While the discovery of a manuscript suggesting that Jesus may have been married may prove an interesting historical document, such assertions have little impact on the theological discourse within Christianity
Recently, some attention has been given to a newly discovered fragment of text which suggests that Jesus may have been married. Reporting on this, the Huffington Post published an article entitled, “What if Jesus had a Wife?”, by Michael D’Antonio.
“The ancient Coptic document includes the phrase ‘Jesus said to them, my wife’ using a term that undoubtedly references a woman who was his spouse and not some metaphorical partner”, writes Antonio.
What is most significant about the discovery of this text and the conversation around it, particularly this article’s approach, is that many people have different understandings of what the Bible is and how it came to be. For many, the news that there are other texts that speak about Jesus or give alternative narratives from the early centuries of the Common Era, alongside the canonical Gospels, is a real shocker. It shouldn’t be.
That there are four Gospels in the Bible testifies to the fact that there were multiple narratives with enough important differences that could not be collapsed into one story, and instead had to be kept separate – some may even say, competing. It also evidences that, from early on, the church had disagreements over what we would now call “historical facts” of Jesus’s life and how we are to understand Christ, God, and the world, although the distinction between history and philosophy, theology and ethics were not so compartmentalised in most of these communities.
As such, when the Bible was being composed under the reign of Emperor Constantine, and Christianity was being reformed into a state-sponsored organisation, there were debates over which texts to include. They did not simply collect all the existent narratives, assume they were all valid and prudent for endorsement, and send it off to the printers. Delegates may very well have been aware of versions of the texts that we have found in the Dead Sea Scrolls or some iteration of the text that this fragment came from, and for whatever reason, they deemed many things unworthy of inclusion in the Bible.
For instance, the Gospel of John, dated as the most recent of the four canonical Gospels, was composed after all those who might have been alive during Jesus’s time had died. While it was a favourite of the church for its high Christological and theological commentary, it was almost not included by the compilers of the Bible because it contained what was considered too much radical Greek, gnostic philosophy – with it, a preference for the mind over the body. Again, the concern was not exactly to give historical accuracy, as it was more to convey a world view which had developed from Jesus’s life, through his community (largely via oral transmission, with the aid of some letters and scrolls), and testified to a certain understanding of the world.
Let’s assume for a moment that this new gospel was rejected on the grounds that in its version of the narrative of Jesus’s life, he took a wife and perhaps even had children. There may be more problems that come from affirming this, than there are benefits for one’s relationship with God.
D’Antonio’s article took the opinion that Jesus having a wife somehow gives women equal status among men. Anyone who believes this should look at marriage law and norms in this period, because they will find that far from making women equal, it would rather confirm an inequality – even an ownership – of women under men. If we are to be Christ-like in this way, this would most likely result in regarding women, ultimately, as property. By omitting marriage in the story, there is more ambiguity as to Jesus’s relations with, and his opinion of, the status of women.
What’s more, since Christian teachings – at least of the Roman Catholic Church – are also that marriage is an “earthly” not an “eternal” affair, so that the vow remains “until death do us part”, the marriage bond between Jesus and his alleged wife would be voided after his death and give no fixed understanding of her relation to the now Resurrected or Risen Christ.
On the matter that this would change the celibate status of priests, that may be true, but the significance of this change may be greatly diminished by an understanding of the history of that doctrine taught by the church. Firstly, the current list of sacraments (seven in the Roman Catholic Church) were only agreed upon in the latter half of the church’s history and marriage was almost not counted because it was regarded too much as a civil and “earthly” affair instead of as a spiritually imperative ritual. We may find it hard to believe that there was a time when the church did not generally consider marriage to be any of its business. For Catholics, marriage remains today the only sacrament exclusively performed by non-priests, since the priest only officiates the ritual.
It is also not until this past millennia that priests have been unable to marry. For more than half of church history, priests have been free to marry, and generally historians agree that the celibacy of priests was established primarily to ensure that the family of the priests did not receive the right to church-owned land and money. The Eastern Orthodox solved this dilemma by letting priests marry but not bishops, and it is bishops that own the property of the church, not priests.
I do not believe that if Jesus was married, that Christian perspectives on sex would radically change. For Catholics, much of the church teaching on sex is based on Natural Law, which is a school of theological philosophy and not greatly scriptural. While I have great problems with the legitimacy of Natural Law as a school of thought, it does prove that, for Catholics at least, scripture is not the sole source of teaching or authority, nor is it taken entirely or equally as literal fact.
As such, “Conservative” Christian arguments on how sexuality should be treated, in or out of marriage, would not be greatly affected by the discovery that Jesus was married unless it went into explicit detail. Likewise with “Liberal” Christian arguments, the mere fact of Jesus being married would not necessitate a particular view of sexuality or gender.
What this shows us is that while the historical facts surrounding Jesus, as we would currently understand them, may have some relevance to our understanding of his life, they have little effect on the theological truths on which faith usually rests. As such, I would contend that reforms among Christians, especially Catholics, regarding the valuation and treatment of sex and gender should be made – but are perhaps more effectively made on philosophical and political grounds. Historical or scientific confirmation that Jesus of Nazareth had a wife is not likely to have much of an effect on a Christian’s understanding of Christ and the church, certainly not as much as people from outside of the discourse of faith would expect.
Photo Credits: http://www.deseretnews.com/article/865562689/New-Christian-gospel-indicates-Jesus-may-have-had-a-wife.html?pg=all
Reclaim Your Stage:
The Platform is a groundbreaking blog that provides current affairs and cultural commentary. Our pieces offer challenging opinions from a range of spectrums; that’s why we love hosting a platform for them.