I would like to thank Harvard Theological Review for the considerate timing of their recent issue. You have no idea how much pressure I was feeling to go see a Russell Crowe flick. Luckily, Jesus' chuppah trumps hot-and-bothered rock monsters almost every time. I can now wait for it on Amazon Prime. I'm hoping for some targumic special features!
Karen King’s recent HTR essay suggests a later date than she originally guessed. Perhaps the fragment comes from the eighth century. Moreover, she suggests that (given the time period) this fragment might betray some Islamic ideology concerning marriage.
It is an interesting suggestion, but I will suggest three other ideological contexts that I think explain Jesus’ marriage better. But let’s be clear from the start, in all three of these options, Jesus’ marriage is arranged. The Jesus we find in the New Testament is not for traditional family values by anyone’s standards. If he was married or has become married in our collective imagination, it wasn’t something that Jesus pursued for himself.
Jesus’ marriage would have been arranged by his parents, probably between his 16th and 30th birthdays. In rabbinic literature the age of twenty is given as the upper limit of marriage (especially important for aspiring teachers and religious leaders). The Babylonian Talmud suggests that boys who want to avoid lust (cf. Paul’s rationale) should get married shortly after puberty. The Jerusalem Talmud offers a slightly later age range. By and large, the rabbis don't recommend celibacy as an option, much less see it as desirable. To pursue celibacy was tantamount to a disregard for family honor, fiscal wellbeing, and ancestral blessing. Rabbinic literature postdates Jesus by several centuries, but the issues of family honor, fiscal wellbeing, and ancestral blessing are very ancient. To the point, these issues are among the most important in Jesus' culture.
Closer to Jesus’ time, texts from the Babatha cache and the Dead Sea Scrolls also link marriage to the age of twenty. Interestingly 1QSa 1:9−11 suggests that twenty is the minimum age for marriage, thus placing the number at the lower end of the ideal. But why is the age of twenty important in all of these texts? The answer probably has to do with puberty. In this book, I write:
Many rabbis used the age of twenty to measure the upper limit of puberty. If a boy does not produce two pubic hairs by the age of twenty, he can be declared a “eunuch.” If a girl does not produce two pubic hairs by this age, she can be declared “sterile.” One rabbinic text claims, “All the same is a boy nine years and one day old and one who is twenty years old but has not produced two pubic hairs.” [Yebam, 10.9g] The point of agreement in these Jewish texts is that the age of twenty (most commonly) is when a man is mature enough for marriage. Most males would have reached marriage readiness long before twenty; twenty years probably represents the upper limit of marriage readiness.
It is safe to say that men in Jesus’ day, especially if they were to become the spiritual leaders/bread winners of their families, would have been matched around the age of twenty. The ideals of family honor, fiscal wellbeing, and ancestral blessing were hinged on the success of an arranged match. Oddly, however, Jesus seems to say some very strange things about family honor, fiscal wellbeing, and ancestral blessing. Could it be that Jesus was a social outlier and/or an iconoclast? He looks to have eschewed “traditional family values” in his public career. This, of course, does not prove that Jesus wasn’t matched to a bride in his early twenties, but it does give us reason for pause. I think it highly unlikely that Jesus pursued marriage during his public career, but I have no problem at all suggesting that he might have been married in his early years. If so, it was a decision made for him by his culture, his clan, and his parents.
If Jesus wasn’t married in his twenties, perhaps he was married in the middle ages. I don’t mean when he was having a midlife crisis; I mean the medieval period. Karen King now suggests that the Jesus’ wife fragment comes from the eighth century CE. I still have my doubts. But let’s grant that the fragment does come from the eighth century. Who would have had motive to arrange Jesus’ marriage (imaginatively) in the eighth century? There are a few options.
Prof. King suggests Islamic influence. It would certainly be in keeping with Islamic ideals. But I think there are better options. We know that some Christians sensitive to encratite tendencies (either in reaction to or in support of asceticism) used the metaphor of "union" to explain spiritual transcendence. Becoming one with a male counterpart on a higher spiritual plain was a metaphor for true discipleship. We see the legacy of Mary Magdalene adapt to this theology between the 2nd and 6th centuries. So perhaps some Christians imagined a married Jesus during this period and this image survived for several centuries. We might see some residue in Cathar theology. But beware! The Cathars are accused of being world-class freaks, exhibiting some freaky-weird freakiness. In a footnote, I write:
In the early thirteenth century, a group called the “Cathars” were accused of teaching that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. In their view, Magdalene was one and the same with the “adulterous woman” of John 4:7−42. But it is extremely difficult to differentiate between what the Cathars taught and what they were accused of teaching. For example, they were accused of incest, bestiality, contraception, and so on. In other words, their theological opponents accused them of being anti-Catholic at every turn when it came to sexuality (and a host of other issues). On the contrary, the Cathars probably practiced sexual abstinence to a great extent. So we do not have an untainted window (via Roman Catholic propaganda and interrogation) into what this sect believed or taught. It is possible, however, that they believed that there were two Christs. The first Christ was heavenly and the second was earthly – the second being evil (or a pseudo-Christ). If the Cathars did indeed teach of this marriage, a further level of difficulty emerges in trying to determine which of the two Christs wed Magdalene. See Yuri Stoyanov, The Other God: Dualist Religions from Antiquity to the Cathar Heresy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), pp. 278−280.
So there it is: they practiced contraception. You don’t get freakier than that! But—back to our topic—we have to wonder: which of the Cathar’s “two Christs” was married? Was it the good Christ or was it the Christ with a menacing goatee (à la evil Spock)?
But there is a third option. If Jesus wasn’t married in his twenties, and he wasn’t believed to be literally married in the medieval period (i.e. it was a metaphor and everybody from Gnostics to Cathars knew it was a metaphor), perhaps he was married very recently. Perhaps Jesus was married as officiated by novelist Dan Brown.
Really, no one has done more to strike down the notion that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute than Dan Brown. He might write at a 5th-grade level, but give him props for dispelling the slander of her made popular by Pope Gregory (540–604 CE). Granted, Brown simply sexualizes Mary in a different way, but boys will be boys, so I’m told. If Brown is responsible for promoting a literally married Jesus in 2003, we can thank him for planting the seeds of our most recent forgery.
I remain open to all possibilities.
So there are your options: (1) Jesus was arranged to be married by his parents/clan in the first century; (2) Jesus was married in the spiritual imaginations of Christianity in the 2nd-6th Centuries and this metaphor survived in some circles into the medieval period; (3) Our modern preoccupations and debates about marriage and sexuality have fueled a religious culture wherein certain sorts of forgeries can thrive.
There is a fourth option: it’s all of the above.