In the face of this week's ignorant media hype about a new discovery, let’s set the record straight…
Any talk of Jesus being married always stirs needless controversy, so this week’s news out of Harvard--about an ancient text in which Jesus speaks of “my wife”--poses the kind of teachable moment that calls for some serious fact checking.
Fact #1: The belief that “Jesus never married” is not Catholic doctrine. It is true that generations of Christians have assumed that Jesus was single, and passed on that assumption as a kind of pious tradition, part of our popular image of Jesus, like long hair and a beard. But this popular belief is not in our creeds or our catechism; at most it is an informal, unofficial “teaching” commonly communicated to believers. But Catholics are not required to believe this, and they never have been.
Fact #2: Believing that Jesus was married is not heresy. The September 19 Boston Globe claimed that “The notion that Jesus may have been married” is “considered heretical by the Catholic Church.” This is just ignorant reporting. To be heresy an idea must contradict an “orthodox” doctrine. But since there is no official Catholic doctrine (one way or another) about Jesus’ marital status, then there is nothing to contradict. Hence heresy on this question is impossible. Claiming Jesus married does clash with the popular tradition I mentioned above, but disagreeing with popular tradition is not heresy.
Fact #3: The Roman Catholic Church DOES allow married men to be priests. That same Globe article claimed with similar ignorance that “These issues remain intensely relevant in Christianity today, particularly in the Roman Catholic Church, which allows only celibate men to be priests.” Not true!
Catholicism embraces five different “rites ” or worship styles, and four of the five (often refer to collectively as the “Eastern Rites”) ordain married man as priests. Only the “Latin Rite” requires celibacy of all candidates for the priesthood--and even that is changing, since former Anglican priests may now be accepted as Latin Rite priests even if they are married. The confusion is based on numbers: more than 90% of all Catholic priests belong to the Latin Rite, so celibate priests do outnumber married priests. But the Catholic Church allows both.
Fact #4: Priestly celibacy is not a doctrine. History rather than doctrine explains why Latin Rite priests must be celibate while Eastern Rite priests may marry in. Long ago all priests (except members of all-male religious communities) could be married, but in the 11th century a general rule of mandatory celibacy was adopted for Latin Rite priests. That rule was never adopted for the Eastern Rites. So the fact here is simple: priestly celibacy is just a rule; there were married priests before this rule was adopted, they are still married priests outside that rule’s jurisdiction, and there will be married priests again whenever the rule is dropped.
Fact #5: We do not actually know if Jesus was married or single. Our best source is the books of the New Testament, and these books are totally silent on the question. In fact, they’re totally silent about Jesus from the age of 12 to the beginning of his public life at about 30. We know virtually nothing of the adolescence and early adulthood of Jesus--the very period when his own culture would have expected him to marry. If, as a hypothetical argument, Jesus had been widowed in his mid-twenties, his married life would be invisible. It would have fallen into that huge gap in the gospel narratives--a gap that no other source can fill. The fact is, we just do not know.
Fact #6: We will probably never know. Harvard’s Karen King, who announced the new fragment, told reporters “It’s not saying we got the smoking gun that Jesus was married.” After all, just because one person writing long after the death of Jesus puts the words “my wife” in the mouth of Jesus does not mean we have discovered a new fact, or even that many others believed it to be so. And it certainly does not mean these were Jesus’ own words. It just means one person wrote it, true or not, for reasons we cannot know.
The fragment probably dates from the late fourth century, and may be based on a text from the mid-too-late second century--that is, more than a century after Jesus’ death. All of the New Testament books are closer to Jesus’ lifetime. There is nothing in the new discovery that can penetrate the silence of the New Testament. That silence is definitive, and I can think of no way anyone could penetrate that silence.
Fact #7: The old evidence trumps any new discoveries. All of the other ancient texts and alternative “gospels” that have fueled books like The DaVinci Code are also further from Jesus time than the authentic Biblical texts. Most of these alternative texts were specifically rejected as less than reliable during the process of forming the Christian Bible as we know it today.
We are often told history is written by the winners, and the simple fact is the winners are the texts that made it into the New Testament “canon,” which means literally the “yardstick” by which we measure the value of any text about Jesus. All the alternative texts were the losers, simply because they failed to measure up. As sources go, the New Testament trumps any other source we can realistically imagine
Fact #8: The New Testament evidence is not clear. What does the New Testament’s silence mean? Some argue it means Jesus was single, or his wife would have been mentioned along with his mother, father, and brothers. Others argue the silence means Jesus had been married, since his culture saw a celibate adult male as abnormal, and we would expect the Gospels to mention someone challenging him, and Jesus offering a response and defense.
Both arguments are logically coherent, but neither one has much evidence to support it.
In other words, the Gospels’ silence cannot really settle the question. We can speculate: what if, for example, Jesus were widowed before his public life began? His wife might not be mentioned simply because she was no longer present. But any such answer is just speculation. We know the texts are silent, but we cannot tell for sure what that silence means.
Fact #9: If Jesus was married, our core Christian beliefs remain unchanged. Nothing in our creeds, are catechisms or our theological principles about Jesus Christ is based on the premise of Jesus’ celibacy. If Jesus was married, then the popular devotion about his single state would be inaccurate--but nothing else would change. My Catholicism does not hang on this question, and yours should not either. For me, the question of Jesus’ marital status is nothing more than idle curiosity. It is not a deal breaker--or even a game-changer--for my faith. It clearly did not matter enough (one way or the other) to the authors of the Gospels, or to St. Paul, or to the other New Testament authors, to include any mention in their texts.
Fact #10: But it might change some attitudes. Clearly much of Christian history has been ambivalent or even negative about marriage and sexuality (see CrossCurrents #359). In the New Testament, St. Paul essentially regards marriage as a last resort so those who cannot hack celibacy do not fall into adultery. And the assumption of Jesus as life-long celibate has often fueled the double standard by which celibates are superior to married people. Many modern Christians would like to see that double standard fall, and see a golden opportunity in debunking the celibacy of Jesus. More broadly, people who disparage the place of sexuality in Christian history might love the opportunity, with the leverage of a new “revelation,” to reboot Christianity over again and get it right this time. Controversy over minor matters advances the cause and makes good newspaper copy--but such controversy does not fit the facts.
On this score, ironically, our Christian faith is rooted much more firmly in fact than most of the media coverage.© Bernard F. Swain PhD 2012