Chapter One: Background, legend, supposition and belief
No one will ever know for certain whether or not Jesus of Nazareth was married. Even if an intrepid archaeologist were to discover an ancient jar containing a wedding contract between Yeshua son of Joseph of Nazareth and his wife, Tamar (or Sarah, or Rebekah or Leah or Rachel), it would only become a hotly-contested issue as to whether or not it was that Jesus of Nazareth.
The assumption that he was not married has been implicit in Christian belief for many centuries. The idea of Jesus as the only Son of God, born to a virgin mother, sits uncomfortably with the notion that he could have had sex, sons and daughters. After all, if he were divine, wouldn’t his children be considered to be so also?
However, there is no biblical evidence anywhere that he was unmarried. Certainly, there is no mention of a wife in the Bible or in any historical texts, but that proves nothing. Most of the women of those times are invisible in historical documentation. We only know that the disciple Simon Peter had a wife because Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law (Matthew 8:14); the Gospels do not mention the wives of any the disciples. That is no reason to suppose that there were none.
Indeed the reverse is the case. Jews and Muslims assume Jesus would have been married. The issue is unimportant to them but both groups deem it ridiculous to suppose either that Jesus was celibate or that marriage could ever be a bar to spirituality. The Prophet Muhammad was married and, what’s more, married to a wealthy and powerful woman. His teaching states that marriage is a religious duty, a moral safeguard and that an Imam (priest) should be married.
Most of the Hebrew Bible prophets were married. Jeremiah wasn’t allowed a wife by God, and there’s no sign of Mrs Elijah or Mrs John the Baptist, but Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, Ezekiel and Isaiah all had wives. Samuel certainly had sons, which implies a wife. Given the importance of the commandment to “be fruitful and multiply” to the Jewish people, the most likely scenario is that Jesus was both part of an extended family and had one of his own.
The New Testament itself calls Jesus Mary’s first born and refers to his having both brothers and sisters. James, who referred to by Paul in Galatians 1:19 as the Lord’s brother, becomes leader of the apostles after Jesus’ death and resurrection. When Jesus preaches in the synagogue in Nazareth and sets the town by the ears with his words, the angry Nazarenes cry, “Is not this the carpenter's son? is not his mother called Mary? And his brethren, James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas? And his sisters, are they not all with us?” (Matt 13:55).
Even so, this has been discounted for centuries with the Greek words adelphos and adelphe translated as “cousin.” It can also mean countryman or fellow believer. It is quite true that there is no exact ancient Greek word for “cousin” and it is possible that, with the close bonds of families living together, relationships could get confused but there is a word for “kin” or “related by blood” and that word is sougenes. It is used to describe Elisabeth, mother of John the Baptist and translated as “cousin” of Mary.
That Jesus had brothers and sisters who were most probably married seems fairly certain, and generally accepted by scholars. The case for his own marriage is still stronger. All orthodox Jewish Rabbis from the first century to the present day have to be married to even be considered as eligible to teach others. Interestingly, although Jesus is frequently referred to as “Rabbi” in the Gospel of John and as “Rabboni” by Mary Magdalene, these were relatively new titles 2000 years ago. The word “Rab” or “Rav” meaning Master or teacher was originally a Babylonian title given to scholarly men who had received the laying-on of hands in the rabbinic schools. It was developed into “Rabbi” approximately half a century before Jesus lived and used for men who had had the title bestowed by a laying-on of hands by the Sanhedrin, the priestly class of Israel. A Rabbi was given a key and a scroll as a symbol of his authority to teach others and he was expected to have disciples who, in turn would draw new disciples. “Rabboni” or “My Great Master” was only used when the teacher had two generations of disciples. Neither a Rabbi nor a Rabboni could have been an unmarried man as marriage was a requirement of any man who wished to study Torah.
What we do have is a tantalising gap in the information available about Jesus between the ages of approximately 12 and 30. Interestingly, these are exactly the years when a Jewish man in those times could expect to be married. Over the last hundred years or so, many theories have sprung up as to what Jesus was doing in those hidden years – did he go to India and study there? Was he in Alexandria investigating the mystery schools? Where did he go and from whom did he learn the mystical knowledge that he later displayed?
No one will ever know the truth but, when it comes to Jesus’ knowledge of spiritual matters, he didn’t need to go anywhere; all the sayings ascribed to him are inherent in the Jewish traditions of his homeland. What he taught is not necessarily clearly stated in the Old Testament (although several of Jesus’ teachings are re-iterations of words from the law-giving books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy) but it is clear that the driving force behind Jesus’ belief is the monotheistic background of the Israelites.
In Jesus’ day the Hebrew Bible had only recently been compiled. The texts themselves had existed for hundreds of years but they are first known to have been pulled together as a complete entity in the first century BCE. Better known, to most people, was an oral tradition which had been passed down by word of mouth through generations. This was used by the Pharisees to interpret Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) in Jesus’ day. Scholars and teachers realised that writing down teachings crystallised them and made them inviolable rather than adaptable. They believed though that, although the structure of the teaching was always valid, the form of it needed interpretation according to the times.
This was particularly so after the fall of the Temple in Jerusalem, when the Jewish people lost their homeland and spread far and wide. The commentary on Torah, the Talmud, was then itself written down in an attempt to record the oral interpretations of the Laws. This became crystallised in turn, and debate on how to interpret it continues to this day. There is a Jewish joke that says “two Jews, three opinions”, and another that says that if a Jew were to be shipwrecked on a desert island he would have to build two synagogues: one he went to and one that he didn’t go to. This demonstrates the importance to the Jewish faith of the continuation of debate over what is right and what is not.
An example of this might be seen in a modern interpretation of the seventh commandment “ thou shalt not commit adultery.” This is traditionally seen as referring to sexual infidelity, but “to adulterate” has a much wider meaning, as in two different things corrupting each other. In a particular case, it could equally be interpreted that a husband and wife who remained together when their relationship had fallen apart so seriously that they were affecting each other’s emotional and spiritual growth could be committing adultery by staying together.
Another modern example of interpretation of the written law might be the way that orthodox Jews nowadays adapt to the Sabbath law which says that no fire may be lit in the home (Exodus 35:3). Igniting a cooker or flicking a light switch counts as creating fire so, if Jewish people followed the Law exactly, they would have to sit in the dark all evening. However, it is now regarded as quite acceptable for electrical appliances such as ovens and lights to be put on timers – because then the spark is not struck by a Jewish human hand. This law was previously addressed by hiring non-Jews to do the work on the Sabbath day. The command not to light a fire is therefore followed but in a different way according to the times and social convention.
The oral tradition of Jesus’ time has come down to us through the Talmud (Hebrew for “Learning’) and the other Biblical commentaries but also through a mystical system that was originally called Merkabah and is now known as Kabbalah.
What is so useful about this ancient tradition is that for its structure it uses not writing but an object – the seven branched candlestick known as the Menorah which first appears in the book of Exodus.
Priests and scholars were able to assess the essential balance of their spiritual teaching by comparing it with the structure of the Menorah. Nowadays this is known as the Tree of Life and Jewish mystics can, and do, still use it to interpret the Great Laws of life.
It is worth mentioning here that the best known form of Kabbalah in the modern age, known as Lurianic Kabbalah is not essentially the same as the teaching in Jesus’ time. The tradition was re-developed by a charismatic Jewish teacher in Safed, Israel, in the sixteenth century and followed “the great heresy” that when God created the world, he created it imperfect and that this caused an external evil, which Christianity would call the devil.
In Jesus’ day this belief did not exist; they followed the original teachings of Genesis “And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.” (Gen. 1:31). So, if we are to refer to the oral traditions of 2000 years ago we must move away from the Kabbalah of most modern Jews – and of the Kabbalah Centre – to the older tradition. This still exists. Nowadays, it is known as the Toledano Tradition after a time in the twelfth century when the Spanish City of Toledo was a centre for interfaith and study. It is not the perfect system for examining knowledge of the time of Jesus because it was influenced by the Neo-Platonic schools of Alexandria, but it is still a good tool worth using in exploring the teachings both of, and by, Jesus of Nazareth, not least because some of its precepts can be seen quite clearly in the Gospels (see Chapter Seven).
Different branches of Judaism have different interpretations of both Torah and Talmud. But the one thing that all the Jewish texts and teaching do agree on is the subject of marriage. It was considered essential for men and for women. The commentaries on Torah state clearly that an unmarried man was incomplete and, 2000 years ago, had Jesus of Nazareth not been married by the age of 18 he would have been considered a very odd fish indeed. Worse, he would not have been taken seriously as a teacher by any other Jew.
But was he still married at the time of his ministry? Probably not. There’s a simple reason for this. Two thousand years ago the life expectancy of men and women in the Middle East was very different from today. A woman who survived childbirth could live as long as a man did – approximately 40 years. But two thirds of woman died in their teens or 20s from complications in pregnancy or childbirth. Jesus as a widower would have been nothing unusual.
There are plenty of other theories of course. In the twenty first century we live in a world of easily-accessible controversy where arguments proliferate for Jesus as a celibate Essene to a light-being from another planet. The only thing that we can be sure of is that old certainties are continually being questioned. Although Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code was nowhere near the first book to suppose that Jesus was married and had children, it was the one which caught the attention of the wider public. The film of the book became the largest grossing movie of all time on its first weekend of release and it is now a part of popular culture. The idea of a bloodline of Jesus still existing somewhere will now never leave the realm of possibility.
The Divine Feminine
Far-out ideas and conspiracy theories have of course always been with us, often fuelled by a natural suspicion of overweening religious and political authorities and their pronouncements. For Christians, and for Catholics in particular, it is vitally important that Jesus was not married; if he had a wife, not only would St Paul’s and the Early Church Fathers’ teaching on celibacy as a preferred option for a religious life be open to question but Christian doctrine down the centuries would be threatened.
But it’s also true that today’s heresy is tomorrow’s orthodoxy. That stalwart of the Catholic faith, the thirteenth century St Thomas Aquinas, was once condemned by the bishop of Paris for heresy because he took account of new scientific knowledge coming from the East through the Crusades. Galileo was condemned to house arrest for knowing that the Earth revolved around the sun and Darwin was totally denounced for his theory of evolution (and, currently, is being denounced again by Christian Creationists).
For the last 20 years a theory that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene has gained steady ground, even though this is just as speculative as the view that he was celibate. The Gnostic gospels, discovered at Nag Hammadi in 1945, do demonstrate that Mary may well have been a much-loved follower of Jesus but they do not offer any convincing evidence that she was his wife. Indignation is expressed at Jesus’ affection for Mary in the Gospel of Philip and this would make no sense at all had they been married. The disciples might not have liked it but they would not have expressed open surprise that Jesus might kiss his wife, nor ask him why he loved her more than he loved them.
In one verse, in the Gospel of Philip we are told that Mary was Jesus' “companion” which many people have taken to mean wife. The gospel is written in Coptic rather than Aramaic (as incorrectly stated in The Da Vinci Code) but uses Greek words including the Greek term koinonos in reference to Mary as well as the Coptic term hotre (also meaning companion). Koinonos, means associate, companion or someone with whom one spends time; the Greek for wife is always gunay.
But if Jesus of Nazareth did marry Mary Magdalene before the crucifixion, then she could only ever have been his second wife. A Jewish man who was willing to marry (and that would have been 99 per cent of them) would not have left it until his late 20s or early 30s to tie the knot. If he had married Mary in his youth, she would never have been known in the Gospels as ‘Magdalene.’ A woman, in those days, was always identified by her father’s or her husband’s name or town. She would have been ‘Mary, wife of Jesus’ or ‘Mary of Nazareth’ not Mary of Magdala. To be referred to as “Magdalene” she must have lived in Magdala recently or have been married to a Magdalan man. And, if Jesus left a bloodline, it’s most likely that they came from the first wife; the younger; the lost wife of the hidden years.
The possibility that Jesus could have been married is now gaining general acceptance amongst scholars. Nowadays we live in a secular world where interfaith options are normal. We have a wider knowledge of world religions, including those with female deities. We have female Buddhist monks and women vicars. The idea of celibacy as a religious norm is in retreat. We realise that just because women did not officiate at Synagogue services in Jesus’ day did not mean that they did not live holy lives of service. They just lived different holy lives. There was an acknowledged Divine Feminine aspect in their lives, known as Shekhinah.
This aspect lives on in the icon of the Virgin in the Catholic Church. Roman Catholicism is seen as being anti-women in its stern insistence that no woman may be a priest but, ironically, it is a faith that venerates the feminine more than almost any other. It is as much the religion of the Virgin Mary as it is of Christ. The Church itself is seen as being the Bride of Christ. The veneration of the Virgin fulfils a deep human need for the balancing of the Divine Masculine and Feminine. The Protestant Churches lost that link with the feminine during the Reformation, and although it does have some monastic communities for women and, nowadays, has female clergy, it does not have a feminine focus for the Divine. The lack of this in the Protestant tradition may be one reason why The Da Vinci Code and the idea that Jesus married Mary Magdalene have become so very popular.
So when did the tradition of seeing Jesus as unmarried begin? It is generally acknowledged that it was St. Paul who first implied that Jesus was celibate – and that he, himself, followed his master in being so.
The early followers of Jesus were working with an oral tradition. The Gospels were written years later than Paul’s letters. And the New Testament, as a result, mostly gives us the teaching of Paul and his followers, and his interpretation of who Jesus was. The original leader of the early Christians, Jesus’ brother James, gradually gets written out of the picture. By the end of the first century, after the fall of Jerusalem, the death of a good proportion of the Jewish people, the dispersal of most of the rest from Palestine, and the spread of the Pauline version of the faith amongst the Gentiles, the original Christian Jewish sect had turned into a different faith. The Church was now taking Paul’s word as final on many subjects, although he never even met Jesus in person.
We know surprisingly little that is definite about Paul, considering the extent of his writings. We do know that in the first years after the crucifixion he was an active campaigner against the apostles and their messianic Judaism. Then, on the road to Damascus, he was struck down by a powerful vision where Jesus asked him why he was persecuting him. The conversion was swift and from then on, Paul spoke with authority that came from this contact with Jesus’ spirit alone. This is actually little different in substance from the New Age channeling which is prevalent today. Teachings from ascended beings such as Seth, Lazaris and Abraham are redolent with good sense and a great number of people have benefited by them. But there is also much channeling which is unhelpful, to say the least, and/or dubious in its origins. The information from any psychic or spiritual source is, also, filtered through the personality of the person channeling it. There are enough people still claiming to be exclusively channeling the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene or Jesus himself to view them all with a generous pinch of salt.
For Paul, the fact that he had received inspiration directly from Jesus’ spirit was more important than Jesus’ teachings on Earth. He claimed to be a student of a Rabbi called Gamaliel, who was himself a student of the famous teacher Rabbi Hillel – and both of those men were conversant with the Merkabah/Kabbalistic oral tradition. It would have appeared logical to Paul to update the form of Jesus’ teachings for the benefit of the Gentiles. Though it is clear in Acts, from Paul’s encounters with the Apostles who had known Jesus, that they were uncomfortable with his interpretation of their teacher’s views from the higher worlds.
Even so, Paul is not very clear on the question of whether Jesus was married or not. One of the best known is 1 Cor 7:3 7 where he writes: “For I would that all men were even as I myself. But every man hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that. I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, It is good for them if they abide even as I.” This definitely implies that Paul is not married at the time of writing, but it’s just as likely that he was a widower as a lifetime celibate.
Later, in 1Cor 7:27 he says, “Art thou bound unto a wife? Seek not to be loosed. Art thou loosed from a wife? seek not a wife” so we can get a clear feeling that he didn’t think that marriage was a good idea for beginners or in the difficult times that they anticipated (there was a strong implication that the world was about to end); it’s not clear whether “loosed” means widowed or divorced but Paul was preaching to Gentiles where divorce was common, so it could be either.
There are even some who suggest that Paul was still married. In Philippians 4:3 he writes, “And I entreat thee also, true yokefellow, help those women which laboured with me in the gospel, with Clement also, and with other my fellow labourers, whose names are in the book of life.” The trouble here is that the word for “yokefellow” (which is not used anywhere else in the New Testament) is suzugos which can equally mean wife, partner or comrade. It is typically irritating of Paul that he couldn’t use a word less ambiguous such as sunergos or philos which can only mean friend or companion.
Just to confuse us even more, in 1 Cor. 9:3, Paul writes, “Have we not power to lead about a sister, a wife, as well as other apostles, and the brethren of the Lord, and Cephas?” Now that’s also unclear because of the nature of Koine (New Testament Greek). Given the language’s frequent and confusing loopholes in the linking of words – not to mention lack of punctuation - it could just as equally mean “a sister who is a wife” as not. Clement of Alexandria, one of the early Church Fathers, who had access to much earlier translations of the New Testament than we do, did take this passage to mean that Paul had a wife.
Epiphanius, a Church Father from the fourth century, and a fervent investigator of heresy in the Christian Church wrote (Panarion 30,16) that the Ebionites (a group of early Christian heretics) claimed that St Paul was a Greek who had visited Jerusalem and wanted to marry a daughter of the high priest. He was circumcised as a Jew but the girl was not impressed and refused to marry him. He became angry, and wrote against circumcision, the Sabbath and Jewish law out of spite.
Maybe this rejection explains Paul’s tendency to misogyny, but, again, it is only hearsay. He does say clearly in Corinthians 7:25 that he has no command from Jesus concerning celibacy but he goes on to give his own opinion – which is the one that has been adopted by the Catholic Church: “Now concerning virgins I have no commandment of the Lord: yet I give my judgment, as one that hath obtained mercy of the Lord to be faithful.”
When examining ancient teachings, particularly commentaries on religious texts, it is vital to observe them through the old journalistic practice of noting the six following facts. Who wrote it? Where? When? Why? For whom? And finally, Who was listening? The social, economic, religious and sexual views of the times are all relevant and need to be peeled away from the actual evidence like rings of an onion.
Of the great “founding fathers” of Christianity, Tertullian (d circa 220 CD), the originator of the idea of the Christian Trinity, the first person to refer to the “Old Testament” and the “New Testament” and the first great Christian writer in Latin, was the only one who publicly stated that Mary would have had sex with her husband. Perhaps that’s the reason why he never got his sainthood.
The view of sex as being impure or distasteful gained ground in the early centuries of Christianity. It was the first monks – men who lived celibate lives in the desert outside Alexandria in Egypt – who were the important scribes. Their own views about sexual behaviour would make a married Jesus intolerable. Worse, so distasteful was the idea that Jesus' mother might have gone on to have a relationship with her husband Joseph after the birth of her son, that she was declared to have remained a virgin her entire life. This is a doctrinal truth of Catholic, Eastern and Oriental Christian Churches and dates back to the third century.
The idea that Jesus and Paul were celibate was taken up by St. Jerome (331-419) who considered marriage an invention of the devil and encouraged married couples who had converted to Christianity to renounce their marriage vows and separate. St Augustine, (354-430), having had what’s politely called an active sexual life in his early years, later became a strong supporter of celibacy, teaching that sex was always tainted, even in a marriage, because it passed on the sin of Adam. He came to believe that the only way to redeem humanity was through abstinence, rather like the ex-smoker who is fanatical about banning cigarettes. Jerome and Augustine were certain that the Virgin remained just that, and the Council of Constantinople in the sixth century referred to Mary as “ever Virgin.”
Later on, Martin Luther and Calvin agreed. It does rather perpetrate the idea that the only good woman is a dead virgin. No wonder feminists get so very angry about it.
The first documented official Christian Church discussion about celibacy was at the Council of Elvira in 309 and it appears to have been sparked by concerns about clergy having mistresses rather than a problem with their wives. The councils of Neocaesarea in 314 and Laodicea 352 ruled that priests must marry virgins, and get rid of unfaithful wives.
The fifth Council of Carthage Five in 401 was the first to actually promote celibacy saying that it would be a good idea for priests to separate from their wives and live as celibates. However, no penalties were suggested if the priests didn’t take up this tempting offer and it was ignored by the vast majority. Only 19 years later, the Pope, Honorius, went on record to praise wives who supported their priest-husbands in their ministry. The next 400 years were marked by several attempts to impose celibacy, all with mixed results and the Church shot itself neatly in the foot with the election of the married Pope Adrian the Second in 867 CE.
It wasn’t until the twelfth century when the Church won power over the crowned heads of Europe that marriage itself came under its jurisdiction. Until then civil marriages were common and divorce was also a non-religious event. But, at the Second Lateran Council in 1139, Pope Innocent the Second declared that all clerical marriages were invalid and any children of such marriages illegitimate, and so the die was cast. If Jesus, whose life-story is, allegedly, the basis behind this doctrine, turned out to have a wife at home – and maybe children too – then the foundation of the Church’s teaching on celibacy would be rocked.
All this anti-sex theological feeling and, eventually, legislation certainly meant that the leadership activities of women in the early Church began to tail off very early on. For them, Christianity had started out brilliantly – allowing women far more freedom (whatever we may think of St Paul) than most other religions of that time. But by the time a priestly order had been established, women were pretty well sidelined. Deaconesses did exist but they were not priestesses. Where women did shine in the early years was as martyrs…so we are safely back with the dead virgins again.
The discovery of the Nag Hammadi scrolls brought Jesus’ marriage back into the realm of the possible and books of theories slowly began to be published, the most famous before Da Vinci being Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln. This introduced the popular world to the idea that the Holy Grail was not a cup used at the Last Supper but the womb of Mary Magdalene and the bloodline of Jesus.
In The Last Temptation of Christ, the controversial novel by Nikos Kazantzakis which was made into the even more controversial film by Martin Scorsese, Mary Magdalene arrives on the scene again. Opposition to the film failed to notice that it never said that Jesus and Mary actually were married – only that this was an option offered to him as a temptation as he was dying on the cross. If he would give up his role as the Christ, the devil would save him and allow him to live an ordinary life, including marriage and children. Jesus lives – or more accurately - visualises the fantasy and then turns back from the world to take up his cross again, having realised that the temptation is destroying both him and all that he taught.
So how close can we get to the truth?
Ultimately, no one can determine whether the lost wife of Jesus of Nazareth ever existed. But we can discover what is the most likely scenario by cutting through the centuries of Christian interpretation and grinding down what evidence there is into simple piles of possibility. What you believe by the end of this book, is up to you.
The Marriage of Jesus, by Maggy Whitehouse is available for purchase in book and e-book here.