In my last post, I began my review of Anthony Le Donne’s terrific new book The Wife of Jesus. I focused there on the first half of Anthony’s book, where he discusses why Jesus’s marital status is so important to us. Anthony argues (and I think he’s right) that we project our sexual aspirations, misgivings and hang-ups onto the figure of Jesus of Nazareth. Given the complicated nature of our sexuality, it is no wonder that Jesus appears to some of us as celibate, to others of us as married with children, and to still others (albeit a few others, more than 100 years ago) as married multiple times.
But my guess is, no one purchased The Life of Jesus to read about projected sexualities. My guess is, Anthony’s readers want to know whether Jesus was married. My guess is that some of these readers want Anthony to confirm that traditional Christianity is right to believe that Jesus eschewed all sexual activity, because Sons of G-d do not and would not engage in that sort of thing. My guess is that other readers want Anthony to say that Jesus was married, had children and engaged in sex pretty much like other human beings of his time and place.
I also guess that Anthony may have disappointed some of these readers! Anthony concludes that Jesus probably was not married, at least not during the period documented by the Gospels, when he engaged in his public ministry. But at the same time, Anthony’s understanding of Jesus’ view of marriage is hardly traditional. Anthony does not read the Gospels to say that Jesus thought marriage was wrong for him but right for the rest of us. Instead, Anthony reads the Gospels to indicate that Jesus had a negative view of marriage in general.
Even for a Jew like me, it’s odd to think that Jesus could have said anything negative about marriage. I mean, people get married in churches, with clergy officiating. “Find G-d’s Match For You,” right? But it’s there in the Gospels, as Anthony points out: Jesus recommends against marriage. When his disciples say it is better not to marry, Jesus agrees with them, saying “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given.”
We might also guess that the apostle Paul might reflect Jesus’ views on marriage … and Paul seems to agree with Jesus that marriage is best avoided. Paul does say that it’s OK to marry to avoid sexual immorality and the consequences thereof: “it is better to marry than to burn.” But Paul also said that it’s best not to marry. “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” And while the New Testament is silent concerning Jesus’ possible marriage, Paul indicates in his letters that he is unmarried. And he seems proud of this status. “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am.”
If all this is not convincing enough, then consider what Anthony calls “one of the most peculiar sayings in the New Testament”: Jesus’ reference to those “who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus appears to be recommending this action! “Let anyone accept this who can,” he tells us. Talk about taking seriously a vow of celibacy! I very much want to believe that Jesus referred to eunuchs in a metaphoric and not a literal sense. But what if we consider Jesus’ approval of eunuch-ness with his statement at the Sermon on the Mount that “it is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell”? I don’t even want to think about interpreting these two sayings in combination.
Jesus is not only pro-celibacy, but he also says a number of things that seem to be anti-family. He tells Peter that eternal rewards await all those who leave house, wife and family for the sake of the kingdom of G-d. He said that his disciples were “my mother and my brothers,” at the same time refusing to speak to his real mother and brothers. Most jarring of all: Jesus said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters – yes, even their own life – such a person cannot be my disciple.” Could it be possible that Jesus was out to destroy the family? It would be impossible to believe, if Jesus hadn’t said as much: “I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law – a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.”
Of course, Christianity today is not anti-family, and the Church today does not understand Jesus to be anti-family. It’s certainly possible to find provisions in the Gospel where Jesus appears to be family-oriented. For example, Jesus repeats the command to honor father and mother, indicating that this command is more important than the obligation to give to charity. While suffering on the cross, Jesus made sure that his mother would be taken care of after his death. When Jesus prohibited divorce, he did so in terms that seem to uphold the sanctity of marriage: “What G-d has joined together, let no one separate.”
But then, what is Christianity to do with those statements of Jesus that seem opposed to “family values”? These provisions are traditionally interpreted to mean that people should love their families, and love Jesus even more. Jesus does say something like this: “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” But that’s doesn’t exactly contradict the statements quoted above, about leaving family, denying family and hating family. And while we’re considering all of the evidence, we should also note that Jesus’ family doesn’t always regard him favorably. John’s Gospel tells us that even Jesus’ brothers did not believe in him. Mark’s Gospel tells us that at one point at least, Jesus’ family thinks that he has lost his mind.
OK. Far be it from me, your humble (!) Jewish observer of what lies at the Jewish-Christian intersection, to pass judgment here. Anthony writes that “it is likely that Jesus’ first Jewish followers were encouraged to disassociate from their blood relatives.” That may be true, or perhaps (like Jesus’ sayings concerning eunuchs), we shouldn’t take literally all of the things Jesus said about family. But the question remains: even if Jesus said some things against marriage that he didn’t mean the way they sound, would a married man have talked this way? I don’t think so. I can’t imagine Jesus saying these things, and then going home to face a peeved (if hypothetical) Mrs. Jesus. “What’s this I hear about your telling everyone to hate their wives?” I imagine that a married Jesus would have spent many nights on his living room couch (suggesting that even if Jesus did marry, which I don’t think he did, he still might have been celibate).
So … does it make sense for Jesus to have advocated celibacy, but not have been celibate himself? Does it make sense that Jesus could have said the things he said about marriage and family, while himself being married and having a family? Anthony concludes that this is unlikely. I find his argument utterly persuasive.
But we’re still left with a question (and I’m left with another post to write!): why did Jesus choose to be celibate and unmarried? What, exactly, was his problem with sex and matrimony? These questions will lead us into a discussion I’d really like to have: what was the Jewish view of sex and marriage in Jesus’ day? And what was it about Jesus, the thoroughly Jewish Jesus, that led him to celibacy and bachelorhood?