The Marrying Kind

downloadAt the risk of oversimplifying things, we might say that there are two kinds of people interested in Jesus. There are traditionalists, who believe that Jesus was celibate throughout his lifetime. And there are the others. In recent years, we’ve witnessed some very public speculation over whether Jesus could have been married. The topic of a married-and-sexual Jesus is front-and-center in popular works such as The Last Temptation of Christ and The Da Vinci Code. The recent discovery of a purportedly ancient Gospel of Jesus’ Wife (which in all likelihood is a modern forgery) raised the question yet again.

Friend of this blog Anthony Le Donne has recently stepped into this controversy with a terrific new book, The Wife of Jesus: Ancient Texts and Modern Scandals. In my reading experience, Anthony’s book is the single best discussion of Jesus’ probable marital status. Was Jesus married? Anthony doesn’t think so. At least, Anthony thinks that Jesus probably wasn’t married during his public ministry. I agree with Anthony, though my reasons for thinking that Jesus wasn’t married are a little different from Anthony’s. I plan to discuss this question in a later post.

But here, I want to discuss what might be the best part of a very good book. In Wife of Jesus, Anthony examines why we care so much about whether Jesus married. In Anthony’s words, “what does it say about us that we’re so fascinated and repulsed by this possibility?” This is an approach typical of Anthony, to take our questions about the past, and ask instead what our questions say about us.

Anthony argues that we “project our sexual norms and aspirations for progress onto the historical Jesus.” That’s hard to argue with, though our sexual norms and aspirations are so broad and often so contradictory that they could be used to explain almost anything we might project onto Jesus.

Here’s an example of how difficult it is to pin down the relationship between our image of Jesus and our ideas about sexuality. Let’s say that we’re all a bit, er, uneasy, when it comes to sexuality, or talking about sex, or even thinking about sex. If so, then according to Anthony, we might then think about “inventing a sexuality for Jesus simply because we want to assuage our own insecurities.” In other words, if we could just assume that Jesus had sex, then maybe that would make sex OK for us. Whew! That would be a relief. But instead we might take another tack, and assume that Jesus must have had nothing to do with sex. Why? Because we want to believe that a figure as exalted as Jesus could not possibly have engaged in an activity that makes us feel uneasy. So, we might project either our sexuality or our misgivings about sex onto Jesus – the projection of this same uneasiness could have very different results.

Of course, part of the fun of reading Anthony is that he’s not overly concerned with the logic of our projections. Instead, he’s simply going to point it all out to us. So, Anthony’s book describes how Christians who thought that Jesus was celibate came to different conclusions about the sanctity of marriage. He also describes how some followers of Jesus did not think he was celibate. For example, the early Mormon Church described Jesus not merely as married, but married to more than one wife at a time. Some Mormons even imagined that Jesus was persecuted (like the Mormons were persecuted) “because he had so many wives.”

If this amount of projection is not enough for you, rest assured that Anthony ventures further afield. He manages to cite Elton John (who said that “I think Jesus was a compassionate, super-intelligent gay man”), Dave Matthews (who sang about Jesus’ encounter with Mary Magdalene – “he met another Mary for a reasonable fee, less than reputable as known to be”), Calvin and Hobbes, and Eric Clapton.  At one point, he even suggests that the character of “The Dude” in the movie The Big Lebowski offers a positive example of lack of interest in sexual conquest – compared, say, to James Bond, or Captain Kirk.

You’re simply not going to find this stuff in your average book about Jesus.

There’s one portion of Anthony’s book that deserves special mention. Anthony writes with sensitivity about the position of women in the early Church. We have considerable evidence that women held positions of power and authority in the earliest days of the Jesus movement. For example, in the letters of the Apostle Paul, women are mentioned as co-missionaries and even as apostles and deacons. Paul also mentioned married couples (for example, Priscella and Aquila) who worked and travelled together as missionaries. But it appears that this prominence of women in the Church was short-lived, and eventually Church offices were reserved exclusively for men.

Anthony and others have noted that the relegation of women from positions of Church power was accompanied by an obscuring of the memory of the roles played by women during Jesus’ ministry. Perhaps the best (and doubtless the best known) example of this is the Church’s memory of Mary Magdalene. The Gospels show Mary Magdalene travelling with Jesus, present at the cross, and discovering Jesus’ empty tomb. In some of the non-canonical gospels, Mary Magdalene is remembered even more prominently. In the Gospel of Phillip, Mary is remembered as Jesus’ most beloved disciple. In the Gospel of Mary, she is remembered as the person “Jesus loved more than other women,” and as the possessor of teachings of Jesus that the other disciples do not know.

But at some point Mary Magdalene becomes confused with other women mentioned in the Gospels, and her remembered image changes, to that of a repentant prostitute. There are some scholars who believe that this was done deliberately, to discourage female leadership in the Church. Anthony does not say this outright. But Anthony makes strong statements concerning the Church’s memory of another woman, the Salome mentioned in the Gospel of Mark as another travelling companion of Jesus. Like Mary Magdalene, this Salome witnessed the crucifixion. But this Salome does not fare as well in the Christian memory represented by the non-canonical Gospels. In the Proto-Gospel of James, Salome plays the role of the skeptic who does not believe in the virgin birth of Jesus until she performs a gynecological examination of Mary. In the Gospel of the Egyptians, Salome asks Jesus how long death will prevail, and Jesus answers sharply, “For as long as you women bear children.” Anthony describes these texts as “misogynist propaganda,” where Salome becomes a “foil,” a “spokesperson for the sinful cycle perpetrated by childbirth.”

While I share Anthony’s concern for the role of women in the early Church, I’m not sure if Anthony is trying to tie this “misogynist propaganda” to the popularity of celibacy in the early Church. Is Anthony arguing that celibacy was a misogynistic reaction against female sexuality, an effort to denigrate women by downplaying the sacred importance of childbirth? If so, we must also note that celibacy may have been adopted by Christian women who sought a more prominent role in Christian life. We have many examples in surviving Christian literature of women who embraced celibacy as central to their commitment to Christianity. April DeConick argues in her book Holy Misogyny that Mary Magdalene herself might have been celibate, or at least, that she was probably remembered that way in many Christian communities. She also argues that the Christian communities that most enthusiastically embraced celibacy were also the communities where women remained longest in leadership roles.

But if I take a slightly different perspective, I might argue that celibacy was a practical option for only a small fraction of women in early Christianity. A woman might remain celibate if she could find a potential husband who also desired celibacy – but in all likelihood, such men were rare. Celibacy was also an option for women of independent means. But in the ancient world, where women had little economic power, the only role available to the vast majority of women was as wife and mother. For these women, female celibacy (no matter how celebrated) must have been nothing more than a distant fantasy. The surest way to raise the status and improve the lot of these women would be to give the highest possible value to female sexuality, childbearing, and childrearing. And of course, celibacy demeaned this value.

Or so I might argue.

In truth, the questions I’m discussing here – gender, sexuality and procreation – are enormously complicated. Kudos to Anthony for trying to address them all, and for succeeding as well as he did. I think that the safest and sanest thing to do is to retreat back to the portions of Anthony’s book that I discussed at the beginning of this post: we project our norms and aspirations onto Jesus. These norms and aspirations are complicated. So is Jesus. The results are difficult to categorize … but they are fascinating to think about, and discuss, and Anthony brings out this fascination with great skill and enthusiasm.

But if you’re like most people, the question you really find fascinating is: was Jesus married? We’ll address Anthony’s answer to this question in my next post.

  • Anthony Le Donne

    Thank you, Larry. After my research for this book, it became clear to me that some misogynistic tendencies were at work in the reframing of the legacies of Salome and Mary. This was why Mary Magdalene eventually became sexualized in later commemorative activity. It very well could be why she has become the most likely candidate to attach to Jesus when we want to scandalize him. As for practices of celibacy in the early Church, we run into trouble because all we have are the perspectives of male leaders. So we can only point to what a few male voices say about the reasons for avoiding marriage, family, sex, etc. It is also clear that not all of these (few) men chose celibacy because they were anti-sex or anti-women.

    That said, April’s suggestion is intriguing.


    • lbehrendt

      Very good point about the problem of trying to understand the point of view of women by reading the words written by a few men. But there may be oral traditions behind some of these words, and we might assume that women contributed to these oral traditions. I did not mention “The Acts of Paul and Thecla” in this post, but I think I remember hearing that this particular apocryphal book was popular among women. So in addition to authorship, we have reception history to consider. If women enjoyed the story of Thecla — a woman who walked away from her impending marriage and vowed celibacy after listening to the apostle Paul — that might tell us something about the attitudes of women in the early Church. I think that lifelong celibacy could have been little more than a fantasy for the vast majority of women in Jesus’ world, but it’s interesting to consider whether it might have been an attractive fantasy!

      I’m just speculating, but couldn’t we assume that at least some women in the ancient world might have found appealing a message stating that it was OK (even better than OK) to be celibate? After all, childbirth was a dangerous activity.

      I much enjoyed your book’s discussion of Mary M. and Salome. It seems that Jesus’ celibacy has a huge impact on our attitudes concerning sex and gender — it has rippled its way through our history in odd and disturbing ways.