Was Jesus Divine, the Son of God? — 6. Was Jesus Married?
The question of marriage and fatherhood is relevant to the question of Jesus’s divinity, because such family concerns would make the allegedly divine Jesus all too human in the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church.
I don’t think that it is controversial to say that this institution has always been hung up about sex. Their forbidding of birth control, thus trying to ensure that sex is indulged in only for the purpose of procreation rather than pleasure, says it all. It has insisted on the doctrine of the Virgin Birth, although scholars are, I believe, in complete agreement that the Virgin Birth narratives found in Matthew and Luke are late, fictional additions to the narrative (the Apostle Paul knows nothing of it), and of course contradict the assertion in both gospels that Jesus is descended from King David. The saviour god, born of a virgin, is a frequently occurring pagan motif, thus a mythologem, or what Carl Jung might call an archetypal idea, and is unlikely to have anything to do with a human Jesus.
Bizarrely, the Church even went on to insist on the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity, despite the clear references to Jesus’s brothers and sisters in the gospels, for example Mark 3.31–32, and Matthew 13.55–56. They were then forced to account for this contradiction of their own making, and came up with some silly explanations, without evidence, the overall theme of which is that these people were not his real brothers and sisters.
The Church would therefore have a strong interest in presenting the divine Jesus as being above such all-too-human desires, and it would not be surprising if there were no reference to Jesus being married in the gospels.
The idea that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, and had at least one child by her, was brought to the public’s attention by the book Holy Blood, Holy Grail (1) (authors Michael Baigent/ Richard Leigh/Henry Lincoln, hereafter referred to as BLL), which explored the claims of the secret organisation the Priory of Sion. Dan Brown then went on to use their material in his novel The Da Vinci Code. (I don’t think I need to go into detail, as this is now so well-known.) The biblical scholar Bart Ehrman then wrote Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code (2), in order to expose the many historical inaccuracies in Brown’s text.
It is important to distinguish between Holy Blood, Holy Grail and Brown’s novel. The former was an honest attempt to get to the bottom of a difficult subject, which does not mean that the authors got everything right. In this series of articles I have been using it as a primary reference, although not so far over the question of the possible marriage.
Ehrman is not a fan of BLL; he calls them “independent researchers”, says that their book is “not by scholars of antiquity or the Middle Ages”, and calls their views “sensationalist but historically discredited” (p141). He may well be right, but here he is indulging in mild versions of two logical fallacies, an ad hominem attack, and an appeal to authority. He combines the two when he offers as evidence that BLL’s conclusions are historically discredited by saying that no professional New Testament scholar out of the hundreds that he knows finds their claims credible (p195–6). As he says, he does not want to dwell on Holy Blood, Holy Grail, because the subject of his book is the Da Vinci Code, which is fair enough. It would be better, however, if he restricted himself to exposing the flaws in their argument, rather than attacking the authors themselves.
On the question of Jesus’s marriage and fatherhood, Ehrman does attempt to do this. He has four criteria for deciding the credibility of evidence:
- the earlier the better
- independent sources saying the same thing
- cutting against the grain (by which he means content which seems unlikely in the light of later Christian belief, and which has therefore survived later editing)
- the context (anything said or done must be appropriate within first-century Palestine).
On the basis of these, he does make a very compelling case that Jesus was not married, and remained celibate (pp152–158). The most obvious evidence is that not one single reference to his being married can be found in the dozens of texts available, whether canonical, apocryphal, or gnostic. (See Appendix below, however.)
He goes on to say that “knowing about Jesus is not a matter of sheer guesswork, creative imagination, or wishful thinking” (p126), and: “the only reliable evidence we have comes from our earliest sources, and we can neither simply take these at face value nor just read between the lines in order to make the sources say what we want them to say” (p138).
Ehrman might well consider that what I am about to do is just that; I’ll leave the reader to judge. I can say for certain that I have no agenda (there is no wishful thinking on my part), therefore do not want to make the sources say something they do not actually say. However, I am going to make as strong a case as I can that Jesus was in fact married. This does not mean that I necessarily believe it; I am merely analysing the texts and other related material, to see where that can take us.
We do not need to read between the lines to know that the synoptists believed that Jesus was descended through a royal bloodline from King David. The Apostle Paul also says it, that Jesus “was descended from David according to the flesh” (Romans 1.3). Matthew and Luke provide genealogies which contradict each other. One of them must be inaccurate, and either one or both of them may be fictitious. That does not matter, however; the important point is that the two authors were convinced of the truth of the descent, but may not have been familiar with the relevant historical information. After all, during the Roman occupation, and possibly the Greek, the bloodline would presumably have been in hiding, biding its time. Later authors would not necessarily have inside information.
If Jesus were indeed from this bloodline and the eldest son of his generation, he would surely have been responsible for its continuation. On that basis it would be essential that he be married and have children. As we know, monarchs are obsessed with continuing their bloodlines; we have only to think of the more recent example of Henry VIII (and his unfortunate six wives).
Now I’ll begin to read between the lines, which may be what the original authors expected us to do. This was normal for the time; after all, Jesus was very fond of the expression “He who has ears to hear, let him hear”. He usually said this in relation to his parables, but it is possible that we should apply the same principle to the events of the gospel stories, where there may be coded messages for those who have ears to hear, or where the original meaning has become lost. This would counter Ehrman’s objection that in none of the multiple sources does it once say that Jesus was married.
Laurence Gardner thinks exactly that, stating, “it has often been said that the New Testament does not state in any forthright manner that Jesus was married”, then notes “in fact, the Gospels actually contain a number of specific pointers to his married status, and it would have been very surprising if he had remained single, for the dynastic regulations were quite clear in this regard” (3). He is thus agreeing with my point that Jesus would have been responsible for the bloodline’s continuation (4).
In the canonical gospels there are two primary incidents which lead one to suspect that Jesus might be married. The first is an actual wedding, the one which takes place at Cana in John’s Gospel (2.1–11). What is the purpose of its inclusion? The most significant feature is that Jesus is said to turn water into wine. It occurs at the start of Jesus’s mission, and according to the text this was “the first of his signs… (which) revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him” (2.11). On the surface, this is the justification for its inclusion, even though it is clear from the previous chapter that they already believed that he was the expected Messiah without the need for this ‘miracle’.
What are the reasons for suspecting that this might actually be Jesus’s wedding? The following is a mixture of my own observations, and the conclusions of BLL (pp348–9). The text says: “On the third day (presumably of Jesus’s ministry) there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding”. Presumably the guest list had been prepared some time earlier. We are not told who the bridegroom and bride were, but they must have been friends (or relatives?) of Jesus. It cannot have been a new recruit to his cause because his ministry had barely started. So how can it be that his disciples, whom he had only recruited within the last two days, were invited? They would have to have been a very late addition to the guest list. Also, why does the text make a distinction between Jesus and his disciples, and his mother? Why not simply say “Jesus, his mother, and his disciples were invited…” Does Mary have some special status (e.g. the mother of the bridegroom)? Mary, his mother, behaves like the hostess, concerned that the guests don’t have any wine, asks Jesus to sort out the problem, and furthermore the servants are expected to obey Mary’s and Jesus’s orders, which is strange if they are merely guests. Then, as BLL say: “Immediately after the miracle… (the) master of ceremonies ‘called the bridegroom’ (and spoke to him)… These words would clearly seem to be addressed to Jesus. According to the Gospel, however, they are addressed to the ‘bridegroom’ ”.
Things become even more intriguing when we learn that “the story of his miracle at Cana was directly modeled on a Dionysian rite of sacred marriage celebrated at Sidon; even the Gospel’s wording was copied from the festival of the older god”(5). The fact that it is specifically a Dionysian rite is significant because “long before the Christian era, Dionysus/Bacchus was said to turn water into wine” (6).
If that is true, we would of course have reason to doubt whether the wedding in John ever took place, and whether the person Jesus were in fact fictional. Putting that thought aside for the time being, however, if what is happening is a sacred marriage, it is not likely that we are talking about friends of Jesus, or even of one of his relations; it would have to be the marriage of the king himself.
The second relevant incident is the anointing of Jesus, which is recorded in all four gospels, although the accounts differ. It is reasonable to assume that, despite the differences, which may be accounted for by lack of knowledge, given the lapse of time before being written down, they are all referring to the same event. Since they have all chosen to include it, it must have been significant in the eyes of the authors, even if they did not necessarily fully understand, or want to reveal, its implications.
I referred to the anointing in John (12.1–7) in a previous article, and BLL’s understanding of it: “It appears to be a carefully premeditated rite. One must remember that anointing was the traditional prerogative of kings — and of the ‘rightful Messiah’, which means ‘the anointed one’. From this, it follows that Jesus becomes an authentic Messiah by virtue of his anointing” (p351). As Acharya S says, the female anointer “holds the honor of anointing the new king, Jesus with oil, an act that makes him the Christ and makes her a priestess” (p195), which agrees with my conclusion in that article.
This supports what I just said about this event being significant; it means that the anointing of Jesus was confirming him as king, but the gospels do not mention it as a coronation, and play down its significance, in some cases not even mentioning the name of the woman, thus implying that her identity was not especially important. This confirms that we do need to read between the lines, that there are unstated messages in the texts, whether or not they were intentional.
Laurence Gardner goes further than the others, saying: “Only as the wife of Jesus and as a priestess in her own right could Mary have anointed both his head and his feet with the sacred ointment” (p54).
Let us look in more detail why he says this. He refers to the Old Testament book of the Song of Solomon, chapter 1, which the NRSV edition has no hesitation in describing as a wedding, calling the two sections Colloquy of Bride and Friends, and Colloquy of Bridegroom, Friends, and Bride. The most relevant verse (12) is where the bride says: “While the king was on his couch, my nard gave forth its fragrance”. The use of nard was therefore clearly part of the rituals of the wedding ceremony of a king. Gardner actually quotes the King James version: “While the king sitteth at his table, my spikenard sendeth forth the smell thereof”. He points out that both Matthew and Mark use precisely the same phrase of Jesus “as he sat at the table”, and says that “this was an allusion to the ancient rite by which a royal bride prepared her bridegroom’s table. To perform the rite with spikenard was the express privilege of a Messianic bride” (p54).
So, what do we have in the gospels? (I’ll repeat information from my Adoptionism article, footnotes 11 and 13.) In Mark an unnamed woman “came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head” (14.3). Jesus interprets this thus: “she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial” (v8). John says that the anointer is Mary, agrees that it is “a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard”, and has Jesus say something similar: “She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial” (12.7). (This seems strange for, if that is the case, why is she using it now?) Matthew has the anointing scene (26.6–13), omits the mention of nard (even though he is using Mark as a source), but agrees that Jesus said “she has prepared me for burial”. In Luke an unnamed woman anoints Jesus’s feet with “ointment”. There is again no mention of nard, and he chooses to omit the reference to the burial.
So it would seem that in Mark and John we have a clear reference to the wedding ceremony of the Song of Solomon. Matthew tones this down a little, then Luke goes further and removes any suggestion of a connection. We can only speculate as to the reasons for this, but it is possible that they, or later editors, are trying to cover up the fact that Jesus was indeed married. One possible motive for this would be to protect the bloodline from later persecution.
What are we to make of these references to preparation for burial, which is agreed by three of the gospels? Gardner says that “spikenard was also used as an unguent in funerary rites. It was customary for a grieving widow to place a broken vial of the ointment in her late husband’s tomb” (p310) (7).
Who arrives at Jesus’s tomb in order to anoint his body? Mark says clearly (16.1) that Mary Magdalene (along with the mother of James and Salome) went to anoint him (although it is said that they bought spices at this time). John has Mary Magdalene as the only person going to the tomb, but there is no mention of any intention to anoint. Matthew says that “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb” (28.1).
Luke’s account is very strange. He adds a detail not found in the other gospels, that “the women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments” (23.55–56). Then he says “on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they (presumably those same women) came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared” (24.1). For some unknown reason he delays telling us until verse 10 that “it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them”, and there they are named as those who “told this to the apostles”, rather than the witnesses of the resurrection, even though it was just stated that these previously unnamed women were indeed those witnesses. (I have no idea what was going on in Luke’s mind here.)
So, even if reluctantly in one case, the four gospels place Mary Magdalene at the head of the list of the persons going to the tomb. Bart Ehrman, on the basis of his second criterion, says: “How did all of these independent accounts (8) happen to name exactly the same person in this role?” It seems “likely that… we are dealing with something actually rooted in history”. He also agrees that it was “Mary’s decision to anoint Jesus’ body for burial on the third day after his death” (9). I’ll therefore repeat Gardner’s words from above: “It was customary for a grieving widow to place a broken vial of the ointment in her late husband’s tomb”. Are the gospels not saying therefore, whether they are aware of it or not, that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’s wife? It is reasonable to assume, therefore, that the anointing woman in each gospel was Mary Magdalene, although this is not stated in the texts (10).
In Gardner’s eyes, the anointing was a second wedding ceremony (11), which only took place in March if the bride were pregnant. (Ehrman’s response to the claim in The Da Vinci Code that Mary was pregnant at the crucifixion is “That’s a good one” [Pxv].) However, if the main thrust of my argument is correct, and Jesus was married (at Cana) during the period of his ministry, the purpose of which was to continue the bloodline following his successful campaign to reclaim the throne, then it would make perfect sense that Mary would be pregnant at this time. It is interesting to note that, in support of Gardner’s idea, the anointing in Mark, Matthew, and John takes place around March just prior to the Passover festival. (Gardner says that she was indeed pregnant at this time — p78.)
Bart Ehrman says that “it is easy to wish that there were more information, and there is always the temptation to invent more when none is available (Jesus married her! Jesus had sex with her! Jesus had a child with her!). But historians can only go on the basis of the evidence there is…” (p160). Have these three ideas been invented by the authors I have discussed in this article, or is Ehrman too preoccupied with the surface level of the texts, and unaware of the hidden implications? I’ll leave the reader to judge.
This is only a minor point, not important enough to be included in my main text.
Ehrman asserts that there is not a single reference in any known text to Jesus being married. The Gnostic Gospel of Philip is the most relevant on this question. Ehrman quotes Teabing (in The Da Vinci Code) as saying that this gospel says “The companion of the Saviour is Mary Magdalene. As any Aramaic scholar will tell you, the word companion in those days, literally meant spouse”. Ehrman denies this, saying that the gospel is written in Coptic, not Aramaic. “The word used there for ‘companion’ actually is a loan word from another language… not Aramaic but Greek. …the Greek word that is used in fact means not ‘spouse’ but ‘companion’ ” (pp143–144).
Interestingly, however, Bentley Layton’s translation has Mary “who is called his companion” and “is the name of his partner” (12). This suggests that two different words were used in the original, otherwise why would he use two different words in his translation? At the very least, it suggests that the original word must be ambiguous and allow for that possibility. However, James Robinson’s edition for the same passage has Magdalene “who was called his companion” and “his companion” (13), which is in line with Ehrman’s translation. However, it does leave us with the tantalising question as to why Mary Magdalene is singled out from all his other followers in this gospel as Jesus’s “companion”.
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I hope you have enjoyed this article. I am now engaged in what will be a long series of articles about Christianity, but have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, politics, astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here).
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(1) Originally 1982, also Arrow, 1996
(2) OUP, 2006
(3) Element, 2002, p53
(4) He is in partial agreement with Ehrman, however, in that Jesus would have been celibate most of the time, only having sex for the purpose of continuing the bloodline.
(5) Barbara Walker, The Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, Harper & Row, 1983, p464 — which itself is a reference to Morton Smith, Jesus the Magician, Harper & Row, 1978, p120
(6) Acharya S, The Christ Conspiracy, Adventures Unlimited Press, 1999, p195. She quotes A.J. Mattill as her source.
(7) His reference is: Margaret Starbird, The Woman With the Alabaster Jar, 1993, ch 2, pp40–1. Her words are that the container “was often a dowry item. And it was a custom to break the flask, anoint the body of the beloved deceased with its contents, and then to leave the fragments of the jar in the tomb”. Her reference is The Mind of Jesus, James Barclay, Harper & Row, 1960, p198.
(8) which includes the non-canonical Gospel of Peter
(9) Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene, OUP, 2006, p226, p230
(10) I’ll repeat material from my Adoptionism article: the anointing was performed by a woman, Mary. Elkington assumes that this is Mary Magdalene. Bart Ehrman disagrees, saying that it is Mary of Bethany. Baigent/Leigh/Lincoln believe the two women are the same person, and Laurence Gardner, who seems to have some inside knowledge about all these matters, concurs.
(11) The reasons for this are complicated, and to do with the regulations for the maintenance of the bloodline. For further details see his book.
(12) The Gnostic Scriptures, Doubleday, 1987, p335
(13) The Nag Hammadi Library, HarperCollins, 1990, p145