As the so-called “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” recently demonstrated, interest in the possibility that Jesus was married remains high. The reasons for this are not entirely clear to me, but I suspect several factors are in-play:
- Modern culture loves a good conspiracy and anything which claims that a powerful organization covered up something about its founder is titillating.
- The Roman Catholic church in general has become the subject of considerable animosity in recent years and many of its particular stances have come under harsh scrutiny. Its prohibition against priests marrying is an unpopular, and somewhat puzzling, rule for most people. If Jesus had been married, then this would be ammunition against this rule and, potentially, against Roman Catholicism more generally.
- The general perception that Christianity is anti-sex means that many Westerners who come from a culture with deep roots in the Judeo-Christian worldview, retain a lingering sense of guilt about sexual promiscuity. The attraction to Jesus perhaps having been married seems to be as follows: if Jesus has been married, then he couldn’t have been anti-sex and so Christian prohibitions against sexual activity need no longer cause feelings of guilt.
- Orthodox Christianity (in the sense of mainstream Christian teaching throughout the last two thousand years), is widely perceived to be anti-woman, but if Jesus had been married then this would serve to rehabilitate the Christian view of women and restore them to their rightful place within society and within the church.
These cultural perceptions are all significantly flawed in various ways, but they all deserve attention and a solid biblical response. Whether the perceptions are well-founded or not, they remain important issues in this ongoing question of whether or not Jesus was, or even could have been, married. Over the next several articles, I will attempt to provide a reasonable, biblical response to each of these issues, as well as to demonstrate that all of the reliable historical information available to us says quite clearly that Jesus was never married.
In this article, however, I would like to first address an important issue that is more likely to be raised by those within the church than those outside of it: isn’t the idea that Jesus was married theologically objectionable? In other words, wouldn’t Jesus’ having been married disqualify him in some way from serving as the Messiah? Because there is a wide-spread assumption that this is true, Christians tend to lash out emotionally against any suggestion that Jesus was married, sometimes giving ammunition to those who want to dismiss Christians as irrational. It is important that we not make this issue, more emotionally-charged than it needs to be.
On the surface, this question about whether or not Jesus having been married would have disqualified him from being the Messiah might seem to require an affirmative answer, but closer investigation makes it somewhat more difficult to be dogmatic. Most of the reasons people will give for saying that marriage would have been unthinkable for Jesus are not quite as clear-cut as they might initially appear. Let us consider two major points.
- Marriage is not a capitulation to human weakness.There seem to be some people who think that marriage is essentially a giving-in to sexual weakness or a willingness to accept a lesser calling that undermines one’s ability to focus on Kingdom things. This belief largely emerges from Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7:6 where, following some instruction on husbands and wives fulfilling their duty (presumably sexual) to one another, he says:
But this I say by way of concession, not of command. Yet I wish that all men were even as I myself am. The “as I myself” appears to speak to the issue of Paul’s singleness.
Another passage that is often cited in support of this belief is Matthew 19:10-12 where, following some instruction about marriage and divorce, the disciples were astonished and said to Jesus:
“If the relationship of the man with his wife is like this, it is better not to marry.” But [Jesus] said to them, “Not all men can accept this statement, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it.”
Contrary to some misinterpretations, neither of these passages teach a universal truth that marriage is a lesser calling. Rather, they teach that some individuals are required to remain unmarried for the sake of their particular calling. So it is certainly the case that some people are called to be single in order to do what God called them to do. It is impossible, however, to argue that such individuals are only able to do significant ministry because they are single. Consider the fact that Peter was clearly singled out for a particularly important ministry (cf. Mat 16:16-17) and yet we know that he was married (cf. Mat 8:14, Mar 1:30 and Luk 4:38). While we know very little of his wife or whether she survived into the early church era, it seems nearly certain that he was still married at the time that Jesus called him as a disciple and gave him the task of carrying the “keys to the kingdom”. Clearly, then, singleness is not a requirement for significant ministry or marriage a disqualification from it.
We must also remember that marriage was initially intended to be a catalyst for effective Kingdom living. In Genesis 1 we read that God made human beings as His image, which is to say as His representatives, and delegated power and authority to us so that we can carry out this purpose. But in Genesis 2, where we are given a more detailed account of the creation of the first human beings, we are told that the man, Adam, needed someone else to enable him to fulfill his purpose: Then the LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him” (Gen 2:18). Thus woman was created. While there certainly is room here for saying that God did not want Adam to be lonely, the fact that the woman was called a “helper suitable for him” virtually requires that Eve was made not simply to alleviate Adam’s loneliness but to complete him so that together they could fulfill God’s purposes for humanity.
As many married Christians can attest, a healthy marriage is no distraction to a Kingdom focus but rather a thing which sharpens that focus and fuels the individual and corporate pursuit of Christlikeness. Paul’s wish that others could remain single is not a statement of God’s universal design but of an expedient way of dealing with a particular set of circumstances. Likewise, Jesus’ teaching on those who have become “eunuchs…for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” is, at most, a statement that those who have voluntarily chosen to remain unmarried should not be looked down upon. There is nothing in the context which would support the idea that this statement was intended to be a declaration of God’s ideal for all men and women, a declaration which would seem to be at odds with the larger witness of scripture that marriage is often a good and helpful thing for those who are seeking to do God’s will.
In other words, if Jesus had been married, there is no reason to assume this would have meant he had accepted less than God’s ideal or that his focus would have necessarily been divided. Yes, having a wife means that you have to focus on her to some extent, but since Jesus’ ministry was consistently characterized by his sacrificial concern for others, why should this be a problem? We cannot say it would be a problem because, by focusing on her, he was not able to focus on others; every time he went into a town and healed someone it meant he was not at that moment in another town healing someone else. That is the limitation of the Incarnation, not of being married. And who is to say that serving a wife would have been less significant than serving a blind man or a beggar or a centurian or a tax collector? Only if being married meant that Jesus could not serve all humanity as a substitutionary sacrifice would his attention to his wife have curtailed his service of others.
However, given Jesus’ remark about those who have “made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven”, which is quite likely a reference to himself (more on that in a future installment), it is possible that Jesus opted not to get married because it would not have been in keeping with the sacrificial nature of his ultimate ministry. My point here is simply that there is nothing inherent in being attached to someone via marriage that would have disqualified him as a committed servant of God.
- In the context of marriage, there is no negative stigma attached to human sexuality.There is a persistent belief by non-Christians is that Christianity has a negative view of human sexuality. We will take up this issue in more detail in a coming installment of this series, but for now, we need to see that this mistaken belief is not entirely confined to non-Christians. There appears to be, even within the Christian community, a latent suspicion that sexuality is somehow a necessary evil or at best a not-quite-good thing. Because of this, the idea that Jesus might have been married is automatically viewed with a kind of revulsion. After all, if he had been married, then he would have engaged in sexual activity and this would mean that he was somehow less holy than we know him to have been.
But this view of human sexuality is fundamentally flawed. First, it fails to remember that God invented sex and pronounced it good. Second, it inadvertently undermines the very purpose of the Incarnation by rejecting the idea that Jesus could have even possibly been involved in a normal human activity. Jesus did not simply appear to be a human being; rather, he became a human being in all respects. To deny that Jesus could have even possibly engaged in a basic human activity is either to say that what God has made is not good or that Jesus was not really human. Ironically, both mistakes are more in line with Gnostic heresy than with biblical teaching. We must not make the mistake of thinking that the New Testament writers’ use of “flesh” with negative connotations (Rom 7:5, Gal 5:17, et.al.) meant that they thought of physicality itself in negative terms. “Flesh” was sometimes (though by no means always) used as a stand-in for the sinful impulses in humanity, but it was never intended to convey that it was physicality itself that was the root of sinfulness. Again, this is a Gnostic teaching and it is explicitly countered by biblical teaching. To say that Jesus could not have engaged in married sexual activity because that would have been a fleshly – and therefore sinful – activity is simply mistaken. There is no particular reason why sexual activity in the context of marriage would be any more problematic for Jesus’ holiness than the fact that he ate, slept and eliminated bodily waste, all of which are equally “fleshly” activities, in the literal rather than the symbolic sense of the word.
There is, however, a potential theological difficulty that emerges from this discussion. While sexual activity for Jesus within the context of marriage is not theologically objectionable, the possibility that this activity might have produced children is possibly more difficult. Under the Special Creation theory of the origin of individual human souls, human sexual reproduction produces the physical body of an individual into which God then implants a specially created human soul. If this is the correct model, then any children Jesus might have had would simply have been given normal (i.e. tainted by Adam’s sin) souls by God. However, the Special Creation theory of human souls has several difficulties, causing many conservative theologians to prefer the Traducian theory which says that the human soul is inherited from the parents so that the sin of Adam is passed from parent to child in a manner somewhat analogous to the way that physical genes are passed; that is, since the Fall our physical genetic code is corrupted and passed to our children and the same holds true for our corrupted spiritual “DNA” so-to-speak. Under the Traducian view, the Virgin Birth has a very particular function: it means that Jesus did not inherit the broken spiritual component passed on by a human father. Consequently, while he was entirely human, he did not have a sin nature, since this is inherited from the father (Rom 5:12, Heb 7:9-12, et.al.) Now, all of this is interesting theological speculation, but for the purposes of our discussion here, this is what matters: if Jesus had fathered children, it is possible (if the Traducian view is right) that they would have been born without a sin nature and that is obviously problematic.
So, while there is no particular difficulty with Jesus having had a wife and normal marital relationships with her, the idea that he might have had children does have some potential theological difficulties.
Both of the issues discussed above lead us to the same conclusion: there is nothing inherently/morally objectionable about the idea that Jesus might have been married. However, both of the issues also lead us to recognize that there are some good reasons why a marriage might not have been part of God’s plan for him. But these reasons are more subtle than we might have first respected and the implication of this is as follows: we ought not simply lash out angrily against suggestions that Jesus might have been married.
There are, in fact, many reasons why we can say that Jesus was not married. We ought to focus on these. There are also some possible theological reasons why we might say that it is unlikely that he could have been married, but these are much more complicated and bringing them up will likely complicate the conversation with a nonbeliever dramatically.
So let’s focus on the facts and keep our emotions in check. The facts will speak for themselves, so long as we don’t come across in a way that makes people say “oh, those Christians, they’re so upset by having anyone question their other-worldly view of Jesus.” The thing is, our view of Jesus needs to be quite earthy; that was the whole point of the Incarnation. This doesn’t mean he was married, of course, because as we will see next time, there is absolutely no evidence for such a marriage, but rejecting the whole possibility of a marriage out-of-hand may inadvertently foster of view of Jesus that is not in keeping with the biblical portrait of him.
 The Hebrew translated here as “helper” is ezer, a word consistently used to designate someone who extends meaningful, if not indispensable, assistance. It is used in Gen. 49:25 to speak of God’s rendering of assistance to the sons of Jacob: From the God of your father who helps you, And by the Almighty who blesses you With blessings of heaven above, Blessings of the deep that lies beneath, Blessings of the breasts and of the womb.
 See http://www.shepherdproject.com/problems-with-special-creation/