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Was Jesus married?

14 September 2023

Nowadays, when asked if Jesus was married, you are likely to get two kinds of answers: either an emphatic "Of course not!", or a response along the lines of: "Wasn't he married to Mary Magdalene?". My own answer is: Very probably Jesus was not married. I will explain on what considerations my judgement is based, but first I want to dwell on two other views that regularly surface: Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. Or: As a Jewish man, Jesus was obviously married at a young age, but we do not know his wife's name.

Professor of New Testament

Was Jesus married to Mary Magdalene?

The idea that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and fathered one or more children with her has become very popular in recent decades. Dan Brown's bestseller The Da Vinci Code (2003) in particular has ensured this. But this book had predecessors, preparing the wide social acceptance of this idea, for example Nikos Kasantzakis' novel The last temptation of Christ (1953), the Canadian film based on it (1988) and the pseudo-scientific study The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail by H. Lincoln / M. Baigent and R. Leigh (1982). Numerous studies have since shown that these stories should be considered fiction. Those wishing to delve into them will find references at the bottom of this piece to publications that leave no detailed question unanswered. For example, it has long been shown that the supposedly medieval sources about a "Priory of Zion", which Dan Brown claims provided protection for Christ's descendants, are 20th-century forgeries.

Ancient evidence?

Did the idea that Christ had a sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene occur even in ancient times? That is a difficult question. A papyrus fragment claimed to be very ancient was published in 2012. It was given the suggestive title "Gospel of Jesus' Wife".'_Wife.jpg

The text is written in Coptic, a language of ancient Egypt. In the text, the expressions "my mother" and "my wife" appear in Jesus' mouth. Unfortunately, this fragment is very small (about 8 cm x 3.5 cm) and not a single phrase has been completely preserved. Thus, the context in which these expressions appear is completely obscure. Also, the authenticity of the fragment is under heavy fire. In 2014 research evidence eventually suggested it was most likely a forgery.

Some claim that fourth-century Gnostic texts also show that Jesus had a relationship with Mary Magdalene. These texts are found in Coptic codices found in Nag Hammadi (Egypt) around 1945. They are difficult to interpret. One of them, the so-called gospel of Philip, is quite well preserved. Dan Brown based his account of the relationship of Jesus and Mary Magdalene on this gospel. But did he do any good in doing so? Clearly, this gospel belongs to a later Gnostic movement far removed from the historical Jesus and his disciples. Mary Magdalene is presented in it as the heavenly counterpart of Christ. Indeed, in heaven, according to Gnostic beliefs, all heavenly beings occur in pairs (called syzygies). What can you infer from this? That this gnostic movement saw Mary Magdalene as Jesus' sexual partner during the time they still resided on earth? Perhaps this movement saw it that way. But anyway, it is perfectly clear that these are later interpretations of the gospels in the New Testament. And those gospels are much closer to the historical person Jesus than the gospel of Philip. There is therefore no justification for assuming that the gospel of Philip reflects historical facts.

Married like everyone else?

There are almost no serious scholars to support the story that Jesus had an intimate relationship with Mary Magdalene. But you do find another consideration among some authoritative Bible interpreters, which is not so easily refuted. They point out that Judaism at the time of Jesus derived from the creation story a binding commandment to procreate (see especially Genesis 1:28). Marrying and procreating was thus seen as a duty. On top of that, entering into a marriage would not have been an individual decision of a man and a woman, but something arranged by the two families in which the two protagonists had little input. The bride and bridegroom were usually very young: the girl was usually between 12 and 16, the young man between 16 and 20. So wouldn't Jesus - like everyone else at the time - have been married off by his family at a young age? The fact that we hear nothing further about his wife in the oldest sources might then lead to speculation: Did she perhaps die young?

Sex is part of life

Another argument is made from yet another angle. It ties in with the theological conviction that Jesus was "truly human and truly God". Shouldn't he then have experienced everything that comes with being human? Wouldn't that also mean he had a sex life? There is nothing wrong with that, is there?

It is a logical argument. To segue to a related topic for a moment: Martin Luther seems to have said during one of his table talks that Jesus occasionally used the services of a prostitute. His reasoning was: Jesus was not married, but fully male, so he had to seek his comfort elsewhere. It is true that Jesus dealt with prostitutes. But there is no evidence that he had sex with them. We simply do not know about Jesus' sexual development and how he behaved as a man. Luther's statement mainly says something about Martin Luther's own view of men: they cannot do without sex.

That Jesus as the Son of God could not have been married and never had sex is not a convincing thought. Sexual lusts are not sinful in the Bible. They are simply part of life. But beyond that, we know nothing. Was Jesus actively heterosexual or did he live homosexually or did he consciously choose a celibate life? It is all possible. But the latter possibility has the best papers.

Not married 'for the sake of the kingdom of heaven'?

Reading the four New Testament gospels, one gets the impression that Jesus was not married and had no sex life. A wife or mistress of Jesus does not appear anywhere in these oldest historical sources. Since the first centuries of Christianity, therefore, the prevailing view was that Jesus was unmarried and lived without sex.

One does wonder how this can be reconciled with Jesus' belief that God wants a man and a woman to leave their parents to go through life together (see Mark 10:1-12).

In Matthew's Gospel, we find a passage that may shed some light on the matter. There, Jesus talks about eunuchs, men who do not have a sex life. He told his disciples, "For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 19:12, NIV)

Here, Jesus defends the choice to remain unmarried for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He seems to be talking about people who had a priority other than getting married and starting a family, namely proclaiming the joyful message of God. It is obvious that Jesus was also talking about himself in this regard. He had probably chosen celibacy himself.

If Jesus was indeed unmarried, his contemporaries would have likely called him to account. After all, it was customary to marry. Yet Jesus was certainly not the only one who chose a life without marriage. The Jewish authors Philo and Josephus describe celibate movements within first-century Judaism. John the Baptist and the apostle Paul also seem to have been unmarried, at least during the period when they performed in public. Abstinence associated with a religious vocation is something that occurs in almost all religions and all times.

Conclusion: probably not married

All in all, it is most likely that Jesus deliberately remained unmarried during the period of his public appearance because he wanted to devote himself fully to proclaiming the kingdom of God. It cannot be ruled out that he was married at a young age, but there is no clear evidence of this in the earliest sources. Perhaps Jesus was one of the exceptions to the rule of marrying at a young age.

Of course, you must possess a strong personality if you follow through on your vision and decide to deviate from a dominant cultural pattern. But considering Jesus' later prophetic career, it seems likely he could also make his own decisions at a young age.

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