Who would have thought that an esoteric, scholarly conference on early Christianity, held in Rome this week, would generate a storm of controversy as Dr. Karen King, professor and scholar at Harvard Divinity School gave a paper in which she reports on the discovery of a small papyrus fragment, believed to date to the early 4th century and written in Coptic, on which were found the words, “And Jesus said to them, my wife…” and then another fragment “she will be able to be my disciple.” The firestorm of articles, op-eds, blogs, scholarly and not-so-scholarly responses to this news has rocked the Christian and non-Christian world alike.
The debate about whether Jesus may or may not have been married is hardly new. It’s been going on for years, in both popular and scholarly circles. Dale Martin, Yale New Testament scholar sums it up brilliantly in his book “Sex and the Single Savior” where he writes, “Jesus has been a figure of ambiguous sexuality.” In popular culture, the film “The Last Temptation of Christ,” released in 1988 and later the mystery novel by Dan Brown, The DaVinci Code, released in 2003 both suggested some liaison between Mary Magdalene and Jesus, including possibly marriage and a child between them. These fictional accounts picked up on scholarship arising from the study of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which suggested that in the early centuries of Christian history the idea that Jesus might have been married was bandied about in various Christian circles. By the late 4th century such ruminations were relegated to the category of heresy and the writings giving rise to them were lost until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the early 20th century.
Scholars are quick to downplay the likelihood that this most recent scrap of 4th century papyrus offers any “proof” one way or the other. Denominations within the Christian tradition that have denied women access to ordination on the basis of Jesus’ maleness, or that require a celibate priesthood based on his presumed celibacy, have a vested interest in disproving anything that might suggest otherwise. The truth or falsity of the notion that Jesus did or did not have a wife is not the crucial question in this controversial discussion, however. The real question is why does anyone care? Why are questions about Jesus’ sexuality so explosive?
Think about it. Lots of other famous religious figures were married, with children. Siddhartha Gautama had a wife and child that he left behind to go on his ascetic quest for enlightenment. The prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) had several wives and many children. Joseph Smith similarly had several wives and many children. Even legendary Abraham, the father of three major Western religious traditions, was married to Sarah, but also had a relationship with Hagar, with whom he fathered Ishmael, through whom the Muslim tradition traces its lineage to Abraham. Important figures in Hindu mythology (while not historical figures in the same way as Jesus or Muhammad) are all portrayed in relationship with female consorts and wives. Guru Nanak, founder of the Sikh religion and the first of their 10 gurus, was married. Marriage (and the sex that is presumed to go with it) is not inconsistent with holiness, nor does a married founding figure rule out a spirituality of asceticism, including celibacy, within a religious tradition.
The reaction within and outside of the Christian tradition, to the possibility of Jesus having been married says more about us than about him. Human sexuality in its infinite variety, has been a subject of unending controversy in the past several decades. Controversies over issues of contraception and family planning, the debate over legal abortion, the increasing rate of divorce, and the ongoing debates about the fact of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people in our midst and whether or not they may marry or take positions of religious leadership in our communities, are but some of the issues involving human sexuality that have dominated discussions of sexual ethics in our religious communities.
Inside and outside of religious communities, we are struggling to articulate some kind of sexual ethics that makes sense for our pluralistic modern culture and not managing to do it well. With the advent of the “free love, anything goes” ethos of the late 60s and early 70s we moved into a time of sexual freedom and experimentation, only to discover that such freedom didn’t release us from the need to integrate our sexuality with our lives as spiritual human beings. Sexuality and spirituality are intricately connected aspects of human existence. Religious discourse has danced around human sexuality for centuries to the detriment of our common humanity. The Christian tradition, while espousing a theology of incarnation, claiming Jesus to be both fully divine and fully human, has nonetheless tried mightily to deny Jesus all of the humanity that the rest of us share.
Our secular culture is soaked with sexual messages and sexual imagery, little of it helpful to any attempt to become a spiritually whole sexual human being. In the interfaith movement, little time has been devoted to discussing issues of human sexuality, in all its complexity, because these issues are controversial and touch on intimate realities of human life. At the Council for the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Melbourne, Australia in 2009, some 8500 people gathered for seven days of interfaith engagement and dialogue on every conceivable issue. Human sexuality was only addressed in two workshops out of the hundreds offered at the Parliament. The deep connection between sexuality and spirituality is evidenced in the mystical traditions of many world religions. The mystics of the world write, sing and speak in highly erotic terms, even when they lead celibate lives. Is it possible that our failure to integrate these two important aspects of human existence has contributed to the proliferation of sexual abuse scandals that have come to light in recent months, not only in religious institutions but also in secular communities such as sports programs, the Boy Scouts, and private high schools? Just as we have denied Jesus his full sexual humanity, we have denied ourselves our full spiritual humanity by bi-furcating the sexual and the spiritual as if they could not possibly co-exist.
Whether Jesus was married or not, whether he ever had sex or not does not make much difference in the grand scheme of things. What does matter is that all religious traditions face squarely the challenges all of their adherents confront in living spiritually and sexually healthy, whole lives. In the pluralistic world in which we now live, those conversations need to happen both within and across traditions, so that we can share wisdom and insight from a variety of perspectives. The voices of women, of the elderly, of the LGBTQ community, of single people and of the disabled need to be invited into these conversations as well, so that the full range of human sexual and spiritual experience can be brought to bear on these important spiritual discussions. Such conversations must rise above the banal “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not” so that the true depth of the encounter with the sacred that is integral to human sexual experience may be explored.