In my opinion, the most important contribution is his convincing demonstration that historical silence is a knife that cuts both ways. Indeed, I’m not sure that I’ve come across a study of Jesus that makes this particular point in such an emphatic fashion. Let me demonstrate how this works by interacting with two interrelated claims of the book.
First, and to cut to the chase, Le Donne does not think that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, but not for the reason typically given. Scholars typically argue that Jesus was not married to Mary Magdalene because nothing in the Gospels really would make you think that he was. Certainly, she seems to be one of his disciples, and a particularly important one of his female disciples. But there’s really nothing to suggest a sexual or romantic relationship. Le Donne points this out and shows how this type of speculation really only emerged much later in ancient Christian and medieval reflection on Mary Magdalene. Supporting this point, he argues that the concept of “romance” isn’t entirely comfortable in Second Temple Judaism and that, when it comes to Jesus’ sexuality or marital status, one should think not in terms of “love” of the hearts-and-butterflies variety but in terms of family, honor, and duty. Citing Jesus’ tense relationship with immediate family (especially the interchange in Mark 3:31–35) and Jesus’ teaching that his disciples should abandon family and family obligations on various occasions (“Let the dead bury their own dead,” etc.), Le Donne argues that Jesus seems to have been something of a non-conformist when it came to family. Thus, it seems very unlikely that Jesus would have settled down into a family role with a spouse during his public ministry.
That last part is italicized because it’s an important nuance that Le Donne has added to the discourse on Jesus and Mary and the second matter I want to mention. In short, he thinks it is possible that Jesus was married at some point in time earlier. Indeed, Le Donne goes so far as to say that, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, our default setting should be that Jesus was married earlier in life. In support, he cites Paul, rabbinic evidence, the Dead Sea Scrolls, life expectancy studies, and also Roman evidence. He demonstrates that there was societal pressure to marry, pretty much regardless of which society you’re using to approach Jesus.
On the first point, Le Donne’s observations that typical default thinking about marital relationships in Second Temple Judaism belongs more comfortably in the modern world than the ancient world is convincing. It’s also clear to me that Jesus acted at least occasionally in manners that were contrary to society’s familial norms. The second point is, in my opinion, less convincing, but it depends upon the degree to which you interrogate it. Le Donne forwards this only as a possibility that has to be taken seriously; he never forwards it as a conclusion he has reached. But, Le Donne mentions it so often that rhetorically I think he might give even the possibility more credit than it is due. I don’t think the evidence about the normalcy of marriage in Jewish society is so strong that we must constantly think that it’s just as likely that Jesus was married earlier in life (“perhaps in his early twenties”; 128) as it is that he wasn’t. Le Donne’s appeal to Paul’s celibacy is interesting here (as is his frequent appeal to Peter’s marriage), but suffice it to say that I’m equally unconvinced that it is “quite possible” (106) that Paul was married earlier in life. There’s an issue here that his study raises but doesn’t fully address, although it does address the larger methodological matter to which it relates: If Jesus (or Paul) was a non-conformist on these issues later in his public ministry, upon what grounds can we say that this outlook was confined to that period of his life? Could he not have been a non-conformist earlier, which would lead us to conclude or suspect that—most likely—he was not married later and also was not married earlier? Stated otherwise, how are we to decide whether the later practice was a change from earlier practice or in continuity with earlier practice? How do we speculate upon the unknown in light of the known?
We’re dealing with the role of silence in historical argument, but for me there’s not enough to tip the scale from “possible” in the sense of we-really-have-no-idea-one-way-or-the-other to “quite possible.” This is the splitting of hairs, of course, but in this instance I think it’s important because it’s the role of these types of questions that Le Donne’s study highlights as crucial to historical study of Jesus of Nazareth, and more crucial than we often recognize.
Indeed, this is, in my opinion, his most important contribution, which earlier I described as demonstrating that historical silence is a knife that cuts both ways. Le Donne uses the historical silence that scholars typically employ in order to reject the idea that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene in order to affirm that he likely was, or at least very well could have been, married to someone else before his public ministry. In short, according to Le Donne, Jesus wasn’t married to Mary, but that doesn’t mean that he wasn’t married. The discomfort that many throughout history have had with a married Jesus is one focus of the book, but this other contribution is directed further toward those who feel that discomfort: Why, in what we all recognize as an issue clouded by historical silence, are some people happy to invoke that silence when it helps affirm their preferred perspective but marginalize that silence when it would suggest a number of other possibilities that are not particularly welcome for whatever reason(s)? Le Donne’s study argues persuasively that these other possibilities must be seriously entertained. At the end of the day, one may not think the case for a married Jesus is that strong—it’s not entirely clear just how strong Le Donne himself thinks it—but one can no longer think that there is no case to be made. Le Donne has shown that there is.
As I mentioned in the first post, I was wrong to think there was nothing for historical Jesus scholarship in this topic, and I’ve rarely so enjoyed being proven wrong.