If Jesus had a wife, would it change the GOP War on Women?

(By Juan Cole)

A Coptic fragmentary manuscript page that dates back to a few hundred years after Jesus’ death (and the text of which may go back to the second century) has been found by radiocarbon and ink testing to be authentic. That is, it is not, as some scholars claimed when it was first announced by Harvard scholar Karen King, a modern forgery.

Of course, that it is ancient does not require that it be correct.

But if it were correct, how might it change Christian sensibilities? For a holy figure to have a wife does not make the tradition more feminist, after all. The Jewish patriarchs and prophets were married, but Orthodox and Haredi Judaism are highly patriarchal. Likewise Islam, where the Prophet Muhammad (like Abraham and David) had several wives.

On the other hand, the text itself seems to be a pro-woman polemic defending the idea that women can be disciples of Christ even if married (Jesus is depicted as saying his wife is a disciple).


If Christian tradition were broadened to include these perspectives, it might help it escape the misogyny of some authors. For instance, the entire pyramidal structure erected by Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:3 might be difficult to maintain: “But I want you to understand that the head [kephale] of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” But if Christ had a wife, the relationships wouldn’t be hierarchical like that. The man-wife dyad would obtain both at the level of Jesus and at the level of the believers. And if Paul thought he could keep women quiet in church, he had another think coming, especially if Mrs. Jesus could have had anything to say about it.

It seems to me that much of the evangelical (and evangelical-Catholic) wing of the current Republican Party has 1 Corinthians 11:3 in mind when they think about social structure. God and Jesus are most proximate to men, and women come later in the hierarchy. Thus, “godly” men (as they conceive themselves) get to tell women what they can do with their bodies, whether they must bear their rapist’s child, whether they have access to birth control from government health insurance programs as men have access to viagra. But if there was a Mrs. Jesus, that flow chart breaks down.

I’m hoping he did have a wife and that she was Mary Magdalene (Jesus married to a once fallen woman would underline the possibilities of redemption and work against the Rush Limbaugh brand of attempted slut-shaming).

Personally, I think an enormous amount of material on early Judaism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism and Islam is buried under the sands of the Middle East. Unlike in India, where white ants probably long ago ate up the early Buddhist manuscripts, paypyrus and clay tablets can survive a long time in the dry desert. And, I think over time that material will surface and will pose challenges to contemporary fundamentalisms.

I wrote in 2012 when the discovery was announced:

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.

[pdf] Professor King, Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard, has posted her paper, presented in Rome at the Association for Coptic Studies conference, on the web.

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. ”

AFP reports on the radiocarbon testing results:

Scroll that mentions Jesus’s wife is ancient: scientists (via AFP)

A ancient piece of papyrus that contains a mention of Jesus’ wife is not a forgery, according to a scientific analysis of the controversial text, US researchers said Thursday. The fragment is believed to have come from Egypt and contains writing in…

28 Responses

  1. Jesus….I’m home.
    Wife…You’re home early. Tough day?
    Jesus…Yeah, I think I twisted my ankle clearing the Temple of the money changers.
    Wife…You know what you always say…Physician heal thyself
    Jesus…Very funny.
    I could do with a glass of wine
    Wife..Sorry we’re out would you mind changing that jar of water into wine?
    Jesus…Yeah, I guess.
    Wife…How about a nice Chardonnay

  2. Carmen Geha

    I think your question is more political than religious, texts were interpreted by greedy leaders, actual meaning more esoteric…

  3. James Schneider

    . non-canonical Gospels and texts are extremely historically & theologically interesting but won’t affect GOP anti-women positions

  4. Jennifer Shultz

    @wholden42 Sigh…..if only. I just do not believe it. They have too much invested in the superiority of men, whites, the rich….

  5. The oligarchs of the GOP and their loyal foot soldiers will continue their primary goals of seeking power to facilitate more power and wealth for the already powerful and wealthy regardless of whether Jesus was married or not. At the same time they will practice their versions of Christianity, some of which supported un-Christian activities such as segregation and, still, slavery by other names.

  6. Mary Magdalene was not a slut. She probably suffered from epilepsy. She was conflated with a prostitute by Pope Gregory I as part of his war on women – one of the most famous cases of character assisination in history.

    • thnx 4 posting that.
      I didn’t see the point in interjecting facts into this spiral off into partisan demagoguery,
      but after reading your post I see you are right to state this.

  7. Phori Alamaine

    Would it make a difference? Given the social standards of the times, women would have to satisfy the requirements imposed on/expected of them. What is there in the “Bible” that indicates that women – aside from not being as lyingly cowardly as the “disciples” – would enjoy any special consideration or advantages?

  8. Carole Keller

    Sadly, I doubt it would change anything, given that this is so challenging to the belief system of those waging the war on women that thy will deny the possibility unless their god sends an unmistakable sign that it was so.

  9. Obviously she was Jewish as Jesus and all his discopies ….that sure don’t stop the Jew haters of the world

    • discopies; I imagine they’ve got cocaine sprinkled over the tops of them instead of powdered sugar?

  10. I would reiterate the point made in a comment above, but word it differently, to say that from what I have read there is no reference in the New Testament to Mary Magdalene’s being a prostitute or ‘fallen woman’.

  11. Jesus found to have preached a socially progressive message. Will it change GOP attitudes towards the least among us?

    Jesus discovered to have forgiven criminal on the cross. Will it change GOP attitudes towards crime and punishment?

    Jesus discovered to have preached worldly wealth fundamentally at odds with spiritual fulfillment. Will it change GOP attitudes towards capitalism and the free market?

    Jesus discovered to have said nothing about homosexuality and abortion. Will it change GOP attitudes towards these two social issues?

    Jesus turns out to have shown compassion towards the poor. Will it change GOP attitudes towards poverty?

    Just sayin’.

    • who discovered that Jesus said nothing about homosexuality or abortion ?
      citation ?
      perhaps you meant that there is no record that you have read showing that he discussed these things.
      I recall reading something about suffering the little children.
      But as for the rest of your screed,
      as a conservative,
      it is hard for me to reconcile claims of many GOP politicians to being Christian adherents with what they actually say and do.
      Under such leadership, USA has veered as far away from God as the people in the Old Testament ever did.

      • Brian, Jesus had nothing to say about abortion or homosexuality – anything in the New Testament about this is Pauline. How the hell does one “cite” that angles don’t dance on pinheads? Scholars cite evidence that exists, and there is no evidence that Jesus preached on these matters which have become a focal point of the modern GOP.

        And let’s just cut the crap – as I’ve pointed out in comments on this blog before, the NT was written in Greek a generation or two after the Aramaic speaking Jesus died. We can recover almost nothing about him historically and are left with a bare shadow of his teachings – which appear to have been quite radical.

        Moreover what we can recover of his teachings is so fundamentally at odds with the violent, materialist, free market world view of modern conservatism it makes one’s head swim. Plan and simple, modern conservatives embrace the fire and brimstone of the OT and utterly reject the message of compassion of the NT.

      • “homosexuality or abortion “……
        “suffering the little children.”…….
        “as a conservative”………………………..
        “Christian adherents”….”God”…….
        “Old Testament”

  12. Juan Cole knows how much I admire both the quality and courage of his work – It’s in that context that I suggest that these remarks on the “JWG” are a bit wide of the mark.

    Assume, as I do in all that follows, that “the fragment” was written in the earliest centuries of Christianity.

    First off, to state that “Of course, that it is ancient does not require that it be correct” — meaning, that Jesus had a wife — is rather an understatement. It would in fact not require that there was a Jesus, in a sense other than as a figure variously portrayed in Christian texts from the time of Augustus forward.

    It’s also the case that it would not require that the fragment’s text was part of an “oral tradition” that predates the fragment or indeed extends beyond the fragment – forward, backward, or sideward.

    Indeed, it would not “require” that anyone other than the scribe ever saw or heard of the statement.

    But worse yet, without the full context of the document of which the fragment is a very small piece, there is not even any way to know that the words, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…'” and “She will be able to be my disciple.” are a). referring to the same subject (i.e., what is printed in the article does not require that the “she” is the same person as “my wife”.

    And finally, a reference that says, “My wife” does not require that two words declare the existence of the wife – what if the words that are given after “My wife” as . . . were in fact, “in the event, contrary to fact, that I had or come to have, a wife”?

    There could of course have been a Jesus.

    If so, he could have had a wife.

    If he did, there could have been an “oral tradition” transmitting references by Jesus to his wife.

    Or not.

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