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Was Jesus Married?

A new novel forces people to confront a biblical puzzle. Was Mary Magdalene Mrs. Jesus?

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Outside France, historians and theologians for many years have debated if Jesus was married-to Mary Magdalene or to someone else. In 1970, for instance, a Presbyterian minister and scholar named William E. Phipps wrote a controversial book called Was Jesus Married? His conclusion is "yes," because the vast majority of Jewish males of Jesus' era married.

In the 1960s and 1970s, there was a rash of Jesus books and movies about Jesus, including Jesus Christ, Superstar, which made the assumption that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a sexual relationship. More famously, Martin Scorsese's 1988 movie The Last Temptation of Christ includes a sex scene between Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

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But serious inquiry into Jesus' marital state-and more specifically into his relationship with Mary Magdalene-got a huge boost from the discovery of what is called the Berlin Codex. Discovered in Egypt in 1896, it wasn't translated until the 1950s, along with the Nag Hammadi Codex, discovered in 1945, around the same time the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. These texts have become increasingly important to biblical scholarship, and they illuminate a different kind of Jesus from the one depicted in the Bible--a wisdom teacher and spiritual seeker. That kind of Jesus is appealing to Westerners inclined to combine elements of Eastern religions with Christianity--and so, what are called the Gnostic texts have also become hugely popular.

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The two Codex discoveries included The Gospel of Mary, the Sophia of Jesus Christ, and the Gospel of Philip, among others. For a long time, they were considered unimportant. But in the last decade, biblical scholars have begun looking at these texts more closely. The Gospel of Mary, for instance, dates to about 125 C.E., according to King, which places it among the oldest texts of the early Christian church. By way of comparison, the Gospel of John was written in the 90s C.E.

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