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.