A Careful Look at the Real Evidence
by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts
Copyright © 2004/2006/2010 by Mark D. Roberts
Note: You may download this resource at no cost, for personal use, for use in a Christian ministry, or for use in an educational venture, as long as you are not publishing it for sale. All I ask is that you give credit to this website: http://blog.beliefnet.com/markdroberts/. For all other uses, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you.
Part 1: Introduction
These days, one of the questions I often receive about Jesus has to do with his marital status. This question didn’t just drop out of heaven, however. It was born of the popularity of Dan Brown’s controversial novel, The Da Vinci Code. This novel advocates the thesis that Jesus was in fact married to the woman we know as Mary Magdalene, that they had a child together, and that this “truth” was covered up by the church for self-serving reasons.
Many readers of The Da Vinci Code, believing the fictional history of the novel to be true, have been buzzing about the possibility of Jesus’ having been married. In a recent survey conducted by the online religious website Beliefnet, 19% of respondents said they believe that Mary Magdalene was in fact Jesus’ wife.
In this article I will examine the historical evidence for and against Jesus’ purported marriage. Whether we’d like to think of him as married or not is not particularly relevant here. What matters is historical evidence. We don’t need more ranting and raving about this issue, no matter what the position of the ranters and ravers. Rather, in the mythical words of Joe Friday, we need “Just the facts, ma’am.”
Finding the facts isn’t easy, however, because we have very little overt historical evidence for or against the marriage of Jesus. The earliest and most reliable records of his life – the New Testament gospels – do not tell us explicitly whether Jesus was married or not. They don’t mention his having a wife. Nor do they state that he was unmarried.
The silence of the New Testament gospels has given rise to a cacophony of conflicting voices. Some see in these writings a plot to cover up the truth about Jesus. Others see the silence of the gospels as proof that Jesus could not have been married. It does seem rather fantastic to imagine that if Jesus had been married to Miriam of Magdala, whom we know as Mary Magdalene, or to any other woman for that matter, this fact would have been completely omitted from all of the earliest records of Jesus’ life. Those who claim that the earliest Christians conspired to hide this information because it confirmed the fact that Jesus wasn’t divine forget that the supposed conspirators often gave their lives because they believed Jesus to have been divine. Would they have died for something they knew to be a lie? I rather doubt it.
Nevertheless, there are some who argue that the silence of the New Testament gospels should be taken as strong evidence for the marriage of Jesus. Let us turn to this argument.
Part 2: New Testament Evidence for the Married Jesus
The New Testament contains no explicit answer to the question of Jesus’ marital state. It never mentions his wife, nor that he was unmarried. In fact, whenever the New Testament gospels refer to Jesus’ natural relatives, they speak only of his father, mother, and siblings, but never of a wife.
Although almost all scholars of all religious persuasions take this as strong evidence of the singleness of Jesus, a few have proposed that, in fact, Jesus was married. In 1970, for example, William E. Phipps published Was Jesus Married? The Distortion of Sexuality in the Christian Tradition. In this book Phipps argued that the silence of the New Testament about the marital status of Jesus indicates that Jesus was in fact married. Why? Because virtually every Jewish man in Jesus’ day did marry, especially those who were considered to be Rabbis.
One major problem with this argument, among several, is that it makes no room for an exception. Jesus was not required by law – either governmental or religious – to marry. And, though he was in many ways a normal Jewish man (see Chapter 2 of my book Jesus Revealed), in others ways he was utterly unusual. If, when he reached the age at which young men in his day married, Jesus and his family realized that he had a special calling which would make marriage quite difficult, then he could surely have remained single. Yes, this would have been perceived as an unusual, even a counter-cultural choice. But then Jesus never shied away from the unusual or counter-cultural, especially when it came to his relationships with women.
Excursus: Unmarried Jewish Men in the Time of Jesus
Two prominent Jewish writers from the first-century A.D., Philo and Josephus, mention that some Jewish men in the time of Jesus were single by choice. Philo, a contemporary of Jesus, was a Jewish philosopher who lived in Alexandria, Egypt, and who wrote many volumes in the first half of the century. Josephus was a Jewish historian who wrote near the end of the century. Both Philo and Josephus mention that the Essenes, a group of apocalyptic Jews who eagerly awaited God’s intervention in history, did not marry by choice. Here are excerpts from their writings:
Philo, Hypothetica 11.14-17
Again, perceiving with more than ordinary acuteness and accuracy, what is alone or at least above all other things calculated to dissolve such associations, they repudiate marriage; and at the same time they practise continence in an eminent degree; for no one of the Essenes ever marries a wife . . . . This now is the enviable system of life of these Essenes, so that not only private individuals but even mighty kings, admiring the men, venerate their sect, and increase their dignity and majesty in a still higher degree by their approbation and by the honours which they confer on them.
Josephus, Jewish War, 2.8.2
These Essenes reject pleasures as an evil, but esteem continence, and the conquest over our passions, to be virtue. They neglect wedlock, but choose out other persons’ children, while they are pliable, and fit for learning, and esteem them to be of their kindred, and form them according to their own manners. They do not absolutely deny the fitness of marriage, and the succession of mankind thereby continued; but they guard against the lascivious behavior of women, and are persuaded that none of them preserve their fidelity to one man.
Josephus, Antiquities 18.1.5
It also deserves our admiration, how much [the Essenes] exceed all other men that addict themselves to virtue, and this in righteousness; and indeed to such a degree, that as it hath never appeared among any other men, neither Greeks nor barbarians, no, not for a little time, so hath it endured a long while among them. This is demonstrated by that institution of theirs, which will not suffer any thing to hinder them from having all things in common; so that a rich man enjoys no more of his own wealth than he who hath nothing at all. There are about four thousand men that live in this way, and neither marry wives, nor are desirous to keep servants; as thinking the latter tempts men to be unjust, and the former gives the handle to domestic quarrels; but as they live by themselves, they minister one to another.
There can be no doubt that many Essenes (scholars say that some might have been married) chose to be unmarried. According to Philo and Josephus, they did so because they thought that women had a negative impact on men. There’s no reason to believe that Jesus shared this perspective. But He did join the Essenes in accepting an apocalyptic worldview that anticipated the coming of God’s kingdom. This, as we’ll see tomorrow, helps to explain Jesus’s unusual attitude toward singleness and marriage.
Both Philo and Josephus attest to the fact that Essene men remained single in the time of Jesus. But, one might argue, this kind of behavior was common only on the outskirts of Jewish society. Mainline Jews, if you will, would have looked down upon Essene celibacy.
Yet, this argument ignores the plain evidence from both Philo and Josephus. Notice, these authors don’t only mention the Essene practice of being unmarried, they praise it! Philo describes Essene celibacy as an “enviable system,” adding that it is admired and praised by ordinary men and kings. Josephus explains Essene singleness in a passage that begins, “It also deserves our admiration how much they exceed all other men that addict themselves to virtue.” In other words, neither Philo nor Josephus criticizes Essene celibacy. Both writers praise it enthusiastically.
So, in light of what we find in these first-century Jewish writers, it makes no sense to claim, as does Langdon, that “the social decorum during that time virtually forbid a Jewish man to be unmarried. According to Jewish custom, celibacy was condemned . . . .” In fact, we have solid evidence that some Jewish men chose to remain unmarried, and that leading Jewish thinkers praised them for this choice.
Unlike other Jewish teachers of his day, Jesus had close relationships with women, many of whom were his followers (Luke 8:2-3) and learned from him (Luke 10:38-42). Several of these women are mentioned by name in the New Testament gospels, including, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna, who together helped to support Jesus and his other disciples financially (Luke 8:2-3). But nothing in the New Testament suggests that Jesus was ever married to any of these women, or to any other woman, for that matter.
But, you might wonder, what about Mary Magdalene? Isn’t there evidence that suggests she was in fact married to Jesus? In the rest of this article I’ll examine this evidence, looking both at the New Testament and at the non-biblical gospels that are touted to contain evidence of Jesus’ marriage to Mary Magdalene.
For now we must acknowledge that the main argument in favor of Jesus’ marriage is at best weakly circumstantial. It fails to reckon with the unique calling of Jesus and his tendency to flaunt certain cultural conventions. Moreover, it forces us to believe that the most reliable accounts of Jesus’ life failed to mention one of the most salient aspects of that life. How unlikely!
Part 3: Mary Magdalene in the New Testament
These days the question of Jesus’ marriage generally focuses on his supposed wife: Mary Magdalene. What exactly can we know about this woman, both from the New Testament and from other ancient documents? In this part I’ll focus on the New Testament evidence. The extra-biblical material will be examined below.
Once again, my main point is to look carefully at the real historical evidence, not to posit wild theories or defend orthodoxy simply because I happen to be an orthodox Christian. I begin with the New Testament gospels because they are the oldest evidence we have, having been written only a few decades after the death of Jesus, and containing sources that are much older.
Several women named Mary are mentioned in the biblical gospels, including Jesus’ mother and Mary from Bethany (sister of Martha and Lazarus, the woman whom Jesus praised for learning from him, Luke 10:38-42). One of these “Marys” is referred to as “Magdalene,” which means “from the village of Magdala.”
Mary Magdalene is first mentioned as one of the women who accompanied Jesus on his preaching mission and helped to support him financially (Luke 8:1-3). Luke adds that seven demons had been cast out of her, presumably by Jesus (Luke 8:2). Nothing in this passage suggests that there was anything unusual about Mary’s relationship with Jesus, other than the very unusual fact that she was included among Jesus’ retinue. Jewish teachers in Jesus’ day usually didn’t teach women or include them as followers. In his inclusive practice Jesus was virtually unique, and his relationship with Mary and her female counterparts quite counter-cultural.
The next time we run into Mary Magdalene she is among the women who observe the crucifixion of Jesus (Mark 15:40). Then, on Easter morning she and a couple of female companions go to the tomb of Jesus, only to find it empty. Mary, according to John 20, encounters Jesus near the tomb, and then goes to announce his resurrection to the other disciples (John 20:1-18). In a sense, she is the first Christian evangelist, the first person to pass on the good news of Easter.
This is all we know about Mary Magdalene from the biblical gospels. Several centuries after these texts were written, Mary became associated with the prostitute who bathed and anointed Jesus’ feet (Luke 7:36-50). But there’s nothing in Scripture that makes this connection. We have no reason to believe that Mary had ever been a prostitute.
There’s also nothing whatsoever in the biblical material to suggest that Mary was Jesus’ wife, or, as some have suggested, that he had a sexual relationship with her outside of marriage. If Jesus and Mary had been married, then we should expect that he would have entrusted her into the care of the Beloved Disciple at the cross, just as he did with his mother (19:27). The absence of this action strongly suggests that Jesus and Mary were not married.
What is exceptional about Mary, when understood in her own cultural setting, is that she was one of Jesus’ closest followers. Moreover, she was the first witness to the risen Christ, a role of exceptional honor and privilege. Surely Jesus held Mary in the highest regard, though not as his wife. Ironically, the efforts to turn Mary the disciple of Jesus into Mary the wife of Jesus actually minimize how truly extraordinary she was as a central follower, supporter, and witness of Jesus.
Because nothing in the New Testament suggests that Jesus and Mary were married, those who advocate this position claim to rely on the evidence of non-canonical “gospels.” Do these extra-biblical writings in fact reveal a secret marriage between Jesus and Mary? Throughout the rest of this article I’ll scrutinize this evidence.
Part 4: Mary Magdalene in the Non-Canonical Gospels
Most people are not familiar with the non-canonical gospels. Thus when they hear that these writings reveal Jesus’ marriage to Mary Magdalene, they are at a loss to evaluate this claim, and often accept it at face value. Many even assume that the non-canonical evidence for Jesus’ marriage must be strong and ample since some writers get so excited about it. In fact the actual evidence is both weak and scanty, as we’ll see.
In the rest of this article I’ll summarize what we learn about Mary Magdalene from the non-biblical writings. These writings can be found in several published sources. (See note at the end of this article.)
A word of caution before we begin to look at the non-canonical evidence: Dating of the non-biblical gospels is perilous because we have so little solid evidence. Those who want to see these gospels as reliable historical sources often push their authorship as early as possible, sometimes even into the first century A.D. For reasons I can’t pursue here, this dating is unlikely in almost every case. Most credible scholars date the writing of the non-canonical gospels in the second or third century A.D. These texts are, at any rate, later than the biblical gospels by a long shot (with the possible exception of the Gospel of Thomas, which may have been written in the first century, though this is not at all certain). Several of the non-canonical gospels are named after one of the original disciples of Jesus, including Mary, but these disciples had nothing to do with the actual writing of the extra-biblical gospels. For each of the gospels I’ll suggest when they might have been written, choosing a date that in that reflects scholarly consensus, where such is available.
Part 4a: Mary Magdalene in the Gospel of Thomas
Since I’ve mentioned the Gospel of Thomas, and since it’s probably the earliest and best known of the non-canonical gospels, let’s begin by seeing how it portrays Mary Magdalene.
Mary plays a tiny role in the Gospel of Thomas, asking Jesus a question about the disciples: “Whom are your disciples like?” (section 21, trans. Thomas O. Lambdin). This is the only place she speaks. She is mentioned at the end of this gospel in a most curious passage, which reads:
Simon Peter said to them, “Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of Life.” Jesus said, “I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” (section 114)
One would be hard pressed to see in this passage much hope for women, let alone for the thesis that Jesus and Mary were married. This passage, in its own strange way, does affirm what we already know from the canonical gospels: that Mary was included among Jesus’ followers and that Jesus himself intentionally included women. Of course in the biblical record he valued them as women, not as beings that had eternal value if they became male. Maleness, in this text, should not be understood literally, but as a symbol of one’s spiritual or divine nature.
So, one who is looking for evidence of a secret marriage between Jesus and Mary will be disappointed by the earliest of the non-canonical gospels. The Gospel of Thomas, in its peculiar way, simple underscores what we know of Mary from the biblical gospels.
Part 4b: Mary Magdalene in The Gospel of Peter
The Gospel of Peter, written in the second century A.D., focuses only on the last hours in the life of Jesus. It is noteworthy for its view that Jesus felt no pain when crucified (section 10) and for its exoneration of Pontius Pilate for the death of Jesus (sections 1, 45-46). Mary Magdalene appears only on Easter morning, when she and her women friends come to the tomb of Jesus to weep for him. She is described as “a female disciple [Greek mathetria ] of the Lord” (section 50,). At the tomb, Mary and her friends see an angel who announces the resurrection of Jesus, and they run away frightened (section 56-57).
In the Gospel of Peter we find no evidence whatsoever for a marriage between Mary and Jesus. But, once again, Mary is portrayed as a female disciple of Jesus.
Part 4c: Mary Magdalene in The Dialogue of the Savior
The Dialogue of the Savior, also written in the second century A.D., is a dialogue between the Savior (never called Jesus or Christ) and some of his disciples, including Mary. The disciples ask questions about esoteric religious things, and Jesus gives equally esoteric answers. Although Mary is one of the frequent interrogators of the Savior, at one point she makes an observation. The text explains, “This word she spoke as a woman who knew the All” (Section 139, trans. Harold Attridge). In other words, Mary has special knowledge of spiritual reality.
There is no hint in The Dialogue of the Savior of a marriage between Jesus and Mary (or the Savior and Mary). She is seen, once again, as central among the disciples of the Savior, and as a person with special insight.
Part 4d: Mary Magdalene in The Sophia of Jesus Christ
The Sophia of Jesus Christ is a post-resurrection dialogue between the risen Christ and some of his followers, including Mary. It may have been written as early as the middle of the second century A.D. Twice in this gospel Mary asks questions of Christ, such as “Holy Lord, where did your disciples come from, and where are they going, and (what) should they do here?” (section 114, trans. Douglas M. Parrott). Mary is not singled out further, nor is there a suggestion of a marriage to Jesus.
Part 4e: Mary Magdalene in The Pistis Sophia
The Pistis Sophia is a Gnostic gospel written sometime during the third century A.D. It is a revelation of Christ in which Mary plays a prominent role, asking the majority of the questions about all measure of esoteric matters.
Mary is praised in The Pistis Sophia as one “whose heart is more directed to the Kingdom of Heaven than all [her] brothers” (Chapter 17, trans. Carl Schmidt and Violet MacDermott). Jesus says that she is “blessed beyond all women upon the earth, because [she shall be] the pleroma of all Pleromas and the completion of all completions” (section 19). In other words, Mary will have the fullness of knowledge and therefore spiritual life within her. So impressed is Jesus with Mary’s spiritual excellence that he promises not to conceal anything from her, but to reveal everything to her “with certainty and openly” (section 25). She is the blessed one who will “inherit the whole Kingdom of the Light” (section 61).
From The Pistis Sophia we see the growing interest in Mary among Gnostic Christians, who valued knowledge (gnosis in Greek) above all. She has come to be regarded as a source of hidden revelation because of her intimate relationship with Jesus. Nothing in this gospel suggests a marriage between them, however.
Part 4f: Mary Magdalene in The Gospel of Mary
The Gospel of Mary, written in the second century, goes even further than The Pistis Sophia in portraying Mary as a source of secret revelation because of her close relationship to the Savior. At one point Peter asks, “Sister, We know that the Savior loved you more than the rest of women. Tell us the words of the Savior which you remember–which you know but we do not nor have we heard them” (section 10, trans. George W. MacRae and R. McL. Wilson). So Mary reveals what the Lord made known to her in a vision, the content of which seems like mumbo-jumbo to anyone other than a second-century Gnostic.
The Gospel of Mary reports that several of the disciples were none too impressed by Mary’s purported insights into heavenly things. Andrew responded to her revelation by saying “I at least do not believe that the Savior said this. For certainly these teachings are strange ideas” (section 17). Then Peter asked, “Did he really speak privately with a woman and not openly to us? Are we to turn about and all listen to her? Did he prefer her to us?” But Levi speaks up for Mary, “Peter, you have always been hot-tempered. Now I see you contending against the woman like the adversaries. But if the Savior made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her? Surely the Savior knows her very well. That is why he loved her more than us” (section 18).
Ah, at last, here’s fuel for the fire of a secret marriage between Mary and Jesus. She is the recipient of his secret revelations and private speeches. The Savior, who is not called Jesus in The Gospel of Mary, even preferred Mary to the other disciples, loving her more than them. Mary’s relationship with Jesus has clearly entered a new dimension we have not seen before.
But there is nothing here to suggest that Jesus and Mary were married. Jesus’ love for Mary leads him to reveal special truth to her, not to take her as his wife. Nothing in The Gospel of Mary points to a sexual or spousal relationship between Jesus and Mary.
Part 4g: Mary Magdalene in The Gospel of Philip
Finally we come to The Gospel of Philip, the last of the extra-biblical gospels to mention Mary Magdalene, and the one that excites proponents of her marriage to Jesus more than any other ancient document.
The Gospel of Philip is one of the latest of the non-canonical gospels, written well into the third-century. It is not a gospel in any ordinary sense, but rather a collection of theological observations written from a Gnostic point of view. Some but not all of these observations mention Jesus. Two passages refer to Mary Magdalene, who plays a tiny role in this gospel.
The first of these passages reads, “There were three who always walked with the Lord: Mary his mother and her sister and Magdalene, the one who was called his companion” (section 59). Much has been insinuated about the word companion, which, in the Greek original is koinonos. But, contrary to the wishful thinking of some, this word doesn’t mean spouse or sexual consort. It means “partner”, and is used several times in the New Testament with this ordinary meaning (for example, when Paul refers to himself as Philemon’s koinonos in the Philemon 1:17).
The second passage in The Gospel of Philip that concerns Mary is the most suggestive: “And the companion of the Savior is Mary Magdalene. But Christ loved her more than all the disciples and used to kiss her often on her mouth. The rest of the disciples were offended by it and expressed disapproval. They said to him, ‘Why do you love her more than all of us?’ The Savior answered and said to them, ‘Why do I not love you like her?’ When a blind man and one who sees are both together in darkness, they are no different from one another. Then the light comes, then he who sees will see the light, and he who is blind will remain in darkness” (sections 63-63).
Even if we suppose that this passage, which appears in no other document, and which was written two centuries after the biblical gospels, conveys historically accurate information, the passage itself seems to disprove Jesus’ marriage to Mary. Surely if Jesus had been married to Mary then his special affection for her wouldn’t have been an offense. And surely Jesus could have satisfied the disciples’ question by explaining that Mary was his wife. But he doesn’t do this. Instead he explains his special affection for Mary by pointing to her ability to see the light, that is, to have knowledge. Nothing in this passage suggests that Jesus and Mary were married, even if we read it literally. Moreover, given what is said elsewhere in The Gospel of Philip about kissing (sections 58-59), it’s possible that this passage isn’t even meant to be taken literally. The text may very well use the metaphor of kissing to say that Jesus revealed truth to Mary. If this is true, the The Gospel of Philip is consistent with what we have seen elsewhere in the Gnostic gospels.
That’s it. That’s the best non-canonical evidence for the marriage of Jesus and Mary: a passage which, even if taken at face value as a historically accurate account, which one would be silly to do, seems to contradict the hypothetical marriage. The only way to find this marriage in the non-canonical gospels is to interject it there yourself. The texts simply do not support this theory that Jesus and Mary were married.
Part 5: Conclusions
One who has read The Da Vinci Code and been persuaded to accept its fictional history as fact will no doubt object at this point: “But you don’t understand. Jesus’ marriage to Mary was a secret. These texts only give tiny clues. The real truth of Jesus’ marriage was hidden, and that’s why the non-canonical gospels say so little about it.” Of course this could be true, theoretically speaking. But I’d argue that we have much more evidence for Jesus having been an alien from outer space than the husband of Mary Magdalene. After all, he is transfigured on a mountain with glowing beings (Mark 9:2-8) and he ascends to heaven in a cloud (Acts 1:9). One can make up all sorts of theories about Jesus, but the only way to evaluate these theories is with the facts of the ancient texts we have. And these texts simply do not support the theory of Jesus’ marriage.
You may well wonder why I have spent so much time analyzing the biblical and the non-biblical evidence for the alleged marriage of Jesus. Couldn’t the it have been dismissed in a few summary observations, thus saving me the time it took to write this stuff and you the time it took to read it?
Yes, I could have simply pooh-poohed the whole thing as fictional nonsense. But this wouldn’t be helpful to you when your friend, having just read The Da Vinci Code, is sure that the non-canonical gospels are really full of evidence about Jesus’ marriage to Mary Magdalene. Given the sustained popularity of Dan Brown’s novel , the issue of Jesus’ marriage to Mary is a live one today and will continue to be for quite a long time. Many people, both Christians and non-believers, have been led to believe that Jesus was probably married to Mary, and that there is lots of non-canonical evidence for this marriage. They take Dan Brown’s historical fiction as gospel-truth, so to speak.
Moreover, I have spent time going over the non-canonical material in detail because most Christians (and non-Christians) are unfamiliar with these texts. So when somebody says, “The non-canonical gospels really show that Jesus was married,” most believers don’t know how to respond. Now you have seen the evidence, and you know how to respond. You have more direct exposure to the non-biblical gospels than 99.9% of the population. So when someone states confidently that the non-canonical gospels reveal Jesus’ marriage to Mary, you can respond, “Well, have you ever studied what the non-canonical gospels actually say about Jesus and Mary?” To which the answer will almost always be “No.” To which you can add, “You know, I’ve actually looked at this evidence, and there is nothing there. Mary appears rarely in the non-canonical gospels, and when she does appear, it’s usually as a close disciple of Jesus, and sometimes as one who reveals special knowledge that Jesus revealed first to her. That’s it.”
Another reason I have taken time on this issue is that most proponents of the marriage of Jesus thesis have an agenda. They are trying to strip Jesus of his uniqueness, and especially his deity. They want a Jesus who was a mere human being, one with spiritual insight, but otherwise ordinary. The supposed marriage of Jesus is taken by many to be proof that he really wasn’t God in the flesh, but only a mortal man.
Along with Christians throughout the ages, I believe that Jesus was fully God and fully human. To be sure I can’t fully comprehend or explain this mystery, but I believe it nevertheless. My faith in the unique nature of Jesus doesn’t demand that he was single, ironically enough. Jesus could have married and maintained his sinless, human-divine nature. But we have no evidence to suggest that he did this. We can speculate about the reasons. I imagine that Jesus realized his unique calling was incompatible with marriage and family life. But I don’t know this for a fact.
Excursus: Why Jesus Didn’t Get Married
If indeed Jesus wasn’t married, why? Why did he not do what was common for a Jewish man in his time of history?
Before I attempt to answer this question, I should note that the New Testament doesn’t address this issue directly. Speculating about Jesus’s motives when they’re not explained in Scripture is always a little dicey. So beware. I say this also because some of the reasons Christians have given for the singleness of Jesus aren’t very good. One is quite bad, actually, and I’ll dispense with this before I go on.
A Bad Reason for the Singleness of Jesus
Historically, many Christians have thought that sex is somehow intrinsically sinful. Although the Old Testament makes it abundantly clear that sex was a part of God’s good creation (see, for example, Genesis 1-2 or the Song of Solomon), as Christianity was pressed through the mold of Greek philosophy and early Christian asceticism, it emerged with a different shape, one in which sexual intimacy between husband and wife was a physical necessity, but not a wonderful part of God’s creation. Christians who reject the goodness of sex argue that Jesus didn’t marry because it would have been wrong for Him to be sexually intimate with His wife. This view is not consistent with biblical revelation, which celebrates sexual intimacy in marriage. So it wasn’t the wrongness of sex that kept Jesus single.
A Possible Reason for the Singleness of Jesus
As people have been batting around the question of Jesus’s marriage in the last couple years, thanks to Dan Brown, I’ve heard some Christians say, “Well, Jesus couldn’t have been married because, if He had been, then He might have fathered a child, and this would lead to all sorts of theological problems.” I agree that it would be hard to figure out theologically what to do with the child of Jesus. Would that child inherit a sinful nature? Would that child be three-fourths human and one-fourth God? (I’m not serious about this, b y the way!) Of course God could have kept a married Jesus from conceiving a child, but this gets pretty messy. So it’s possible that Jesus didn’t marry because because of the complications associated with His fatherhood, but I’m not persuaded this is the right explanation of His singleness.
A Pragmatic Reason for the Singleness of Jesus
Well, a little Google surfing turns up proof that Jesus was married. Quite a good looking couple too, though I don’t think this is what Dan Brown has in mind. (Note: I did not doctor this picture, other than to blur the names to protect the innocent.)
Some have argued that Jesus remained single because He knew that He wouldn’t be able to fulfill His marital and parental obligations adequately. If Jesus knew, even years before His itinerant ministry began, that He’d be roaming around the Galilean countryside preaching and healing, then He might well have determined that this wasn’t a good basis for family life. Moreover, if Jesus knew that His ministry would lead to confrontation with the authorities and ultimately death at the hand of Rome, then He might have thought that this was not suitable for a husband and/or father. I believe this pragmatic reason is heading in the right direction, but still hasn’t hit the bull’s eye.
A Theological Reason for the Singleness of Jesus
In Matthew 19 Jesus is asked about the circumstances in which divorce is lawful. His answer makes it clear that He holds marriage in the highest regard, and that divorce is therefore legal in rare circumstances only (vv. 3-9). In response to Jesus’s “hard line” on divorce, His disciples say, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry” (v. 10). Jesus responds:
“Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.” (vv. 11-12)
Most commentators believe, and I agree, that Jesus is not speaking here of literal eunuchs, but of those who are celibate, and, in most cases, unmarried. Some people, Jesus explains, choose to be celibate “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (v. 12). To put it differently, some people might choose to devote all that they are to proclaiming and living out God’s kingdom. They would find earthly responsibilities, such as those that go with marriage and parenting, a hindrance to their kingdom calling. This is similar to the situation of the disciples who were called away from their professions (fishermen, tax collectors, etc.) in order to follow Jesus with singular purpose.
So, in light of the coming of God’s kingdom, and in light of Jesus’s commitment to announce and inaugurate the kingdom, He might have chosen to remain single so that nothing would distract Him from His primary calling and purpose. Although Jesus does not say specifically, “The agenda of the kingdom explains why I am not married,” I believe that this passage from Matthew 19 provides a theologically satisfying reason for why Jesus remained single. Thus it covers the objection of Robert Langdon in The Da Vinci Code: “If Jesus were not married, at least one of the Bible’s gospels would have mentioned it and offered some explanation for His unnatural state of bachelorhood.” The explanation, in Jesus’s own words, is that the kingdom of God calls some people, including Jesus Himself, to a wholehearted commitment and investment that precludes getting married.
And I do care about facts. Yes, I’m aware of the postmodern critique of knowledge and truth. And I’m aware of my own inadequacy when it comes to discerning truth and falsehood. (I’ve written about these very things in my book, Dare to Be True.) But Christianity isn’t a figment of the imagination. It’s not wishful thinking. It’s based upon what God has done in history, most of all through Jesus Christ. Thus we should make every effort to find out what really happened. We should look at the best evidence we have when we make our historical judgments. Wild theories that depend on unreliable evidence produced centuries after an event might make for entertaining fiction, but they aren’t the stuff of genuine faith.
Perhaps the most amazing facts concerning the relationship of Mary Magdalene and Jesus are those that emerge from the pages of Scripture, and which, ironically, are also supported in much of the non-canonical literature as well. Mary was a close follower of Jesus, who accompanied him on his journeys, helped to support him financially, learned from him, remained faithful to him even in his darkest hour when his male disciples fell away, was the first to see him after the resurrection, and was the first person in history to announce to others the good news that Jesus is risen. Jesus’ intentional inclusion of Mary, in a day when Jewish teachers almost never had female disciples or taught women, is a striking symbol of the inclusiveness of the kingdom of God. Most women living under God’s reign will still fill traditional roles of wife and mother, though single women have new freedom and power to serve God in their singleness (1 Corinthians 7). But women will not be defined primarily by their roles in the family, but by their relationship to Jesus as his disciple. This was true of Mary Magdalene in the first century, and it’s true of every female Christian today.
Once when Jesus was preaching he was approached by his natural family. The crowd told him that they were there to see him. Jesus responded, “Who are my mother and brothers?” Then, looking at his disciples, he answered the question: “Here are my mother and brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:33-35). Ironically, therefore, Jesus is more inclusive and counter-cultural than those who would tie Mary Magdalene’s significance primarily to her filling the traditional role of wife. Though much in Scripture supports the importance of natural family, the relationship that matters most of all is our relationship with Jesus Christ as his disciple. We disciples are, together, the true and only bride of Christ (Ephesians 5:21-33).
Sources for the Non-Canonical Gospels: Many of the non-canonical gospels are part of the collection of documents found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt. Translations of these texts can be found in James M. Robinson, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library in English: Revised Edition (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1990). Other of the non-canonical gospels can be found in New Testament Apocrypha: Vol 1: Gospels and Related Writings , ed. Wilhelm Schneemelcher, trans. R. McL. Wilson, rev. ed. (John Knox Press, 2003). Peter Kirby has provided links to the non-canonical gospels at his helpful Early Christian Writings website.