Baker Academic

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Anthony Le Donne on Mrs. Jesus, Part Three: Most Important Contribution—Chris Keith

In my previous post, I noted that the most obvious contribution of Anthony Le Donne’s The Wife of Jesus: Ancient Texts and Modern Scandals is its offering of a coherent narrative, showing how different socio-historical contexts have led to various portrayals of Jesus’ sexuality, including his marital status.  That is the most obvious contribution of the study.  What I wish to focus upon here, though, is his most important contribution, not only to studies of Jesus and gender but specifically to studies of the historical Jesus.   

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.


  1. Thanks Chris, some great points. I'll be thinking more about the question of silence. Not necessarily in a Buddhist way, but maybe that too.


    1. I'm thinking about writing more about the question of silence and might post something later this week. Here is just a taste: not every historical lacuna is created equally (as I discuss in the book). History might not tell us whether or not John Adams wore shoes or if Bruce Lee had a bank account (just two random examples; I'm not sure if historians know these things or not). But even if we couldn't prove these "facts" social scientific study suggests that both are true. Filling in such gaps is a different enterprise than answer other types of questions. There is such a high likelihood that Adams wore shoes and that Lee had a bank account that we would find it extremely odd to learn otherwise. I talk a bit about this in my post about breastfeeding:

      more soon,

  2. I've come to a similar conclusion to Anthony's, and I'm pleased to know I'm not alone. The idea of a Jesus who abandoned his wife (and presumably children) for his ministry is not one that is very palatable to modern audiences, but it is certainly just as plausible, based on the context and scant evidence, as an always-celibate or married-during-his-ministry Jesus, and I think it fits his statements about marriage and family (and becoming a "eunuch for the kingdom of heaven") better than the other hypotheses.

    Need to read the book now, of course, but this raises interesting questions like: did Jesus divorce his wife? Did she divorce him? And remarry? Did this experience affect his non-conformist position on divorce and remarriage? No answers, of course, but interesting things to consider.

  3. The question is if we only look at what everyone did in 1st century Israel, we are somehow denying any originality that might have Jesus. And I think we can say we are not talking about a common guy.

  4. I have a different view of Yahoshua the Nazarene ("Jesus") as having been married.

    Yahoshua was married as he would not have been an unmarried Teacher/Rabbi.