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Jesus and Marriage: 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.

 

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A Married Jesus and Celibate Priests
Jesus and Mary Magdalene

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Yentyl  January 27, 2014

    I was told Paul was married because he was a pharisee and pharisees had to be married.Eh?

  2. Avatar
    judaswasjames  January 27, 2014

    The “apocalypse” for non-believers was *death*. They died unsaved. (“Sin no more, unless a worse thing come unto thee.”)

    “In the kingdom” is inside. “Coming on the clouds of HEAVEN” which is INSIDE YOU: “the kingdom of heaven is within you”. Don’t bother looking around, “If someone says here it is, no it isn’t”.

    Gnosticism, Bart. Forget the orthodox teachings, forget the church. It messed with your head.

    ‘Jesus’ was *not* mistaken. His kingdom DID come to “those standing here”. No one saw it come to them, because what THEY saw was Yaldabaoth and Saklas coming for THEM! Not pretty.

    It is an individual affair. “Every eye *will* see”, but just not all at the same time. The “End” isn’t coming all in one big bang. Where does it say that it does???

    Don’t be an unbeliever, find a Mystic Master for your own. RSSB.org

    Hey, if we live as angels, living here in this world as they do wherever, no sex, I don’t want it! I want the inner world.

  3. Avatar
    Javalos  January 27, 2014

    John Shelby Spong’s believes Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene because in one of the gospels, Mary asks the gardner where Jesus’ body is laid so she can go and retrieve it. Spong says that it was inconceivable in Jewish society for a woman to demand access to a male body unless she was next to kin. I know that you don’t believe Jesus was actually given a proper burial, but is there any historical truth to what he says about the Jewish women? And if Spong gets this part of history right, why would the Gospel writer make Mary look like she was the next to kin if in fact he wasn’t married or related to Mary M?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 30, 2014

      Well, that’s in John’s resurrection narrative. I wouldn’t go there for historical information about Jesus!

  4. TracyCramer
    TracyCramer  January 28, 2014

    Dear Bart,
    Perhaps this is topic you could address on another occasion since it is not directly related to the topic of marriage, but you brought it up in your post.

    You wrote:
    “In other words, Jesus taught an apocalyptic ethics. People should behave now in ways that reveal what life will be like then, in the kingdom. In the kingdom there will be no war, and so Jesus’ followers should be peace makers now.”

    I have wondered about “apocalyptic ethics” for some time. My muddled questions:
    1. Was Jesus saying that one’s admission to the Kingdom was contingent upon practicing such ethics?
    2. And hadn’t the prophets of old already been advocating for centuries the comparable ethics of the Great (Love) Commandments of “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind”, and, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself”?
    3. And finally, was Jesus’ unique contribution to say what those commandments/ethics meant in practice? (Well, maybe “loving God with one’s heart” is not an ethic.)
    Example 1 (antithesis): “It was said… “You shall not kill”. But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment….”
    Example 2 (Bart): “In the kingdom there will be no war, and so Jesus’ followers should be peace makers now.”

    As always, thank you for your time.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 30, 2014

      Good questions. My view is: 1. Yes; 2.Yup! and 3. He is taking the laws of Moses and radicalizing them so that it is a matter not just of keeping the letter but the spirit of the law.

      • TracyCramer
        TracyCramer  January 30, 2014

        Thank you.
        1. So, in theory then, if a lot to most people started practicing these ‘radical’ ethics, would not the Kingdom itself be manifest, obviating the need for any direct intervention on God’s part and the fiery judgement? That is, that God can work through people and not as an independent agent who has to take things into his own hands, as it were.
        2. Is there any textual evidence of people at that time, thinking that way?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  January 30, 2014

          I think the idea was that it would never happen fully, until the Son of Man arrived. I don’t know of anyone at the time who thought they could bring in the kingdom by being ethical in Jesus’ way. Too much evil rooted deeply in the world.

          • TracyCramer
            TracyCramer  January 30, 2014

            I understand. Thank you.

  5. Avatar
    Peter  January 28, 2014

    Bart.

    Do you think the conversation between Jesus and the Sadducees is historical or merely a story composed to express the apocalyptic outlook of those early Christians who provided Mark with the accounts of the words and deeds of Jesus that appear in his gospel?

    Also: did no one think to tell Henry the 8th about this verse in Deuteronomy?! It would have obviated quite a bit of the, eh, unpleasantness in 16th Century England!!

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 30, 2014

      I think it’s the kind of converstaion that may well have happened. I doubt if it happened exactly as narrated.

      Henry knew the Bible inside out, as it turns out!

  6. Avatar
    maxhirez  January 28, 2014

    “Many people think of Jesus as one of the great moral teachers of all time, and I have no quarrel with that.”

    This is a line or idea I’ve read several times in the trade books and blog, and perhaps it’s a tangent here, but how original would Jesus’ moral teachings have been in his context? (i.e. that of a primitive wandering apocalyptic preacher from the hill country.) There are accounts of Hillel formulating the “Golden Rule” in response to a challenge, for example. Relatedly, are these clever “gotcha” moments in the Bible real incidents or popular fiction inserted into several literary constructs of the time, only among which the Gospels have survived?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 30, 2014

      Yes, many of Jesus’ teachings can be found in this that or the other moral teacher as well.

  7. Avatar
    jhague  January 28, 2014

    Here’s an interesting excerpt from James Tabor. He had always held your belief that there was no evidence for Jesus being married. Then he wrote this on his blog:

    In this section of the letter Paul takes up a number of related topics, particularly whether divorce/separation is allowed and under what circumstances, but he is quite careful to explicitly state whether he has specific sanction from “the Lord.” It is quite important to him to bring in the authority and teaching of Jesus when he can to back up and lend weight to what he is saying.

    I think one can conclude that if Paul had known Jesus to have been single or unmarried, living a celibate life, he would have mentioned it prominently. In fact it would have been one of his main points. It would have been irresistible. He mounts every possible defense of celibacy, but in the end is only able to appeal to his own example. Imagine how much more rigorously he could have argued had he been able to say, “follow me here, as I follow Christ.” In this particular case I think his silence is “deafening.” As with Cephas, the other apostles, and the brothers of the Lord, he knows that having a wife as a companion is the norm and pattern in the group. Paul must have known that Jesus was married, and he, as our earliest witness, would surely have been in a position to know. When he can use the teachings of Jesus or the example of Jesus he does. Here is an obvious example where he can not.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 30, 2014

      I”m not as convinced about that as J.T. is, but in any event, I think Paul didn’t know a *lot* of things about Jesus.

      • Avatar
        judaswasjames  January 30, 2014

        Notice how much he knows about JUDAS? Zip, Zero, Nada. You’d think if he DID he would have made prominent use of the notorious bad guy! Paul loved to preach against his and Christ’s enemies. It’s because neither Judas nor Jesus EXISTED,

    • Avatar
      judaswasjames  January 30, 2014

      Where does Paul use Jesus’ teachings? I think you’ll find him and ‘Jesus’ on different pages.

  8. Avatar
    Rosekeister  January 28, 2014

    “So if someone wants to think that Jesus was married, it’s simply because that’s what they want to think.”

    I think there is a lot of that going around and that maybe most people even scholars are guilty of it. I’ve seen 25 page arguments in commentaries on the book of James explaining that Jesus did not have brothers and sisters. The way it is done is that the author goes through the whole history of the beliefs on the subject and all the different possibilities until the reader is numb and in no mood to argue the conclusion that Jesus did not have brothers and sisters but rather step-brothers and step-sisters or cousins. Its always startling to see a scholar confusing the line between probabilities and possibilities. It also always reminds me of the professor that read your paper and commented that maybe the author just made a mistake. I’m curious if you often listen to student theories (many of which are no doubt very good and required a lot of thought) but keep directing them to “What is the evidence for this?” rather than “What are the possibilities?”

  9. Avatar
    Wilusa  January 28, 2014

    I don’t, by any means, think Jesus “must have been” married. But…isn’t it true that people who *did* marry in that society often married very young? Males in their late teens, females in their mid teens? Jesus *could* have become a widower (with no surviving child) at a young age, and developed his apocalyptic views as much as a decade later.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 30, 2014

      Yup, it’s possible — one of the many possibilities! (E.g. he could have simply left his wife in the lurch to go on his preaching ministry! It’s possible. But one always has to see if there is any evidence.)

  10. talitakum
    talitakum  January 28, 2014

    However, Jesus was also against divorce – because, he said, it was like this “from the beginning”. So he apparently held the biblical idea (Gn 2, 18-24) that marriage was a sort of “natural status” for men and women.
    This is apparently at odds with the “apocalyptic” perspective you just presented.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 30, 2014

      That saying about divorce only applies to people who were married, not to everyone.

  11. Avatar
    westengtr  January 28, 2014

    In fact, I think only one disciple was married; Peter. How else could Jesus have healed his mother in law?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 30, 2014

      The others may have been married too….

      • Avatar
        Rankinsp  April 29, 2019

        1 Corinthians 9:5 Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the LORD’s brothers and Cephas?

  12. Avatar
    SJB  January 28, 2014

    Prof Ehrman

    So if Jesus privilged celibacy and there was to be no marriage (and presumably no sex) in the kingdom then why the absolute strictures against divorce?

    thanks

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 30, 2014

      Same reason celibate priests (and other Christians) oppose divorce today! And that hte celibate Paul did in (roughly) Jesus’ time.

  13. Avatar
    Peter  January 29, 2014

    I’m wondering if someone can help me out, please!

    I came across this piece by JD Crossan, on the subject of Jesus’ being married. It’s quite concise; it only takes 3 or 4 minutes to read.

    http://www.beliefnet.com/Entertainment/Movies/The-Da-Vinci-Code/Why-Jesus-Didnt-Marry.aspx

    He agrees with Bart that Jesus wasn’t married, although he disagrees with Bart on the reason for Jesus’ remaining celibate; surprise, surprise (!), Crossan attributes his celibacy to poverty.

    Anyway, it’s an interesting piece, short and informative. However, on page 2, he discounts a motivation (to remain celibate) based on either ascetic or eschatological grounds; and while I can understand why he dismisses the former, I can’t understand why he has dismissed the latter.

    I’d be grateful if someone can enlighten me! The bit I’m referring to is about half way down page 2, in the paragraph starting with “The Unmarried Jesus”.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 30, 2014

      So does Crossan think every poor person was celibate?!? How strange!

      He rejects the eschatological argument because he doesn’t think Jesus was an apocalypticist.

      • Avatar
        judaswasjames  January 30, 2014

        He rejects the eschatological argument because he doesn’t think Jesus was an apocalypticist.

        _____

        Smart man.

      • Avatar
        Peter  February 2, 2014

        Bart.

        I know that Crossan doesn’t believe in the ” Apocalyptic Jesus”, but the average reader of this piece wouldn’t.

        I’m trying to figure out how Crossan dismisses, in one fell swoop, the eschatological and ascetical motivation for Jesus’ remaining celibate, as he does in the paragraph I mentioned. He only makes the case for discounting the latter, in this piece.

        PS. I know Bart doesn’t have time to read links; that’s why I hope someone else can explain Crossan’s explanation!

  14. Avatar
    donmax  January 29, 2014

    Bart,

    Your argument seems reasonable enough. Jesus could have been a lifelong bachelor, and celibate, too. However, I put the odds at about 50/50 for being single (or married), and much less than that for his being either chaste or a father.

    After all, James the Just was married. He sired children according to Jewish halakhah or “sacred Law,” as did other members of the family. He led the Nazarenes for several eventful decades after Yeshu’s departure, he identified with the poor (in the extreme), and he embraced the ethical teachings taught by his brother — the very same “kingdom ethics” you have emphasized yourself. More than that, he was also an apocalypticist who faithfully followed the Torah, which included the obligation of begetting children.

    So why wouldn’t Jesus have been at least a begetter, if not someone’s husband? First off, because APOCALYPTIC SAYINGS FOUND IN THE GOSPELS ORIGINATED BEFOREHAND in the writings and declarations of Paul, as did statements critical of sex and marriage. Most likely these warnings and admonitions were meant to appear retroactively Christ-like, but nonetheless prophetic. In other words, predictions of the Last Days and prohibitions of conjugal visits could easily have been written into the mouth of the Lord by people who knew THE END HAD ALREADY ARRIVED!

    As far as end-times ethics are concerned, your description doesn’t begin to pass muster. It’s not even a 50/50 proposition. When you say, for example, that you have no quarrel with those who think Jesus was “one of the great moral teachers of all time,” the code of behavior you allude to is improbable and impractical all around. No one could long endure under the constraint of such self-destructive notions.

    Do you really believe Jesus wasn’t’ “interested in teaching people how to behave so that we can make society a better, stronger place”? Do you think he didn’t care about the welfare of others, or that when he said things like “love your neighbor as yourself,” he only spoke for expedience sake? like shouting “fire!” in a crowded theater just because he convinced himself it was going to happen?

    And can you explain how it is that from among so many, many other apocalyptic preachers of ancient history, Jesus was the ONLY ONE to come up with the kind of unworkable ethics you so mistakenly describe?

    I do agree, however, that “most people think what they want to think about the past and are not all that interested in such minor little things like evidence,” but sometime you are very probably one of them. 😉

  15. Avatar
    FrankofBoulder  January 29, 2014

    As depicted in the gospels, Jesus certainly acted like a man who had no responsibilities — not to a wife, not to children, not to family, not to anyone. According to the gospels, the only people he cared about were those who slavishly followed his preaching. (Mark, 4:34 and Luke 14:26 from “Q”)

    Jesus seems to have had no attachments or relationships except with his obedient followers. If Jesus had a wife, it would probably have been mentioned. He told people to give up everything — their family, work and possessions — just to follow him. Today, we recognize this kind of self-centered person as a cult leader.

    Yes, the coming Kingdom was all-important to Jesus. If you didn’t agree with him, you would be lost. Allegedly, he preached love and forgiveness, but he was condemning and unforgiving toward those who didn’t his accept his unsolicited preaching (e.g., Matt. 11:20-24 from “Q”). Jesus’ movement fits the typical description of a cult of personality led by a religious fanatic who doesn’t care about anything except his own dogmatic beliefs.

  16. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  January 29, 2014

    It is interesting to consider how a belief in an imminent apocalypse affects one’s current ethics and life.

  17. Avatar
    gavm  January 29, 2014

    so jesus doesn’t like marriage but he hates divorce? i mention divorce because it seems to meet the historical criteria quite well

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 30, 2014

      I don’t think that Jesus “didn’t like marriage.” Just because he was single doesn’t mean that he thought everyone should be or that he thought there were no rules for those who chose to marry.

  18. Avatar
    GokuEn  January 29, 2014

    How are we to interpret Jesus’ prohibition of divorce within an apocalyptic framework? It seems that in every step of the way the historical Jesus calls for the sacrifice of family relationships in the name of the Kingdom of God but when it comes to divorce he strangely forbids it. What’s the opinion of academia at large and your own on this matter?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 30, 2014

      I think it’s not strange. Paul was also an apocaypticist and also forbad divorce — on precisely apocalyptic grounds! (Don’t change your social status: be concerned instead with the coming kingdom)

      • Avatar
        GokuEn  January 30, 2014

        I am not sure if the same rationale applies. Paul urges people not to change their status unless absolutely necessary to focus on keeping oneself ready for the Second Coming. But Jesus’ take on it seems to be more in alignment to his “intensification” of the law. Moses allowed divorce because mankind was too corrupt to have it any other way, but in reality God from all time intended marriage to be permanent because “from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife” (Mark 10.6).
        Paul sees changes in marital status as a potential distraction in the present apocalyptic age. But Jesus seems to be saying that divorce is effectively against the will of God in all ages! Now what I find most odd is that I thought that the “intensification of the law” (e.g.: do not murder -> do not get angry) had to be understood as a prelude of how life in the Kingdom would be. But other passages indicate that in the Kingdom there would be an absence of marriage and sexual activity because we will be like “the angels of heaven”.
        How do we square these things?

  19. Avatar
    Javalos  January 29, 2014

    This is off topic, but what are your thoughts on Michael Bird, Craig Evans, Simon Gathercole and several others releasing a book in response to your new book “How Jesus Became God” cleverly titled: How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature – A Response to Bart Ehrman around the same time your book will be released? It baffles me how anyone can respond, let alone write an entire BOOK about a book that hasn’t even been released yet? Did you know about this?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 30, 2014

      Yes, their publisher asked for my permission. I think it could be very interesting! And I don’t think what they find in my book is what they will expect to find. But I could be wrong! I’ll be interested in seeing what they object to (other than my view that Jesus did not think he was God and that during his lifetime his disciples didn’t either.)

  20. Avatar
    Scott F  January 29, 2014

    Couldn’t we say that Jesus’ answer about the lack of marriage in the Kingdom was an attempt to avoid a marriage he had in the past – i.e. just as the woman who was married to seven brothers would be married to no one after the resurrection, so Jesus’ own marriage would be no more.

    Not arguing that this is the case but it might be supported by the pericope you cited

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