The Harvard Magazine gives a full account of the deciphering by Professor Karen L. King of a fragmentary Coptic fragment on papyrus from the otherwise lost “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.” It was likely translated into Coptic in upper Egypt from a Greek text of the mid-second century, and is part of a corpus of Gnostic writings that survive in Coptic, the ancient language of the Christians of Egypt (which is written in an alphabet, but descends from the ancient Pharaonic language written in hieroglyphics).
All the fragment proves is that Christians a little over a century after the death of Jesus of Nazareth were arguing about whether he had been married. Texts just as old as this newly-surfaced fragment assert that he was celibate. The letters of Paul, the earliest texts about Jesus, and the canonical Gospels, are silent about whether he was married.
I don’t agree with those who say that the discovery is unimportant because it is inconclusive. Admittedly, the text is late, and the Gnostic corpus in Coptic makes a lot of unlikely assertions, so it doesn’t prove anything. But the very fact that such an early Christian community believed that Jesus was married is significant. It means that there was an oral tradition to that effect, which may have gone back to the historical Jesus. It means that the second generation of Christians found the assertion entirely plausible.
Jews of Jesus’ time were typically ever-married if they weren’t members of ascetic sectarian groups. So one would expect him to have married. Moreover, the narratives about him were formed in the context of Jewish sacred history.
The mythical figure Adam, of course, was said to married (otherwise the myth couldn’t have accounted for our existence). Adam’s married state is actually relevant, since some early Christians saw Jesus as a second Adam, so that it would be natural for the sake of parallelism to hold that he had had an Eve.
Abraham famously had three wives.
Moses was not only married, but his non-Jewish wife, Zipporah, saved him from being attacked by God by abruptly circumcising their son. The idea of the Messiah as a ‘second Moses’ also shows up in early Christianity, and, again, it could have been part of this belief that Jesus had his own Zipporah. (The “Gospel of the Wife of Jesus” seems to envisage her becoming his disciple and so spiritual helper).
David had at the very least seven wives. Many of his unions were for the purpose of binding the clan of his wife to him politically. Jesus is alleged to the descendant of David through one of these marriages.
Given his antecedents in Judaic sacred narrative, it actually would be strange if Jesus had not been married or believed to be so.
It could be argued that the strain of early Christianity that argued for Jesus’ celibacy ended up being privileged by the Roman Catholic church when it began demanding celibacy of its priests. The idea of Jesus as married will be hardest on the Roman Catholic branch of Christianity, if it comes to be taken seriously.
This discussion reinforces the ways in which the Prophet Muhammad can be seen as not very different from his predecessors in Judaism and Christianity (the Qur’an sees him as in the same line of prophets). Like David, he became the ruler of a city-state, and conducted many marriages for essentially political purposes, ensuring the loyalty to him of his new in-laws. There is a theme in anti-Muslim polemics that depicts the Prophet Muhammad as lascivious because of his marriages. But it is hard to see how he differs from Abraham and David in that regard. As for the allegation that Muhammad married A’isha as a child, the marriage age for girls in the Talmud is 12, and if Jesus was married he could well have married a girl of that age. (The biblical king Ahaz married at 10, if one takes the 2 Kings seriously.) Projecting back our late marriage ages of today (and in some states early marriage was allowed until fairly recently) and accusing ancient figures of being pedophiles is just a narrow-minded anachronism.
Looking at the Prophet Muhammad in the context of Jewish and Christian sacred history allows him to be seen as very much like the biblical figures. Jewish and Christian polemicists who attack him for being much-married or marrying A’isha are being hypocritical.
As for the Gnostic tradition of Christianity, it is interesting that it should preserve the assertion that Jesus was married. Many Gnostics were ascetics and abhorred the things of the flesh and so would presumably have preferred a celibate Jesus. (Incidentally, the Prophet Muhammad clearly encountered Christianity in its Gnostic form, since the Qur’an upbraids Christians for asserting that Jesus and Mary did not eat food — i.e. that they were altogether above the things of the flesh.) Although the Qur’an talks of God having given the prophets wives, it does not say anything about Jesus being married one way or another. A later Muslim folk tradition about Jesus as a wandering ascetic probably assumed that he was celibate, and it may actually have been influential on medieval Christians).
Jesus as married opens many lines of theological inquiry, not least with regard to the spirituality of relations between husband and wife. I’ve known committed Christians who were guilty about sex even inside the bounds of marriage, but never known any Muslims like that, and have long thought Muslim attitudes to married life on the whole healthier than in a lot of Christianity, because the spiritual exemplar, Muhammad, was married. Maybe Christians can now start learning something from Muslims in this regard. And those who thought Jesus’ celibacy made him more spiritual than Muhammad may have to rethink.