Karen L. King, a professor at Harvard Divinity School, has caused quite an uproar with her discovery of a scrap of fourth-century papyrus that suggests Jesus may have been married. She is not the first to speculate about Jesus’s marital state-various theologians as well as writers of fiction have suggested that Jesus was married, or gay, or bisexual. King is the first with primary evidence that may be credible, though not definitive, as she has conceded.
The significance of King’s discovery is that it has pushed both Christians and non-Christians to think about Jesus as a sexual being. Christian tradition, in avoiding the question and seeing Jesus as asexual or anti-sexual, has been guilty of failing to make him fully human. How did this tradition develop?
Although the earliest Church was Jewish, the Gospel was being preached chiefly to the Gentiles. They were immersed in Greco-Roman philosophical ethics, which posited the dualism of body and soul. Paul himself had studied widely in this tradition and the impact of that philosophy shows up clearly in his teachings. He saw the body as a hindrance to the spirit — at best a temporary housing for the soul.
Control of their followers, including sexual control, was essential for the early Church, because of their conviction that they were in the “end time.” Modern-day readers of the Scripture often greatly underestimate the importance of the eschatological time frame of the early Christians. Sexual abstinence was practiced not because of some imagined abstinence of Jesus, but rather because these Christians thought earthly time was limited. Also, perhaps early Christians wanted to set themselves apart from the known sexual excesses of the Roman world.
Augustine of Hippo (354-430), arguably the most influential theologian of Christendom, answered the question “How are we to be saved?” from a Platonic perspective. He propagated the belief that the sex act itself was sinful, and that original sin was transmitted by concupiscence. So, for Augustine, we poor humans are inherently sinful. Since Jesus was perfect and without sin, it follows that he must have been conceived by God and born of a virgin — and needless to say, never had sexual feelings himself.
So Augustine’s unfortunate premise and shaky logic calls into question human sexuality, per se: it follows that those who strive for the purity of Jesus would look upon their sexual impulses as sinful. We use sex for pleasure as well as procreation, of course, but often the pleasure is laced with guilt, and we find ourselves unable to celebrate sex with our whole being. Instead of integrating our sexuality with our spirituality, the cultural norm evidences a striking incompatibility of our sexual impulses with our yearning for God. Women are reduced to the virgin and the whore. In spite of the supposed freedom of young women to indulge in loose sexuality liaisons, the double standard still reigns: bad girls are for sex, good girls are for marriage. How many synonyms for “slut” do you know?
Was Jesus married? The Gospels are silent about the subject. But as William Phipps argued long ago (“Was Jesus Married,” Harper & Row, 1970), Jesus most likely followed the expected pattern of conduct for a young man in ancient Judaism, which was to be betrothed shortly after puberty. In fact, marriage was not a question to be determined by a Hebrew boy; rather it was his father’s duty to betroth his son. The average age of marriage for boy was 16 and the age of betrothal even younger. We know that Jesus was circumcised at the age prescribed and that he was taught Scripture and apprenticed as a carpenter. Is it not reasonable, then, to believe he was an obedient son in being betrothed and later married? Of course it is difficult for some Christians to accept the fact that Jesus was throughout his life a Jew.
Certainly Jesus’s open, easy, egalitarian relationships with women were unconventional. He was known to consort openly with prostitutes. He drew many faithful women followers, who were apparently treated as equal to his male disciples. This accepting attitude of Jesus toward women stands in great contrast to the heavily patriarchal Hebrew practice of his day.
Even a cursory view of the Scripture shows us Jesus to be intensely alive, vital and responsive. He had a strong sense of humor, and he was certainly no ascetic: Jesus in fact was criticized by his enemies for being a “glutton and a wine-bibber.” He enjoyed the company, conversation and the celebration of marriage feasts. He was forever eating and drinking in many various homes, of Saints and sinners alike, during his ministry. He was pleased and delighted to be anointed with sweet smelling oil.
Moreover, Jesus was keenly aware of the natural world: the reaping of grain, the sheep in the fold, the sparrows’ flight in the marketplace, the wind listing where it will. The images in many of his parables are drawn from the sensual pleasures of everyday life. Surely we can conclude from the evidence that Jesus was very much in touch with the erotic dimension — that is, the life force within him. To believe that he could be this responsive to his immediate environment and be unaware of himself as a sexual being is highly unlikely. Chances are that this very sensual man was moved to sexual desire easily and frequently.
Typically, Christians are afraid of Jesus’s humanity, preferring to see him as a Divine stick figure without the usual human flesh and frailty. Why does this image persist? Perhaps it is because we know all too well the failures and inconsistencies of the flesh. We know we are animals, we know the ways in which our physical needs and desires upset our equilibrium. Could Jesus really have awakened with an erection, or desired a sensuous woman in the marketplace? Blasphemy! To conceive of Jesus struggling in the same way we do is unthinkable.
Maybe these images seem blasphemous to us because we don’t want a God clothed in flesh. We cannot accept incarnation — we need a God “up there,” perfect in beauty and form. We deny Jesus’s humanity because we cannot stand his likeness to us. In Jesus, God is saying to us, “Accept your own sacredness and beauty! This is what it can mean to be human!” But we turn away, afraid.
The Jesus I know is robust — a carpenter, capable of doing heavy work. He is a fleshly man, filled with thankfulness for the beauty of the natural world, and one who enjoys good food and drink. He is a man of great tenderness, not ashamed of his tears. He does not hide his feelings, and goes straight to the heart in a few words. The Jesus I know enjoys his body and is aware of the wonders of its shape and movement, likes to feel the sun on his limbs, takes pleasure in resting after a long day’s journey. He likes the feel of splashing water on his skin when he washes.
And he is a sexual man, one who enjoys being a man, including having a penis, though it is sometimes troublesome for him, demanding attention when he wants to be otherwise occupied. But he accepts that as simply part of what is, like being thirsty or feeling weary or getting angry. Sexuality is part of being human, and it’s good.
In his remarkable self-acceptance, Jesus seems to bring new life to whoever comes near. His presence is extraordinarily vital, is fearsome, and calls for a profound response. Jesus is in fact God’s invitation to wholeness and self-hood. When we are able to celebrate Jesus in the flesh, we understand that we, too, are called to incarnation, called to embody God’s Spirit in our earthly form. Perhaps this challenge is too daunting, so we prefer to strip Jesus of his humanness and to deny our own potential for divinity. Karen King has asked us to consider what we have lost.
Marilyn is the subject of a documentary film, “Raw Faith,” now available on Netflix.