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Celibacy and Polygamy in the Bible: Weekly Readers’ Mailbag July 30, 2016

In this week’s Readers’ Mailbag I’ll be addressing two questions having to do with marriage: first, is it possible that Jesus was not actually celibate but was married and second whether the Bible allows for multiple wives and/or husbands.  Hot topics!



Why do so many NT scholars (most recently John Meier) state as fact that Jesus took a lifelong vow of celibacy?  Wouldn’t it be more historically accurate simply to say that the NT is silent on the topic?



I have dealt with this issue on the blog before but here let me simply give the brief version, by making a couple factual points and then making a specific argument

Factual points:

  • No ancient source of any kind indicates that Jesus was married. The recent “discovery” of the so-called “Gospel of Jesus’ wife” has been shown to be a modern forgery.  No Gospel (or any other writing from antiquity) indicates or even suggests that he had (or ever had) a wife (let alone that he had any kind of sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene)
  • Throughout the NT Gospels, the important members of Jesus’ family are mentioned: his mother Mary, his father Joseph, his brothers James, Jude, Simon, and Joses, and his sisters (left unnamed). If he were married, and the authors of the NT mention his family members, why would his wife never be mentioned?


  1. Avatar
    alexius105  July 30, 2016

    //And what is the Bible’s view of parents and children? Leviticus indicates that children who disobey their parents are to be stoned to death. That’s hard to imagine on the lips of Jesus. //

    What about Matthew 15:4?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 1, 2016

      Good point. My sense is that Jesus is simply quoting Scripture here in order to trap his opponents, not in order to urge the stoning of children. At least he himself never draws that conclusion.

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    ditdine  July 30, 2016

    “For one thing, they couldn’t be, since there were almost certainly more women than men among most populations in antiquity, except in times of serious war (when men would die), since women so often died in childbirth. ” … I think you meant to say that “there were almost certainly more men than women…”

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    crucker  July 30, 2016

    I’ve often heard people use Mark 10 as Jesus “defining” marriage between one man and one woman (to negate polygamy and same-sex marriage). Is there any legitimacy to any of this being Jesus’ motive or thought process, or is this about divorce only and people today use it for their own purposes? Or any else I’ve missed?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 1, 2016

      He doesn’t define marriage, though that is certainly how people in his day understood it.

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    marcrm68  July 30, 2016

    It is so amazing that so many people take the Bible literally. I was reading a Dan Dennett book at work this week, and a coworker read the cover, and apparently took offence and started inquiring as to my beliefs. After a few questions, I found out that he thought the Earth was only 7000 years old etc… I asked him how he explained dinosaur fossils…he said he had no idea… I swiftly ended the conversation, because what can you say to someone like that?

    • Avatar
      marcrm68  July 30, 2016

      I almost stoned my child to death…I don’t know what stopped me!

    • Avatar
      rap2016  August 16, 2016

      I also have friends who believe that Genesis is the true word of God and that the planet is approximately 6000 years old and that Dinosaurs coexisted with humans. I attempted to explain the KT boundary which shows there are dinosaur fossils below this line and human fossils above the line. As yet no human fossil has been found below the KT boundary. Further they (creationists) argue the exitance of Dragons and that carbon dating is inaccurate,

  5. Avatar
    Wilusa  July 30, 2016

    Very good arguments re Jesus having been celibate! I’ve imagined at times that he might have been one of the many young widowers – or that he’d had a breakup with a wife who disagreed with his teachings, and that was why she was never mentioned. But it makes sense that if he was urging others to prepare for a Kingdom without sex by already living without it, he would have remained celibate himself.

    But I find it puzzling that large numbers of men could seemingly accept an eternity without sex as a good thing! Sex as experienced by women may have been unpleasant in those days…but men?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 1, 2016

      Yeah, go figure.

      • Avatar
        rap2016  August 16, 2016

        Bart,,,,,,,,could Iesus have been married or have been in a relationship but the Church later deleted or altered any reference to it.

        • Bart
          Bart  August 17, 2016

          No, he was almost certainly not married (I’ve talked about it on the blog before; probably you can find it if you search for Magdalene or wife)

  6. talmoore
    talmoore  July 30, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, not only do I think Jesus was celibate, I strongly suspect Jesus was born gay. Of course, this is mere speculation on my part, but it would certainly explain what Jesus meant when he said some men are “born eunuchs” (Matt. 19:12) and why Jesus would even know that men could be “born eunuchs” (assuming that quote goes back to the historial Jesus).

    • Avatar
      Wilusa  August 1, 2016

      Two comments. First, I know I’m being picky here, but I don’t like seeing the term “gay” used for homosexuals in an earlier era. I happen to think the term is undignified and ridiculous. If present-day people *want* to be called that, fine! But I won’t use it for anyone in an earlier era, and I try to avoid using it for non-English-speaking people in our era.

      And about being “born eunuchs”: Could that be a reference to a significant number of Jewish men in Jesus’s day having been castrated due to botched circumcisions or subsequent infections? No, they wouldn’t have been “born” eunuchs; but they’d never remember having been anything else.

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  August 5, 2016

        Am I right in thinking that it is you who do not want to appear undignified? I don’t think homosexuals put a lot of stock in appearing dignified.

  7. Avatar
    smackemyackem  July 30, 2016

    This is one of your best…

  8. Avatar
    Dhul_Qarnayn  July 31, 2016

    Interesting view and much i agree with. However where does it forbid polygyny, i’ve seen many verses that allow it but i don’t think i’ve seen one that bans it.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 1, 2016

      Well, I suppose one place would be in 1 Timothy 3:2, where the leaders of the church must be “the husband of one wife.”

  9. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  July 31, 2016

    I recently went to a Bible class where people quoted different Bible scriptures to support different positions on immigration. I finally got up and left because I thought the idea that the Bible could say anything useful about complicated American immigration policy was totally absurd.

  10. Avatar
    jhague  July 31, 2016

    To answer your question, “If he were married, and the authors of the NT mention his family members, why would his wife never be mentioned?”, I assume the answer is because the authors of the NT were writing so long after Jesus had died, that they now find it inappropriate for Jesus to be married since is believed to be divine and in heaven with God. Is that at least a reason why they would not have written about a possible wife?
    Peter was apparently an apocalyptic Jew and he was married so I’m guessing that not all apocalyptic Jewish men stayed unmarried.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 1, 2016

      The idea that celibacy was to be preferred did not come along for centuries. And yes, absolutely, most apocalypticists were married.

      • Avatar
        jhague  August 1, 2016

        Am I correct in assuming that the NT authors would not think that a divine Jesus could be married and would choose to withhold any information regarding a wife even if they had the information?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 2, 2016

          I don’t think we can necessarily assume that. Other divine men in antiquity (e.g., the emperor) could be married, with children!

          • Avatar
            jhague  August 2, 2016

            I meant from the view that pagans had their gods having sex with women. The Jewish writers made sure that their god did not have sex with Mary but sent the Holy Spirit. My thought was that the same idea was put upon Jesus. He was divine like the Jewish god and therefore did not have sexual relations.

          • Bart
            Bart  August 3, 2016

            We don’t know what Jewish writers would have wanted to say. (Also: most of the writers of the NT, for what it’s worth, were not Jewish)

          • Avatar
            jhague  August 3, 2016

            Sorry. I did not mean to say Jewish writers. The writers of Matt and Luke made sure to not have their god have sex with Mary. So my point is that I would assume that in general, the NT writers would not have wanted their divine individuals to have sex including Jesus. I am saying that this is a reason that the NT writers would not have mentioned a wife for Jesus even if he was married. They would have written the wife out.

          • Bart
            Bart  August 4, 2016

            I think the problem is that you can’t assume the answer to your question — since otherwise it’s not a question! (That’s known as “assuming your conclusion”)

          • Avatar
            jhague  August 4, 2016

            Ok. Am I correct that the writers of Matt and Luke definitely wanted to differentiate their god from the pagan gods in that pagan gods actually had sex with earthly women and the god that fathered Jesus did not have sex with Mary?

          • Bart
            Bart  August 5, 2016

            I”m not sure they were focused on making their stories different from pagan accounts; my sense is that they simply didn’t conceive of their God has one who would become human temporarily to have sex with a woman.

  11. Avatar
    Kazibwe Edris  July 31, 2016

    in judaism was it allowed for mary to apply expensive ointment on jesus even if she wasn’t his wife?

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    Steefen  July 31, 2016

    My book, The Greatest Bible Study in Historical Accuracy by Steefen has a Facebook page. Someone has asked me there to explain Luke 23: 36–it was not Jesus who bore the cross, it is Simon.

    My response:
    Very important that you bring this to our attention because we do not see the biblical story depicted that way. I looked at verse 25 which when read with verse 26 tells us Jesus did not start with carrying the cross but Simon of Cyrene started and went all the way.

    Have you commented on this topic before?

    11And even Herod and his soldiers ridiculed and mocked Him. Dressing Him in a fine robe, they sent Him back to Pilate

    Chapter 23 does not give us the Mel Gibson version and it does not give us the Stages of the Cross depicted in stained glass in so many great churches.

    Again I ask you , Have you commented on this before? Verse 11 puts the mockery and ridicule on Herod and his soldiers, not on Roman soliders. You must have chosen one over the other or at least brought it to the attention of your students.

    At first I was going to say Simon carried the cross for Jesus because Jesus was whipped so badly, but Luke does not give us a whipping in Chapter 23. Luke does not give us the miracles of the Via Dolarosa.

    (In all honesty, I explain fully that the reader referenced the book by an author who passed away, in the last five years. I was in correspondence with him. This author made a case, based on a statement by Josephus that Herod did not kill every child of his predecessor. A daughter survived and gave birth to Jesus. Hence, given Jesus’ royalty, he would have an audience with Pilate and would not have to carry his own cross.)

    • Avatar
      Steefen  July 31, 2016

      Correction in the second sentence: Luke 23: 26

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    Abu  August 1, 2016

    I know this might sound bazaar to you but I am going to tell about it so the truth will be clear when that time is here. Well, in our life time what is said to happen is a star planet, named in Quran as Saqar but it’s common name is Nibru as western world named it, will pass by earth coming in it’s rottations via the poles of Earth. According to imam Nasser Mohamed Alyamani:Jesus body is lying in a cave in Yemen in a province of zamar in village of Migdasha. Jesus peace be upon him and the three huge extraordinary giant men sleepers who according to Quran are messengers that are from the era after Noah but before Abraham , all will come back from there long sleep to testify and be a testimony on the true word of GOD the creator. The event of Jesus return as well as these giant men will be after the passing of planet Saqar which is a great tribulation on earth because fireballs(meteors)will be effecting all earth. What is called today as climate change and exterme nature distasters is caused by this contionous approach by planet Saqar toward earth. Then the facts will be set straight by Jesus son of Mary.

    • Avatar
      Rthompsonmdog  August 1, 2016

      Do you have any evidence to support this? “An Iman said,” is not a form of evidence.

    • Avatar
      Pattycake1974  August 1, 2016

      This prophecy is similar to the Nibiru Cataclysm and has been scientifically rejected.


    • Avatar
      J--B  August 3, 2016

      Where is this story of Jesus and the three huge extraordinary giant men in the Quran?
      I just finished reading it (in English, unfortunately) and don’t remember anything like this.
      According to Quran.com “saqar” is one of the names of hell. Can you give us the Sura where this story is found?

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  August 5, 2016

      The world is full of stories. If you want anyone to believe that yours is true and others are not, you need to provides good reasons. Belief is cheap.

  14. Avatar
    godspell  August 1, 2016

    We can gain crucial insights from the thoughts of people who lived long before us, and we’d be fools not to–civilization is based precisely on our ability to draw on the wisdom and experience of past generations, and there is no civilization without that ability. But we do have to remember that they lived in different times, and we know many things they did not–and vice versa.

    I view the OT more as a running debate between various sects of Judaism than anything else. The people who wrote it would have vehemently disagreed with each other on many things. To a considerable extent, this was also true of the NT, but less so, since it was written over a shorter period of time.

    But what a loss to world civilization if we didn’t have these texts. And all the other great religious texts of the world, and the philosophical texts as well (which are no less opinionated and based on speculation of matters we can never be factually sure of).

    And anyway, I’m sort of confused by the notion that we’ve put patriarchy behind us. Donald Trump says married women shouldn’t have jobs. 🙂

  15. Avatar
    Steefen  August 1, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman is this true?

    Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10.
    “The Greek word that the Roman centurion uses in this passage to describe the sick man – pais – is the same word used in ancient Greek to refer to a same-gender partner.”

    • Bart
      Bart  August 2, 2016

      Not to my knowledge. The world means “child” or even “servant”

      • Avatar
        Steefen  August 2, 2016

        Dr. Ehrman, someone is saying doulos means slave. A slave who must perform sexual favors is not a same-gender partner (disagreeing with the gentleman who made the initial assertion). That said, can we really rule out servant/slave performing some favor of bathing, massage, affection or sex?

        http://www.textkit.com/greek-latin-forum/viewtopic.php?t=7376 :
        I know very little about Greek but quite a lot about the Roman army and politics. The short version is that Centurions were not allowed to be married. They were not allowed to have ever been married. Therefore they did not have children. No Centurion would EVER admit to having an illegitimate child either, because at best they would lose their position, and perhaps be banished or exiled. However, it was not unknown for a Centurion to fall in love with a woman in the area he was serving in, and after his “commission” expired he would marry her. The reasoning was both practical and political. Firstly & most importantly, Centurions were selected from the general geographic area in which they served, were made Roman citizens if they weren’t already, and marriage would potentially involve a high military officer in local political intrigue which the Romans didn’t think would encourage loyalty to Rome rather than to local political intrigues.

        Centurions were high-ranking officers, and had servants; in the ancient world, including Jews in Judea/Israel, servants were almost always slaves (often indentured, “bondservants”, those who couldn’t pay their debts; just as often, captured during a military operation and kept as a slave rather than killed). Often, a Centurion’s slaves were servants to the men under his command as well, including for “sexual favors”.

        So “pais” in Matthew could not possibly be the Centurion’s child. I would think it would be understood as “boy” in the sense of having a particular fondness for the person, and a sexual relationship would certainly be implied. Elsewhere in the Matthew passage the pais is referred to as “doulos”, the formal word for “slave”, but the Centurion himself uses a term of endearment. This endearment is also clear in how others describe the sick slave to Jesus.

        = = =
        “Emperors Trajan and Hadrian were dedicated to boys.” – the book, Homosexuality and Civilization by Louis Crompton, ps105-106

        Same gender partner, no: same gender servant of non-sexual and sexual duties cannot be ruled out.

        • Bart
          Bart  August 3, 2016

          Where did you find that centurions could not be married? (Do ancient sources say this?)

          • Avatar
            Steefen  August 3, 2016

            I checked the url at the top of the section dealing with Centurions marrying. I would have to become a member of that forum to hope I could contract the person who posted in 2010. Next, I googled Ancient Roman Military Centurion and Marry (or something like that). A result was “Were Roman Centurions permitted to marry?”

            Best Answer: From Augustus reforms of the army in 25 BC till the reign of Septimus Severus (193-211),serving Roman soldiers were not allowed to marry until after discharge.This included centurions.
            However, Augustus did not intend his soldiers not to have families.Long term liasons with women and having children with them were permitted.Soldiers got a plot of land on discharge,usually near the base where they were stationed.As this was usually near the frontiers of the empire,

            Augustus expected the soldiers to marry these women (emphasis, I’m adding) on discharge (emphasis, I’m adding), thus giving the children citizenship.

            The Romans thus got military settlers on the borders of the empire,providing both a reserve of trained ex soldiers and potential future recruits from amongst their sons.

            Punishment for desertion was crucifixion, the deserter first having to ‘run the gauntlet’ between 2 lines of soldiers who would beat him with heavy sticks.
            Next Answer:
            It depends on what era of the Legions you’re asking about. Prior to the advent of the Empire yes, they were allowed to Marry. They were citizen Soldiers who served during the campaigning season and then went back to their farms or homes afterwards (usually). During the time of the Empire they were denied the right to marry for a while.
            Next Answer:
            Serving soldiers could not marry till the time of Septimius Severus 193-211. But many had informal unions which they confirmed on retirement.

            Okay, here’s something that you may find meatier because its from Stanford/Princeton
            Just see the first two paragraphs of this paper.

          • Bart
            Bart  August 4, 2016

            Interesting. I wonder what ancient sources say this.

      • Avatar
        Steefen  August 2, 2016

        Centurion and pais.
        Sir Kenneth Dover, a heterosexual, is the former President of Corpus Christi College, Oxford University, and Chancellor of the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, from 1981 until his retirement in 2005 and a noted authority on ancient Greece. In his book, Greek Homosexuality, he informs us that the younger partner in a homosexual relationship is called pais or paidika. This information impacts our Centurion and pais discussion.
        “The pais in a homosexual relationship was often a youth who had attained full height.” p. 16.

        “The Greeks often used the word paidika in the sense of ‘eromenos.’ ”[Meaning “the boy you are in love with]. p. 16. Paidika is the diminutive of pais.

        “The junior partner in homosexual eros is called pais (or of course, paidika) even when he has reached adult height and hair has begun to grow on his face.” p. 85.

  16. Avatar
    bobnaumann  August 2, 2016

    What about concubines? Were they primarily house servants or were they for the sexual pleasure of the patriarchs? What about children born of concubines? Did they have any status? This practice along polygamy seems to have died out after the split between Judah and Israel probably because of the invasions of the Assyrians and the Babylonians.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 3, 2016

      If you’re asking about ancient Israel, I’m afraid I don’t know!

  17. Avatar
    madi22  August 4, 2016

    Just curious, in regards to sexual relations, is rape actually banned in the bible? I know NT talks a lot about being loving and against fornication but does it ever directly address rape and condemn it? I’m assuming in those times arranged marriage was normal therefore you would sleep with someone because its your obligation.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 4, 2016

      There is certainly legislation about illicit sexual relations in the book of Leviticus. I’m away from my books, but maybe someone else on the blog can give the references.

      • Avatar
        madi22  August 5, 2016

        Ok, ill look into it. I find it interesting that Lot is willing to give his daughters away however God never corrects him about that later on. Also, why is it ok for the first humans to be having sex and making the human race then there is a ban on the act and labelled incest…aren’t we all descendants of incest? So God made something ok, then he made it a sin? If it’s a sin then its bad, which is against Gods perfect nature…so how could something bad have been something good?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 5, 2016

          Yes, there is a lot of rape in the Hebrew Bible; sometimes the problem is that a man has taken another man’s property. There are some hugely patriarchal parts of the Bible.

  18. SBrudney091941
    SBrudney091941  August 5, 2016

    Bart, is there anything in the Tanakh or the NT that we today would even call a definition of “marriage”? I don’t think so. Many religious Christians looks at Genesis 2-3 and declare, “See! I told you it defines marriage!” I don’t it defining marriage. What so many now call the “re-defining” of marriage, seems to me nothing more than a way of doing something that is at odds with the way that something has been done traditionally. People have always confused the way things are with the way they are supposed to be.

  19. Avatar
    bradseggie  August 10, 2016

    Aren’t the Judeo-Christian texts claiming to present an unchanging God with timeless, unchanging ethics? I agree that there is a danger in taking things out of context. But too often, I think the “out of context” claim is made incoorectly by those who simply don’t like the teaching.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 11, 2016

      Depends which of the texts you’re talking about! Most of the authors of the Bible don’t think about it that way! (My sense is that these authors do not think about what is timeless and unchanging; they are writing to their own contexts and have a fairly narrow vision)

  20. Avatar
    gabilaranjeira  August 20, 2016

    I know the information regarding John the Baptist is very scarce in the NT, but there is also no mention of him having a wife. In addition, asceticism and marriage/sex do not seem to go together. Could John the baptist be included in the list of celibate man or would it be a stretch due to lack of information?


    • Bart
      Bart  August 21, 2016

      There are obviously degrees of asceticism; some ascetics are single and celibate; some are married and celibate; some are married and only occasionally celibate; others are not single and occasionally celibate. Very occasionally if they’re really ascetic! But in direct answer to your question, I think it’s impossible to know if John the Baptist was married, but I’d be very surprised to learn that he was not celibate. The other apocalyptic preachers we know about (Essenes, Jesus, Paul) appear to have been.

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