Was Jesus Married? The Historical Evidence

   Posted by: Rob Bowman   in Biblical studies, Christology

In light of the so-called Jesus Wife Papyrus, it is worth revisiting the question of what historical evidence actually shows regarding the question of Jesus’ marital status. There are two questions here: Was Jesus married? More specifically, was he married to Mary Magdalene? Some people think so, but I will argue that this idea should be abandoned.

First, let’s assign the burden of proof. The burden of proof is on those who make the assertion that Jesus was married. Since the Bible doesn’t say he was married, and most Christians historically have thought he was not married, those who come along and assert that he was married have the responsibility to provide evidence for their claim. The burden of proof is not on me to prove beyond any possible doubt or loophole of reasoning that Jesus wasn’t married, or that he didn’t sire twelve children, or that he didn’t live in England between the ages of 13 and 29. The burden of proof is on those who make such assertions.

That having been said, a reasonably strong case can be made against the claim that Jesus was married. We will look at the most significant argument that have been made in support of Jesus being married and then present the arguments against this claim.

By far the most popular argument in support of the claim that Jesus was married is that as a Jewish man, and especially as a Jewish rabbi, he almost certainly would have been married. This argument errs in two ways. First, it reasons from a generalization (most Jewish men, and most Jewish rabbis, were married) to a specific historical conclusion (Jesus must have been married). Second, the evidence for the marital status of Jewish rabbis comes entirely from Jewish literature much later than the time of Jesus, well after the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 and the formalization of what we call rabbinic Judaism.

There are several lines of evidence that cumulatively weigh heavily in favor of the conclusion that in fact Jesus was not married.

1. There is no mention of Jesus being married in any of the four Gospels, despite the fact that they are written in the style of ancient Greco-Roman biographies (see Burridge’s book What Are the Gospels?), in which some mention of his wife would be expected. The Gospels mention Jesus’ mother, father, aunt, brothers, sisters, and other relatives, but never even so much as hint at a wife. The point is not that the Gospels’ silence about a wife, ipso facto, constitutes deductively certain proof that no wife exists; that would be a fallacious argument from silence. However, in the broader context of four sizable ancient biographies that do mention other family members, the lack of any reference to a wife creates a reasonable presumption that he was single. The Gospels, naturally enough, report what Jesus did, and generally do not make statements about what he did not do. To expect them to comment specifically on his lack of a wife if he was single would be strange indeed. Was Mark, for example, supposed to write, “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee, and he did not have a wife” (cf. Mark 1:9)? On the other hand, since it would be customary in an ancient biography to mention a wife if the subject of the biography had one, the lack of any mention of a wife for Jesus in any of the four Gospels (or any other ancient writing) is best understood as the result of the fact that he had no wife.

2. There is also no mention or evidence of Jesus being married in any of the apocryphal gospels, not even those that prominently feature Mary Magdalene (e.g., the second-century Gospel of Mary). The third-century Gospel of Philip says that Jesus used to kiss Mary (apparently on the mouth—the one manuscript of the book is torn at this point), but in context this does not refer to marital intimacy. We know this because according to Philip Christ’s kissing Mary prompted the question from his male disciples why Jesus loved her more than he loved them—an awfully strange question if he was simply kissing his wife. Since the apocryphal gospels often sought to fill in gaps in the information we have about Jesus in the canonical Gospels, it is surprising that no one mentioned Jesus being married if in fact this was the case. Again, silence is not a deductively certain proof, but the massive silence of all ancient literature about Jesus (Gospels, the rest of the NT, apocryphal literature, anti-Christian writings by Greeks and Romans, etc.) is a strong argument in favor of the presumption that he most likely was not married. The Jesus Wife Fragment, even if it turns out to be authentic (which at the moment is open to question), does not really negate this point because without some context its quotation of Jesus saying “My wife…” might mean anything, including a reference to the church.

3. Understanding Jesus’ mission and the way he viewed his relationships with other human beings strengthens the presumption that Jesus was single. Jesus did not come to start a family of his own physical offspring. Rather, he understood his mission as that of bringing other people into a spiritual family in which all believers were children of God (e.g., Matt. 5:9; 6:9; 7:11; 23:9) and related to one another as brothers and sisters (see especially Matt. 23:8). Even his own blood relatives had to understand that for Jesus, God was his Father and all of his followers were his “family.” This was the point of his famous saying, when he was told that his mother and his brothers and sisters were waiting to see him: “‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother’” (Mark 3:33-35). When Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene, he told her, “But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’” (John 20:17). The next statement is important: “Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples” (v. 18). She understood that Jesus’ “brothers” were his disciples—those who knew God as their “Father” through their relationship with Jesus. This is one of the most pervasive, well-attested aspects of the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels and a key to understanding the historical Jesus (see especially Joseph H. Hellerman, Jesus and the People of God: Reconfiguring Ethnic Identity). In the context of this mission, it simply would not have been appropriate for Jesus to have gotten married and had children.

4. The Book of Revelation refers to the church several times as Christ’s “wife” or “bride,” and never qualified these terms in a way one would expect if Jesus had a literal wife (Rev. 19:7; 21:2, 9; 22:17). That is, John does not say “spiritual wife” or “heavenly bride” or offer any similar qualification. This isn’t a strong proof by itself, but it adds another log to the fire.

5. The Synoptic Gospels tell us that Mary Magdalene was one of a group of women from Galilee who followed Jesus in his itinerant ministry to Jerusalem (Matt. 27:55-56; Mark 15:40-41; Luke 8:1-3; 23:49; 24:10). Jesus had healed them, and in return they were helping to support Jesus and the twelve apostles financially from their own monetary resources (Luke 8:1-3). This information does not square with the notion that Jesus and Mary were husband and wife (although I suppose polygamists might not think the group of women is a problem!).

6. According to the Gospel of John, when Mary Magdalene saw Jesus after his resurrection and recognized him, she cried out, “Rabboni!” (John 20:16; the word is actually spelled Rabbouni). Rabbouni is an Aramaic title meaning, as John himself explains, “teacher” (Greek, didaskalos); it is related to the word rabbi. In its only other occurrence in the Bible, rabbouni is a title used by a blind man when speaking to Jesus (Mark 10:51). Presumably, if they were married, Mary would not address her husband as “teacher”—especially when first seeing him risen from the dead! Granted that it is just barely possible that a woman might so address her resurrected husband, it is not at all likely.

The cumulative weight of the above six arguments warrants the conclusion that Jesus was not married. This is the best explanation, and the only probable explanation, for the evidence we have.

The best anyone can do when confronted with the evidence against the theory and the total lack of any evidence for it is to retreat to the claim that it is possible that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ wife. In other words, the claim is made that we have no absolute or compelling evidence proving beyond reasonable doubt that they were not married. Apparently we are expected to produce a tax return signed by Jesus of Nazareth with the filing status checked “single” in order to be justified in dismissing the claim that he was married. In the absence of any evidence that they were married, we should presume that they were not, just as we should presume that Jesus was not married to any of the other women mentioned in the Gospels. (Quick—can you prove that Jesus didn’t marry Susanna?) The alternative is to advocate a conspiracy theory in which the fact of Jesus’ marriage was somehow suppressed from all ancient literature, both pro-Christian and anti-Christian. There are conspiracy theorists who make just this claim; presumably, they would not be dissuaded from their view even if we did find a tax return with Jesus’ name on it and marked “single.”

The argument here commits the common logical fallacy known as the argument from ignorance. From the difficulty of providing knock-down, irresistible disproof for someone’s claim, it does not follow that the claim is worthy of belief. We cannot “disprove” (to the satisfaction of their proponents) any of the myriad conspiracy theories popular in our society today. If you want to believe that the U.S. military is secretly experimenting on aliens in Area 51, no amount of evidence against your belief can shake it. On the other hand, if you want to know what the best explanation is for the available facts, you are not going to hide behind the fallacious objection that a government conspiracy explains why elusive proof for the presence of extraterrestrials on earth is lacking.

In historical Jesus research, all sorts of claims get made for which there is no real evidence. Perhaps Jesus was an Essene. Perhaps Jesus spent his youth in Tibet studying reincarnation and meditation. Perhaps Jesus started a cult whose members got high on a hallucinogenic drug. I’m not making any of these up! These theories, each of which has been defended by at least one or more scholars, all deserve to be discarded as worthless speculations, even though I cannot produce any ancient literature categorically stating that Jesus was not an Essene, that he did not study Hinduism or Buddhism in Tibet, or that he was not the leader of a group of psychedelic druggies. The methodologically correct stance is to reject such speculations, both for lack of evidence and because they generally run counter in varying degrees with the information we do have about Jesus. Likewise, if you’re trying to follow the evidence wherever it leads, the reasonable conclusion is that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were not married.


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This entry was posted on Thursday, September 20th, 2012 at 6:55 pm and is filed under Biblical studies, Christology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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