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So… WAS Jesus Married?

As a follow-up to my previous post, I’ll now re-post a couple of reflections on this question that has obsessed modern people: was Jesus probably married?   I should say that what obsesses most folk is not what obsesses scholars, as a rule; in my roughly 89 million discussions with New Testament scholars over the past 44 years, I don’t recall ever having a detailed back-and-forth about it, except in public settings in front of a crowd of non-scholars.  It’s kind-a like Shakespeare.  I know this is disappointing, but the major Shakespeare scholars in universities in England and America do NOT have discussions about whether Shakespeare really wrote the plays.  It’s just not the issue….

Anyway, I did have to deal with the question of Jesus possible marriage, with a couple of other scholars, in front of a crowd five years ago.  I posted on it afterward.  Here’s what I said.

*****************************************************************

I am en route just now, back from Las Vegas, where I participated in a discussion with two other scholars at the Black Mountain Institute on the question “Would It Matter If Jesus Were Married?” The Black Mountain Institute is part of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas (UNLV); it sponsors events having to do with literature and history. Usually these involve two or more scholars, on stage, on chairs, with a moderator, discussing a topic of mutual interest. The moderator last night was Carol Harter, the former president of UNLV. The two other scholars were Karen King and Mark Jordan.

Both Karen and Mark are very well known and highly respected scholars. Karen is a professor of early Christianity at Harvard, where she holds the oldest endowed chair, of any kind, in the country; her expertise is especially in early Christian Gnosticism, and she has become best known in the past few years for her role in publicizing the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” that I have blogged on before (search and see!). I’ve known Karen for years, but not well. She is a very insightful feminist historian with special interest in issues involving women, gender, sexuality, marriage in the early Christian movement.

Mark is one of the great scholars of religion in the country. He is extraordinarily wide ranging, having translated Thomas Aquinas on the one hand and having written, on the other, some of the most important books ever produced on the issues of gender and of sexual ethics and, especially the history of homosexuality in the Christian tradition, including his book The Invention of Sodomy. He is not principally an expert on early Christianity per se, but he knows an uncanny amount about just about everything. If he weren’t such a friendly and affable fellow, he would be flat-out intimidating.

Our task was to discuss in front of an overflowing crowd (standing room only: turns out this was a hot topic) various issues related to Jesus’ marital status. Was he married? Why does it matter to people? Should it matter? If he could be shown to have been married, would it matter? For women? For understandings of sexuality? For notions of marriage? For the celibate priesthood in the Catholic Church? For anyone or anything else?

Interested in seeing more?  Join the blog, and read to your heart’s content.  And maybe even delight.  Joining is easy and inexpensive, every penny goes to charity, and you’ll learn masses about all sorts of interesting things.  Like, is Jesus really your patrilineal ancestor?

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Was Jesus Intimate with Mary Magdalene?
A “Newly Discovered” “Gospel”: Was Jesus Married with Children?

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Fernando Peregrin Gutierrez  February 3, 2020

    We are facing a case in which the only rational attitude is to say that we simply do not know, and that it is highly unlikely that we ever know, or said in Latin, that it sounds more learned, “ignoramus et ignorabimus”, an expression of the eminent physiologist Emil du Bois-Reymond taken from his book “Über die Grenzen des Naturerkennens (1872)” that has been adopted as a motto by modern agnosticism (Dr. Ehrman, being an agnostic, surely he knows this statement).
    Carl Sagan said it in a famous phrase that is very used in modern skepticism: “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” which is a way of referring to the “Ad ignorantiam” fallacy.
    But for me, the really important thing would be to know if Jesus was a virgin (chaste) all his life, that he never had sex with any woman.
    This is a curiosity about which it is much more fair to have a belief or a guess in one sense or another, using a very rudimentary form of probabilistic thinking.
    While Dr. Ehrman’s information about marriage between the Jews of Jesus’ time is accurate and very interesting, the practice of sex outside of marriage, including adultery, would be very common in Jewish societies, so as in all civilizations of the time (the Hebrew Bible devotes much attention to sex in marriage [kiddushin] or outside it)
    It can be argued, to affirm that Jesus remained a virgin all his life, that he himself said: “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft , murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person. ” (Mark 7: 20-23). But it is well known that one thing is what one person –it said to– says and another, what he does.
    (continue on next comment)

    • Bart
      Bart  February 4, 2020

      I’ll be mounting other argumetns for him not being married — which are less arguments from what we don’t know to arguments of what we do. Stay tuned!

      • Avatar
        ecafischer  February 4, 2020

        This comment may be a little off but I read something….might have been Spong….about Paul possibly being gay. Sounded very likely when I read it.

        • Bart
          Bart  February 5, 2020

          Yeah, well, it’s a headliner. But no way to establish it one way or the other.

  2. Avatar
    Fernando Peregrin Gutierrez  February 3, 2020

    (conclusion)
    In addition, it is very likely, I would say almost certainly, that Jesus was very charismatic and very attractive to the women around him. And Jesus was often surrounded by prostitutes and had friendly treatment with them (Luke 7: 36 and 8: 3). And therefore, he will not lack the chances of fornicating.
    I think to myself that it is highly probable that the historic Jesus was occasionally involved in sexual relations
    Regarding Paul’s virginity, the Bible does not say whether or nor he was ever married. It simply says that he was single when he entered the story and remained single throughout.
    In any case, scrutinizing the Bible with the technical tools of scholars to know about Jesus’ sex life is like trying to use an electron microscope to learn about the sex of angels.

    • Avatar
      dwcriswell  February 4, 2020

      The only things we know with a reasonable certainty about Jesus is that he was a prophet baptized by John the Baptist, and was crucified on the orders of Pilate. Everything else about him may be either fictional or an incorrect person of historical events that occurred. People probably constructed in their writings and fables the kind of person they wanted to have existed.

  3. Avatar
    Hngerhman  February 3, 2020

    Dr Ehrman –

    Main Question: Do you find of the idea that Paul does not reference Jesus when exhorting the Corinthians to celibacy, in a stream of text that does often cite Jesus on relevant issues, to be noteworthy?

    Is it that Paul here cites only known commands from the lord (like divorce), and not lived examples of the lord (like remaining unmarried)? Paul does elsewhere cite Jesus’s example of faithfulness and suffering and crucifixion quite liberally (being the centerpiece of the whole thing and all that). It would seem odd, given that the other apostles and Jesus’s brothers are known by Paul to have been married, if Paul were to have expected such a command.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 4, 2020

      Your question leads me to think about re-posting my commments on what Paul actually knew about the historical Jesus, and what maybe he didn’t know. It’s a more complicated issue than one would think!

      • Avatar
        Hngerhman  February 4, 2020

        Excellent. I have my “What Paul Says” index card at the ready!

  4. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  February 3, 2020

    For what it’s worth, you’ve convinced me. Jesus was probably not married and there are good reasons for thinking that. And now off topic: I remember frequent mention in parochial school of a remarkable garment Jesus wore– some sort of seamless robe, and it was something much coveted, to such an extent that Roman soldiers threw dice to see who would get it. I think that legend got worked into a turgid old movie, THE ROBE. Have you heard of this? Where did that come from?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 4, 2020

      Ha! And I haven’t even gotten to my best arugments yet! Actually, the Romans throwing lots for his garment is in the Gospels! But THE ROBE: yes indeed. Victor Mature as the Roman centurion. Hey day of Hollywood biblical epics.

  5. Avatar
    fishician  February 3, 2020

    And yet the Old Testament is full of stories of men having multiple wives and/or concubines. Were the more prosperous men hoarding all the women and letting the other men go without? Maybe that’s what kept the temple prostitutes in business.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 4, 2020

      Yeah, pretty interesting. And indeed, hard to explain! Maybe the elite got all the women?

      • Avatar
        dankoh  February 4, 2020

        Not necessarily. The period of the Scripture was often a time of war when, as you pointed out, men are more likely to die than women. (In 5000 years of human history, there are about 300 years when there was no war worth reporting.)

        Also, the Bible is partly reporting on the elite, who might be expected to collect a harem. After Solomon (whose collection was certainly exaggerated), I don’t think any of the kings had multiple wives. Plus, a concubine can leave one man and go to another when she chooses, without a divorce (though this may be more Talmudic than Biblical).

  6. Avatar
    Levenson  February 3, 2020

    What’re your thoughts on end-time prophecies? if you’ve posted on this topic before can someone send a link please.

    I’m truly asking because someone told me if the cheifs won the super bowl that it’s a sign of the end

    • Bart
      Bart  February 4, 2020

      No, no. It’s the sign of the beginning!

      My next trade book is going to be on this issue. So stay tuned!

  7. Avatar
    jscheller  February 3, 2020

    I understand that this is in no way proof that Jesus was single, but I would think Jesus being married would have resulted in a very different writing of Matthew 19:3-12

  8. Avatar
    dankoh  February 3, 2020

    I need to differ slightly on the Essenes. Some of them were married, though they limited sex strictly to procreation. “And whoever has approached his wife, not according to the rules, (thus) fornicating, he shall leave and will not return again” (4Q270 fr. 7:13). The rules not only included while she was menstruating, but also once it was known she was pregnant, or menopausal (that last one is according to Vermes).

    Josephus does describe the Essenes as “neglect[ing] wedlock” (War 2.120), but it’s not clear the extent he (and Pliny) were reporting an ideal or actual status. Certainly much of Judaea believed the Essenes practiced celibacy (at least among their elite), but as the quote from the Damascus Document shows, they did make allowances.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 4, 2020

      Yes, indeed. Some were married, I’m absolutely not denying that. I’m saying that the idea that “every Jewish man was married” is precisely wrong.

      • Avatar
        dankoh  February 4, 2020

        I’ve often wondered about the degree to which Essene notions about limiting and avoiding sex influenced the early Jesus Movement, perhaps through John the Baptist.

        • Bart
          Bart  February 5, 2020

          They clearly seem related, even if it’s not a matter of direct influence.

  9. Avatar
    forthfading  February 3, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman,

    James Tabor points to the fact that Paul says to be celibate like himself, and if Paul was certain that Jesus was in fact unmarried he obviously would have said be celibate like The Lord was celibate. I think there is a really good point in that deduction, but what are your thoughts?

    Thanks, Jay

    • Bart
      Bart  February 4, 2020

      My thoughts are that Paul says almost ZERO about Jesus’ life, in all sorts of places that you would expect him to. I think I’ll re-post on this.

  10. Avatar
    Nathan  February 3, 2020

    I have no skin in the game either way, but here are some points to consider:
    -I’ve found a source that suggest that in the first to fifth centuries the sex ratio for deaths wasn’t far from unity in Europe. Whereas in later centuries the ratios suggest many more women died than men

    -There was a lot of violence against males in early first century Judea! Pontius was arbitrarily killing men. Herod Antipas (of Galilee!) lost his army to Aretas IV.

    -There is evidence that in Egypt non-“Greeks” would rescue exposed infants, perhaps suggesting non-“Greeks” such as the Judeans would be less likely to commit infanticide

    -If you take the large male Essene community out of the dating pool then the chances for the remaining Judean males to marry goes up.

    -Sure, the Essene community and Jesus were both apocalyptic. But, they would’ve disagreed on many other things, such as purity laws. Perhaps, someone who doesn’t wash his hands as much and also hangs out with tax collectors and sex workers won’t find marriage so icky.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 4, 2020

      Interesting points. My responses: 1. Pilate’s killings were random and isolated, not massive at all, so far as we can till; 2. Exposure, according to explicit evidence, was most frequently of *female* infants (we have documents of husbands to wives: If its a girl, expose it, but not if it’s a boy). 3. The Essene community was very small. There were some 4 million Jews int eh world at the time; the Pharisees, according to Josephus, were the largest group, with 4000 members. Essenes were much smaller. 4. Celebacy in both early Judaism and Xty was not about purity but about avoiding pleasures of the flesh and devoting oneself exclusively to God. So, they’re are intriguing arguments, but I don’t think they’ll tilt the balance.

  11. Avatar
    brenmcg  February 3, 2020

    I guess 2 Cor 11:2 is only likely to have come about if Paul thinks of Jesus as having not been married?

  12. Avatar
    tadmania  February 4, 2020

    It just occurred to me….. Jesus wasn’t married, and neither was Paul. Jesus had a dove descend upon at his Baptism, while Paul had the Damascus Road experience. Both had ideologies that were radical and misunderstood by their closest associates. Both conducted traveling ministries. Both disavowed their heritage and cultural lineage. I don’t know that this micro-revelation applies appropriately here, but I thought I would write it down before I forget!

    • Avatar
      tadmania  February 4, 2020

      Ah, as I should have done, I searched your previous commentary on this. Please, put my questions out of their misery and carry on. I have reading to do!

    • Bart
      Bart  February 4, 2020

      Interesting! But I would not say that either disavowed Judaism in the least. They both were very committed Jews and remained so to the end of their lives (at least in their own views of themselves).

      • Avatar
        tadmania  February 5, 2020

        Of course, I should have said “both rejected the primary importance of their heritage and culture”.

        • Bart
          Bart  February 5, 2020

          And I still would have disagreed! 🙂

          • Avatar
            tadmania  February 6, 2020

            Ha! Which means I should study more.

  13. Avatar
    hankgillette  February 6, 2020

    If Jesus was God (as John claimed), and he married and had children, would his children have been demigods?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 6, 2020

      Don’t know. But they would have done extremely well in school…

    • Avatar
      tadmania  February 8, 2020

      Genius idea! It could very well be that, once a kyriotic christology gained popularity, the Jesus character had to become celibate and single. Thanks!

  14. galah
    galah  February 9, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman,
    You say, “The Essenes, for example – the Jewish sect who produced and preserved the Dead Sea Scrolls…” Is there evidence that ties the Essenes, specifically, to the Dead Sea Scrolls?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 10, 2020

      yes indeed — it is the common view, based on the specific location of an Essene cmomunity to that area by non-essene ancient scholars and other factors. Check out books on Qumran by, say, Jodi Magness or Jim Vanderkam.

      • Avatar
        Osuaggiefan  May 5, 2020

        I think… and I may be very wrong, that the close proximity to the Qumran community is the only evidence we have linking the scrolls to the Essenes. Until proven otherwise though, I reckon it’s the best theory I’ve heard 🙂

  15. Avatar
    Erik Nelson  February 17, 2020

    https://unusualplaces.org/the-tomb-of-christ-in-japan/

    According to reports from Japan, Jesus avoided crucifixion as his (twin?) brother “Isukiri” (Judas Iscariot) substituted himself for his Messiah, enabling Jesus to escape Roman (in-)justice (“John Dillinger”)

    Reportedly, he reached Japan with an ear (of Malchus?) and a lock of hair from Mary (Magdalene at the tomb??), married, and became a rice farmer who periodically pilgrimaged to other holy shrines throughout Japan

    These reports would be consistent with other far eastern traditions of “Issa” in India as well as the Quran

  16. stevedemarco
    stevedemarco  February 19, 2020

    Was Jesus parents divorced?

    I know this is not the question you posted. You wanted to know if Jesus was married or not, but I think my question, ties into your question. I share the same view you have that Jesus was not married. But with that being said I wanted to know, originally, why a unmarried man would be so concerned about divorce. Jesus expressed this in Mark 10:11-12, Q (Mt 19:9-Lk 16:18), and Paul confirms this in 1 Corinthian’s 7:10-11. These versus may have actually gone back to the historical Jesus. It goes against Deuteronomy 24:1-4 where the original law states that a man should not remarry his first wife that he divorced where as Jesus states anyone who divorces his wife and remarry’s has committed adultery. So originally I wanted to know why Jesus was so concerned about divorce when he himself was not married? I also wanted to know how bad was the divorce rate in the first century for Jesus to speak out against it? Then it got me thinking, was Jesus parents divorced? I know, there is no direct evidence in the New Testament. But think about it for a minute, it always been assumed that Jesus’s father died during Jesus’s lifetime but there is no evidence in New Testament for that either. We never knew what happen to his father after his birth. More interesting is when you look at Mark 6:3 where Jesus is called the son of Mary not the son of Joseph it stands out as odd. Also look at Jesus overall lifestyle where he was a follower of John the Baptist, possibly being mentored by him, later becoming an apocalyptic prophet, and not being married. Jesus’s father may have actually died during his lifetime, I’m not disputing that, but what I’m saying is I never heard anyone give a alternative explanation for Jesus father not being present during his ministry in the New Testament.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 20, 2020

      Probably not. It was very rare then, *especially* among the poor.

      • stevedemarco
        stevedemarco  February 20, 2020

        Then that is very interesting. If your saying divorce was rare back then and more so with the poor and we know Jesus came from a poor town, then why would Jesus teach about divorce in the first place? If it didn’t happen as much.

  17. Avatar
    JonA  May 9, 2020

    In the Black Mountain Institute Conference, moderator Carol Harter posits the idea of priest abuse being tied to the “stupid and unnatural sense of celibacy, side effects of which drives them to things that are much worse than getting married and having sex–with desire [no less]”
    My thought is that no normal healthy priest would desire to have sex with a pubescent altar boy, no matter how long he had been celibate.
    On the other hand, a priest who has sex with a pubescent altar boy is simply a pedophile (with serious
    psychological problems.) His amount of time being celibate is of no consequence. There is no causal connection as far as I am concerned.
    I suppose that pursuing this topic was beyond the scope of the conference, which is probably why Mark Jordan said (and wisely so) “I’d like to hold in suspension how this (abuse by priests) has played out in the Catholic Church. It’s a very complicated question.”

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