US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Don't be so quick to dismiss "Jesus' wife"

By Meghan Murphy-Gill | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

In the past year, I’ve never seen Catholic journalists and bloggers from both conservative and liberal camps so united. No, it wasn’t to rally against a health care directive in the name of religious freedom. Rather, it was the coverage of the discovery of papyrus with writings about Jesus, where, according to historian Karen Kring, he refers to “his wife.”

Catholic media on the left and right are united in their smug responses to headlines that ponder the possibility of a wife of Jesus. I read this National Catholic Register post in a Napoleon Dynamite voice:

Dynamite especially hates that headlines read like enticing headlines.

And then there’s this gem: “[I]f you are looking for definitive proof that Jesus did not have a wife, I think I have it.  Jesus is God, so he couldn't possibly have been that stupid.”

Though without the sexism (or whatever it is; it’s hard to tell what is implied as this is where the post simply ends), this post on dotCommonweal is equally sarcastic.

“This doesn’t change anything!” Catholics of both sides are quick to point out.

The Register post insists that by saying “We just don’t know because the Bible doesn’t say anything about it” as grounds for speculation on Jesus’ love life would, by the same logic, allow us to say that maybe Jesus also invented, say, pizza: “The Bible is silent on this point so Jesus could have had a wife!!! They say.  By that logic, Jesus could have had a McMansion in the Golan heights and a time share in Gaza, the Bible is silent on that too.” But as a friend pointed out: “Yes, except that one of these examples is historically plausible and one of them is stupidly anachronistic.”

All eyerolling aside, I agree that the discovery doesn’t change what believe about Jesus Christ our savior. His having (or, rather, not having, I, as a Catholic journalist, am under obligation to inform you) a wife doesn't change our core beliefs, or even questions about women's roles in the church. They have little to do with Jesus' marital status (still single!). Clerical celebacy doesn't even depend on Jesus being a permanent bachelor.

Of course the artifact doesn’t change our faith, but it can impact it, by changing what we know about a long history of believers. Frankly, I think it’s fascinating to discover that there was a group of fourth-century Christians who thought Jesus was married. It matters, again, because it really enriches the understanding of Jesus as a human.

As I’m writing, someone sent me this excellent essay by Michael Peppard: He puts it this way (more eloquently):

It is likely that, whatever words completed the sentence about Jesus’ “wife,” the new fragment came from a text that engaged some of the central questions of its day for Christians: Were sex and procreation blessings God wished for everyone? Or was some spiritual value to be sought in renunciation and celibacy? If Jesus spoke in figurative language of weddings, brides, and grooms, what and whom specifically was he talking about? The transmitter of this ancient text was likely trying to understand these legitimate questions, along with how Jesus’ singleness (or not) was to be understood as a model of Christian holiness.

Christians need not fear such timeless questions. We keep learning and striving to understand the issues that generated our past—even when its pieces are puzzling.

Sidenote: Given that Catholics believe in the birth of a child to a virgin and a the resurrection of a dead man not merely as symbolic tales, but as historical fact, you’d think we’d have a little more imagination when it comes to understanding the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth.