Speculation regarding Jesus’ marital status has been refreshed by the discovery of a Coptic papyrus fragment that scholars believe dates from the fourth century. From this fragment Jesus “appears to be in conversation about family and discipleship – Who is worthy? Who dwells with, and in, the Lord? The account contains a momentous line: ‘Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…” (Time 10/01/12)
Through the centuries it has been assumed that Jesus was single since a wife is not mentioned in the canonical scriptures. But from other early writings we learn that Jesus was comfortable in the company of women and that he might have had a special relationship with Mary Magdalene. Scholars think it unlikely that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a traditional Jewish marriage including a dowry from Mary’s parents. Jesus and Mary were also free spirited in light of some of the remarks they made about family. But there is documentation as to the special nature of their relationship.
From early gospels not included in the Bible we learn that Mary Magdalene is the companion of Jesus and that they kissed each other often (Gospel of Philip 32). From the Gospel of Mary we read that Jesus loved her more than any other woman (6:1) and that Jesus knew her completely and loved her devotedly (10:10). There are also texts that support Mary Magdalene being the Beloved Disciple rather than John. Some scholars offer the possibility that Mary Magdalene may even be the author of the Gospel of John. (Sandra M. Schneiders)
As my brother wrote in his last book, “The evidence is clear that Mary Magdalene and Jesus are companions, soul-mates, and partners in ministry.” From his scholarly perspective all their work springs from their own experience with each other in a sacred union. He asks, “Is there any greater marriage than that?” (Sacred Partnership by John B. Butcher)
This new Coptic scrap of codex with the words, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…’” came to the attention of Karen L. King of Harvard Divinity School by way of an anonymous collector. She says that this fragment is not evidence of Jesus’ marital status, but taken together with the contemporaneous Gnostic gospels of Mary, Philip and Thomas, if in fact authentic, “does shed light on debates within early Christianity about sexuality and marriage.” (Time 10/01/2012) In these debates celibacy was favored as a route to spiritual purity. While clergy were married in the early centuries of the Church, it was later discouraged and then prohibited by the Roman Catholic Church in 1139 at the Second Lateran Council. The assumption was that clergy were following the example of Jesus, observing sexual purity. A more practical reason for celibacy was that properties held by the Church and clergy did not have to be passed down to their legitimate children through inheritance.
It is noted that it would have been unusual for Jesus not to have been married. The expectation in the culture was that men would marry. We know, however, that St. Paul was not married and it is assumed that John the Baptist was single; but the first Pope, St. Peter, was married. His mother-in-law is mentioned in the Gospels (Mk. 1:30; Luke 4:38)
This contemporary discussion of whether or not Jesus had a wife opens up again the discussion of putting sexuality and marriage in a proper perspective. Most Christians have honored the union of marriage and have not given it a second place status as St. Paul did. Paul thought that if one’s sexual urges were too strong, then one should be married (1 Cor. 7:09-36); but he suggested that if a spouse died, one should remain single awaiting the second coming of Christ assumed to be soon. A more common understanding as presented in “The Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage” in the Book of Common Prayer, states that “The union of husband and wife in heart, body, and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity; and, when it is God’s will, for the procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord.” (BCP, p. 423)
The continuing discussion regarding Jesus’ marital status is a titillating inquiry, but the outcome should it be verified one way or the other won’t change our respect for those who marry and those who remain single. If anything, the possibility that Jesus was married only highlights his humanity as being one of us. And it is in his humanity that we have been able to see the divine light of God’s presence in human form — a light that is intended to shine in each of us.