What’s at stake if Jesus had a wife?

The recent “discovery” of a fragment of a gnostic papyrus suggesting Jesus had a wife has been pretty conclusively overturned as fradulent, so this is old news now. But I’ve been ruminating on my friend David Sessions’ piece on the matter, in which he cites a number of feminist theologians who endorse the idea even if the evidence doesn’t add up for it:

“It’s easier for Jesus not to have been married, it’s easier for him to not have wet dreams,” said Emilie Townes, a professor at Yale Divinity School. “That way we don’t have to encounter things that challenge our separation of our bodies from our souls.” Townes said a savior with sexual needs would confront the “skewed” equation of perfection with male celibacy, to which women are inevitably seen as a threat.

Carol Howard Merritt, a Presbyterian minister, said that very thought helped reveal her own subtle misogyny. “Many years ago, when I first read fictional accounts of Jesus being married, my reaction at some gut level was anger and repulsion,” she said. “I began to ask myself why. Was my view of sex so low that I couldn’t imagine Jesus having any part of it? Did I imagine that a woman could somehow corrupt his divine nature?”

Even if Jesus didn’t have sex with the woman mentioned in the new fragment, a close female partner in ministry would undermine the Christian tradition of seeing women as temptresses who should be kept under male authority. “It certainly gives Mary Magdalene a leg up among the saints—maybe even over the Virgin Mary,” said Emily McGowin, a doctoral student in religious studies at the University of Dayton. “Who is more important, the woman who birthed Jesus, or the one who became ‘one flesh’ with him?”

“Easier” here is strictly a matter of perspective, as we might instead suggest that it is “easier” to conceive of Jesus having a spouse because it challenges the notion that the integration of our bodies and souls requires sexual activity. And it happens to be “easier” to affirm that Jesus had a spouse because it is nearly impossible to conceive of a flourishing celibate life. All that is very easy, given the world we live in.

But affirming that there are goods beyond sexual consummation, that people can have sexual organs without using them? Well, that actually turns out to be astonishingly difficult. Especially when our distinguished professors of theology characterize the notion as a “low” view of sex. We might as well say that theirs is a “low” view of singleness and celibacy, which is a fun game that we can play all day.

Back to this point about “easier,” though, it strikes me that both lifelong singleness and faithful monogamy manage to be more frequently the object of jokes than the ends of our desires. We can make and laugh at The 40 Year Old Virgin, but while most people get hitched in our romantic comedies we’re never quite sure whether they stay that way. At least we don’t often see it, and so lifelong marriage turns out to be harder to imagine.

These two things are, I’ve argued before, intimately connected. It’s a trick to say that what we need for a proper sexual ethic is a Savior who experiences all that we might. If anything, what we need is a Savior who can understand without experiencing, who can look at the phenomenon from the outside in order to help us interpret it aright. What we are given in our single Savior is a vision of humanity—of humanity, I note, and not just of the male—who in his very life establishes a boundary around sex which is necessary for its enjoyment.

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  • http://www.jrforasteros.com jr. forasteros

    I agree that all the hooplah surrounding the manuscript has been silly, and I love how you bring out Jesus’ affirmation of our bodies and their goodness in his singleness.

    But I assume you believe he could equally have affirmed their goodness in a marital relationship.

    For the sake of the argument, IF Jesus had married, would that substantially alter any of our theology? (other, probably, than denigrating singleness even further.)

    I can imagine some pretty intense debates about Trinity in that context, and I suppose it could call into question God’s self-sufficiency (though we could also attribute it to his humanness,right?)

    All that to say, I usually respond to the “Dan Brown Question” with “Well, Jesus definitely wasn’t married, but it also doesn’t really matter that much.” Curious if you’d agree.

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com Matthew Lee Anderson

      “For the sake of the argument, IF Jesus had married, would that substantially alter any of our theology? (other, probably, than denigrating singleness even further.)”

      Yes. Our eschatology. And our ecclesiology. Which have to be interconnected on some level.

      Matt

  • http://www.thequestionoferos.wordpress.com Andrew

    I believe the issue on hand is best described by the statement “I and the Father are one” and “Man does not live on bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Father.” Simply put, there was no place for a mate in Christ’s life, and to say there was would be to say that God and Christ were not one, just like when we get to heaven, there will be no place for a mate in our life; we and Christ will be one. It’s not that sexual need is sin, but rather that it is amoral and subject to higher laws.

    Literally, for Christ to have a wife would be to say that Christ was not one with God and therefore not God at all, not because sex or women are evil but because oneness with God trumps oneness between man and wife, and “man not living by bread alone but by every word..”, Christ had no need or purpose for a mate, like Paul had no need or purpose for a mate, just like Scripture says the same thing to us: better unmarried if we can handle it, marriage and regular sex if we can’t, God’s grace meeting our needs if we have plenty of appetite and no moral outlet.

  • http://tribulets.com Joseph

    I appreciate the comments. In the quotes you gave, the writers seem to draw conclusions based on notions that they seem to assume have the same meaning for everyone, i.e. sexuality, sexual ethics, sexual purity, holiness, etc. It’s important to ask hypothetical questions, but in the process, whatever insights are revealed about the way we normally think about Jesus as single, or human sexuality, etc., it is equally important to examine the very foundations of these concepts as they exist in a broader framework of thought.

    For the one author to say that Mary Magdaline achieves a higher status as a woman if Jesus was married to her reveals an assumption that her value or status is somehow lower in the actual Biblical account. That might be true for the culture, but Jesus clearly had a different take on women. The point is that these authors seem to take the hypothetical questions and run with them, forgetting that the notions they are employing in order to construct their arguments are misguided in the first place.

  • http://paul.dubuc.org PMDubuc

    Some good information on the nature of this “discovery” can be found here: http://blog.bibleplaces.com/2012/09/articles-on-jesus-wife.html