of Christianity that to me is really indistinct from an Olympian / Asgardian etc viewpoint.

    Anyone suggesting that it is OK for the human nature of Jesus to be "married" (with all that marriage presumes in a religious context) is ignoring the trinitarian view of their monothestic religion.

    There can only two be conclusions with this line of thought:

    1. They believe in panthesim = God and Jesus as separate 'Gods' in heaven or
    2. Jesus is not the monotheistic God, but the human son of the monotheistic God.

    September 21, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
  5. Ariyahu

    i have to inform you all, about the name of jesus. are you aware that the messiah was hebrew? are you aware that the name of jesus is only 500 years old. Yahusha is the TRUE name of the messiah cos in his name, you will find salvation, deliverance and savior in it. if you look at the strongs hebrew 3467, the sha, in Yahusha, is yasha. im sorry to inform you that sus that is in jesus means horse. if you look up the strongs hebrew 5483B, you will see this truth. also sus in latin means pig,
    i would encourage you all to search the truth about the name of Yahusha and also jesus.

    September 21, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
    • TX Red

      So this snippet is actually about a horse's wife?

      September 21, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
    • hoosier1234

      I know koine Greek and Hebrew and something about the Bible, so I was gonna show you how wrong you are. Then I re-read your comment . . . it's not worth an effort.

      September 21, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
  6. Tom Paine

    This is a good example of the piffle that believers must contend with. When you base your faith in myths you are forced to explain away the frequent reminders that religion is a human fabrication.

    September 21, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @Tom,

      indeed so. The theology is a house of cards, reliant on faith in 'mysteries' that by definition cannot be explained.

      September 21, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
  7. Brian

    Don't care? Tell the Catholic Church that.

    September 21, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
    • agathokles

      First of all, whether Jesus was married or not is hardly proven by this papyrus. It's not contemporaneous with him or those who knew him. Second of all, while the Catholic Church does not believe he was married, that's because there simply is no compelling evidence for it. Third of all, if irrefutable evidence surfaced, it would not trouble me (a Catholic) in the least. His marital status has nothing to do with the basis idea of his being both human and divine, and of his redemptive death and resurrection. For more, see

      http://www.catholic.com/magazine/articles/was-jesus-married

      September 21, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
  8. Johnny 5

    Jesus was a normal guy that did normal guy things. The End.

    September 21, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
    • Huebert

      At one point Jesus was a 13 year old boy, therefor Jesus mastur.bated.

      September 21, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
    • fred

      Then explain just how the name Jesus transformed the world? Your very thought and actions still refelect the Western World View so even you cannot escape his impact. I guess that sounds like normal kind of guy

      September 21, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
    • fred

      Hubert
      Just could not keep that thought to yourself.

      September 21, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
    • butch

      You can't jack off if you don't exist.

      September 21, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
    • Martin

      He didn't change the world those that controlled the church and governement in most cases the more educated used the name of Jesus and religion as a tool to control the masses

      September 21, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
    • Huebert

      @Fred

      It was something my pastor told me, back when I still believed. I nearly died laughing. Though I would argue that it is not Jesus that changed the world, it's Christianity.

      September 21, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
    • John Blackadder

      You mean....He enjoyed S.E.X?????

      September 21, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Huebert

      Was your pastor in the shower with you when he said it?

      September 21, 2012 at 4:12 pm |
    • Huebert

      @Will

      I wish. My pastor was fine blond woman in her mid 30's.

      September 21, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
  9. nazareno32

    If I'm a Christian nut and die and there is no heaven then I lost nothing. But if I put my trust only in knowledge and there is a heaven, then I lost everything.

    * fixed 😉

    September 21, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Unless Allah is God, and then you become one of Osama's 72 virgins

      Don't worry thou, the sheep say he is quite gentle for a mass murderer if you bleet real seductively for him.

      September 21, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
    • Herb

      How do you reconcile your statement with "God loves everyone" ???

      September 21, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
    • Tom Paine

      Its called Pascal's wager. If god can be duped, then it makes sense.

      September 21, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
    • nazareno32

      Herb, a father may love his child but the child can chose to disobey and move away and never see him again. But the father waits for the child and hopes that he comes back because he loves him.

      September 21, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
    • llɐq ʎʞɔnq

      Fallacy of the False Analogy. Not if god is omniscient, AND Free Will exists.
      The "choice" really is no choice, if one is eternal hell fire.
      Fail.
      Try try again.

      September 21, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
  10. you2

    Who cares? I'd have to guess the CHURCH! They've been shoving this story down everyone's throats for a few centuries. They burn the history they don't like, yet keep changing their stories with new Bibles – yet call them infallible, and written by GOD. Does this god have a poor memory? Maybe likes to 'test us'...
    These stories are as believable and factual as a Monty Python skit. But you don't see the delusional worshiping their every word. Maybe at a comedy convention...

    September 21, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
    • agathokles

      You'd be guessing wrong, if you think the church cares whether Jesus was married or not. Sure, some probably do. But for the most part, it's irrelevant to Christians.

      September 21, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
  11. Patty

    Whoever believes Jesus got married hasn't read the Bible. Next thing you know they'll be saying Jesus didn't die on a cross.

    September 21, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      They already do

      September 21, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
    • William Demuth

      Yeah, and his momma was a virgin!

      What lenghts Jeebus goes to in an attempt to deny his momma was doin a Legionaire behind old Josephs back!

      September 21, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
    • K.

      And how exactly can you be such a confident about this "fact."
      Do you have any testament? Apart from your belief, of course.

      September 21, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      @Patty
      So tell us – what was Jesus doing between the ages of 12 and 30?
      He must've done a lot of things and had relationships with a lot of people that aren't mentioned in the Bible.

      September 21, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
  12. Chad

    For all those Jesus deniers out there 🙂

    “Jesus was a great moral teacher,” Richard Dawkins (atheist)

    In a 2011 review of the state of modern scholarship, Bart Ehrman wrote: "He certainly existed, as virtually every competent scholar of antiquity, Christian or non-Christian, agrees" B. Ehrman, 2011 Forged : writing in the name of God ISBN 978-0-06-207863-6. page 285 Bart Ehrman: vocal agnostic, very active in his attempts to disprove the resurrection. Has debated William Lane Craig several times on that subject

    "In recent years, 'no serious scholar has ventured to postulate the non historicity of Jesus' or at any rate very few, and they have not succeeded in disposing of the much stronger, indeed very abundant, evidence to the contrary." in Jesus: An Historian's Review of the Gospels by Micjhael Grant 2004 ISBN 1898799881 page 200 Michael Grant: atheist historian</b

    September 21, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @Chad,

      is Jesus God?

      September 21, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      Why is the historicity of Jesus important?

      September 21, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
    • William Demuth

      You see Chad, free thinkers don't follow some blind posting from anyone.

      Jesus was a FrankenGod, cobbled together from the rotting corpses of the Gods who came before him that we Atheist's had already disproven.

      Just another swindle to defraud the weak minded by exploiting their fears of death

      He is as much a fabrication as Spiderman or Captain Kirk, and far less interesting.

      Sorry to state the obvious dude, but Jeses is bunk, and you shall live, die and be forgotten.

      It is your sole and inescapable destiny. DEAL WITH IT.

      September 21, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
    • Amniculi

      "Professor Richard Dawkins of the University of Oxford tells us in The God Delusion that a 'serious' historical case can be made 'that Jesus never lived at all'". – http://www.smh.com.au/news/national/facts-and-friction-of-easter/2008/03/21/1205602592557.html?page=fullpage

      Ehrman is a hack: http://freethoughtblogs.com/carrier/archives/1026

      The only credible reference you list is Michael Grant, but he didn't even have a history degree.

      September 21, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      I believe in a kind of immortality for believers, WIlliam. Kurt Vonnegut called it the Turkey Farm. Nothing ever happens there and it lasts forever. For those who don't believe, there is nil. I'd encourage everyone to choose nil. I wonder if a Wager can be built around that.

      September 21, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
    • llɐq ʎʞɔnq

      I don't think Ehrman is a hack. He never affirms the claims about Jesus. Affirming a historical person does not affirm the claims. There is more and more evidence he may have been a combo job by people who wanted to compete with the Greek mystery cults. Whatever the answer, he certainly was not the person presented in the gospels.
      .....................
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hcPiUGGd25s

      September 21, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
  13. UnFred

    The writer of this article just wants to sell books. If you have nothing of value to say, than it's better to say nothing. Unless you just get-off on people arguing.

    September 21, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
  14. nazareno32

    If I'm a Christian nut and die and there is no heaven then I lost nothing. But if I put my trust in only in knowledge and there is a heaven, then a lost everything.

    September 21, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
    • Brian

      That's not the point of Christianity. It's not a risk/reward religion. You believe because you believe, not because you want the reward.

      September 21, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
    • you2

      Not really convinced of your beliefs there, are you!

      September 21, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
    • agathokles

      Search "Pascal's Wager." That's what you're basically repeating.

      September 21, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
    • Huebert

      Pascal's wager is a horrible argument for belief. Not to mention that it makes the erroneous as.sumption that the only possibilities are no god, and christian god. What if Hinduism is the correct religion?

      September 21, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
  15. Brian

    It's all irrelevant because he isn't real and he isn't a "god."

    September 21, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
    • nazareno32

      It is risk/reward Brian. The Bible has promise after promise but you have to believe and commit. God is not wishy/washy like we are, he stays committed in the search of you even if you gave up on Him.

      September 21, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
  16. Kevin

    If he had settled down with a nice Jewish girl, I am sure his mother would have approved. End of discussion.

    September 21, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
  17. Suzanne

    Please forgive them Lord, they do not know what they say! I pray for your light to shine upon them and to guide them to the history book about you! Once they have read it, there will be no doubt.

    September 21, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
    • Amniculi

      Oh, the irony:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vM5n8jESUEk

      September 21, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
    • John Blackadder

      I really like Jefferson's Bible. He took out all the hokum and the fake miracles, and it reads much more credibly.

      Look it up on Google.

      September 21, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
  18. John Smith

    Well a bunch of dumb redneck Americans do care.

    September 21, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
  19. Hobart

    Was there only one guy named Jesus 2000 some odd years ago? What if this snippet of papyrus is referring to Jesus Gonzalez and not Jesus Christ of Nazareth?

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

      Because the context of the passage makes it clear it's a Gospel or similar writing.

      September 21, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
    • Jack 63

      Hmm, you are aware that very few people had last names in those times right?

      September 21, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
    • nazareno32

      That's a good point Hobart.

      September 21, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
  20. whitepine

    Yes, the life of Jesus is interesting. So why 30 years of a blank page in history? No stories from mother, father, sister, brothers, neighbors about Jesus growing up. Just who told the story of his birth, Mary ??? Joseph??? or Jesus??? Maybe he came to earth as a 30 year old adult? Also Jesus is God, so why didn't he write the New Testament.....the word of God? Too much fiction and fairytales to actually know the truth about Jesus which begs one to ask....what was his prupose here on earth if God wants Him to be such a mystery or allow man to fabricate multiple religions about Him and wars around HIm?

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

      I'm afraid you're starting from too far back (in terms of knowledge of Christianity) for your questions to be addressed in a CNN "Sound off" section. If you're really serious, read some Christian Apologetics. The crux is that God apparently wanted humans to have free will - i.e., to make their own decision. Otherwise, you'd expect Him, in booming voice, to say "Hey you! I'm God, and this is what I want you to do." But even if He did that and you were impressed, your kids - who didn't hear it for themselves - wouldn't believe you. So God would have to do this daily. While a certain amount of this is "mystery," I like to think that God, just like a parent, would not be satisfied to have His creation (i.e., humans) just mouthing "We love you, God," all the time because He compelled us to. Perhaps it's more satisfying if we choose to love God. He doesn't make it easy.

      As to why all of Jesus' life is not contained in the Gospels.... well, they're not intended as "historical biography." They're about salvation. His life story is mostly irrelevant to that. The Gospels focus on his ministry and his death, with only a little (but critically important part) about his resurrection.

      September 21, 2012 at 3:54 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.