Baker Academic

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Jesus Was not a Romantic - Le Donne

The last book-length treatment of Jesus' marital status was written in 1970 by William E. Phipps.  In his Was Jesus Married?, Phipps imagined that Jesus and his wife were in a passionate tug-of-war between desire and commitment. Jesus’ wife turned to a life of prostitution in a tale of love lost and regained.  Phipps, of course, was projecting what has become commonplace in love stories in the western world.  In order to make Jesus' marriage seem authentic, Phipps appealed to the universality of love and marriage.

There are many problems with Phipps' book, but the assumption that first-century marriage was initiated and sustained by romance is the most problematic.

Why?  Because courtly love had not been invented yet. Here is an excerpt from my book The Wife of Jesus: Ancient Texts and Modern Scandals...

 Excerpt from my chapter titled "From Persia with Love":
In the fourteenth century, from the vernacular of Old French, the word “romanz” emerges. The word that once meant “verse narrative” evolved into our concept of “romance” and all that it now implies. This  is  not  to  say that  erotic  love  or  love  poetry  did  not  exist before this period. Of course, the term “erotic” reminds us of the Greek god “Eros” who embodied sexuality and power as early as 700  b.c.e.  There  can  be  no  doubt  that countless commoners across the ancient world felt a deep affection for their partners. But courtship (romance as primary motive for marriage) seems to be a medieval development. It should also be noted that erotic attraction had  been  a  factor  in  choosing  a  mate  long  before the medieval period. It is the centrality of courtly love that is relatively recent.
   The  modern,  Western  concept  of  marriage  is  a  case  in  point. Simply put, we marry for love. To marry for money, or power, or almost anything else is almost taboo. A “loveless marriage” is commonly seen as grounds for divorce. Undoubtedly it took centuries for the impact of the Persian and French poets to become the common basis for marriage, but the Western world is now driven by romance; it  has  become fundamental  to  our  psychology  and  moral  fiber. Because of this, it is almost impossible for us to imagine a world where romantic love wasn’t the basis for marriage.
   C.S.  Lewis  claims  that  the  explosion  of courtly  love  ideology created  “impassible  barriers”  between the  modern,  Western  mind and  the  rest of  human  history  and  culture.  Our preoccupation with romance  motivates  us,  indeed  defines us,  in  profound  ways. This perspective on the world stands between us and a clear view of  Jesus’  culture.  It  is  also  important  to  underscore  a  point  I’ve made above:  eroticism  among  the  social  elites  (for  example,  the biblical eroticism of Song of Songs) probably doesn’t represent the experiences of common folk. Being of an artisan and farming class, Jesus’  life  in  first-century  Galilee  would  have  been  dissimilar  in  a number of ways from those of the social elites such as Antony and Cleopatra.  So  not  only  are  there  cultural  barriers  between  Jesus’ culture and ours, there were barriers between the ruling classes and the peasant classes during Jesus’ time.
    In  short,  the  motivations  for  and  the  functions  of  marriage  in Jesus’ culture are simply going to seem remote to us. Our inability to imagine a world where courtship is not the basis for marriage is going to be a barrier that hinders our understanding of  Jesus’ culture.  When we Westerners think of marriage, we think of a relationship built upon mutual affection, desire, and respect. Social and financial stability, extended family considerations, and progeny are often seen as important, but secondary. But in Jesus’ culture these priorities were reversed. Social and financial stability, extended family considerations, and progeny were primary. Mutual affection, desire, and respect were often seen as important, but secondary. If we are to take seriously the possibility that Jesus might have been married, we must anticipate motives for marriage that will seem quite alien to us.
In the following chapter, "Average Joe", I write:
In  the  previous  chapter,  I  suggested  that  marriage  in  Jesus’ culture would not have been the result of two people falling in love. I also suggested that the decision to marry would have been made for the good of the clan, not merely for the two people concerned. That said, the burden of finding the right match would have been primarily in the hands of two people: the fathers of the groom and bride. It is also important to recognize that the benefits of a good marriage would be enjoyed by two primary people: father and son.
    In Jesus’ culture, as with many ancient societies, the most important relationship in the clan was that of the father and son. With this in mind, I will focus here on the kinds of motives and considerations that Jesus’ father might have had. I will also discuss matters related to the average age of marriage in Jewish antiquity and the average life expectancy. These will be important considerations if we assume that Jesus was about thirty years of age when he began his public career as a preacher. I will also suggest that Joseph probably lived to see his son reach puberty – that is, he lived long enough to be burdened with the responsibility of finding Jesus a wife.
What previous conversations and controversies about Jesus' marital status have missed is that if Jesus was married (and this is still a big if) his was not the most important opinion in the room.  If we are to discuss this possibility seriously, we must begin with the social expectations placed on Joseph and Mary.  Family honor, ancestral blessing, and the very survival of the clan were at stake in the continuity of marriage. If Jesus chose singleness (and this is still a big if) it would have been a choice to flout honor and faith, not romance.



  1. Good stuff. I wonder if you will get any feminist reaction to this. I sense you may be selling short the women of antiquity. Yes, patriarchy. But I think that mothers and daughters had more to say about marriage than you're indicating, even if the formal decision-making lay with the men.

    Also ... if Jesus' opinion "was not the most important opinion in the room", then how can you say that he "chose singleness"?

    1. Thanks for your questions, Larry. I do discuss Mary's possible involvement in the match-making process elsewhere in the book, but simply to suggest a subversion to the standard cultural narrative. What I learned in my research was that even if the mother was involved in a significant way (notice that I do say "Joseph and Mary" above), the public face of the arrangement was meant to bring honor to the father. The father gets to accumulate honor for playing the part of "provider".

      To your second question: as with any social given, we can imagine counter-cultural action. With some counter-cultural actions come consequences too severe to consider seriously. In order to argue for a Jesus who detached himself from family honor, we will have to admit that we're dealing with a social outlier. This possibility does not diminish the essential collectivism of match making, it simply suggests that the social dynamics would have made an individual move toward anti-social behavior highly unlikely.

      One point that I make in the book is that a choice to remain single (and this was not unheard of, just highly unlikely) would have been as aberrant as choosing not to have a bank account in the modern west. Further, I think you've underplayed my big IF... I did my best to emphasize the IF. Did you see the "if"? It was right there at the end. See it?


    2. I'll resist the urge to pretend I didn't see the "if". I just moved it, so I could ask my question. I know how to ask "if ... then" questions, but I haven't mastered the "if ... if" question. Insufficient time studying Talmud, I suppose.

      I defer to your greater knowledge, but I think the honor you speak of is conferred on the entire family, with the father at its head as its public face. You mention "essential collectivism", and that IS essential. The daughter/bride is going to share in the honor, because she's a member of the family. It's tricky to say more, because we live today in an individualistic culture, and we don't have the language to discuss or even understand the collectivist mindset without anachronism. But the way I imagine it is, she's not going through with the marriage just to please Dad and add some points to his honor ledger. My sense of it is, she enjoys the honor too, and cares about it, and seeks to enhance it, not merely out of a sense of duty, but because it enhances her status and prestige.

      The literature of the time often focuses on the negative here, the potential that a daughter could bring shame to a family. But the mirror-image is there, too: a recognition that the honor brought to the family by a good marriage is in part the result of the virtue of the good daughter/bride. To the extent that we can talk about individuals in a collectivist society (and there is such an extent; the collectivist ancients themselves were fully capable of such talk), then this honor reflects back on the daughter/bride. It has to.

      Ditto for the "if" you describe. If Jesus didn't marry, then whatever shame this brought to Jesus' family attached to Jesus too. Extending the "if", this shame must have followed Jesus when he left his home and his family, and began his ministry. In fact, we may be missing the elephant in the room (though I bet it's in your book): when Jesus LEFT home and family for his ministry, he may have shamed them, and effectively shamed himself. In characteristic fashion, he faced this shame head-on, not only advising others to do what he did, but also saying that the Son of Man would be ashamed of anyone who could not put this sense of shame aside.

      Good stuff, Anthony. I think you underplayed my telling you so. Did you see the "good stuff"? It was right there in the beginning. See it?

  2. Anthony,

    How do you characterize the relationship between love and marriage in, say, *Daphnis and Chloe*, or even in *Joseph and Aseneth*?

    It seems to me that the ancient romance novels *did* see love as the basis for marriage. Or at least it did so at the level of an ideal for those looking forward to their own marriage.

    1. Thanks Jack, as always I appreciate your keen eyes!

      In the book I am very careful to make a distinction between the fantasies, aspirations, and eroticism of cultural elites and the common practices of everyone else. Moreover I would argue that fantasies, aspirations, and eroticism does not bespeak common practice even among the elites.