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Was Jesus Christ Married?

This Article appeared on the The ObserverUK News Website 28 March 1971.

Obsever news

Was Jesus married?

The following article appeared in The Observer on 28 March 1971. Written by Charles Davis, the headline asked 'Was Jesus Married?'. The author had been Britain's leading Roman Catholic theologian before leaving the priesthood and the Church in 1966, and marrying the following year. At the time of writing this article, he was Professor of Religion at Sir George WIlliams University, Montreal

Sunday March 5, 2006 - The Observer

A married Jesus? Not an unmarried virgin, but a married man as the incarnate Son of God for Christians.

Why not? Does the immediate reaction of many Christians against the idea come simply from a conviction that it is historically untrue, that in fact Jesus was a celibate? Hardly. The reaction is too strong to spring from a mere concern with history. In any case, as we shall see, the historical evidence is, to say the least, indecisive. Well, are there sound reasons of doctrine for a celibate Jesus? There is certainly a tradition to that effect, but whether it is sound is another question. However, it is difficult to see that any inherent incompatibility between marriage and divine son-ship excludes a married Jesus.

Scholars have usually been shy of raising the question of the marriage of Jesus. However, a recent author, William E. Phipps, has dared to tackle it - in Was Jesus Married? (New York, Harper & Row). He does so in a serious fashion, assembling and arguing from the data and taking account of the views of other writers on the relevant points. Unfortunately, the author's strong personal views are so clearly present and operative from the outset that the book at times reads more like a lawyer's brief than a scholarly investigation. Moreover, his views on sex are simply an uncritical acceptance of the modern concern with sexual health and fulfillment, and so his outlook is too naive and one-sided to appreciate the celibate ideal. On the other hand, I do not find any notable omission or serious mishandling of the evidence.

What, then, are the reasons for and against the present view that Jesus was unmarried?

The first reason for thinking that he was unmarried is that we can find no reference to his marriage in the Gospels, and no mention there of any wife or children. But this is not a very strong reason. As modern scholarship has made abundantly clear, the Gospels are not biographies but writings with a doctrinal purpose, gathering together material used in the religious life of the Church. They omit many facts about Jesus which we should like to know and which a modern biographer would have included without hesitation. We cannot even determine the length and sequence of his ministry with certainty. Only the inclusion of Peter's mother-in-law in a miracle story informs us that the chief disciple of Jesus was married. The mere silence of the gospels leaves the question open.

The wife of Jesus might have died before his ministry, so that he began his public life as a widower. His wife might have remained in Nazareth, possibly hostile to her husband's mission and preaching. The Gospels report such hostility on the part of Jesus's brothers and the inhabitants of Nazareth. The recently discovered 'Gospel of Philip', a second-century work, which some scholars think can be used as an independent historical witness, gives Mary Magdalene as the wife of Jesus. Perhaps Jesus, like the prophet Hosea, had to endure an unfaithful wife and draw her back by the constancy of his own love.

As for children, the marriage might well have been childless. Or the children may have remained unbelievers and never become disciples. In that case, having no part of place in the Christian Church, they would not have been mentioned in the gospels or Christian literature. All this is playing with hypotheses, but I am merely showing that the silence of the Gospels on Jesus's marriage does not prove his celibacy.

Like mother, like son. Another argument used for Jesus's remaining celibate is that he was born of a virgin mother. Mary his mother, so the gospels tell us, conceived him of the Holy Spirit, while still a virgin. But can we take the virgin birth of Jesus as historical fact? That is a very controverted question. Certainly, a very large number of bibilical scholars today hold that the virgin birth was not part of the earliest New Testament teaching but was added to the original message at a later stage. Moreover, in a Jewish context the intervention of God in the conception and birth of a prophet or king was not understood as eliminating the role of the human father. God acted in and through the normal process of generation. The idea of conception and birth of a woman by the power of god, without a human father was foreign to Jewish culture, but was common in the pagan Hellenistic culture of the Mediterranean world into which primitive Christianity spread.

The doctrine of the virgin birth was therefore a later adaptation to a Hellenistic mentality of the original Christian conviction that God was present in a special way in the conception and birth of Jesus. The original conviction did not exclude sexual activity as the human means by which Jesus came into this world.

Even more questionable is the doctrine that Mary remained perpetually a virgin after the birth of Jesus. There is no good reason for not taking the Gospel references to the brothers and sisters of Jesus in their obvious meaning.

Nothing, then, in the family background of Jesus made celibacy his unmistakable calling. What about his own teaching? Does he present celibacy as the higher ideal? The only text that comes near to providing an argument that he did is this one in the Gospel of Matthew: 'For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it.' (19:12).

Who are the eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven? The third-century writer, Origen, one of the greatest of Christian theologians, took the phrase literally and castrated himself. That was too crude a misinterpretation even for conservative Christian tradition, including Origen himself later. The dominant interpretation from the third century to the present day understands eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven as virgins and celibates who have voluntarily renounced marriage in order to devote themselves es exclusively to the kingdom of heaven. Jesus would thus have advocated voluntary celibacy as a privileged way of life.

But did he? Despite its long dominance in Christian tradition, the identification of eunuchs for the kingdom with voluntary celibates is open to dispute. The context suggests another meaning. The saying about eunuchs is Jesus's reply to the astonished protest of the disciples at his rejection of divorce as a regular solution for marital problems.

This is the sequence. Jesus presents the ideal of an indissoluble union as corresponding to the original meaning of marriage. The disciples protest: 'If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is not expedient to marry.' Jesus retorts with the verse on eunuchs. What he is saying in effect is: 'Yes, it is most difficult. Such fidelity to a partner in marriage may reduce a man to a state equivalent to that of a eunuch. But this condition will be for the sake of the kingdom and possible to those who can receive it with faith.' As the Catholic scholar, Dupont, argues, the saying in its context is more naturally taken as referring to the acceptance of the possible consequences of an indissoluble marriage, not to the renunciation of marriage by voluntary celibacy.

We ar left without any indisputable evidence that Jesus ever put forward voluntary celibacy as an ideal. That he did not do so would fit in with the remark of Paul in writing to the Corinthians: 'Now concerning the unmarried, I have no command of the Lord' (I Cor.7:25).

So, the arguments used to prove that Jesus was a celibate are unconvincing. Is there any evidence that he was married? No direct evidence, but there are reasons to support the supposition that he was.

The strongest argument in favour of his being married is the attitude to marriage in the Jewish culture to which he belonged. In that culture marriage was not merely honoured but considered a sacred duty. The voluntary renunciation of marriage was a conception quite foreign to Judaism. Even in such heterodox, ascetic groups as the Essenes or Qumran community, sexual abstinence was partial and did not exclude marriage before joining or in the early stage of membership. As for ordinary Judaism, the father of a family considered it an important part of his parental role to arrange a suitable marriage for his sons and daughters at a comparatively early age.

Granted the cultural background as witnessed in the relevant documents, it is highly improbable that Jesus was not married well before the beginning of his public ministry. Or put it this way: if he had insisted upon celibacy, it would have created a stir, a reaction which would have left some trace. So, the lack of mention of Jesus's marriage in the Gospels is a strong argument not against but for the hypothesis of marriage, because any practice or advocacy of voluntary celibacy would in the Jewish context of the time have been so unusual as to have attracted much attention and comment.

That is the chief argument, but other more general considerations support it. The truth that Jesus was fully a man is not denied by whose who hold that he remained unmarried, though the frequent reluctance to associate sexuality with Jesus is inconsistent with that belief in his full humanity. However, what is to the point here is not just a theoretical belief in his full manhood, but the mode of behaviour he adopted. The closeness and freedom of his association with women, his attitude towards them, as described in the gospels, is quite unlike that of religious celibates in other religions and in later Christianity itself. It bears no trace of any insistence upon sexual abstinence as an ideal. Further, as I have already shown, there is no solid evidence that Jesus regarded marriage as a less perfect state or taught celibacy as an ideal.

Some who find no sexual asceticism in the teaching of Jesus blame Saint Paul for the negative attitude to sex among Christians. This would seem to be a mistaken interpretation, unfair to Paul. His teaching, too complex for full presentation here, offers no grounds for any depreciation of marriage, which he defends and extols. He himself was probably not a celibate but a widower. That is the better translation of the reference to his unmarried state. Paul does indeed recommend celibacy to the unmarried, but not because sexual activity is in any way imperfect or unholy. His recommendation that the unmarried remain in their celibate state springs from his conviction that the end of the world and its final transformation into a state of glory is close at hand. Therefore, it would be better to remain as free as possible from dealings with this world so soon to pass away. The married man is inevitably involved in the affairs of this world.

Paul's advocacy of celibacy was thus tied to an intense form of expectation of the final kingdom, a form which did not last. When sexual asceticism spread among Christians in the second and third centuries, it differed in origin and spirit from Paul's counsel of celibacy. Paul should not be blamed for what happened.

Historically speaking, the lavish praise of permanent virginity and the placing of the celibate state above the married state was the result of pagan influences. The pagan culture of the time put a high value upon sexual abstinence. It did so because of a dualism which opposed body and spirit to each other. Christians began to interpret biblical teachings under the influence of pagan dualism. Two different ideas were confused, namely the biblical idea of man's sinfulness and the pagan idea that the body was evil.

The Christian writers of the first centuries who established the ideal of celibacy, which was to remain firm among Christians to this day, spoke disparagingly of marriage and clearly regarded sex as a low form of activity to be avoided if possibly by anyone with spiritual aspirations. augustine, for example, never fully overcame the influence of his past as a Manichee, when he had held that all matter was evil. For him it was a disorder due to sin that men were unable freely to control the movement of their sexual organ.

Have Christians, then, distorted sexuality? The subtitle of Mr Phipps's book is 'The distortion of Sexuality in the Christian Tradition.' The answer in one sense is undoubtedly yes. A large collection can be made of anti-sex statements running throughout Christian tradition. Until very recently, marriage was depreciated and viewed as a concession to second rate souls. Modern psychology has made people increasingly aware of the guilt-ridden attitudes fostered by much Christian education and the obstacles created to a normal sexual development. The case against Christians in regard to sex is a strong one.

All the same, I find a lack of balance in writers like Phipps who want to dismiss the Christian tradition of celibacy as entirely mistaken. There is another side to the story.

Take first the history of the celibate ideal. Writers like Phipps have shown clearly enough the prevalence of that ideal in the Hellenistic culture into which Christianity had to spread from its cradle in Palestine. They are unjust, however, in assessing the relation between Christians and the pagan culture surrounding them. Surely it is inhumanlyunrealistic to suppose that the Christian faith could on its arrival entirely abolish and replace the current attitudes to marriage, celibacy and sexuality. What was done was to modify and transform the pagan ideals, so as to harmonise them with the Christian message.

Admittedly, the attempt was not entirely successful. There was confusion and loss in assimilating what seemed good in the pagan outlook. But although the pagan dualism with its negative attitude to the body was never entirely overcome, it was held at bay. Orthodox Christian tradition never condemned marriage or sexuality and never excluded married people from holiness, despite the disparaging remarks of many Christian writers. The Christian tradition on sexuality should be judged against the background of the errors with which it had to struggle. It might then emerge that the influence of the Christian faith itself worked against many obstacles for a positive attitude towards sexuality. But more than this: I think it should be said that in the interaction between Hellenistic culture and Christian faith an authentic ideal of celibacy was gradually created.

There is a suffocating narrowness in the assumption of Phipps that the only acceptable life-style is a hearty exercise of sexuality in the context of family life. The demand that all in the name of a healthy sexuality should conform to the Jewish cultural outlook is intolerant. Human life is a complexity of many elements, and there are various ways of achieving an integration of human existence. Many different life-styles are possible. Not every element in human personality and not every faculty in human nature must be developed and exercised in the same way by every single individual. Hence in the human community people live in different ways and thus manifest different features of the totality of human existence. The fullness of humanity cannot be found in an individual but only in the human community as a whole.

From that point of view, voluntary celibacy, it seems to me, has undoubted right to exist as a particular religious life-style. One need not in any way denigrate sex in order to acknowledge sexual abstinence as a particular mode of response to the transcendent dimension of reality - in Christian terms, to God. Celibacy is one way of expressing the intensity of the sense of the Ultimate, the contrasting transiency of this world and its affairs; it is also a means of expressing and facilitating a total availability to those in need and of sharing their privations.

Voluntary celibacy is not confined as a religious ideal to Christianity. It is found in other religions, such as Buddhism. Sexual abstinence has too large a place in the religious history of mankind to be excluded as a possible life-style by a demand to conform to the religious pursuit of health and balanced sensuality now so widespread in the Western World.

However attractive to upset and disordered modern man, a straightforward ideal of a rounded fulfilment of all man's bodily and spiritual faculties is inadequate to the complexities of human existence. Granted that the ideal of celibacy needs careful purifying of any implied contempt of marriage and sexual activity - which is another life-style capable in its own way of being a bearer of religious meaning - it is a valid form of response to the divine.

To return to the question of Jesus's marriage. Was he married or unmarried? There is no compelling evidence either way. The historical probabilities favour marriage rather than celibacy. But we can associate Jesus exclusively with neither marriage nor celibacy. If he was married, his marriage was a particular fact about him in his cultural context: no evidence makes it an essential feature of his personal religion. On the other hand, if he was celibate, he evidently did not make his celibacy an essential part of his religious message. His teaching honours marriage, but does not exclude celibacy.

In brief, Christianity allows both marriage and celibacy as religious life-styles. If it was a mistake to exalt celibacy at the expense of marriage, it is likewise a mistake to exclude the celibate ideal in the name of marriage.

Original News Article Here: http://observer.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story

Original News Article reproduced below.

Rebel theologian surfaces at heart of Da Vinci case.
1971 Observer article was one of the first to suggest Jesus married and had children

David Smith
Sunday March 5, 2006

King Pepin, King Dagobert and the Knights Templar were hot topics at the High Court last week. Early Christian history was under the microscope as the multi-millionaire author Dan Brown flew in to defend his global bestseller The Da Vinci Code against charges of plagiarism.

Facing him in a packed Court 61 were two British-based authors, Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, who claimed that Brown cannibalised his central theme from their earlier book - namely that Jesus did not die on the cross, but married Mary Magdalene and had a child by her, whose descendants live on in France.

Brown's thriller, which has sold more than 40 million copies, is at stake. So too is the Hollywood film adaptation starring Tom Hanks. Some even fear that literature itself would be irreparably damaged by a precedent that prevents writers from basing their work on historical sources.

Such was the weight on the shoulders of John Baldwin QC, defending Brown and Random House. So having heard the claimants' case - that Brown looted 15 core ideas from Baigent and Leigh's 1982 work The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail - he attempted to turn the tables. Was it possible that Baigent and Leigh's own ideas were not in fact original, but culled from sources already in the public domain? One such source, he asserted, was the Bible itself. Another - old but not quite that old - was The Observer

Baldwin told the court the theory that Jesus was married had first been aired in an article in this newspaper in 1971. He added: 'We say the claim relies on and seeks to monopolise ideas at such a high level of generality they are not protected by copyright.'

The article cited appeared on the front of The Observer's Review section 35 years ago, under the headline: 'Charles Davis asks: Was Jesus Married?' Davis had been Britain's leading Roman Catholic theologian, who left the priesthood and church in 1966 and married the following year. By 1971 he was professor of religion at Sir George Williams University in Montreal, and ready to break another taboo.

He began the full-page article: 'A married Jesus? Not an unmarried virgin, but a married man as the incarnate Son of God for Christians. Why not? Does the immediate reaction of many Christians against the idea come simply from a conviction that it is historically untrue, that in fact Jesus was a celibate? Hardly. The reaction is too strong to spring from a mere concern with history. In any case, as we shall see, the evidence is, to say the least, indecisive.'

Davis admitted that there was no reference to Jesus's marriage in the Gospels, but noted that the Gospels were not biographies but writings with a doctrinal purpose, omitting many other facts about Jesus that a modern biographer craves. He then offered some speculations. 'The wife of Jesus might have died before his ministry, so that he began his public life as a widower. His wife might have remained in Nazareth, possibly hostile to her husband's mission and preaching. The Gospels report such hostility on the part of Jesus's brothers and the inhabitants of Nazareth.'

Davis's next idea is remarkable in its anticipation of The Da Vinci Code: 'The recently discovered Gospel of Philip, a 2nd-century work, which some scholars think can be used as an independent historical witness, gives Mary Magdalene as the wife of Jesus.'

He continued: 'Perhaps Jesus, like the prophet Hosea, had to endure an unfaithful wife and draw her back by the constancy of his own love. As for children, the marriage might well have been childless. Or the children may have remained unbelievers and never become disciples. In that case, having no part or place in the Christian Church, they would not have been mentioned in the Gospels or Christian literature.

'All this is playing with hypotheses, but I am merely showing that the silence of the Gospels on Jesus's marriage does not prove his celibacy.'

Davis also challenged the notion that Jesus would have advocated celibacy as a privileged way of life, and discussed Christian attitudes towards sexuality. 'To return to the question of Jesus's marriage. Was he married or unmarried? There is no compelling evidence either way. The historical probabilities favour marriage rather than celibacy.'

Davis published a series of books exploring Christianity in the modern world. He died, aged 76, in Edinburgh in 1999, surrounded by his wife and children. It seems safe to assume he never imagined how the Royal Courts of Justice - where the case continues to be heard - would one day echo with his speculations.

 

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