2016-06-30
There is an ancient and venerable principle of biblical exegesis which states that if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it must be a camel in disguise. So let's apply that to whether or not Jesus was married. There is no evidence that Jesus was married (looks like a duck), multiple indications that he was not (walks like a duck), and no early texts suggesting wife or children (quacks like a duck)...so he must be an incognito bridegroom (camel in disguise).

But seriously: For me the question is not whether Jesus was married, but, granted that he was not, why not? Within the options of his time, and leaving aside the possibility that all prospective fathers-in-law rejected him, there are three main possibilities.

The Eschatological Reason. First, if you believe by faith that a just God controls the world but also know by experience that the world is violently unjust, you may live in hope and chant in prayer that God will overcome someday. You believe there will eventually be a utopia (from Greek, "not-this-place") or an eschaton (from Greek, "not-this-time") upon a transformed earth. Second, if you have a special revelation (in Greek, "apocalypse") from God about its timing, you may conclude it will happen sometime within your own generation's lifetime--maybe now, soon, tomorrow. Third, you may also decide to live as best you can, assuming the time is almost here. Indeed, you may believe that if you live as if the time is here, you may hasten its presence and even jumpstart its consummation.

We also know that a profound utopian theology was the basis for the lifestyle of the Essenes, who lived in Jesus' time. In order, as their Qumran Rule of the Community puts it, "to bring about truth, justice and uprightness on earth" the successful sect member enters God's Community by "the placing of his possessions in common." Judging by their Dead Sea Scrolls and their carefully buried skeletons, those Qumran Essenes were an all-male group living in communal celibacy, ritual purity, and eschatological holiness--living in a sense like angels, with heaven already touching earth.

Outside Qumran there were also married Essenes living with their children in "encampments" throughout Israel. We do not know for sure how far their common life extended or even how regularly they observed the Qumran-style common meal. But according to their rules in the Damacus Document, they assessed to the common purse "the salary of two days each month at least" for the orphan, the needy, the poor, the elderly, the beggar, the foreign prisoner, the unprotected girls, and the unmarried woman (Damascus Document 14:12-17). Both groups were trying as best they could, and in somewhat different circumstances, to live their future heaven on present earth.

The Qumran Essenes prove the existence of celibacy as one possible part of a utopian lifestyle in Jesus' contemporary Judaism. He himself announced not just the imminent possibility, but also the present actuality, of the Kingdom of God. God's utopian program was already started and all were invited to participate in it--now.

On the other hand, there is also a more pragmatic reason for such celibacy. As Paul told the Corinthians, it was both permissible to marry and preferable not to do so: "I wish that all were as I myself am ... to remain unmarried as I am ... those who marry will experience distress in this life, and I would spare you that ... the present form of this world is passing away .... I want you to be free from anxieties ... in view of the impending crisis, it is well for you to remain as you are .. who marries does well, who refrains from marriage does better" (1 Cor 7). None of that is particularly profound, but it is also another possible reason why a first-century apocalypticist might not get married.

The Ascetical Reason. People desire regular, adequate, and pleasant food; sexual, married, and fertile relationships; and mutual, friendly, and courteous conversation. But some women and some men in all the world's great religions have freely chosen abstention, celibacy, and silence.

Philo's treatise On the Contemplative Life describes female and male Therapeutics living an early-first-century life of communal asceticism near Lake Mareotis outside Alexandria. "No one of them may take any food or drink before the setting of the sun ... and some ... can endure ... for three days without even tasting it ... and some ... will scarcely at the end of six days taste even necessary food .... The possession of servants or slaves [they hold] to be a thing absolutely and wholly contrary to nature .... When each chorus of the men and each chorus of the women has celebrated separately by itself ... they join together, and the two become one chorus." The reason for this lifestyle is not an imminent end-of-the-world but "because of their anxious desire for an immortal and blessed existence, thinking that their mortal life had already come to an end, they leave their possessions to their sons and daughters ... to other relatives ... [or] to their companions or friends."

Having withdrawn from normal life, they are free to concentrate on "explanations of the sacred scriptures [that] are delivered by mystic expressions in allegories."

The Social Reason. Under Herod the Great, in the generation before Jesus, Romanization hit Judea with full force. In two of that world's biggest building projects, Herod constructed a great all-weather port for commercial products at Caesarea and added a vast courtyard for pagan pilgrims to Jerusalem's Temple. He also built Temples to Roma and Augustus, the twin deities of Rome's new world order, in the far north, the center, and the south of the country. But despite all that building activity, he never touched Lower Galilee. It was only under his son, Herod Antipas, in the generation of John the Baptist and Jesus, that Rome's economic boom hit that region. The rebuilding of Sepphoris in 4 BCE and the commercialization of its surrounding land led to the building of Tiberias in 19 CE and the commercialization of its surrounding lake. This meant that, by the 20s--during the time of Jesus' life--Antipas was ready to retry his earlier attempt to become King of the Jews.

None of that meant the impoverishment of Galilee--quite the reverse. It meant putting people to work in what amounted to early factories. But that meant a dislocation of peasant village life, and a loosening of the protective cocoons of extended families. If small family farms could no longer be sustained and were lost by foreclosure, family members were left to survive as best they could. Some must have done well in that cultural breakup, but others became dispossessed peasants looking for whatever work was available.

Think of those in the Parable of the Vineyard Workers who, at the height of the grape harvest, are still looking for work at 5 in the evening. Do you think they were all married? That is another reason why first-century Jewish males might not have a wife and children: poverty.

The Unmarried Jesus. Granted those three main options and granted that Jesus was unmarried, what is the likeliest reason? The first two options are out for a simple reason. Those who accused both John the Baptist and Jesus of being "weird" said they were so in opposite directions. John was an ascetic and therefore insane, they said.

But Jesus was neither of these things. Therefore, he was called a glutton and drunkard (Matt 11:18-19=Luke 7:33-34). That, of course, is simply nasty name-calling and need not be taken at face value. But even to work as name-calling, it must have been based on some kind of fact.

John was, and Jesus was not, an ascetic. It seems most likely, therefore, that Jesus wasn't married because he was a dispossessed peasant. As such, he could say to others like himself, "Blessed are the destitute." Some people say that, no, Jesus was a carpenter, a skilled member of the middle class. Mark 6:3 says Jesus was a "tekton," a Greek word better translated as "manual laborer" than "skilled carpenter."

Notice how Mark's first and most careful readers respond to that information. The writer of Matthew (who used Mark as a basis of his Gospel) calls Jesus "the carpenter's son." Luke (who also used Mark) omits any mention of occupation and simply call him "Joseph's son." They knew quite well it was not a compliment. It was what happened to a son dispossessed from his family farm and forced to find work as best he could. Under those circumstances, Jesus and many others like him would never have a chance to marry.

There remain, then these three--eschatology, asceticism, and injustice--but the likeliest of these is injustice.