A Married Jesus and Mark?

I have stayed out of the debate about whether the new Coptic fragment about Jesus’ Wife is genuine or a forgery and prefer to await the results of scientific testing before making any final decisions.  At most, against the media hype, the scholars add the nuance that this does not tell us about the marital status of Jesus but about what later Christians thought in the context of theological debates about marriage and sexuality.  Reading Francis Watson’s views on the matter here, I was struck by his line:

For Christian traditions that place a high value on celibacy, Jesus is the supreme celibate; and he retains this status even when, in Protestantism, celibacy is no longer seen as a mark of the truly holy life. The Christ who offers salvation to all, the incarnate divine Son, can, surely, never have uttered the words, “My wife”? Yet it is just these words that some scribe, ancient or modern, has put into his mouth. That scribe knew exactly what he or she was doing: subverting deep-seated assumptions about Jesus in the most effective way possible, by challenging them out of Jesus’ own lips. The Jesus of this text renounces not only his celibacy but also the community for which that celibacy is integral to who he is. No Christian institution – not the Vatican itself – could withstand such a challenge, if it really is Jesus who speaks here

For a diametrically opposed view see April DeConick.  For my part I wonder why a theological belief in the Incarnation, of God becoming fully, could not accomodate a married Jesus?  Please share your views in the comments if you agree or disagree.  What convinces me Jesus was probably celibate is the complete silence of the early sources, especially since I see no reason for censoring that information when some of the earliest images of Jesus are as a human agent of God no matter how highly exalted (Jesus as a sage, eschatological prophet, miracle worker like Moses/Elijah, annointed one now enthroned at the deity’s right hand)?  For instance, before the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity arose, Mark has the onlookers in the Nazareth synogogue ask, “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and  Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” (6:3).  Why would Mark omit a reference to Jesus’ wife here if he had one?  Another clue to Jesus’ celibacy may be in Matthew’s addition to Mark’s strict stance on divorce and remarriage (compare Mk 10:1-11 with Matt 19:1-12), Matthew has Jesus add a saying about being eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven (Matt 19:12).  This would be a pretty hard-line for a married Jesus to demand of seekers after the kingdom, but since this is singly attested I wouldn’t lean too much on it.  What do you think?

13 Responses to A Married Jesus and Mark?

  1. I don’t think that the reference to family, which is about Jesus having grown up there, naturally raises the expectation of mention of a wife. The point about Jesus’ reference to being eunuchs for the kingdom’s sake is more relevant, and does indeed seem to make it more likely that Jesus was unmarried or widowed – although his specification that it is not a calling for everyone leaves some room for doubt.

    • Mike K. says:

      Thanks James, fair point that neither of the two passages (nor anything else in the NT Gospels) demands that Jesus was celibate. The best case may just be that the early texts are silent and it is hard for me to see why these Jewish texts would want to suppress Jesus’ marital status.

      • I’m not sure that we have to posit any sort of repression of the fact, if all they are is silent. We just barely manage to find out that Peter was married, after all. Marriage was alas something that many texts from this period simply didn’t mention.

        • Mike K. says:

          It is interesting that Mark does have Jesus heal Simon’s mother-in-law (1:30-31) and Paul’s aside that Cephas and the apostles and Lord’s brothers all have wives (1 Cor 9:5). But you may be right that the texts by-and-large were just not that concerned to mention this sort of thing, so perhaps too much can’t be built off the silence one way or the other? And maybe it leads back to the theological question – would it matter either way?

  2. Robert Mathiesen says:

    It’s not clear that any *scientific* test exists that could yield absolute certainty that the fragment is authentic. One can obtain scraps of papyrus that were actually manufactured in the early Christian centuries. If the scrap came from a roll, it might well show a join between two sheets (as in this fragment) and it might even have traces of barely legible writing on it (as this fragment does on its assumed “verso”). One can obtain ancient charcoal and make from it an ink that would seem ancient when subject to carbon dating. Unless some new test has been devised since I last looked into such things, there is no independent way to determine when the ink of any fragment was actually applied to the papyrus.

    On the other hand, the “smell test” (as it sometimes has been called) is also not always reliable: a genuinely ancient document can sometimes be discovered that bears in a new way on some pressing concern that we moderns have. Both this fragment and the “Secret Mark” letter published by Morton Smith yield a certain “smell,” but that is not enough by itself to settle the matter.

    More to the point is textual analysis such as Watson has done, and what is sometimes called “codicological analysis.” This particular fragment is not very likely to have been cut or torn from a leaf of a papyrus codex, but rather from a scroll. And the truly striking coincidences, highlighted by Watson, between its wording and passages from the published text of the Gospel strongly incline me to think the new fragment is a forgery.

    Then there is the custom of “salting the mine.” In gold rush days, someone who wanted to sell a played-out or failed gold mine to a rube could “salt” the mine with pieces of high-grade gold ore that the rube could take to any reliable assayer. Likewise, someone who has a quite ordinary collection of old manuscript leaves and fragments might not expect to get much for it in a market. If, however, that someone “salts the mine” with a truly striking fragment, and moreover doesn’t give free access to the rest of the collection, it becomes much easier to offer the whole collection for a much higher price. Sheer greed to score a major coup over other libraries can persuade a librarian to pay such a price. This factor was at work some decades ago when one of Mark Hoffman’s forgeries, “The Oath of a Freeman,” went on the market. This forgery was a true masterpiece, so much so that I myself do not believe Hoffman could have forged it *by himself* in the very short time in which he claimed in his confession that he did. (Even arrest of the presumed forger and even his subsequent confession does not always completely settle the question of how and by whom the forgery was accomplished.)

    The fragment’s position as part of a whole (mysterious) collection now on the market, and particularly the circumstances in which it was brought to the attention of the scholarly world, lead me to strongly suspect that the “mine” (the collection) has been “salted.” And Watson’s textological analysis, in my view, removes any remaining doubt.

    Contrast this with the case of the “Secret Mark” letter. It does indeed “smell,” particularly since the text breaks off *precisely* where it would become much harder for any modern scholar to continue with his forgery.

    On the other hand, what the “Secret Mark” does say meshes rather well with some very well-founded research that neatly situates the Jesus of the Gospel of Mark in the context of ancient magicians.

    Here one should mention not only Morton Smith’s _Jesus the Magician_, but Robert Conner’s two recent books as well as Pieter F. Craffert’s _The Life of a Galilean Shaman_, and now Helen Ingram’s PhD dissertation _Dragging Down Heaven: Jesus as Magician and Manipulator of Spirits in the Gospels_, begun under Mark Goodacre’s direction. (Need I add that even if Smith did forge the “Secret Mark” letter, his other scholarship — including _Jesus the Magician_ — stands or falls on its own scholarly merits and the independently verifiable evidence brought forth in it, not on Smith’s own ethics as a scholar.)

    Moreover, if the “Secret Mark” letter is truly a modern forgery, the paleography strongly suggests suggest that Smith was not the man who penned the forgery.

    Carlson has not even settled the question of the “Secret Mark” letter’s being a modern forgery, let alone the rather different question of Smith as the forger. At least, he has not settled them to my mind, since he argues after the manner of a prosecuting lawyer determined to cast all the suspicion he can on Smith, and not as a scholar dispassionately weighing all the evidence. And Peter Jeffrey, by focussing so much on a baptismal context for whatever Jesus was doing with that young man, overlooks other hard-to-date ritual possibilities attested here and there within the rituals and liturgies of Eastern and Early Christendom. If the letter is authentic, an ancestral form of a particular one of these rituals, now preserved only in a monastic context, fits the letter better than an ordinary baptism. I do agree with Jeffrey that, *if* — a huge “if” — what Jesus was doing with the young man was an ordinary first baptism of a convert, then the letter might well be a recent forgery.

    So far me, the new fragment is pretty certainly a forgery, but the authenticity of the “Secret Mark” letter remains an open question. By comparison with the “Secret Mark” letter (or Mark Hoffman’s “Oath of a Freeman”), the new fragment is rather clumsy work.

    (As an aside, returning to the above-mentioned recent scholarship on Jesus as magician or shaman, it has convinced me that to C. S. Lewis’s famous trilemma one must add a fourth likely possibility: Jesus as mage, alongside of “lunatic, liar or Lord”. There is a fifth likely possibility, too, which has been explored by Margaret Barker in a number of her works: Jesus as a tradent of a high-priestly secret tradition of ritual power that goes back to the high priests of the First Temple, but was repudiated by the priesthood of the Second Temple.)

    • Mike K. says:

      Thank you for commenting. I guess I wanted to not rush to judgment and to err on the side of caution, but you may be right that it looks like the forgery arguments are winning out on this one (I would like to see Professor Karen King respond). I am not invested in it either way so if the scholarly conclusion is that it is a modern fake then that is fine with me; for this post I just was more interested in the general question of Jesus’ celibacy.

      Thanks also for the insights on Secret Mark (I had a look at your research interests so I appreciate the expertise in the area of magic and ritual). Does Helen Ingram speak about Secret Mark in her PhD thesis (I would like to read her thesis when I have time as she has a good website)? I have no problem if someone wants to apply the term “magician” as a cross-cultural category to Jesus (e.g., arguing that all attempted distinctions between “magic” and “religion” break down and thate perjorative label “magician” is just thrown at a “miracle worker” perceived as operating outside the authorized channels). I am not quite sure about the argument that Jesus saw himself as a rival priest; I think I agree with my supervisor James Crossley that Jesus does not opposes the Temple cult itself (e.g., Jesus sends the leper back to the priests to pronounce clean as per the laws in Leviticus, Jesus pronounces the divine forgiveness of sins but there is no evidence that the priests ever pronounced such an absolution and forgiveness was available outside the Temple, etc) but just opposed the corruption and economic exploitation of the priesthood running a “den of thieves.” As for Secret Mark (I still recognize that it is a big IF on the question of its authenticity) I wonder if the text is interpreted in the way Scott Brown does – a resurrection miracle, extended teaching of the kingdom of God (no ritual administered), the clothe not a baptismal garment but symbolizes the youth’s burial/resurrection & renunciation of wealth, “mystery” language in Clement in a cognitive (deeper insight beneath the literal level) rather than cultic sense – if Secret Mark needs to be read as much more “magical” than the general Gospel portrait. But I need to check out some of the alternate ritual practices that you suggested the last time if you have any resources you would like me to check out?

      • Robert Mathiesen says:

        Very briefly, Eastern Orthodox monastic rites have a number of degrees of profession, and the highest degree is called the “angelic habit (in Greek, schema).” In its published forms (IIRC), it is called a “mystery” which admits the monk to the Kingdom of Heaven. It is thought to serve as a “second baptism,” remitting all previous sins. It makes of the monk an actual angel (so it is stated) while still in the flesh, and admits him after death to the heavenly choir of angels around the Throne, a rank which may not be open to other Christians after their deaths.

        It is commonly thought to be a hazardous rite for anyone to undergo, as any sins committed after the angelic habit has been taken are (again, IIRC) thought not to be remissible by any action of the Church; so it is commonly taken only when the monk is very old, or on the point of death. The monk who would take it now begins the ritual in his underwear, or at least a loincloth; but (by analogy with early baptismal customs) in earlier times he probably began it naked. In the course of the ritual he is vested with a number of garments, each of which is symbolic and is thought to aid him in his new and much more demanding profession. In a monastic context, the ritual seems to be at least as old as Pachomius (4th century).

        Whether there was an earlier, non-monastic form of the ritual of the angelic habit is not known. If there was, it was probably a rite rarely undertaken, as it is rarely undertaken now. In view of the almost total absence or really early Eastern manuscripts containing the full texts of rituals, we will probably never be in a position to determine for sure just how old any of the less frequently used rituals of the Orthodox Church, or Eastern Churches in general, actually are, or what shape their earliest forms may have had. (Gregory Dix, whatever you may think of his actual conclusions, found this enormously hard to do even for the eucharist, where the documentation is massively more abundant.)

        You can find a later text of the ritual in Goar’s edition of the Great Euchologion, and no doubt there are texts illustrating somewhat earlier forms of it in Dmitrievskii’s descriptive catalogue of Greek euchologia, but so far as I know there is not a single good scholarly treatment of the history of the ritual, or even a good critical edition of its oldest surviving texts. (Anyone who attempts such an edition will need to be able to read unedited liturgical mss. in *all* of the old liturgical languages of early Eastern Christendom, which is a truly daunting challenge.)

        As for Margaret Barker, take a look at her book _The Great High Priest_ for a good account of her views. But some of her later, thinner books on what she calls “Temple theology” and “Temple mysticism” are probably where one should begin with her. She is well worth any NT scholar’s attention, I think, though she is very far outside the mainstream of either Protestant or Catholic NT studies.

        I did say “briefly.” Hmm. Anyway, I hope this helps.

      • Robert Mathiesen says:

        PS Helen Ingram’s dissertation has just become available for free download through the British Library’s EThOS program for digital copies of dissertations. IIRC, she does discuss the “Secret Mark” letter.

  3. [...] me, is synonymous to ba’ali, which even in modern Hebrew means “my husband.”Mike Kok looks for indications in the New Testament Gospels about Jesus’ marital status. See also [...]

  4. Mike Z. says:

    In general I find Watson’s analysis of the text fairly plausible (when it does not drag Secret Mark into the mess, that is; thankfully he mentions it only briefly in his B&I piece), though I’m not committed to any judgment of fragment so far. However, although I’m personally skeptical that Jesus had any relationships that were intimate in the modern sense, I agree it’s not obvious a married Jesus would necessarily subvert Christianity.

    It’s true that Christians would then have to draw a distinction between a historical “bride/wife of Jesus” and the metaphorical “Bride(/Wife) of Christ” of Christian symbolism. But would that really be so difficult? I’m not heavily invested in this question; I’m just wondering.

    • Mike K. says:

      Yes, the forgery arguments this time are coming across much stronger, but I just wanted to not overcommit myself to a position just yet. I found more interesting the controvery raised and the backlash about Jesus’ marital status (very Da Vinci Code feeling about all this :) ). As I have looked at what others have said on websites or on Facebook you seem to have hit on one of the major theological objections – the whole “bride of Christ” thing and whether a wife suggests Jesus had a special love for one person over all the rest. But perhaps such Christians could distinguish between the “pre-Easter” Jesus who is incarnate in a specific time & place so only knows a limited number of people and have some closer relationships than others (e.g., family, friends, inner circle of disciples like Peter/James/John or the “beloved disciple” or the Twelve and larger group of disciples) and the “post-Easter” Jesus who is omniscient and loves everybody? Some of the other objections I have heard, such as whether the children would be somehow semi-divine, seem to me to not quite have the nuanced views of some of the early Christian theologians who tried to hammer out what was entailed by the Incarnation and hypostatic union.

      • Mike Z. says:

        That’s a good point; the plethora of theological disputes in the early church (and even later) does demonstrate that not only was it possible for those disputes to arise even under the orthodox assumption of a celibate Jesus, but also that it was possible for consensus to emerge from those disputes. No doubt Christians would be capable of figuring out a satisfactory answer to the question of Jesus’ parenthood, should it ever arise.

        It may be that a married Jesus would in fact be destructive of certain Christologies (Chalcedonian, for example), or at least would present them with a significant challenge. But surely it is a mistake to assume that other Christologies couldn’t emerge from such a challenge.

        • Mike K. says:

          I think even Chalcedon could survive depending on how one understands the divine self-emptying of the incarnation (e.g., kenotic theology based on Phil 2:6-11). But I think your main point stands that Christians would adapt and reformulate theological views in different ways in light of new knowledge – they have been doing that for 2000 years!

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