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Jesus as Single: An Actual Argument!

So far I have pointed out that it is flat-out wrong to say that every Jewish man in the first century was married and was expected to be married. It is not only demographically impossible (there were not enough women to go around) but we know of Jewish men from the time of Jesus who were not married and were proud of it. Strikingly, they, like him, were apocalyptically minded Jews – such as the Essenes and the apostle Paul. I have also argued that whatever Mary Magdalene was to Jesus, she was not his lover and spouse, to the great disappointment of us all…..

But is there an actual argument that Jesus was not married other than the silences? I think there is. And this is what it is.

A good deal of Jesus’ teaching, of course, was ethical in nature, about how people ought to live and conduct themselves. Many people think of Jesus as one of the great moral teachers of all time, and I have no quarrel with that. But I do think it is important (of utmost importance) to place Jesus’ ethical teachings into the context of his overall proclamation, his apocalyptic message that God was soon to intervene in the course of this evil world to destroy all those powers aligned against him – along with the people who sided with them – and bring in a good kingdom on earth. Jesus’ ethics were directly related to this view of the coming kingdom. They were, in fact, a kingdom ethics.

Many ethicists today are interested in teaching people how to behave so that we can make society a better, stronger place, more beneficial to all of us for the long term.   Jesus, on the other hand, was not teaching people how to behave so that we can all get along in the long haul.  For Jesus there was not going to be a long haul.  The end was coming soon, and …

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  1. Avatar
    tadmania  February 7, 2020

    Given the erasure of human traits as basic as sexuality (and I wonder what the implications are for the gender of the glorified body overall) is there any suggestion that the faithful’s identification as Jews was to be set aside? Certainly, Pauline doctrine advertises a departure from dependence on the signature features of Jewish cultural practice. What is suggested by Jesus’s actual words in this regard?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 9, 2020

      Not for Jesus, no. Paul’s idea of the equality of Jew and Gentile was an innovation.

      • Avatar
        Taufik Mukti  September 9, 2020

        What about the narrative of Peter’s vision about non-kosher foods?
        Does that teach Christians about the equality of Jews and non-Jews?

        • Bart
          Bart  September 10, 2020

          That’s found only in Acts — that is, after Paul. It is usually not thought (by critical scholars) to be a historical account.

  2. kt@rg.no
    kt@rg.no  February 7, 2020

    Beside the major jewish groups like the Pharisees and the SadduceesIs, there were another major group called Essenes and,,,seemingly,,, sects related to those, who lived a more communal life dedicated to voluntary poverty, daily immersion, and asceticism. I also picked up somewhere that they (some of them) also practised celibacy.
    From what I have understood that there were branches of the Essenes living up north where Jesus came from, including in and around Mt. Carmel which was in Jesus’ neigbourhood. If so, I would not be surprised that Jesus as a teacher, who probably grew up in the area, were influenced by such groups, or would have had any kind of relationship with. At least they seemed to share or have doctrinal similarities (like acopolyptical tendensies, like some of his teachings, values like non violence and poverty).

    Is it not so that this assumption about celebacy are confirmed by some historians at that time (Philo and Josephus)?

    Kjell Tidslevold

    • Bart
      Bart  February 9, 2020

      Yes indeed, some Essenes were married. My point is that the idea of not being married is not at all alien to ancient Jewish thoguht and practice.

  3. Avatar
    Hormiga  February 7, 2020

    >Either will people in that resurrected state when the kingdom arrives.

    Should be “Neither”, no?

  4. Avatar
    flshrP  February 7, 2020

    Of course, the key point in all of this is that Jesus is a failed apocalyptic prophet–the kingdom of God did not arrive within the lifetimes of the people who heard him preach. Which is why the early theologians came up with the idea that instead of a general judgement and resurrection at the coming of the new kingdom in the indefinite future, humans are given a preliminary judgement individually at the instant of death. This apologetically rationalizes the error Jesus made in thinking that the final judgment and new kingdom will come very soon while some of his listeners were still alive.

    So Jesus’ celibacy is based on his soon-to-arrive-end-of-times delusion. That sounds reasonable considering the time in which he lived–under Roman occupation for over a century and little prospect for any change in that situation. Hence, it was a time ripe for apocalypticism in a world of ignorance and superstition. But I wonder if this applies to modern day celibates. I have two celibate siblings. One is a nun and the other is a confirmed bachelor. I don’t know if Jesus’ celibacy has much to do with their reasons for not marrying. I don’t think either of them believes that the Second Coming is just around the corner.

  5. fefferdan
    fefferdan  February 7, 2020

    Personally I favor the idea that Jesus was in the process of preparing for marriage with Magdalene but not that he was actually married to her. I intend to write a novel one day where it’s Judas’ jealousy over Magdalene that results in his betrayal of Jesus. Is there a scriptural basis for this, even apocryphal one? Admittedly the evidence is flimsy. We have the Gospel of Phillip’s intriguing “he kissed her often on the [fill in the missing word].” And there’s also the Gnostic tradition, in some cases, that Mary understood Jesus’ secret teachings better than anyone. There’s another intriguing report in the Gospel of John that Mary’s anointing of Jesus became the occasion Judas’ resentment. [OK it was Mary of Bethany, not Magdalene, but please don’t confuse me with the biblical facts.]
    Now I’ll have decide whether to finish my novel soon, or “discover” a new secret gospel instead.

  6. Avatar
    jkk65  February 7, 2020

    To add to your argumentation here (if I may), in your ‘Jesus Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium’ (p. 139), you say:
    “…Jesus’ ministry began with his association with John the Baptist, an apocalyptic prophet, and ended with the establishment of the Christian church, a community of apocalyptic Jews who believed in him. The only connection between the apocalyptic John and the apocalyptic Christian church was Jesus himself. How could both the beginning and the end be apocalyptic, if the middle was not as well?”

    Many things that we could trace to the historical Jesus were part of him because he was an apocalyptic prophet, such as the original Beatitudes (as I’ve shared with you) and it turns out also … (as you argue here) being unmarried. If we add the bookends you mentioned in the above-mentioned quote, [bookend 1] John the Baptist — JESUS — [bookend 2] early apocalyptic Christian church  … and further add the element of ‘being unmarried’ we can see a continuity. We can argue that (bookend 1) the apocalyptic prophet John the Baptist (at least when he was proclaiming the coming Kingdom in the wilderness) was most likely unmarried. (Jesus may even have been his follower for a while and he learned from him among other things the value of being unmarried for the coming Kingdom.) Going to bookend 2, we can also present a dominant figure from early Christianity – Paul, and most definitely say that he was not only unmarried (1 Cor 7:8) but even recommended to others that they remain unmarried in light of the coming eschaton (1 Cor 7:26ff, written in the mid-50s). 

    So, back to your quote from ‘Jesus, apocalyptic prophet…’, even the element of being unmarried can be traced from John the Baptist, through Jesus, and on to Paul, which makes a continuity in the tradition of being unmarried for the believed soon-to-come kingdom! /jk kato

  7. Avatar
    vox_clamantis  February 7, 2020

    I also find it interesting that whereas Mark has Jesus saying:
    “when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage”
    and similar in Matthew:
    “in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage”

    Luke instead has:
    “the sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and resurrection from the dead, neither marry nor are given in marriage”

    Is Luke suggesting that followers of Jesus (now, before they die, before the resurrection … indeed they ‘cannot even die anymore’!) are to follow his example and not be married if they want to be considered worthy?

  8. Avatar
    Hngerhman  February 7, 2020

    Dr Ehrman –

    Why the redundant doublet “marry and given in marriage”? Is it a well-worn idiom?

    It’s all over the the synoptics, and I fall over it every time I read it. The Jesus of the synoptics isn’t exactly excessively loquacious, and I ask myself each time wouldn’t “marriage” suffice?


    • Bart
      Bart  February 9, 2020

      Don’t know. But the idea is that men give their daughters to be married and other men marry them, so there are two groups in mind.

  9. Avatar
    godspell  February 7, 2020

    A great post, and a very strong argument. And I can think of at least one thing that supports it. Jesus’ atypical behavior towards women. Atypical for men of basically all cultures and beliefs.

    What’s the single biggest obstacle to equality of the sexes? Sex. Reproduction. Do I need to elaborate? It should go without saying that if men and women didn’t have sex, didn’t make babies, the only gender-based inequality would be size and strength, and that wouldn’t matter in the Kingdom either. I’m not advocating for this, I don’t aspire to a sexless world, I’m just saying–it’s a fact. It is perhaps the single most universal and overriding fact in human society. The source of our greatest joys and our most terrible flaws. The thing that stops us from being brothers and sisters.

    So Jesus, believing that the Kingdom would be Heaven on Earth, trained himself NOT to see women as potential sex partners, spouses, or mothers of his children. He looked past all that to the soul. Some women were far more spiritually gifted than most men–and he wanted to talk to them–and listen to them. And never hit on them.

    And some women responded to this, gave him their loyalty, their devotion, wanting to believe in the Kingdom he was promising, where they would no longer be second class citizens. Many had perhaps never met a man like this before in their lives. You have, of course, suggested that it was women who promulgated the idea Jesus had been resurrected. Because they could not bear to believe he was gone. And because they still believed in the Kingdom he’d promised.

    He wasn’t born an Apocalyptic Jew, his early life is closed to us, so we can only speculate how he was in adolescence and early adulthood. He might have had relationships. We don’t know that Jesus, and we never will.

    We can say Francis of Assisi led a fairly dissolute life before experiencing his religious vocation, forsaking the world–and forming a deep friendship with Clare of Assisi, encouraging her to follow the same path (and avoid a marriage she didn’t want). For some people, worldly pleasures become a prison, and they find liberty in service to others. Takes all kinds.

  10. Avatar
    jhague  February 7, 2020

    Is it thought that Jesus learned to be apocalyptic from John the Baptizer since Jesus’ parents were married and having children? It appears that Jesus’ parents did not have an apocalyptic view of not marrying.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 9, 2020

      There were plenty of married with children apocalypticists. We don’t actually know where Jesus acquired his views, but it’s usually thoguht that he was attracted to John becasue John was enunciating viwes Jesus already had (though possibly not as clearly or forcefully asserted)

  11. Avatar
    Bewilderbeast  February 7, 2020

    You’re going to be unpopular with the Jims – Bakker and Swaggart. They were hoping for 74 virgins in their heaven. I think that was them . . ?

  12. Avatar
    fishician  February 7, 2020

    According to the Book of Enoch (or, 1st Enoch), angels can have sex with women! (The Letter of Jude seems to reiterate that idea.) Some suggest that the reason Paul wanted women to pray with their heads covered was so that they wouldn’t attract the attention of lusty angels. However, I agree with the reasoning that if Jesus thought the kingdom of Heaven was at hand, that would guide his teachings and behavior, and I don’t see how a wife would fit into that, much like Paul said in 1 Cor. 7.

  13. Avatar
    Pegill7  February 7, 2020

    One of the attractions of the Mormon faith is the belief that all Mormons will be reunited as families in heaven; many evangelicals believe this also. While Jesus says that in the New Kingdom there will be no marriages, that does not specifically deny that already existing relationships will continue, or that believers will not recognize their relatives. Of course, Mormons also believe that they can pray for ancestors who were not Mormons and bring them into a heavenly relationship with the Mormon community. This latter explains why the genealogical data bases in Salt Lake City are so voluminous. Does it seem that Jesus really is saying that that is not true?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 9, 2020

      Well, I think he’s technically saying that no one will *get* married in heaven; but yes, he’s responding to a question of whether people will *remain* married there. Apparenlty not, or the Sadducees question would still carry weight.

  14. Avatar
    veritas  February 7, 2020

    You say Bart, ” Angels don’t marry or have sex “. Isn’t one of the strong thesis of Genesis 6:2, that these sons of god were in fact angels and took human wives? Or is this different in your view? I do concur with your argument about Jesus being single and instructing his followers to live their lives like the kingdom was already here and now. You make a strong case and interestingly, many people today do not consider that this kingdom Jesus spoke of was free of marriage and sex. I think, many believers today, suppose that they will reunited with their present spouse and all will be better( perfect) in the kingdom.. Good post.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 9, 2020

      Right, I’m not saying that’s my view! Jesus says it; and yes, it is at odds iwth Genesis 6:2 IF you interpret the Sons of God as angels. But they were widely interpreted at the time as being demons rather than angels.

  15. Avatar
    Hon Wai  February 7, 2020

    Why in fact was the idea of a woman married to multiple men in the future kingdom so absurd to the Sadducees? Is it due to sexist views in the ancient world whereby it was legitimate for men to marry and have sex with multiple spouses, but it was immoral for women to do likewise?
    Do we know much about the marriage customs of 1st century Palestine – the regularity of parentally-arranged marriages versus free choice marriages?
    Was premarital sex taboo among Jews, but acceptable among Greco-Romans?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 9, 2020

      I think it was just common sense in a strictly monogamous society that monogamy was God’s plan, so he couldn’t have a differetn plan after death than before.

      • Avatar
        Chad Stuart  February 12, 2020

        I don’t believe anything otherwise would have have occurred to 1st century Jews – whether the Sadducees or Jesus himself.

  16. Avatar
    dennislk1  February 7, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I agree that the ethics of Jesus are the reason that he did not marry but from a completely different perspective: It would be unethical for Jesus to have a wife knowing he will be ascending into heaven at the age of 33. But here is a question: Do you always avoid using anything of the supernatural of Jesus’ life for arguing a point and therefore do you believe that the supernatural in the Bible is not a true account of the events?

    But to continue … if Jesus came from heaven to be born to Mary and then went back to heaven, then another reason Jesus didn’t marry is because his female companion in heaven (who was waiting on his return) caused thunder to rumble in the distance every time Jesus’ eyes lingered too long on one of his female followers.

    The hypothetical story of the 7 husbands: I have come to different conclusions on different subjects because of this story:
    – I believe Jesus says women are not “given” in marriage in the Kingdom of God to show that women are not treated as the property of men in the Kingdom of God but are equals to the men as the Angels are not the property of another Angel but equal.

    – I believe that not marrying in the Kingdom of God doesn’t necessarily mean people will not have sex in the Kingdom of God. It could simply mean that there are no taxes in the Kingdom of God and therefore people don’t marry because there is no tax break in it. Or it could mean that there is no lust in the Kingdom of God and therefore there is no reason to have an official proclamation when two people decide to devote themselves to each other because people there will not be tempted to stray from their relationship nor be tempted to try to have relations with someone in a relationship. And also since people will live forever in the Kingdom of God it may also mean that people will not form a never ending commitment to a single person.

    Continued …

    • Bart
      Bart  February 9, 2020

      No, I don’t claim taht anything supernatural is not true. I claim that if it *is* true it is not accessible to anyone using a *historical* method, since historians can have access only to what happens in the natural world, not to what happens it the supernatural. Discussion of what happens int he supernatural world is the work of theology, not history.

  17. Avatar
    dennislk1  February 7, 2020

    Continued from the previous comment

    – I don’t believe one can claim that Angels don’t have sex. For if men and women are to be like the Angels, then it implies that there are male and female Angels also. But Genesis 6:4 says that the sons of God mated with human women so apparently sex is a part of what goes on in Heaven. Therefore I do not agree with a sanitized vision of Heaven of all that religious people call evil but rather a sinless vision of Heaven where those who are there love and care about all who are there in a sinless way but not necessarily in a sexual-less way.

    – If the priests got bent out of shape because Jesus’ disciples did not wash their hands, then I am absolutely convinced that men were required to raise up children to their dead brothers even if monogamy was the rule (although didn’t King Herod have a harem?). So I believe that Jesus did have brothers and sisters: their father was Joseph and their mother was not Mary. The reason I believe Mary only had one child (Jesus) is not because she and Joseph didn’t have sex but because Mary was barren. Barren women giving birth to great prophets is a cornerstone of the Bible. If Mary was barren and only had Jesus as a child, then she could devote herself to him the way she did and also the idea that it was a virgin birth and that she didn’t have sex with Joseph is easier to perpetuate. But perhaps the reason Joseph is not mentioned anymore in the life of Jesus is because he was at home providing for his other wives, children and grandchildren during Jesus’ ministry.

    Dennis Keister

    • Bart
      Bart  February 9, 2020

      I don’t claim that about angels. I was taling about what Jesus claimed.

  18. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  February 8, 2020

    Has anyone, any scholar, tried to make a serious case for Jesus being gay? In at least one of the non-canonical gospels there are some hints in that direction– references to a naked young man and Jesus taking him aside to show him certain “mysteries”. That might have been gnostic material. I’ll have to go back and consult some reference material (your books) to try to nail that down. But Spong tried to make a case that Paul was gay, based on available “evidence”. I think there is better reason to suspect that Jesus was gay, or at least sexually ambivalent. But I’m not aware of any serious scholar who has “gone there”.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 9, 2020

      Oh yes. You might take a look at Dale martin’s “Sex and the Single Savior.”

      • Avatar
        RICHWEN90  February 9, 2020

        Ordered the book. I have to say, thanks to you and this blog I am building quite a library! Of course, I already had a lot of books to lug around, but not very many in this area, That is definitely changing, and I’m happy for the additions!

    • Avatar
      Chad Stuart  February 12, 2020

      I think you’re referring to the Secret Gospel of Mark, which appears to be a brilliant forgery by Morton Smith.

      Bart makes a convincing case for this in, I believe, Lost Christianities.

      The fact that Smith made such a supposedly fantastic discovery, but the left the book where it was and only took black and white photos of what he found is extremely sketchy.


  19. Avatar
    Steve Clark  February 8, 2020

    Apocalyptic Ethics is a good way to look at it – and most of those teachings transfer to a non apocalyptic world.

    But not all of them – abandoning your job, possessions, responsibilities (Jesus and the disciples became dependent on others financially) even abandoning family if they did not believe…these are not good things.

    And it’s all a bit tribal as well – primarily focused on Israelites and fellow Jews. 12 were to rule with Jesus in this new Kingdom for each of the 12 tribes.

    Why have so few people thru history even acknowledged that though most are beautiful sometimes Jesus apocalyptic ethics and teachings are not good?

    Could this be behind a group like the Jesus Seminar simply denying Jesus even was apocalyptic? It seems to me that creates its own problems…

    Thanks for your time !

    • Bart
      Bart  February 9, 2020

      Maybe to some extent. But mainly the seminar was tired of people pointing out that Jesus was wrong about the time of the coming apocalypse; easiest solution: claim he never predicted it was coming soon.

  20. Avatar
    JBarruso  February 8, 2020

    But that assumes he perfectly maintained the ethics of the coming future kingdom his entire life (or at least from marrying age onward) until his death. Hebrews 5 says he “learned” obedience suggesting he wasn’t obedient (“perfect”) from the start but instead it was a gradual process. Isaiah 7 explains the person who is the sign will have to learn to know right and reject wrong. I know you don’t agree Isaiah 7 is speaking of Jesus as the Messiah but I do believe it explains the broader concept of a gradual process of coming to know God (an awakening) as reflected in other examples such as Job and Jonah. Add to this Luke 14:25-27 where Jesus teaches you must “leave” your wife. Frankly, I could care less if he was married or not I just don’t think he was perfect from the start. I don’t think he maintained kingdom ethics his whole life. Instead I think it’s something that he “learned.” And I think his teachings and parables reflect that experience. That being the case, I don’t believe it’s entirely out of the question for him to have been married previously.

    • Avatar
      Chad Stuart  February 12, 2020

      Hebrews holds little value to me since it’s commonly accepted that it’s a forgery in Paul’s name. It does gives evidence of how Jesus was thought of in the last 1st century, but I don’t trust it as a historical source due to the forgery.

      • Bart
        Bart  February 14, 2020

        The problem is that it’s not written in Paul’s name! But I do think the author wanted his readers to *think* he was Paul…..

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