Why Jesus’ wife matters to me

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Posted on October 4th, 2012 | Filed under Challenges, Featured, Intra-Faith, News, Popular Culture, Social Issues, Theology
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Water-of-Life

The writing prompt in this week’s digest to State of Formation scholars asked, “Does it matter that Jesus may have had a wife?”

I was surprised by the strength of my own response: a gray, hard-as-nails voice that answered, It matters to me.

It matters to me has been running through my head since the existence of this controversial fragment of parchment was made public in mid-September.  Hooked as I am on social media, my first inkling of the news was on Facebook.  At first it seemed like a joke, maybe an Onion article, and most of the status updates reflected a lighthearted take on the breaking news story: “I’m going to find it hard not to start my next prayer to Jesus with, you dog, you!

But the story persisted and spread, and I looked up the news articles and had just started to get excited about it when another Facebook friend posted something along the lines of, “So they found an ancient reference to Jesus’ wife.  Why doesn’t it matter?  Because it was written at least three centuries after Jesus or anyone who knew him personally had lived and died.”

That’s when I felt some bile stirring, and a voice retorted, It matters to me.

It matters to me because I’m a woman in seminary.  It matters to me because no matter how many papers I write that use gender-inclusive language and expansive imagery for God, I was raised thinking that God was a man with a white beard, Jesus was a man with a brown beard, and the Holy Spirit was an “it” and occasionally, a dove—and old habits are hard to break.  It matters to me because despite the best efforts of feminist theologians, both men and women, it’s still a struggle in Christianity to talk about the relationship between the feminine and the divine—much more of one to talk about it in positive terms.  So it matters to me because if Jesus, fully divine and fully human, had chosen to enter into a marriage covenant with a woman, then that’s an inroad into a vision of the divine that includes a female as a chosen partner in a way that the virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, and the long and often unnamed stream of women religious who have come after them in Christianity have not been permitted to fulfill.

And when I say “permitted to fulfill,” I mean it.  Take this quote from Tertullian (155-225 CE), an early church father who lived at about the time the text appearing in the recently discovered papyrus is thought to have been composed: "Do you not know that you are each an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the Devil's gateway: You are the unsealer of the forbidden tree: You are the first deserter of the divine law: You are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God's image, man. On account of your desert even the Son of God had to die." (From On the Apparel of Women, Chapter 1, Book 1.)

Or try Augustine (354-430 CE), another venerable church father, who wrote the following in a letter to a friend at about the time to which the papyrus fragment is dated: "What is the difference whether it is in a wife or a mother, it is still Eve the temptress that we must beware of in any woman....I fail to see what use woman can be to man, if one excludes the function of bearing children."

Over and over again in Christian history, the importance of women has been denigrated and downplayed, most frequently by assaulting their sexual integrity.  We see evidence of this even in the way tradition thinks of the women of the New Testament: many Catholics do not believe that the Virgin Mary ever had sex, despite scriptural references to Jesus’ brothers and sisters.  Mary Magdalene is portrayed as a whore.  So is the anonymous(!) Samarian women at the well in John.  Jesus compares the Syro-phoenician woman to a dog.  The apostle Junia named in Romans is transformed in many translations to Junias.

So this scrap of papyrus matters to me.  I’m not even saying that Jesus actually had a wife (and nor is Karen King, the scholar who published her findings regarding the papyrus).  I am saying that, if this fragment is authentic, then it suggests that there was a tradition in the early church that held that Jesus was married.

And if that tradition existed, then it provides another voice among the chorus of the voices that form the early Christian church: a choir that has traditionally been dominated by men, whose song is heavily patriarchal and often misogynistic, and whose harmonies continue to form the basis of most Christian dialogue today.  This voice would stand in contrast.  This voice would affirm that the institution of marriage is not for those simply not strong enough for celibacy, which has been historically held up as the superior choice.  This voice would affirm that there were Christians in the early church who celebrated at least one woman as well as twelve apostles as the intimate companions of Christ.

This voice matters to me.  Whatever comes out of this small piece of papyrus, I hope it matters to you to.  Whether you are a man or a woman, whether you are Christian or not, whatever or however you think of marriage.  Because we are all people, and because we are all equal, and because we are all beloved children of God, I hope that such a voice would speak to you, too.

Image source: James Preston; attribution via Flickr Commons.

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14 Responses to “Why Jesus’ wife matters to me”

  1. Dear Victoria,

    I really appreciate your reflection here, your force and your honesty to stand up and say that this discovery is important to you. I am currently taking a course in feminist theology at Chicago Theological Seminary, comparing the works of Rosemary Ruether, Mary Daly, and Audre Lorde. I am a white male, and also a non-Christian, but I am seeking ordination in a tradition with roots in Christianity, and living in a world with roots in patriarchy, that you articulate very well in this article. I struggle a lot with wanting to just throw the whole patriarchal tradition out and start from scratch, or from the more liberal, humanistic, liberationist and feminist traditions that have emerged over the centuries.

    I think what is particularly intriguing about this discovery is that it reopens a broader discussion about the normalcy of Jesus’ life. Or, in other words, to say that Jesus’ life is characterized by engagement across lines of gender and sex. We already know that from some passages in the bible. But, in some ways, this discovery may humanize Jesus in a way that has not been done before.

    Just as it is hard to make breakthroughs in society on meta-issues like racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., I think that we can look at this moment as an opportunity to reaffirm that the canon is not closed regarding spiritual and historical truth in this very old religious tradition. We are still learning some very interesting things that give more shape and clarity to this global religion that has impacted nearly every inch of the globe.

    Thanks for this great reflection, again. I hope that your ministry is one that is fulfilling, validating, and rewarding, each and every day.

    Peace to you,

    Nic Cable
    Associate Director, State of Formation

    • Dear Nic,

      Thank you very much for your reflection here! I particularly value your voice as one that speaks outside of my immediate experience, both as a woman and as a Christian, and am gratified to find that this issue speaks to you also.

      To this especially: “I think that we can look at this moment as an opportunity to reaffirm that the canon is not closed regarding spiritual and historical truth in this very old religious tradition,” I can only respond, Amen!

      I hope your studies and course to ordination are fruitful, challenging, and full of blessing. Thank you for your wishes for my own path.

      Victoria

  2. Brett says:

    I don’t see how Jesus being married would confer any new dignity on women. Jesus was born of woman, consorted and associated himself with them, healed them, first appeared to them out of the tomb, etc.

    After all, most of the protagonists of the Hebrew Bible were married, in their formally patriarchal world. It seems difficult for me to find exciting new feminist possibilities in the idea of a marriage.

    So any question about the life of Jesus matters. I guess I don’t understand why it matters to the author.

    Despite all the veritable sexist skeletons in the Church’s closet, there is a veritable liberatory chestnut. It comes in the idea that all humans have inherent dignity, are made in the image of God, and therefore merit equal treatment. As St. Paul puts it in Galatians 3, “In Christ Jesus…there is no ‘male and female.'”

    This is not a self-evident idea that has always been believed throughout humanity (recall the Greeks who thought some were born slaves, caste systems). This is the genesis of equality movements, at least in the west. It certainly does not come from a superior secular ideology we might invent “from scratch” if only we could cast away Christianity.

    Also, marriage in the Christian tradition has always been acknowledged as holy and ordained by God. So I don’t quite agree with your characterization of the Christian view that marriage is for those not strong enough for celibacy. Rather, they’ve always been viewed as two legitimate spiritual avenues.

    One smaller note, the phrase “little dog” has to do with her ethnic identity as a non-Jew, and nothing to do with her sex. Modern sexist connotations of calling a woman a “dog” do not apply. It’s also not certain that what he calls her is necessarily derrogatory (after all, plenty of idioms use dogs and animals).

    • Dear Brett,

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts about my post. I appreciate your opposing perspectives here, though I must confess that I find myself hoping that your disagreements come more from the flaws in my composition and argument, rather than from a lack of astonishment at the discovery of the papyrus itself.

      I heartily agree with the reality that Jesus was born of woman, consorted with and healed women, and so on–and this discovery changes none of that! What I am trying to argue, however, is that the feminist movement in the church is recent and has had an uphill struggle in connecting their arguments to much that’s in early church history.

      You cite Pauline theology that promotes equality, and you’re dead-on in pinpointing its counter-cultural nature! But Pauline letters (or rather, the pseudo-Pauline letters) also assert the subservience and inferiority of women in the church. The church has historically emphasized the latter interpretation.

      I also hope that I did not imply that the church denigrates marriage. You’re right: it is a legitimate spiritual avenue. I wanted to point out, though, that celibacy has been historically upheld as the superior choice, particularly in the Catholic church. (Though the founder of my own tradition, Luther, had some pretty choice observations about it too, particularly before he married.)

      And while your note about the “dog” reference is essentially correct, I don’t think it’s fair to cast aside how modern men and women perceive this comment. Most, after all, do not know the context for Jesus’ words. And I do wonder, given the sharp social delineation between men and women in Jesus’ time, whether the matter of gender is ever fully extricable from any given 1st century Greco-Roman or Jewish situation.

      Thank you again for your food for thought!

      Victoria

      • Brett says:

        I appreciate your considerate response, Victoria. You’ve argued that your interest in the papyrus has to do with your desire to see the feminist movement thrive in the modern church. I am quite sympathetic to that cause.

        I was simply pressing the point that the papyrus claiming Jesus had a wife is not any more “feminist” than the traditions that claim Jesus was celibate. Feminism has always recognized that marriage has been an institution that abets patriarchy and the oppression of women. And most of the male figures in the tradition which you say is “dominated by men” and “heavily patriarchal and often misogynistic” were themselves married! So I’m having a hard time seeing how this is a score for women that there is a tradition that another figure (the main figure) was married. So it would merit a certain respect for women, but not one that wasn’t already present in the tradition.

        One could argue that having a wife shows he had a healthy respect for women, but this could already be demonstrated by the details we know about his dealings with women in the canonical gospels.

        • Dear Brett,

          Ah, I appreciate your response! I think I understand a little better where you’re coming from.

          I think where I disagree with you is where you characterize marriage as something that has “always” been recognized by feminism as an institution that abets patriarchy and the oppression of women. (Although I’m sure this is open to debate, marriages today are far more equal partnerships than they have been historically.) But that marriage has historically been used to oppress women is a point that definitely needed to be made, and that I hadn’t given enough thought to in the composition of my post. I’m grateful that you’ve helped me to think about that.

          I’d still like to argue that in the context of the radically egalitarian way that Jesus approached women (and women approached Jesus) in the gospels, that a tradition that Jesus was married could still be interpreted as significant for feminist theology, even in light of the historically oppressive character of marriage. I believe that there’s a difference in a portrait of Jesus who shunned marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, a la Matt. 19:10-12, and one who entered into a marriage covenant with a woman in fulfillment of God’s original image of humanity as built for relationship, a la Matt 19:4-6. Those are two incredibly different ways of looking at how the kingdom of God is realized. Both delivered from a male perspective, one rejects relationships with women as too problematic to bother with, while the other acknowledges them as necessary partners in bringing about the kingdom of God. These interpretations exist outside of the question of whether Jesus was married or not, but inasmuch as we look to Jesus as a role model and his lifestyle as normative for a Christian believer, then the question does matter.

          Hopefully that better explains my perspective. Thank you again for all the food for thought!

  3. […] blunders… I don’t need any papyrus or ink tests. I already know it is a fake.Elsewhere, Victoria Larson explains why Jesus' wife matters to her.See also Paul Rudnick's somewhat humorous take on the matter in The New Yorker (HT Hemant […]

  4. Being married to the one who was raised from the dead is not just an option for women. To hear the bridal aspect in the Scriptures is both a reality of love and a complex metaphor. (See e.g. Lewis Reflections on the Psalms 1961 p 101, cited in Craigie on Psalm 45).

    What you rightly rail against is the abuse of power and particularly the male abuse of power, but it rears its nasty head at every turn, even at a turn towards freedom. Consider the freedom of choice – in itself necessary – against the ‘freedom’ to abort a female foetus – a choice often forced upon the woman in some societies.

    I doubt that Jesus ‘was’ married. That particular son was devoted to something else – giving his life for the life of the world, the king who is a libation poured out (Psalm 2). The same might be said for Malala Yousafzai as an article in the Globe suggests this morning.

    A marital state would not contribute to such devotion nor is it a necessity. The charism of devotion does not come behind in any gift.

    • Dear Bob,

      Thank you for your perspective! I’d be curious to hear more about the ideas you present in both the first and second paragraph–after a couple of read-throughs, I’m still not sure I entirely understand what you’re pointing at. It would help me understand if you would name some specific examples for the sake of context.

      Your third paragraph raises some fascinating questions for me. It seems that you imply that Jesus being married would be an unnecessary distraction from his true mission of sacrifice and salvation. Is this a fair assessment of your words? If so, then it touches on the question of how much Jesus’ life was “normal” (i.e.: A man of Jesus’ age, class, and culture have been expected to have been married) and how much it’s “normative” (i.e.: If marriage is an unnecessary distraction from Jesus’ true ministry, then how does that speak into my own call to ministry? [a question, by the way, that I believe is as applicable to laity as to clergy.])

      In Jesus’ case, would his having been married have truly conflicted with his devotion to God’s purpose? If the answer is yes, then I am pressed to ask: can one be married and still truly pursue God’s purpose for one’s life? How much is Jesus’ life normative for my own? I’m not the savior of the world, but I still wish to emulate Jesus’ example in his ministry. Is the question of marriage part of that?

      It also touches on the question of God’s purpose in becoming flesh. Did God do so simply in order to save us? Or was the Incarnation also an act of divine participation in enfleshed human reality? I favor a both-and position here, and because of that, the idea of an enfleshed God who chose not to enter into a marriage covenant–which the Bible records as one of God’s original creative acts–seems to leave something fundamental out of the act of participating in human life.

      What do you think?

      Victoria

      • I am glad to see you have a German Shepherd (though not the Pope). We also have a grand-dog German shepherd. – now to the things that you wrote about. Paul writes also to the church at Corinth about the questions they had written. I am convinced that the Christian cannot understand any of Paul without a thorough grounding in Tanakh. So concerning the marriage to the one who is raised from the dead (Romans 7), this is the most difficult for me to write of in a short comment. The metaphor of marriage of the people both in the singular and in the plural is in TNK – the bridegroom of blood (Zippora’s description of her man) in Exodus, the Song, the City of God in the Psalms (The sequence from 42-48 is instructive, exile, singular (42-43), plural (44), the bride (45), the city (46) the ascension (=burnt offering) in 47 and the city again in 48.) Somehow, the people and their representative, even in trouble, are the betrothed of God. Betrothal is then an image, a lens, through which we can read both old and new Testaments. We cannot read, however, without ‘the help of the One who teaches humanity knowledge’, (Kimhi, R. David (RaDaK). (1919). The Longer Commentary on the First Book of Psalms. Translated R.G. Finch. – available online).

        The second paragraph is socially the most difficult to write about. The sexual mores of North America are too spread to pontificate on. But in these days the technology of abortion is being used in some countries to select the gender of the offspring. This is not giving the woman a say in the matter. Yet if there is an unwanted pregnancy, then laws against abortion would similarly fail to give a woman a say in the matter. The optimum pattern of sexual behaviour put aside for the moment, my own consideration is that abortion is to be preferred over back-room butchers and front-room coercion or shame, but it is only the lesser evil. But what is the optimum pattern of sexual behaviour in a culture that is suffering the distortion of power abuse? (aka sin)

        Probably that’s enough for your first questions. My second epistle will follow :)

  5. Incarnation and Marriage –
    a. was Jesus normal?
    b. Would his being married have conflicted with his call to ministry?
    c. Does marriage result in a compromise to a ministry?
    d. How much of Jesus life is normative for the minister?
    e. Why did God become flesh?
    f. is God missing something?

    Perhaps you meant these rhetorically? They are a bit of a barrage of questions. Don’t take my answers out of context the way we take Paul’s answers as a new legalism. I love the questions in this context.
    a. yes
    b. yes
    c. no
    d. whatever the Spirit gives to the minister
    e. to save his people

    there is nothing left out of this act of God through Jesus in that Day of Creation and Redemption (Gen 2:4, John 1-21) in which we live. As John tells us in his ’24 hour day’ that represents his Gospel (hour occurs 24 times in that work), the giving of the Son for the life of the world is the work that Jesus came to do. This is a dramatic Gospel, as are all of them – and even the letters – designed for performance.

    Question f. Is God missing something – does he have aught to ‘repent of’? In the Son, God has found what he is well pleased with – and there is no need for repentance (see Psalm 90 for the play on turning re God – again presented after the exile – Psalm 89).

    Re male language – English is defective as I am. Like circumcision and other aspects of the OT, the ruling differs for the male and the female because the male is the perpetrator of violence (contra blaming the woman as many males are prone to project). So also the image of Son is not to be confused with paternalism. God, neither male nor female, both male and female, is pleased with his Son, Israel in the Anointed singular (Lam 3) and rescues his people in union with that Son (John 17) from their exile (Lam 1, 2, Gen 3,4). The rescue is done and belongs to all, Greek and Jew, slave, or free, male and female – it is equally inclusive in the OT – to all who fear God. The transfiguration links Torah, Prophet, and the Anointed Jesus and recognizes that only a libation of his blood will accomplish the will of the Spirit – who longs earnestly for the spirit that he made to dwell in us (James 4:5)

    Note these are not explicable ‘answers’. Life is lived in the Spirit and God is Spirit – not to be tied down to a sound bite. But if, in the Spirit, I do a close reading of these passages from TNK, and put aside all NT answers for the moment, then the One who teaches humanity knowledge will also teach me in faithfulness and devotion.

  6. […] my first post for State of Formation a few weeks ago, and you can read it in its original format here, along with some of the nifty comments it generated.  But I also wanted to be sure to post it on […]

  7. Thomas Shen says:

    Let me say, as a man, it matters to me too!

    I want to thank you, Victoria, for your honesty and courage.. It really convinced me why the humanness of Jesus really matters.

    _ _ _

    This whole situation reminds me of the situation with Moses, Aaron, Miriam, and the Cushiite woman as described by Jewish midrashim which tie the dots together in the chain of events. The scene is described thus: Moses had been on the mountain, and God talks to him. Miriam figures out through hints she heard from Zipporah, that Moses was not fulfilling his conjugal obligations toward his wife, and unlike the other prophets, Moses hadn’t had relations with his wife from the time God had forbidden sexual relations during the time when the Torah was given at the mount. So the picture painted by the midrashim is that Miriam was defending the cause of Zipporah.

    God saw this as slander, giving a bad name to Moses, Miriam receiving the leprosy as a result. God said that Moses wasn’t just any other prophet, but special (who saw the form of the Lord and talked to God in plain language). Miriam would be outside of the camp for 7 days, until being able to come back. The people wouldn’t budge, so it seems, until she came back. It feels like some kind of _showdown_ between the Lord & Moses vs. Miriam & the people, with Aaron as an in-between giving supplication for the sins of Miriam.

    So, who won the showdown? Well God said Miriam slandered Moses! … but there’s a point in what Miriam is saying, and it was a very good point … which was why Miriam was healed reinstituted?

    And there is the schism: between God and humankind. Reconciliation between heaven and earth is still not realized. … Until the second time around when Word becomes flesh??? …

    _ _ _

    Well, Hebrews draws a comparison between Moses and Jesus where Moses is likened to a servant of the house, and Jesus as the son of the house, (co-owner and co-builder?). Interestingly, in the same breath, Jesus is also likened to a high priest who brings supplications to God, (a chapter later emphasized as) knowing the weaknesses of man. This reminds me directly of Aaron in the above story, the only one who keeps the whole ”holy project in the desert” alive.

    It feels inappropriate to do math here, but if the midrashim have any bearing of what happened behind the scenes in the desert, then we have a comparison between the first covenant and the second covenant, and the question if this conflict is now resolved begs an answer.

    In Hebrews again 8:6-12, it’s stated plainly: ”Indeed, if the first covenant had not given ground for faultfinding, there would have been no need for a second one” (JNT) What follows is how God had found fault with the people, … but there is an undertone of even how even God will do better by writing the Law directly on their hearts this time around (v. 10), so no one will have to educate each other (as Miriam did) because all would know the Lord (as Moses did), (both v. 11), because God will finally be reconciled with mankind (v. 12).

    _ _ _

    Reading between the lines, it seems that the situation the Cushiite situation in the desert (interpreted by the midrashim) wouldn’t need to be repeated … except … it has repeated itself. Otherwise we wouldn’t talking about all this right now.

    So, something is wrong.
    My go at a diagnosis is that we do not have the full picture of the new covenant. Pieces of information is missing. We have, through tradition, only received part of the picture of the new covenant.

    _ _ _

    bonus to light things up:
    http://www.newyorker.com/humor/2012/10/08/121008sh_shouts_rudnick

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Victoria is a student at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, and a candidate for ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. Her sermons, vocational reflections, and occasional harassed anecdotes about her German Shepherd mix can be read at lutheranmoxie.wordpress.com.


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