Dearly Beloved

Coptic Christians have been in the news recently. In a late push to be known as the radical orthodox, it seems, the Copts have arrested the headlines. Tensions in the Middle East appear to have shifted to this ancient group and the media finds itself fascinated by them. In an unrelated development, a Coptic papyrus fragment appears to mention Jesus’ wife, according to CNN’s Belief Blog. Naturally, people are curious (read “upset”) at this revelation, although it is not history, just tradition. For decades, perhaps centuries, scholars of Christianity have noted that Jewish guys Jesus’ age would have been, by all social expectations, married. Celibacy was not really an option in the first century of the common era, and yet, no one explicitly mentions Jesus’ wife. This causes a larger crisis for divinity, because once Jesus was recognized as divine what would you do with a wife? She would complicate things (or at least theology).

The female divine is certainly as ancient as the male divine, culturally speaking, if not older. Despite cartoons of Cro-Magnon man dragging Cro-Magnon woman by the hair, all indications are that early people revered the feminine mystique as life-givers. Naturally, this equates to a kind of divinity. Only when society grew to be dominated by politics, no matter how primitive, did the male usurp the role of life-giving image-of-god-bearer. The male part in procreation was upgraded to being the creator, and the female relegated to a mere receptacle. Male gods alone could create universes, and women were downgraded to incomplete men. Still, in the myths around Israel (and perhaps within Israel as well) gods were married. The divine principle included both genders, although in an unequal distribution of power.

Fast forward twenty centuries and we have movements that encourage young women to consider Jesus as a kind of chaste lover. That’s a little hard to do if he was married—issues of adultery, at least in fantasy land, cause a real complication. The fact of history is that we possess very little of Jesus’ biography. Depending on how we parcel out the Gospels, we know only about one year’s worth (or three very scant years) of his life. Many personal details are left out. The Bible is clear that he had brothers and sisters, and even some of their names are preserved. We know his parents and find out that he was a cousin of John the Baptist. The relationships likely continued from there into other connections, but they weren’t central to the story the Gospel-writers wanted to tell. Adding women always complicates a male religion. Only non-gendered religions can be truly universal.

So this newly translated Coptic fragment comes from centuries later when it would seem natural that any Jewish man of the time would have been married. What was his wife’s name? Here’s the beauty of the revelation: for that, we can still offer the consolation, “fill in the blank.”

Rounding up the usual suspects?

7 responses to “Dearly Beloved

  1. Pingback: 3 Jesus’ Wife (With Fill in the Blank at the End)

  2. There’s a problem with the ‘by all social expectations…’ argument. It’s based on the reasoning that:
    1. Ordinary Jews in the first century were married.
    2. As a (relatively) prominent first century rabbi, Jesus would have been an ordinary Jew, therefore
    3. Jesus was probably married.

    It often ignores the obvious rebuttal that Jesus was far from an ‘ordinary Jew’. Divinity and miracles notwithstanding, his message and lifestyle were usually quite countercultural. Add to that the first century precedent of celibate Essenes and other fringey groups, and it’s harder to argue that he MUST have been married. No one regularly suggests that John the Baptist was married, but the same argument could apply to him.

    Your points about the female divine are well-taken, but I don’t think they apply here. After all, this document only shows that in the second century, some people talked about Jesus as if he were married. Some future civilization unearthing part of a Dan Brown manuscript could say the same thing about SOME PEOPLE in twenty-first century society.

    How far into the future does a mere two thousand years seem like ‘soon after the time of Jesus’, the way we assume the second century to be?

    • Hi Jonathan,

      Thanks for your comments. I appreciate the critical thought you put into your response. I would point out, however, that being countercultural does not imply a lifestyle out of sync with the basic social expectations. The Essenes were definitely fringe, but their rules only applied to those who lived in community with them–something neither John nor Jesus did, at least not for the period of the New Testament records. John may have been married; suggest that and you’ll get little rise out of anyone, I expect.

      I don’t suggest Jesus was married. I don’t suggest he was not. I do think that casting the divine in a single gender will always be problematic. The more we learn about gender the more likely it will be that even two genders would not be adequate.

      I think the second century was quite a long time, even by today’s standards, from the events reported. Most people today cannot accurately report the way things were in the early 20th century, so the timing has little bearing beyond the fact that by then the tradition of Jesus’ putative wife had already begun.

      Thanks for weighing in!

  3. I’ll admit that it’s not a strong argument in favour of celibacy, but what I meant was to highlight the weakness of the assumption that Jesus must have been a typical Jewish rabbi, or must/I> have had a wife in order to be taken seriously (I’ve heard that last point specifically argued). Did people disregard Jeremiah on account of his celibacy? Or is ‘not being taken seriously’ a significant part of Jesus’ (or many prophets’) witness? (I always assumed that John ate locusts precisely because there was no Mrs. the Baptist to cook for him!)

    Attempts to neuter Jesus by repressing his sexuality have led to repressive notions of gender within the Church, and what gets repressed has a way of bubbling to the surface in all kinds of creepy pseudo-sexual devotion. But note the way that the Wisdom literature sets up ‘Lady Wisdom’ as the ideal wife. This is nothing new. If ‘only non-gendered religions can be universal’ does the particularity of the Incarnation mean that Christianity is fundamentally flawed? For me, this is a question of universality vs particularity.

    • Oh snap. I left an HTML tag open. I might have learned to think critically at Nashotah House, but I’m still working on my proofreading! :-)

    • Thanks, Jonathan, I always appreciate your replies! I don’t think it’s so much a matter of being taken seriously vis-a-vis marriage status, but a matter of what was worthy of note at the time. I very much doubt that anyone in the first century would have considered it necessary to mention that any rabbi had a wife; it was expected. It would not have been unusual for someone at the time to have mentioned lack of a wife, if even in ridicule. That doesn’t mean that Jesus was married, it just leaves the possibility open.

      I agree that gender is one of the largest unresolved issues for Christian theology. When you add in the intersex issue (and it is a very serious one), new layers of complexity enter in. I see no reason to question that Jesus was male, nor Lady Wisdom female. But even the latter has a husband, according to the book of Proverbs!

  4. The plight of the Copts in today’s Egypt is of greater importance than this snippet of presumptive archaeology, but leave it to Americans to go for the sensational. I have grand-nephews getting beat up in Sharm el Sheik because they’ve inherited their parents’ cultural persuasion. For years, people I’ve met were surprised to discover there was Orthodox Christianty in Egypt. Now everyone thinks they know all about it because one idiot out in the land of fruits and nuts has been identified with the religion. It’s less a religion than it is a community. Though I haven’t wanted my in-laws to sign up for Islam, I’ve also regretted that they were persecuted more for their shared traditions than for a true sense of or faith in God.

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