|Answers In-Depth to Questions about Christianity
|Jesus Was NEVER Married
|QUESTION: I just finished reading a best-seller entitled The Da Vinci
Code. Whew! I don't quite know what to make of it. Was Jesus really
married? Answered by Rev. Paul L. Rothermel
|My strength is not found in evaluating novels. I hardly read them. But let me be the first to say that I really enjoyed
reading The Da Vinci Code: A Novel. I do appreciate its fast-moving plot, with its thrills and its clever puzzles. I could
hardly put the book down.
Its content is another story. A book can be delightful in style and at the same time dangerous in content. This book is a
very good example of this type of combination. The author Dan Brown presents us with a Jesus who cannot save us from
our sins. For him, the real Jesus was only a mortal man, although a famous, ancient Jew who got married, fathered a
royal line of descendants, and died. Mr. Brown’s Jesus is certainly not the Jesus of historic Christianity, but neither is he
the Jesus Who actually walked along the shores of Galilee, despite Dan Brown’s iconoclastic proposal.
More than likely, the Jesus of history was never married. Whether He was or not is a question worth asking, and it calls
for an honest answer. Both sides in this debate know more is at stake than first appears. A merely human, married,
mortal Jesus would brand the Roman Catholic Church as a misogynistic master of deception and manipulation in its
central proclamations about the Person of Jesus. Many people relish the thrill of knowing a big, bad secret about the
Roman Catholic Church, and Brown’s tantalizing offer of this no doubt contributes to the widespread success of The Da
Perhaps the best summary of Brown’s over-arching thesis is found on page 124. He writes, “[By making the mortal Jesus
into God,] Constantine and his male successors successfully converted the world from matriarchal paganism to patriarchal
Christianity by waging a campaign of propaganda that demonized the sacred feminine, obliterating the goddess from
modern religion forever.” Is the divine Jesus of historic Christianity really part of a power-grabbing plot against women
and their spirituality? For Brown and many others, it seems that a marriage to Mary Magdalene would somehow make
Jesus only human—and very far less threatening!
So today the question, “Was Jesus married?” gets entangled with political agendas. It has been used to serve the
feminist campaign for women priests and the popular challenge of priestly celibacy. Brown’s novel heartily “aids and
abets” both movements. More and more people are asking, “Can the Church prove that Jesus was never married?” (And
more and more people are skeptical that a Catholic priest such as myself will answer this question truthfully!)
Unfortunately, this may become a demand for a demonstration of the impossible. After all, how can the Catholic Church
prove for sure that Jesus never entered into the state of matrimony, when we know absolutely nothing about so many
years of His adult earthly life? For example, if He married someone when He was eighteen, and his wife died a few years
later, we could have no knowledge of this fact. Also, a widower who never remarries often appears in the historical record
very much like a celibate, who never marries. All we can say with reasonable certainty is that Jesus of Nazareth appears
to be single at the many moments we catch sight of Him.
It is impossible to prove a “universal negative.” For example, can anyone prove that there are absolutely NO mermaids
anywhere? But anyone who believes in mermaids, and is honest, must admit that there can be light-years of distance
between opinion and fact. An opinion is not necessarily a mental state based upon fact. It may be little more than a
convenient speculation or sheer fantasy. A wise person once quipped, “A man has a right to his opinions, but no one has
a right to be wrong in his facts.” This was meant to be a universal statement, with no exception made for novel writers.
If the truth be known, it is really Brown who has played fast and lose with the facts, under the disguise of creating an
entertaining novel. “All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.”
The Da Vinci Code labels this statement as FACT on its first page. This is the epicenter of real danger. This is a violation
of the readers’ trust, because Dan Brown’s novel offers us some indisputably reckless, misleading inaccuracies, seldom in
architecture, but frequently in artwork, AND ESPECIALLY in ancient religious documents.
We need to be fair to the novelist. After all, he never claimed any of his descriptions of historical events are accurate. But
how do we find out most events in the past? From documents, and this is where Brown greatly disappoints us.
Supposedly, there exist many ancient documents, hidden today by the Priory of Sion. According to Brown’s characters,
Mr. Robert Langdon and Sir Leigh Teabing, these documents show that Roman Catholicism is a fraud. But, of course, by
the end of the novel, no one shows that these documents ever existed! What do Brown’s characters claim that these
hidden documents prove? 1) Jesus was married to the Holy Grail, Mary Magdalene, 2) with her, he had a daughter
named Sarah, 3) when he died, he intended church leadership to pass to his wife instead of to the Apostle Peter, and 4)
Jesus was first proclaimed divine when the Roman Emperor Constantine shrewdly used his political power in order to
stamp out widespread “matriarchal paganism”!
By stating that all the novel’s descriptions of documents are true, Dan Brown has set up his readers to swallow a whole lot
of hooey. This novel (soon to become a movie!) is not a threat to the truth of Christianity, but it is a threat to the souls of
Catholics, because it attacks faith in Christ’s divinity and in Peter’s primacy. It does this rather subtly. We become aware
of liking the novel, and then begin to admire and trust its talented author. When his erudite characters finally lecture us
about ancient documents, we take their descriptions to be factual. Before we know it, we doubt our faith!
But all this does not devalue the question, “Was Jesus married?”— nor answer it. One biblical scholar has remarked that
to seek the answer to this question is to “seek to solve the riddle of a largely unnoticed sphinx.” Almost everyone down
through the ages has simply assumed that Jesus was not married. But is this mind-set justified? What do we really know
about Jesus, His times, and ancient Near Eastern culture? Let’s consider some important facts.
The New Testament documents do NOT once mention a wife for Jesus. So we have a difficult task; we must interpret
this silence. Does it mean that Jesus was married, or that He was not? Only the proper context of this silence can show
us the sure answer to this question, if one can be found. Jesus’ celibacy most easily and naturally accounts for the
complete silence of Scripture and tradition on this matter of a spouse of Jesus.
The New Testament teaches the sanctity of marriage. Certainly there is nothing shameful or dishonorable about being
married, unlike adultery (Hebrews 13:4). Marriage allows millions to lead holier lives. Many dead Catholic saints were
married while they lived. “Holy matrimony” is a sacrament in Catholic teaching. A marriage for Jesus need not in any way
detract from His holiness.
Jesus was born a Jew in a world heavily influenced by Greek ways and Greek ideas. It is true that the Jews have always
looked upon sexual intercourse within marriage as a blessing from the Creator. The married state for adults is a norm in
Jewish society, AND in almost every other society, ancient and modern. Also, almost every society has examples
available of adults who did not marry. Was Jesus married? Surely He did not always do what His Jewish contemporaries
expected of Him. He did not always do what the Jewish leaders wanted Him to do. Jesus Christ is fully divine as well as
fully human. So He is unique. This makes our attempts to answer this question about ancient history even more difficult.
Again, the Greek influence upon Jesus’ Jewish culture was great. Within this Hellenized context, male celibacy easily fit,
especially for Gentile teachers promoting wisdom. Names such as Epictetus and Apollonius come to mind as outstanding
examples. While the rabbis from a later period took a very dim view of celibacy, Philo of Alexandria and Josephus,
important Jewish writers near the time of Jesus, did not. Before the cataclysmic destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, there
were many widely diverging Jewish movements with conflicting ideas, some about celibacy, even within Palestine itself. In
Jesus’ day, a Jewish male celibate might be a member of the Essenes, or the Dead Sea Scroll community at Qumran, or
the Therapeutae sect. These are some groups we know about. Among the many that have disappeared totally from the
radar screen of history, probably some favored a celibate lifestyle for members.
In the popular mind, Jesus was taken to be “John the Baptizer, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the other prophets” (Matthew
16:14). Biblical data about John the Baptist, Elijah, and Jeremiah suggest that all these holy men lived celibate lives as
Jesus was more than a prophet, but he surely was not less than one. Jewish tradition accepted the celibate lifestyle of
several prophetic figures, including even Moses! The Bible teaches that the LORD God commanded Jeremiah to be a
celibate as a sign of judgment to a sinful people. Also, Elijah seems to have had no family ties, and his successor, Elisha,
forsook family life. While the Scriptures report that Elisha said goodbye to his father and his mother, a wife or a child is
not mentioned. It seems that St. John the Baptizer was a celibate. He was raised in the desert until he began his dynamic
but short-lived ministry. After his beheading, it was his disciples who came to claim his corpse for burial, not a wife and
children. He apparently had chosen celibacy for the sake of God’s service. His food, locusts and wild honey, came
directly from nature, and he kept roaming the barren regions of the Jordan Valley—no place for a family. During His own
ministry, Jesus also had no domestic stability. At least once our Lord is known to have proclaimed, “Foxes have dens and
birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest His head” (Luke 9:58).
The New Testament is far from silent about the relatives of Jesus. The gospel writers spend many pages telling their
readers about a year or more of Jesus’ active ministry. They actually name His mother Mary, His foster-father Joseph,
and several of His male relatives (called “brothers”), James, Joses, Judas, and Simon. Jesus also had many female
relatives (called “sisters”) who were living in Nazareth. An uncle, Clopas, and a cousin, Symeon, were remembered by
one of the early Church Fathers, Hegesippus. The Bible also mentions the names of many of the female friends of Jesus
during His public ministry, not only Mary Magdalene, but also another Mary, still another Mary, her sister Martha, Joanna,
Salome, the mother of the sons of Zebedee, and Susanna. If Jesus had been married, surely the name of His wife would
have been mentioned or remembered, especially in the conflict at Nazareth.
The repentant, devoted woman with the alabaster jar in Luke 7 was neither Mary Magdalene, nor the wife of Jesus. This
woman’s act of anointing Jesus was shocking to the host, but it would have been tolerable for a wife to perform this sort of
action for her husband.
If Jesus had been married to Mary Magdalene, who was present at the crucifixion, at least one gospel writer would have
mentioned that Jesus made provisions for her after His death, not only for His mother Mary. John’s report is clear. Jesus’
only concern at the cross for a family member was for the Blessed Mother, apparently because she was a widow about
to lose her guardian, and He had no siblings who were her children. Mary Magdalene showed up that day as a devoted
disciple, but nothing more (John 19:25-27).
The early Church readily acknowledged the married state of many of its leaders in Jerusalem. Peter and others of the
Twelve were married, and “the brothers of the Lord” were married. St. Paul was not even a very tiny bit embarrassed by
these domestic facts (First Corinthians 9:5). Married leadership was hardly an issue in early Christianity. If Jesus had
been married, this also would have been remembered and mentioned. Not only would Peter, James, John, and Paul
have known about it. All the earliest Christians in the regions of Jerusalem and Galilee would have known of it as well.
Such a widespread awareness could hardly have been suppressed, even if people had foolishly tried to do so. But who
would have wanted to do so? As far as we can learn, the earliest Christians did not care very much about this one way or
the other. There is no evidence that biblical writers deliberately suppressed any truth about the marriage of Jesus. Such
a wild “conspiracy theory” is complicated and unable to account for all the many known facts.
The Jewish writer of the earliest New Testament documents was St. Paul. Soon after he became a Christian, he spent
half a month living with St. Peter. St. James was in the neighborhood (Galatians 1:18-19). Paul must have learned much
about Jesus from them. In First Corinthians, written less than thirty years after the cross, St. Paul set himself and
Barnabas forward as examples of Christians who freely gave up cherished rights for the sake of others. One of these was
the right to travel with one’s own believing spouse, one exercised by other Apostles (First Corinthians 9:5-6). St. Paul did
not use this right, and he did not mention whether Jesus did or not. For him, Christ is noteworthy for having freely
renounced personal pleasures in order to help others grow spiritually (Romans 15:2-3).
It seems that St. Paul lived a celibate life, either as a life-long bachelor or, perhaps more likely, as someone who was no
longer married, for whatever reason. He was certainly not married when he wrote First Corinthians. In chapter seven, he
encouraged other Christians to live a single life, if they were able, as he himself was doing. In chapter eleven, St. Paul
exhorted his readers to imitate him as he imitated Christ (11:1). In First Corinthians, chapter seven, the Apostle Paul is
recommending celibacy, perhaps because he knew that Jesus had recommended it.
Very few scholars dispute that the Gospel of Matthew is a first-century document whose author is a Jewish Christian. He
presents Jesus the Jew as approving celibacy for the sake of God’s service. “Some are incapable of marriage because
they were born so; some, because they were made so by others; some, because they have renounced marriage for the
sake of the kingdom of heaven. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it” (Matthew 19:12). Apparently, some Jewish
males of the first-century era were known to be already living the celibate lifestyle before Jesus Christ advocated it for any
of His disciples who were capable of it. Would He have recommended what He Himself had earlier refused to embrace for
the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven?
The singleness of Jesus allowed some New Testament people to portray Him as the bridegroom. This would not have
been an easy theological image to popularize, if many early Christians knew that Jesus had, in fact, already been
married to Mary Magdalene, or someone else. St. John the Baptizer called Jesus the bridegroom (John 3:29), St. Paul
presented the Church as a bride betrothed to Jesus Christ (First Corinthians 6:15-17, Second Corinthians 11:2,
Ephesians 1:4, 5:25-29), and St. John, the writer of Revelation, did the same (Revelation 14:1-5, 19:7, 21:2,9, 22:17). It
seems that Jesus even referred to Himself as the bridegroom (Mark 2:19).
No scholar disputes that one or two Gnostic gospels mention that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ “companion” whom He
“kissed.” This ancient word for “companion,” however, often lacks a sexual meaning, and this kiss was simply a sign of
spiritual intimacy, not sexual intimacy. In another Gnostic writing, Jesus also “kissed” St. James for the same reason.
This surely was not an erotic kiss, anymore than the kiss of Judas was! Kissing had many meanings in ancient cultures,
and in Eastern cultures today. Indeed, the early Gnostics, in general, despised sexual expression, within marriage or
otherwise, and also tended to portray Jesus as a great phantom-like teacher who revealed their own very controversial
teachings to be the truth. If the Gnostics’ fear of persecution did not keep them from clearly teaching their heresies, why
would fear keep them from clearly teaching Jesus’ marriage to Mary Magdalene, if they had understood that this union
happened? It seems fair to say that they also did not believe that Jesus had married Mary Magdalene.
Dan Brown is dead wrong. Gnostic writings are NOT older and more reliable than the New Testament documents.
Copies of the surviving Gnostic gospels, which were written many years after most of the New Testament writings, do not
mention that Jesus had a wife. But what if they had? While virtually all biblical scholars believe that our four canonical
gospels tell us something about “the historical Jesus,” they studiously reject any notion that the Gnostic gospels tell us
anything new about Him, except for the Gospel of Thomas. Yet feminists who want to argue against Jesus’ celibacy tend
to ignore this gospel, since it weakens their position.
Apart from the merits of official Catholic teachings concerning marriage, celibacy, and priesthood, one can fairly conclude
that the most reliable data available in the earliest Christian records, and otherwise, strongly suggest that Jesus Christ
was not married to Mary Magdalene because He was not married to anyone at all. THE END.
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