Why Assume Jesus Wasn’t Married?
- Friday, September 21, 2012
And yet, the publicity may have raised a legitimate question or two in the minds of Christians and others—questions such as, “Why do Christians assume that Jesus wasn’t married? And would it matter if he was?” With that in mind, let’s take a quick look at the earliest historical traditions about the Messiah’s marital status.
What Early Christians Had to Say About the Singleness of Jesus
Dr. King has presented the so-called “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” as evidence that arguments over the singleness of Jesus were a pressing issue among second-century Christians. The fragment provides “direct evidence,” according to king, “that claims about Jesus’s marital status first arose over a century after the death of Jesus in the context of intra-Christian controversies over sexuality, marriage, and discipleship.” In other words, second-century Christians were arguing about issues related to sex and marriage. In the midst of these arguments, some Christians claimed Jesus was married while others said he wasn’t.
Looking at the second- and third-century sources, I’m not so sure. In the first place, while certainly possible, it’s far from certain whether the fourth-century fragment known as The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife was translated from any second-century text. Furthermore, Coptic texts of this sort did not emerge in the context of “intra-Christian controversies” but from breakaway Gnostic sects, groups that had rejected the witness of the apostolic eyewitnesses. The primary concern of the Gnostics would not have been whether Jesus was actually married but how they might portray Jesus in a way that would illustrate their own myths and rituals.
Yet what of the earliest Christian mentions of Jesus and marriage? Do they suggest intense “intra-Christian controversies” that resulted in competing “claims about Jesus’s marital status”?
In fact, in the first Christian references to Jesus’s marital status, I find no hint of competing claims about whether Jesus was married or single.
The earliest Christian writer to refer explicitly to the singleness of Jesus seems to have been Clement of Alexandria. Clement was a theologian who began teaching in Alexandria around A.D. 180. In the closing years of the second century, Clement wrote against false teachers who had declared marriage taboo; these false teachers had claimed that “marriage is the same as sexual immorality.” While arguing against these heretics, Clement commented that Jesus “did not marry” (Stromata 3:6:49).
About the time that Clement was writing against false teachers who regarded marriage as immoral, a lawyer named tertullian became a Christian and quickly turned his rhetorical skills toward defending the Christian faith. In a treatise urging monogamy, tertullian of Carthage mentioned that Jesus, a lifelong celibate, had made God’s kingdom accessible to those who—like Jesus—never engaged in sexual relations (“… ipso domino spadonibus aperiente regna caelorum ut, et ipso spadone, quem spectans et apostolus…,” De Monogamia 3). Later in the same treatise, tertullian termed Jesus “entirely unmarried” and “voluntarily celibate in flesh” (“innuptus in totum…spado occurrit in carne,” 5).
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