Thursday, September 20, 2012

Was Jesus Married?

You've probably seen the breathless claims about a papyrus fragment that could threaten all we ever knew about Jesus. Yes, another one.

The current candidate for "most explosive artifact ever"is a scrap of writing from the mid 300's, which may or may not be a copy of something from the mid 200's.

Which makes it a lot older than the core texts of our faith, which date to ... 20-25 years after the death and resurrection.

What makes the story juicy is, of course, a reference in the ancient coptic writing to "Jesus' wife."

Hmm. Who might she be? And why haven't we heard about her before this?

Is it some deep, dark ecclesiastical secret, kept as a kind of hidden knowledge reserved only to an elite group? That would make it a "Gnostic" secret, typical of the fringey groups that popped up in various parts of the Roman empire that took the interesting bits of popular religious beliefs and strung them together according to their liking. (Naturally, they did the same thing with sacred writings, editing them to match the particular groups values, such as disdain for the body and a love of secret knowledge.)

Seriously, though: the Scriptures we have had all along do speak of Jesus' "wife." Maybe we just weren't paying attention.

Traditional Icon of
"Christ the Bridegroom"
St Paul wrote to the Corinthians that they were Jesus' wife. Here is the old, Douay-Rheims translation:"For I am jealous of you with the jealousy of God. For I have espoused you to one husband that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ." If that isn't enough, the letter to the Ephesians has an extended passage (Eph. 5: 21-32) in which Paul tells husbands that their treatment of their wives had to be modeled on Christ's love for his Church: love to the point of "delivered himself [to death] for her". In case the Ephesians (or their 21st century successors) missed the point, Paul says that "we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones," even quoting Adam in the book of Genesis--precisely the passage where Adam meets Eve.

In the book of Revelation (according to the same 19th century translation, to show that this is not some 21st century aberration): "And there came one of the seven angels, who ... spoke with me, saying: Come, and I will shew thee the bride, the wife of the Lamb. And he took me up in spirit to a great and high mountain: and he shewed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God" (Rev. 21:9-10).

This is clearly not what the headlines presume, but the very first generation of Christians seemed very familiar with the notion. Maybe because they knew the old jokes that had been told at Jesus' expense during his earthly life. He even took some of the coarser jokes (the ones that called him a "eunuch") and turned them into a recommendation: "For there are eunuchs, who were born so from their mother's womb: and there are eunuchs, who were made so by men: and there are eunuchs, who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven. He that can take, let him take it" (Mt 19: 12).

Personally, I think there is something in our age that desperately wants to tone Jesus down, to make him less exotic, more like the average Joe. Otherwise, why the fascination with what was, in his age and ours, the most normal thing in the world: that "a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and they two shall be in one flesh"? More on the most important question you can ever ask: "Who is Jesus?"


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this excellent writing. May I reprint this post on my blog? I would give you credit and provide a link.

Sr Anne Flanagan said...

Sure, Melanie! Any time.