November 04, 2017

Was Jesus Married?

A Coptic Script

A very small fragment of papyrus has been verified as an authentic record of ancient Coptic belief. Scientists have extensively tested the papyrus as well as the ink used to inscribe the badly aged fragment. They have analyzed the handwriting and the grammar of the author. After careful review, it has been concluded the fragment dates back to at least the ninth to sixth century, and may date as far back as the fourth century.

Called by some the "Gospel of Jesus' Wife", the fragment contains eight mostly legible lines on the front and six barely readable lines on the back. Harvard Divinity School professor Karen L. King emphasized the fragment does not confirm that Jesus was married. Rather, it suggests early Egyptian Coptic Christians believed Jesus was married.

Written in the Coptic language, the text affirms that women who are mothers and wives can be Disciples of Christ. The words on the front of the fragment appear to record a conversation between Jesus and his disciples. The fourth line of the text says, "Jesus said to them, my wife." Line 5 says "... she will be able to be my disciple," while the line before the "wife" quote has Jesus saying "Mary is worthy of it" and line 7 says, “As for me, I dwell with her in order to ..."

Cultural Influences

In order to determine the probability of whether or not Jesus was ever married, we need to evaluate his activity within the cultural norms that would have influenced his life. This was a culture bound by long standing traditions and social rules. Peer pressure was a strong motivation for personal decisions, and none were stronger than those which guided personal attitudes about family, social behavior, and religion. We may be critical of the superstition and reliance on ancient law that governed social activity, but they were non-the-less the basis for personal behavior.

The Gospel of Mark, which was written more than 15 years after Christ’s crucifixion, does not mention his wife. Neither do the later Gospels of Matthew, Luke or John. Many have chosen to believe this omission proves Jesus was never married. We must remember, however, the four Gospels were written ~ 15 – ~ 80 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If the Gospels fail to mention any marriage, this omission does not necessarily prove Jesus was never married. The Gospels focus on Jesus the man and Jesus the son of God. They celebrate his birth, ministry, and resurrection.

With these thoughts in mind, let us examine the options.

Jesus Was Never Married: Possible

Gospel references to Jesus emphasize the spiritual importance of his birth, his special relationship with God, and his knowledge of Jewish (religious) law and history (even as a 13 year old boy). Jesus is a man (the son of God in human form) who has a direct access to God through prayer. He is on a mission to spread the wisdom of God’s message. It would be easy to envision a youth spent in study and contemplation, followed by a young man’s commitment to celibacy and spiritual growth until he is ready to begin his ministry. For many, this is the pure Jesus, untouched by the rigors of manhood or the sins of sex.

But if we are honest about Jesus the man, particularly at the time he commits himself to a ministry he knows will result in his death, then this scenario fails to explain how he acquired his intense charisma and passion. He didn’t stumble around in a spiritual fog for 18 years (from age 13 to 31). Here was a man with spiritual credibility, intellectual focus, and strong emotional conviction. Jesus was a man on a mission whose charisma and warmth captivated those who knew him.

So; how and why did Jesus develop his passion and counter-culture theology?

Marriage as a Young Man: Likely

Unlike almost all of the other spiritual teachers, Jesus went out of his way to include women in his group of followers. Joanna, Susanna, Mary and Martha of Bethany, Mary Magdalene, Mary his mother, Mary Salome, and others are mentioned in the New Testament. Treating women as equals contradicted the wisdom of the prevailing culture, and on occasion was the source of some irritation among his male disciples. But where and how did Jesus learn to respect women as equals in the eyes of man and God? For that answer we must construct a likely scenario of his life as a young man.

Within ancient Jewish culture it was believed a man could achieve immortality through his children. His status in the afterlife was closely linked to the number of living descendants. Hence, it was important to have as many children as possible and to encourage them to raise families of their own. Sexual deviation was frowned upon for the simple reason it produced no children.

In this culture, during this period of time, boys were usually married by the time they were 16. There is no reason to believe Jesus would have been an exception. Biblical revelation celebrates sexual intimacy in marriage. Marriage was expected, even among religious teachers. Jesus would have been under incredible peer pressure to marry and raise a family.

Marriage to Mary Magdalene: Unlikely

There is a popular belief that Jesus met and married Mary Magdalene during his ministry. It is true he developed a very close relationship with her. Jesus met Mary of Magdala during a trip to Caesarea. Wealthy in her own right, she was attracted to Jesus because of his intense charisma, quiet grace, wonderful knowledge of the spiritual, and compassion for everyone he met. She was included within his inner circle of disciples in an age when women were seldom allowed to be students or disciples of a spiritual teacher. Mary was a courageous woman who accompanied Jesus throughout his later ministry; impressed Jesus with her spiritual insight; helped Jesus financially; was faithful even when the other disciples were afraid to support Jesus at his trial; was the first person to see him after his resurrection; and was the first to announce to all who would listen that Jesus had arisen. The fourth-century theologian Augustine called her the "Apostle to the Apostles", in recognition of her role in the life of Jesus.

But the idea that Mary Magdalene was his wife fails for at least eight reasons:

First: It was the custom of the time to refer to married women as being the wife of their husbands. If Mary had married Jesus, the Gospels would refer to her as “Mary, the wife of Jesus”. But this association has never been made in any of the texts.

Second: In one of the most emotional moments in the story of the resurrection, a grief-stricken and weeping Mary Magdalene is desperately looking for the body of Jesus. He calls out to her: “Mary”. Turning, she sees him for the first time and calls out “Rabbuni” (translated as teacher or master). She calls him by the same name used by the other disciples. If Mary had an intimate relationship with Jesus, it is likely she would have used a term of marital endearment. But she does not, indicating their relationship was one of disciple and teacher.

Third: Before he started his ministry at age 31, it would appear Jesus decided to adopt the discipline of celibacy. There is a remarkable resemblance between Christian doctrine and the Essene system of beliefs. The Essenes considered celibacy to be praiseworthy behavior of any man who wanted to be close to God. Jesus was influenced by these beliefs as he was forming the theology for his ministry. Indeed, his forty days in the wilderness may have been as a guest of the Essenes near the Dead Sea. The adoption of celibacy allowed Jesus to focus all his energy and intellect on his mission.

Fourth: Jesus was a very intelligent man. He must have known his ministry would not provide the time or environment for a successful family life. In addition, Jesus would have certainly understood his counter-culture theology would lead to a confrontation with contemporary religious and political leaders; a conflict that he was sure to lose. With no dependent family and a vow of celibacy, Jesus was free to concentrate on his mission.

Fifth: Mary Magdalene’s position within the group that followed Jesus was of a devoted and worthy disciple. She appears to have been sufficiently independent financially to help fund the ministry of her teacher. The Gospels respect her intelligence as a disciple and the importance of her witness to the trial, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That a woman could be the primary witness to these events was a radical idea, and confirms her independence as a disciple.

Sixth: Jesus treated the members of his inner circle with respect. He embraced men and women as equals. He refused to reduce the importance of a woman based on her sexuality. His love for women, and their love for him, was a primary driving force for the eventual success of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. Hence women, including Mary Magdalene, surrounded him whenever he took his ministry into the countryside. They were disciples and observers, not familiar partners.

Seventh: Jesus had enemies who were looking for every chance to criticize his beliefs and activities. Nowhere do we find an accusation of sexual misconduct in his relationship with any woman. If Jesus had married Mary Magdalene, they would have found a way to find fault with his choice of a partner.

Eighth: If we accept he had been married as a young man, it is likely Jesus would have refrained from a second marriage out of respect and love from the woman who had been his marriage companion.

And a final thought. Mary Magdalene became a trusted and influential apostle within the growing Christian movement. Who was this woman whose maturity and character encouraged belief and commitment? Was she actually an older woman, perhaps recently widowed, who was seeking spiritual consolation when she met the charismatic and sympathetic Jesus? Did they connect because he understood her grief? Did she find transcendent comfort and inspiration (as so many have done) in a loving association with Jesus Christ?

From the Gospel of John:
It was very early on the first day of the week and still dark, when Mary of Magdala came to the tomb. She saw that the stone had been moved away from the tomb and came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved. “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb,” she said, “and we don’t know where they have put him.”

Peter and the others rush to the tomb to see for themselves, and then leave. Standing alone outside the tomb, still weeping, Mary Magdalene once again peers cautiously into the tomb.

“Then, still weeping, she stooped to look inside, and saw two angels in white sitting where the body of Jesus had been, one at the head, the other at the feet. They said, “Woman, why are you weeping?” “They have taken my Lord away,” she replied, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” As she said this she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, though she did not recognize him. Jesus said, “Woman, why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have taken him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will go and remove him.” Jesus said, “Mary!” She knew him then and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbuni!”—which means Master. Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, because I have not yet ascended Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” So Mary of Magdala went and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord and that he had said these things to her.”

What Would God Want?

And of course, we must consider – what would God want?

1. God would want Jesus to be thoroughly familiar with Jewish law and religious customs. Jesus would need this knowledge if he was to defend his theology against the challenges of his critics and effectively bring God’s message to those who followed him. Both Mary and Joseph heeded God’s counsel by making sure Jesus was well versed in contemporary Jewish beliefs. By age 13, he understood the law well enough to engage in a discussion of considerable depth with temple priests in Jerusalem. This episode also reveals an independent and remarkably mature Jesus.

2. God would want Jesus to be passionate about his mission. In addition to having an intellectual understanding of theology and the law, Jesus must also have the innate ability to deliver a powerful message. If he is to minister with a voice that resonates with his contemporaries, then Jesus must live the compassion of love and experience the suffering of hatred. The obvious solution: Jesus would live and experience human life with all its joys, sorrows, triumphs, and tragedies. Jesus would acquire his credibility, and his passion, by taking his place among the men of his community. His life, and his life style, would be influenced by the cultural norms of his community.

If God is compassionate and loving, would he not want Jesus to be the same? Would he want Jesus to experience human life with all its joys, sorrows, challenges, and triumphs? One can acquire an intellectual understanding of theology through study, but in order to value the deeply emotional significance of theological concepts one must live them. This experience would round out Jesus the man and Jesus the teacher. After all, how can one teach about life if one has not experienced it?


Following cultural norms, it is likely Jesus was married by the age of 16. Mary and Joseph would have known the girl’s parents. Perhaps they participated in the selection of a suitable companion. In any event, it was perfectly natural for Jesus to be married according to the customs of his community. But it is unlikely Jesus and his wife produced any progeny. If they had done so, the men who wrote the gospels would have mentioned them by name because children were a mark of a man’s wealth. Instead, this young couple would have been subjected to intense social pressure and belittlement when their marriage produced no progeny. One can guess Jesus drew ever closer to his beloved wife as the years went by. They both longed to have children. But they did not. Was it from this experience that Jesus developed his very strong sense of compassion for women and his love for children? Does that not seem logical?

Why Isn’t She Mentioned in the New Testament?

Since there were no children, the marriage was not important. Any revelation about a marriage would have been seen as a distraction to the main purpose of the male centric Gospels. In order for Jesus to be a symbol of spiritual purity, and the son of God, earthly details about his life must be discarded. Within this cultural environment, there is nothing unusual about Matthew’s description of Jesus, or the details of how he started his ministry. Matthew clearly wants to prove that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah and does so by giving us a striking image of Jesus in vivid detail.

But if Jesus was married, then what happened to her? Did she pass away from disease or accident? Possible; these were tough times. That would certainly explain the passion with which Jesus launched his ministry. The loss of his beloved wife after a marriage that produced no children would have been emotionally devastating. It could have been the event that sparked his search for spiritual union with God.

On the other hand, is it possible she is “the disciple whom Jesus loved?” mentioned six times in John? Tradition says this disciple was male and the reference may have been to John himself. But the references appear confused. Could it have been his wife? Of all the Gospels, does John (or whoever wrote the Gospel of John) have the best understanding of Jesus the man and the meaning of his message?

Many questions: we can only contemplate possible answers.

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