Monday, 1 October 2007

What If Jesus's Wife Had Not Been Written Out of History?

Note that this posting is not about whether Jesus Christ had a wife or not, but what would have happened if the wife he certainly did have was not written out of history. There has been discussion around Jesus's marriage for over thirty years now and it has been brought back into the spotlight by the novel and subsequent movie, 'The Da Vinci Code'. All good novelists mix fact and fiction and a lot of what is in the book about the Templars is fictional, but at the same time it outlines the points about Jesus's wife, most likely the woman we know as Mary Magdalene in a way that is comprehensible to the general public. For me it is less important whether Jesus started a bloodline than what the fact that so much church dogma has excluded Jesus's wife from the story and in doing so has also excluded women from a full role in the Christian church.

You do not have go beyond the Bible itself for evidence that challenges many of the assumptions that people take for granted about the life of Jesus and of his family. The divine and human natures of Christ and their relationship to each other are contested, but all denominations of Christianity accept that Jesus had human manifestation. In Islam Jesus also appears but without any divine aspect, just as a human prophet. Thus, whilst there is disagreement whether he was the son of God or part of God, there is agreement that on Earth from about 4 BC (4 BCE) to about 33 AD (33 CE) he was a man. Now that means he fitted into the human context of the time, living in a reasonably well off province of the Roman Empire. He was not from a poor family. People often assume he was, but in the Bible there is a lot of evidence that his family was what would be called lower middle class in modern day UK. His father, Joseph, owned a successful carpentry business in Nazareth a sizeable town. He was rich enough to hire or own a donkey for his wife to ride on and to close up shop or leave it in the hands of journeymen or apprentices while he travelled to Bethlehem and paid for food and lodgings along the way. Mary and Joseph were not beggars. Even when they arrived in Bethlehem, though the town was over-crowded because of the census they were able to hire a stable to sleep in (and remember even in the Middle Ages people often slept in the same rooms as livestock so it was not as unusual as it appears to modern readers); Jesus was not born on a street corner or in an alley in Bethlehem as the babies of the poor are still in many countries today. When Herod moved against the first born, Mary and Joseph were able to flee to Egypt which would have taken money and Joseph either had sufficient savings or was able to find work to sustain his family during the years he was outside Judea and then return to re-establish his business.

There are big gaps in the recounting of Jesus's life but we see him again on the verge of adolescence travelling with his parents to market. They were not working day and night to earn a living in the workshop. Jesus was not out on the streets begging, he, and presumably his brothers and sisters were sustained by the prosperity of Joseph's business. The fact that Joseph had been able to get out of Bethlehem and move to Nazareth might indicate that he was driven by a shortage of jobs in Bethlehem or that he was drawn to the greater income possible in Nazareth; certainly he was economically mobile, something that poor people are not. Maybe it took him time to earn a decent income, which is why he was older than Mary when he married, but by 4 BC he was doing pretty well; Mary might have been his second wife, having buried one closer to his age already. Right into modern day disease and death in childbirth could often carry often even comparatively young women.

When we see Jesus again it is in the final three years of his life, and he was in his mid to late 30s. The thing that always strikes me is what has he been doing in the past twenty years? Presumably, like most men in the region at the time, he has followed in his father's footsteps and become a carpenter, maybe also taking over running the business, especially as we know he was Joseph's eldest child, his first born. Given that Mary was able to travel such a distance on donkey back and give birth to a child and survive the birth herself indicates she was a pretty robust woman and we know had other children by Joseph, there is reference to Jesus's brothers at the Wedding at Canna and these brothers probably worked alongside Jesus. We can also be pretty certain that Jesus got married. Even nowadays in our fragmented society marriage is incredibly common and in 1st Century Judea it would be the norm. It seems likely that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene or maybe he only married her later when he began preaching. It would be interesting to speculate that Jesus sees it as time to start preaching when his first wife and possibly his children by them are carried off by disease. In such circumstances men often become reflective and find religion. Jesus the widower is not something we commonly think about, but in a time when life expectancy was short and women faced great hazards in childbirth, it is certainly far from impossible. What we see is that rather than some unemployed loner who could not find a wife, despite being well off and healthy which is the implication of some many people's portrayal of the gospels, Jesus was a very ordinary man with a wife and a job. Surely this is the kind of man God would have wanted to speak to other ordinary people? Through his works, it is Jesus who indicates that we should look after people on the margins of society rather than through his own background.

Though the focus tends to be on the Apostles, all of whom are shown to be men, we know from all the gospels that numbers of women also followed Jesus around and some of these are the women who went to Jesus's tomb after he had been crucified. Different gospels name different women, but all of them put Mary Magdalene in the lead. This would obviously be the case if she was his widow. She is the one who goes to the Apostles and tells them what has happened when Jesus's body is missing, which indicates that they did not disregard her. So I feel even if we look at the accepted gospels we can see Mary Magdalene was close to Jesus and travelled around with him. Surely that would have been more 'proper' if she was his wife, than being portrayed as some camp follower or 'groupie'.

Why has Jesus's wife been written out of history? Mary Magdalene appears in the Gospel of St. Phillip but in 1945 when it was rediscovered the Catholic Church ruled this gospel out as being not a true gospel. She also appears in this role in other Gnostic writings. Though religions may be divinely inspired their manifestations on Earth especially as organised religion are as much about regulating society as about providing the message of a god. This is why so many religions cover things such as treating the poor and sick well, being just and merciful, because priests know that without such regulation on society people would live in chaos; in addition they write in holy days and days of rest so that employers cannot work their staff every day of the week. They also make regulations that keep adherents with the church in question, for example, not worshipping false idols. There are other elements in religion which help with safety of society, for example both Islam and Judaism command their followers not to eat pork and Judaism also rules out shellfish. Why? Well, in the hot climate of the Middle East these are the worst foods for bringing on food poisoning which is something no religion wants to happen to its followers especially in an area when diarrhoea could be a death sentence (as it remains in many parts of the world today).

Throughout history the Christian gospels were translated and re-written into terms understandable and to some extent acceptable by the contemporary readership. Various councils, such as the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE actually sat down and decided what could be counted as legitimate or illegitimate in terms of what Christianity involved. Thus, it is unsurprising, that in male-dominated societies, women were pushed into a secondary role. Whereas Mary as Jesus's wife is portrayed as his closest of Apostles and in turn marriage rather than celibacy is promoted, with the adjustments, Mary increasingly is marginalised until she is portrayed as a prostitute (though the Catholic Church changed its mind on this in 1968). When the Gospel of St. Luke Mary Magdalene is portrayed as having had seven devils come from her, maybe this does not indicate that she was any more sinful than the ordinary person, as it has tended to be seen, but that through her interaction with Jesus she has purged herself of the seven deadly sins, things like avarice, wrath, envy, etc. things that the wife of a celebrity on tour of the day would have likely to have fallen prey to. Of course, accepting Mary Magdalene as first among equals would have meant accepting women priests from the start, even if held in a secondary role to that of the man, standing in for Christ. Women could be very holy and there were numerous convents, anchoresses, etc. throughout Christian history but they never rose higher than abbess, certainly no female bishops. Thus, women could be good Christians but never have a function in directing the church and in turn they are then marginalised from civil society too. There were of course queens and ladies of the manor who ran things when men were away or died out, but imagine if Innocent III had been a woman contesting with Emperor Frederick of Hohenstaufen and the implications for men in position of power from Rome down to the local village. Such a development was totally unacceptable even in the 4th century let alone later, so had to be excluded from possibility.

So, if the Christian churches had allowed Mary to continue to be portrayed as Jesus's wife it would have been a challenge to the way they were constructing society. Celibacy early on was seen as a good thing for priests and you can see why. It stops dynasties developing among priests and also means they have no greater concern for their own family than other people in the community they serve. I also accept that sexual thoughts can get in the way of spiritual ones. Thus, Jesus has to be shown to separate from all that marriage implies, though ironically God had chosen him to be born into a healthy marriage. With Mary Magdalene marginalised the only role for Christian women was Jesus's mother, Mary. I have no problem with Mary, wife of Joseph, but she is a virgin even in marriage, presumably young and naive, no role model for mature women. Her only function is to her first son and this is hardly a template for successful marriages and for families with multiple children in them.

The Gospel of St. Philip illustrates Jesus's life in relationship to the sacraments, so not surprisingly makes much about his marriage to Mary. The one thing that has always struck me when attending weddings is that the only reference the priest can point to is the wedding the Canna and how this single incident represents the 'mystical union between God and his Church'. This seems rather paltry. Would it not be better to highlight that marriage is something Jesus went through and that that marriage indicates the sacrifices and the strength of marriage? Mary Magdalene travelled with Jesus everywhere and shared all his troubles with him. Presumably both Jesus and Mary got through all the challenges of marriage, the temptation to stray, the rows, the weariness and also experienced the sharing, the love and all the things that marriage ceremonies try to include, yet we see none of this.

Whilst Jesus's and in turn God's sacrifice of his life is what allows us to be washed of our sins, is there not another dimension of sacrifice from Mary of her husband for what he believed in? This kind of sacrifice is one that many of us will experience in our lives and it seems a pity that for the sake of keeping male dominance in the church and society, it has edited out this aspect which through the centuries could have given comfort to millions of people.

By editing out Jesus's wife, the New Testament as we know it does not provide a rounded picture of life people can aspire to. Women were given one of two roles: virgin or whore, not very practical for society, loving, supportive wife, equal to her husband is a much better one that we have long been missing in Christianity. Now, however, after so many centuries, at last some Christian churches are allowing women to take up the role that I believe Jesus would have envisaged for them.


Juhani said...

Many syncretistic religions formed gnosticism. Gnosticism was rivaling against Christianity and gnosticism held itself better religion as Christianity was. Word gnosticism comes from Greek word gnosis, which means knowledge. Gnosticism was various effects, for instance, some Gnostics taught that divinity can be achieved through unity of the man and woman. This thought led some Gnostics to reach for divinity through sexual intercourse between the man and woman. There existed also some Gnostics, who abstained from sexual intercourse. When we know the fact that Gnostics held Christians as their enemies and that Gnostics held themselves better as Christians and that Gnostics wanted to show in every way that Gnosticism was better as Christianity, so Gnostics made so called gnostic gospels were they twisted, slandered and misrepresented the real gospels. Gnostics went so far in this misrepresent that they wrote "new gospels" by faking the real gospels. In these faked gospels Gnostics wrote that Jesus Christ was an ordinary man who has a sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene.

Rooksmoor said...

Juhani, thank you for your comment. I am no fan of the Gnostics, but I believe that Jesus was more of a man than many Christians do these days. As I have posted subsequently I subscribe to views that were in the 4th and 5th centuries were condemned as heresies.

In my view Jesus having a wife has far less to do with divinity through sexual intercourse, it was that Jesus was an ordinary Jewish artisan for the bulk of his life. Even if he was an element of God in human form, he was sent to Earth to be a man and fit in with the society in which he moved. This is why it is peculiar if he did not marry by the time he reached his mid-30s. Do not forget in the 1st century, people would generally die of old age in their mid-40s as was the case for working people as late as the 19th century. So whilst from our perspective, Jesus was comparatively young when he was executed, in the context of the times, he was a mature man, equivalent to someone in their 50s or 60s nowadays.

Why would Jesus not marry? From the gospels we know that he knew he had a special connection with God from his youth, however, we do not know what he was doing with himself from about the age of 12 when he is found in the temple by his parents until around aged 33 when he is baptised and begins preaching. Was Jesus sitting at home, simply waiting for God to call him? Why did he not start preaching at the age of 20? He was part of a family, had brothers and would have to contribute to the family income. Thus, Jesus must have worked as a carpenter for the bulk of his adult life.

Rooksmoor said...

Juhani, it might be the case that Jesus may not have married when he was an adult, but that would have been very usual and Jesus was living as an ordinary man.

We know that his mother Mary was still alive at the time of his death. She would have probably been in her late 40s, a comparatively old woman in those days. We must assume that Joseph, older than Jesus, must have already died of old age. Thus, Mary would have been a widow and dependent on the income of her sons to keep her. In traditional societies daughters-in-law are important assistance to elderly mothers. Jesus, we must assume was Mary's eldest child and so his wife would have played an important role in supporting the ageing Mary.

Remember too, that it is Mary and Mary who go to Jesus's tomb and find he is resurrected. If Mary was simply a woman Jesus had met and brought along while preaching, would his mother Mary have worked with her? To Jesus's mother, Mary Magdalene had to be more than just one of Jesus's followers. If she was her daughter-in-law, the situation would be very different. If you think about contemporary Jewish society let alone ancient Jewish society, this is a much more likely scenario. Of course it was the women's role to wash and look after dead bodies, but the reason why they go to his tomb is because both are close to him. Mary Magdalene must have been an important support to Mary, who had lost her son and the one who must have been an important support for his widowed mother.

I have seen elderly women who have lost their sons as adults and it is a special kind of trauma. It is as if the natural order has been turned upside down. No-one focuses on how Jesus's mother must have felt to have her son executed.

I accept your point about the political moves of the Gnostics, but I think that we also have to see that the gospels we know have been heavily edited by those who have copied them and repeated them in the intervening centuries. We are talking about heavily male-dominated societies that did not women seeing themselves as coming close to men in terms of status, in partcular in the religious aspect. If Mary Magdalene had continued to be shown as Jesus's wife and his lead Disciple then women could have argued that they too could have become clergy and vitally served communion. That is not the sort of society that men of the early medieval period wanted.

I believe other elements have been cut from the gospels, such as Jesus's comments on slaves. Remember that Christianity took root among the slave class of the Roman Empire. We can see why, because it offered a better life after the miseries of this one. However, it is likely that Jesus at least made some comments on slavery that we cannot read today in the Bible. The Bible may have been inspired by God but it has been handled by men down the centuries, many whom have felt a right to adjust it to fit the society that they were overseeing.

So, while I might accept your view that the Gnostic gospels might be 'faked', I think we also need to take care as seeing the gospels we use habitually as being perfect. I think we need to look at the context in which Jesus was operating. We do in so many other aspects, such as the fact that he was preaching in a country under foreign occupation, that needed censuses, in which there were weddings, there was disease and beggars, there were interest groups such as the Pharisees and Sadducees, people drunk wine, traders operated in the temple, people were executed for crimes and so on. We find out a lot about the society in which Jesus lived, but many of the day-to-day elements seem to have been edited out.

At the end of the day, I think my main argument does not come down to faith, whether from the perspective of the Christians or the Gnostics, rather, it comes back to basic human nature. Would a 33-year old man, eldest son in a family of artisans, in Palestine of the 1st century have been unmarried? My answer would be no.

Rooksmoor said...

Juhani, another issue is about the Gnostic-Christian rivalry. It seems to me that all sub-sets of a religion seek to outdo each other in proving that they have the more 'true' or the 'better' version. You do not have to turn to the Gnostics to see such tensions, just look at the centuries-long difference between the Orthodox and the Catholic Christians, basically over issues around Jesus's divinity, the 'filoque' statement. Each of these denominations fell they have it 'right'.

As you identify, a key issue is over whether Jesus has sexual intercourse or not. In Europe sex has always been seen as being dirty and improper and the profane has been distanced from the divine, and sex is clearly put in the profane camp. Thus, priests in the Catholic church were barred from marriage. However, if we see Jesus as being sent to Earth to live as an ordinary man, then surely it is the intention of God to have him, or this element of Himself, depending on how you see the Father-Son relationship as being entirely amongst the profane, even if he demonstrates divine aspects on Earth.

For the large bulk of his life, Jesus does not demonstrate the divine. His miracles last moments and yet he lives for years. What is far more important in establishing the Christian churches is that Jesus is 'ordinary' for around 33-37 years. In an ordinary setting he shows us how to live in a far more accessible way than simply commands from God could ever do. Now, to exclude sexual intercourse is a key element to leave out. Such intercourse is a key element of everyone's lives, even if we do not involve ourselves in it, the bulk of us were created by it.

So, to have Jesus excluded from this element of human existence, is to mean he does not speak to us about an element which impinges on all of us. He speaks to us about so much about being a human. To many people, this is the whole point of Jesus's life, that by engaging with the ordinary, he can speak to us about how we can live in the ordinary. Very few people in the world touch the divine, the bulk of lives here are mundane, profane, i.e. ordinary. It strengthens Jesus's mission to show that it included relationships between the genders, and yes, probably, sexual intercourse. After all, that is an element of almost all of our eyes. It is not of itself perverse, it is simply ordinary, like eating and urinating.

Again, if we come clean and say 'yes, Jesus did these mundane things', we bring him closer to us and so, we can bring ourselves closer to him. Throwing up artificial distinctions about what he did or did not do, only distances ourselves from Jesus and so distances us from engaging with what he was saying.

Anonymous said...

I am sure I am not the only one who is unsurprised by the discovery of a papyrus in which Jesus's wife is mentioned: Of course, there will need to be tests on it and it will trigger masses of debate, but in my mind, this is something that we should have long anticipated. I feel it is beneficial for Christianity that it acknowledges that women were involved with the religion right from the start and not in simply ancillary roles.