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James Martin, S.J.September 19, 2012

At an academic conference in Rome on Tuesday, Karen L. King, a church historian at Harvard Divinity School, presented a finding that, according to some reports, threatened to overturn what we know about Jesus, as well as the tradition of priestly celibacy. She identified a small fragment of fourth-century papyrus that includes the words, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife...’ ” Another clause appears to say, “she will be able to be my disciple.” Some experts have concluded that the manuscript, written in Coptic, is authentic.

But does this mean that Jesus was married? Probably not. And will this fascinating new discovery make this Jesuit priest want to rush out and get married? No.

It is more likely that Jesus was celibate. Remember that Dr. King’s papyrus dates from the fourth century — roughly 350 years after Jesus’s life and death. The four familiar Gospels, on the other hand, were written much closer to the time of Jesus, only a few decades away from the events in question. They have a greater claim to accuracy — even if the new manuscript is, as has been surmised, a copy of an earlier, second-century text. The Gospel of Mark, for example, was written around A.D. 70, only about 40 years after the crucifixion.

And what do the Gospels say? For one thing, the Gospel of Mark describes Jesus, who had settled in the town of Capernaum, on the Sea of Galilee, as receiving a surprise visit from his family, who had come from his hometown, Nazareth. “A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, ‘Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.’ ” Why no mention of a wife?

Read the rest here.

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Crystal Watson
10 years ago
As far as why a wife isn't mentioned in the four canonical gospels, one might also ask why there's only one (I think) gospel reference to the disciples' wives .... were they homeless too, were their husbands bad husbands because they were on the road with Jesus?

One might also ask why, if Jesus was not married, his unmarried state  isn't commented on in the gospels, since most men and most rabbis were married - he would have been an oddity if unmarried. 

Why is it presumed Jesus was celibate?  He seemed to eschew the ascetic ways of groups like the Essenes (he was called a drunk and a glutton). 

I doubt we'll ever find convincing evidence of Jesus' marital state, one way or the other, but it's interesting how much and why we're invested in believing what we choose to believe.
Mary Keane
10 years ago
BIG sigh of relief today when I saw Fr. Martin's writing in the New York Times.  Enchanted as The Grey Lady is with all things Catholic, a writer with a heavier (or lighter, for that matter) touch could have only raised the cacaphony factor.  This hits the mark. 
Thomas Piatak
10 years ago
Very good commentary.  The claim that Jesus was married enjoys no support in Scripture or Tradition.
Gef Flimlin
10 years ago
It really shouldn't matter.  It was about the message, and the message was about love. So, either way, we should remember the message and not worry about what happened 2000 years ago.  Quite frankly, I'd be perfectly happy if he had been married or he hadn't. I am perfectly happy no worrying whether Mary was a virgin or not.  It really doesn't matter. It's the message.
PS. I don't know if all the Jesuits I had in 8 years of Prep school or college would agree.  But it works for me, and I try to live my life in a good, just, upright manner, and try to see the goodness in people.  So maybe I got the message, or maybe I'll have to go to Jug.
Frank Gibbons
10 years ago
"We Catholics, of course, are forbidden to accept any of the historical evidence."

Amy, where did you find this injunction against accepting historical evidence?  

I suggest that you read Dei Verbum from Vatican II and the Pontifical Biblical Commission's Instruction Concerning the Historical Truth of the Gospels. I also recommend Fides et Ratio by John Paul II which encourages the use of reason as a bulwark against fideism and biblicism on the one hand and exaggerated rationalsim on the other.

Carlos Orozco
10 years ago
At most this could be a part of a Gnostic gospel, to be taken as seriously as the Gospel of Judas Iscariote. Why then all the buzz?
david power
10 years ago
The catholic tradition favours marriage. St Peter was a married man.But strangely we never pray to his wife.Why not?
Celibacy is a cod.I know many priests.Lonely men trying to convince themselves that their "sacrifice" matters.It does not.For most it is just a cover .
Let them love openly and in a manly fashion or cease to represent the heavenly God.
It is a fake sanctity that does not deal head on with hormonal women.
That said I disagree 100% with Amy.
Was  Jesus Christ just some also ran that was bumped up by posthumous good press?
A normal Jew with a few quirks that can all be explained away?
No, Jesus was a million times more.
Einstein apart from being a great physicist was also  a deep thinker,his take on the Nazarene of the Gospels was that "This luminous figure we meet in the Gospels could never have been the fruit of human imagination".
Jesus as we meet him from page to page is not some wellwritten character.He is beyond.Jesus is truly the Son of God.Try as you might nobody could match the Jesus of the Gospels.If you brought Shakespeare ,Dante, Joyce ,Tolstoy together they could never create someone as divine as Jesus.
When we look at these Priests playing their roles we sometimes forget how real Jesus of Nazareth was.         
Amy Ho-Ohn
10 years ago
Well, I do disagree, David. And, whatever Einstein thought of the character in the gospels, he seems to have been unconvinced by His claims of divinity; after all, he didn't become a Christian.

I have always found the Jesus character in the synoptic gospels rather flat, trite and uninspiring. The prophets Elijah and Jeremiah are much more impressive.

I think the Fathers of the Church must have thought so too; otherwise, why would they have incorporated so much neo-Platonic ornamentation into The Faith?

Obviously, Holy Scripture not a work of fiction, and shouldn't be evaluated as such.
Thomas Rooney OFS
10 years ago
An excellent article, particularly Fr. Martin's last paragraph -

"It wouldn’t upset me if it turned out that Jesus was married. His life, death and, most important, resurrection would still be valid. Nor would I abandon my life of chastity, which is the way I’ve found to love many people freely and deeply. If I make it to heaven and Jesus introduces me to his wife, I’ll be happy for him (and her)."

Similar to Fr. Martin, to me, it doesn't make a bit of difference if Jesus was married or celibate; what makes the difference is His incarnation, teaching, passion, death and Resurrection. 
Sandi Sinor
10 years ago
Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.’ ” Why no mention of a wife?

And why does the church refuse to acknowledge that Jesus had brothers and sisters?

 Maybe because it would mean the church is all wrong about Mary's ''perpetual'' virginity?

And why does the church insist on that anyway - that Mary was ''ever'' virgin instead of half of a normal marriage where the husband and wife expressed their love physically?

IOW, why does the church have such a hang up about sex - even loving married sex?

It is horrified at the idea that Mary and Joseph may have had kids together (those brothers and sisters so often mentioned by the early evangelists that the church keeps trying to pretend are cousins) and even more horrified at the mere possibility that Jesus may have been married at some point. It would make sense. Perhaps he didn't start his ministry until he was 30, because earlier he was too busy with supporting himself and his wife. People married right after puberty in those days (Mary was 13 or 14), and many women died before age 30 from disease or childbirth.  So, as a widower, Jesus may have finally been able to devote himself to his teaching ministry.  And remember - with very short average lifespans then, he was a middle-aged man at 30.

In spite of what you say, it seems the idea that Jesus may have been married (which was expected in his culture, especially of rabbis, which he was) is just a tad bit disconcerting to you - the tone of your post is a bit defensive.
Martin Gallagher
10 years ago

Nice op-ed, Fr. M!
Amy Ho-Ohn
10 years ago
The historical evidence quite clear that the main character in the gospels is based loosely on a not-atypical first century Jewish preacher. The things he said were non-controversial, his students told commonplace stories of miracle-like cures, and he was probably executed in one of the innumerable round-ups which frequently followed the regular civil disturbances in Jerusalem. Was he married? Yes, most likely, or widowed, or divorced. Most Jewish men of his era were.

The historical evidence strongly suggests that subsequently he was incorporated into the standard son-of-a-god-come-among-us pagan narrative (like Hercules and Orpheus) and many of the standard episodes of that story got attributed to him. (A divine or semi-divine mother, signs and wonders prognosticating his birth, a series of miraculous accomplishments, high-blown speeches about his divinity, finally a resurrection from the dead in springtime.)

The historical evidence also indicates that once this cult got to be popular, it was adopted by the 1% as a useful tool in governing the 99%. They tricked it out in pointy hats, glamorous dresses, gold and silver props and a lot of marching around imposingly in long, pompous rituals. The 99%, who didn't see much difference between this spectacle and the pagan one which had preceeded it, went along to get along.

We Catholics, of course, are forbidden to accept any of the historical evidence. For us, it is an article of faith that Christ was born of an intact virgin, never had sexual relations with anybody, founded a celibate priesthood and an infallible papacy, and went about working miracles like cursing fig trees for not having fruit.

All of these conversations about this historical Jesus get stuck on this disaparity: the scholars are talking about a semi-historical figure (who probably did have sex.) The religious people are talking about the guy described in the Catechism. The two don't have much in common.
10 years ago
I’d like to know where was Mrs. Christ when Mr. Christ said, “   … the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head!”  Was   she homeless too, making her husband a pretty bad provider and   making her, in modern lingo a candidate for Welfare,   which didn’t exist in her day. Maybe she depended on handouts (entitlements?) from what the Gospel calls, “other women” that followed Mr. Christ, supposedly feeding him, doing his laundry   which his wife QUIETLY allowed Nada! That’s not the way a wife would act! If his wife was there   and she would   most certainly be there where other women gathered, she  would be given a leadership spot and would have been mentioned as the one “in charge.” But the Gospel strangely says nothing. What bunk about a Mrs. Christ!

However, just to further discuss, I  wonder  if that ancient piece of documentation that mentions a wife for Mr. Christ, is talking about what in effect would be a “surrogate” for want of a better word, a woman  acting like a wife for Jesus in every way except conjugally, in a broad sense being a “foster wife” as Joseph was by God’s design a “foster father” to Jesus? And anyhow, what did “wife” mean to Mr. Christ? Were there several meanings?  Probably. Here’s a silly one – if Jesus was married and had children, being Son of God  and equivalent to Sinai’s “I AM”  would his kids be “other Gods?” What would they be called?

 Or maybe, that apparent Gnostic discovery could be a “retaliatory slap” written by someone with an axe to grind against dominant teaching of the day, providing, certainly not for the first time, subsequent scholarly sifting of truth from   error about Jesus. All of this stuff about a Mr. and Mrs. Christ interesting, but essentially nonsensical speculation!

But wait! Yes, Jesus did (does) have a wife after all! St. Paul said it – the Church is the Spouse of Christ! And   interrelationally, Christ is Spouse of the Church. There you have it – there is a Mr. and Mrs. Christ and WE ARE IT within the realm where there is neither “Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female.” Yes, Christ and his Church are engaged in a mystical marriage! Truly Christ and his Church are ONE, demonstrating  as a teacher once said to me, “Christian Marriage is the most perfect model of the Church.”

Chris M.
10 years ago
Why no mention of a wife?  Well, if his wife was sitting next to him, then she would not have been among the visiting family members who were asking for him.  The gospels cover such a small part of his life, I would not be surprised if he had been married.  

You'd think there would be a few other corroborating fragments somewhere.  However, if he was married, the next question is whether he had any children.  I think there was a movie in which Jesus was married to Mary M. and did have children.  But the Church covered it up.  So it would make sense that they covered up any mention of a wife as well.  The Church has so many other cover-ups, I wouldn't be surprised if this was just another one.  There are a lot of people that won't even admit Jesus had sisters and brothers.  
Mike Brooks
10 years ago
Wherever there's an exclusive club, of sorts, there is always going to be pressure from those excluded to want to be part of it.
Jesus is white, Jesus is Black, Jesus learned everything he knew from Asian mystics.  Google this:  "Was Jesus a woman?" and see all the hits you get.  And don't forget, if you read the Gospels "correctly," you'll find that Jesus was a homosexual.
Christianity came into its heyday in the 4th century, an male-dominated insitution of power and influence complete with the regalia of kings and princes.  Coincidentally, someone decided to write a "gospel" that stated not only that Jesus had a wife but that there were women apostles, as well, on one tiny sheet of paper!  No surprise there.
I believe that the Church is as it is because God has made it that way, regardless of what the real history of Jesus is or isn't.  God decides what he wants His Church to be and it is adminstered through Peter’s successors.  Some day, perhaps, God will decide that the Church should allow women to become priests and will again let priests get married.  Or not.  And if He does, then perhaps this “gospel” will be held out to the world as the basis for making those changes. 
But I wouldn’t count on it.  Heck, didn’t the Church hold on for a long time to the belief that the sun revolved around the earth even in the face of uncontrovertible contrary scientific evidence?  If they found photos of Jesus' wedding and women at the last supper, I'd say there'd still be a long way to go before the Church would change, if at all, especially in light of the experiment of V2 and the coinciding drop in Church membership and increased public attacks on the Church.
An interesting archeological find, but I can't see it having any effect on Church practice or Church teaching.
10 years ago
350 years later. Why is anyone talking about this as if it throws light on the first century rather than on the fourth?

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