Did Paul Believe That Jesus Was Married?

Yesterday’s announcement that Karen King is publishing an ancient Coptic text that refers to the wife of Jesus has once again opened up the question of whether Jesus was married. Let me first state for the record that I do NOT think that Jesus was ever married. What I mean is that I consider this to be more likely than the alternative. However, I don’t think that a married Jesus is entirely outside the realm of possibility.

If we limit our historical sources to those from the first century, which are undoubtedly the best candidates for any reliable information, then we will find that there is no explicit statement in either direction. No author states that Jesus was married, nor does any claim that he was single. This means that any argument about the matter will be an argument from silence.

For those who are open to the possibility of Jesus being married, there are at least two arguments from silence to consider (I find the second more intriguing):

1) Since the norm for first-century Jewish men was to be married, the silence of the NT authors implicitly points toward Jesus being married as well. Had Jesus not been married, would not at least one writer have alluded to the exceptional nature of Jesus’ singleness?

2) In 1 Corinthians 7 Paul gives instructions concerning marriage and sexual relations between spouses, apparently in response to the Corinthian church’s question about whether it was “good for a man not to touch a woman” (v. 1). He argues that husbands and wives should have sexual relations unless both agree to abstain for a short time (v. 2-5). However, for him this is a concession rather than a command (v. 6). If Paul could have his way, he would wish that all men were single, as he himself was (v. 7). He also hopes that single people and widows will remain unmarried, but recognizes that it might not be possible for everyone to do this (v. 8-9).

We’re now at the point in Paul’s argument that I find most striking for the present question. In verses 10-11, he gives instructions to married people, but he doesn’t convey his own view. Instead, he appeals to the words of Jesus. Immediately after this (v. 12), he resumes expressing his own position.

So let’s piece the argument together…

a) In 1 Cor 7:1-16, when Paul appeals to someone as a model “single” person, he appeals to himself (not Jesus).

b) This is the case even though Paul clearly has the life and words of Jesus in mind as he is writing this, as evidenced by his appeal to Jesus’ teaching about divorce.

c) If Paul knew that Jesus was single, could he not have greatly bolstered his argument in verses 6-9 for the Corinthians to remain single simply by appealing to the greatest example of all – Jesus the single man? In light of the previous point b) indicating that Paul was thinking about the person of Jesus at the time he was constructing this argument, why would Paul not appeal to this fact?

Any and all thoughts are welcome as always!

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17 thoughts on “Did Paul Believe That Jesus Was Married?

  1. First, it is hard to imagine that Paul would have put forth the Lord of Glory as “the greatest example” of a single man. (To Paul, Jesus is not in the same category of any human being, considered in any normal role.)

    Second, if for argument’s sake this type of argument-from-silence is allowed, then the opposite of the above is at least as valid:

    In Paul’s writings, Jesus would be put forth as “the greatest example” of a husband. (And for the church, the holy family would not be Mary, Joseph and Mary; but Jesus, his wife and his children.)

    Third assuming Jesus was a good husband and his wife was a good woman, his surviving spouse and children would have been named — and given prominence — among members of the early church.

    Finally, the New Testament is not silent about Jesus’ wife. He has a bride to whom he will be married — in one sense — and to whom he is already married — in another sense. His wife is the church.

    So I would strongly disagree with your statement, “I don’t think that a married Jesus is entirely outside the realm of possibility.”

    The bride and bridegroom parable in the Gospels, Paul’s references to the church’s betrothal and marriage to Christ, and references to the bride in the Revelation would all be morally and aesthetically appalling if Jesus had been married.

    COMMENT: The sad state of education in America is indicated by the fact that Karen King and her reckless assertions are taken seriously.

    • Karen King is NOT suggesting that Jesus was married, only that LATER TEXTS may have a reference to Jesus mentioning a “wife”. Responsible scholars all over the media are hammering home the point that this not the Da Vinci Code but a glimpse at early, possibly Gnostic, beliefs.

  2. Hmm.

    It is possible that Paul didn’t use the example of the unmarried Jesus because the example would not have served his argument. Paul was saying that people should stay unmarried *if possible*. The example of Jesus might have been seen as an appeal to the impossible — how could ordinary people be expected to follow the example of the Lord? Or perhaps the problem was, if Paul appealed to the example of Jesus, then his audience would have thought that staying unmarried was practically a commandment, and that getting married was a terrible thing, worse than what Paul meant to convey.

    If Paul had thought that Jesus had been married, then would Paul have recommended unmarried celibacy for his followers?

    Could it be that Paul didn’t know whether Jesus had ever been married?

    Interesting post! And lately, so many to choose from! Thanks, Tim.

    • ‘The example of Jesus might have been seen as an appeal to the impossible — how could ordinary people be expected to follow the example of the Lord?’

      Yet, Paul expects just as much regularly (e.g. 1 Cor 11.1; 1 Thess 1.6; Eph 5.1-2). Philippians 2, for example, is based in the idea that we are to be humble just like Jesus is humble; this is why Paul even brings up the ‘kenosis hymn’.

      • Mark, thanks. I should have made my argument more clearly. I’m thinking that Paul might have wanted to make the point that celibacy was not beyond the ability of ordinary people. If so, then appealing to Jesus’ example would not have proved his point.

        Jesus’ example may serve better when discussing a virtue like humility, where there’s a value in being more humble even if one cannot be perfectly humble. So one might strive for greater humility using Jesus as a model, even while recognizing that one cannot be as humble as Jesus. Ditto for the other examples you cited: trying not to give offense, being kind, being forgiving. In contrast, one either is or is not celibate.

        Still, your point is a good one. Paul often urged his followers to imitate Jesus. Thanks for helping me see this question with greater clarity.

  3. Your two points are actually worth considering. Heck, just look at Peter. If we didn’t know any better, we could have assumed he was single. But thanks to two comments in passing (Matt 8.14; 1 Cor 9.5), we know he was married, which we would never have gotten from the wider narrative alone since we never actually see his wife. Simply put, the mere fact that Peter was married wasn’t integral to the Church narrative, so it had no reason to be mentioned directly… so couldn’t the same be said for Jesus and his alleged wife?

    I think the three main reasons used to object to Jesus having been married amount to: (1) his bride is the Church, (2) he’s God, and (3) this would have created family favoritism. But even with these there are reasonable counterpoints, such as: (1) it’s figurative, much like Israel is figuratively God’s son and daughter and bride in the Prophets, (2) he’s man, and (3) family favoritism is already seen with James being specially called by Jesus to lead the Church in Jerusalem.

    While, like you, I don’t think Jesus was married, it really just amounts to our collective opinion. I think if any substantial arguments could be made against it, they would have to framed in more specific questions (e.g. did Jesus’ marriage with this woman end at his death? at his resurrection? at his exaltation? are they still married? will this wife be a specially elevated queen in the age to come?), or perhaps stronger arguments from silence like yours above (e.g. Jesus told the beloved disciple to take care of his mother, why not his wife? the opening of Acts mentions that Jesus’ mother and brothers were with the disciples after Jesus’ exaltation, why not his wife?).

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  5. Good points. Good to see a thoughtful post, and not just a knee-jerk reaction that most of the crowd are posting.

    What makes this really difficult is that we really don’t know what Paul knew about Jesus. Ironically, if conservatives are right and Paul knew a lot about Jesus, then it is indeed very strange that Paul doesn’t use Jesus’ example to bolster his arguents. But if liberals are right an Paul knew very little about the historical Jesus, then it makes this question less relevant.

    One minor quibble. If there are texts that refer to Jesus being married, while I agree that their dating might not make them necessarily credible as history, it probably isn’t accurate to say it is an argument from silence.

    There is silence in Biblical texts about whether Jesus was married. Assuming this fragment is authentic, that breaks the silence about whether some people may have thought he was married. The question is what was the source and context and so on.

  6. There is a problem with your argument:

    On the cross Jesus addressed a disciple about His mother not His wife. Now if Jesus was married, would you not think that jesus would have made accomodations for his wife first?

    Your argument from silence really doesn’t exist here. We have comments from Jesus and others which if He was married simply do not add up. For example, Jesus was an itinerant preacher and stated ‘foxes have dens…” Mat. 8:20.

    If He was married He would have had a home.Another example is when the phariees, or whomever, state ‘we have his brothers mother …here with us…” Mat. 13:55 why is His wife NOT mentioned if He were married?

    So there is evidence for Jesus being single, it is not an argument from silence.

  7. Pingback: Jesus’ Wife | theologyarchaeology

  8. Pingback: If Jesus was married does it matter? | Near Emmaus

  9. Is it possible that a completely modern interpretation of what Paul did and didn’t say might have the effect of distorting it to say something other than what was intended? I say this because early Christians didn’t seem to have a problem with this issue (or many others) that Christians today are “rediscovering” or “reinventing”.

  10. The more unsettling question to me is not so much whether or not Jesus was married, but whether or not any offspring ensued from such a union. What does the Incarnation mean in that circumstance? If Jesus is Fully God and Fully Human, and is YHWH’s only begotten Son, then what would Jesus’ children be? I gotta say… that whole concept weirds me out.

  11. Good balanced discussion. The evidence provided to date is nowhere near definitive, but intriguing. In addition to the manuscripts such as that being bandied about by Prof. King, there is also potentially related archaelogical evidence to consider. An example would be the previously well publicized find of a supposed tomb of Jesus of Nazareth and his apparent wife Mary Magdalene as advocated by James Tabor and Simcha Jacobovici in their 2012 book, The Jesus Discovery.
    At this point, of greater importance than the specifics of either find may be the question of how Christians respond in the event that claims like this eventually prove to be well-founded. Can Christians survive the possibility of conclusive evidence that may negate prior theological suppositions?
    The answer should be to let the science take its course and allow matters of faith to be re-shaped accordingly. In other words, evidence-based Christianity.
    For more thoughts on this subject, consider: http://jesustheheresy.wordpress.com/2012/06/06/archaeology-trumps-faith/

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