Too holy for sex? The problem of a married Jesus
2012-10-02 0:00

By Becky Bratu | NBCNews

If a fourth-century fragment of papyrus that purportedly quotes Jesus telling his disciples about "my wife" is authenticated, it could upend the modern church’s understanding of the “son of God.”

“If Jesus is a normal human being and he’s sexual, that’s the real fear,” James Tabor, a biblical scholar at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and the co-author of books about Jesus and his family, told NBC News. “You can’t think of Jesus like that because he’s too holy.”

The Bible contains no explicit mentions of Jesus being either married or not married, but few churches have room for the idea of a sexual Jesus. The Catholic Church’s celibate priesthood is built on the belief that Jesus was not married. Eastern Orthodox priests are often married, but the church teachings don’t mention a married Jesus. Protestant ministers are allowed to marry, but there again, it is not common to teach that Jesus himself was married.

"I would say that the more conservative groups might be more inclined to be bothered by the idea of a married Jesus, and especially that he might have had a child, god forbid, since that would really raise questions about his ’divinity,’ since they see him as fully human and fully God," Tabor subsequently explained in an email.

"Can God sleep with a woman and have a child? It just doesn’t fit the concept they want for Jesus," he said.

The Unification Church, however, does believe that Jesus was supposed to get married, and some of the early teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints stated Jesus was married and even fathered children, although that belief is not widespread today.

The Mormon and the Unification Church’s beliefs, however, have more to do with their own theology of marriage rather than with scripture, Ben Witherington III, a New Testament professor at the Asbury Theological Seminary, told NBC News.

Unlike their modern counterparts, there is evidence that some early Christians -- the Valentinian Gnostics -- believed Jesus was married, according to April DeConick, a biblical scholar at Rice University. The recently discovered papyrus, she told NBC News, would be the second piece of evidence from an ancient Christian gospel that early Christians were not bothered by the idea of a married Jesus. The first piece of evidence -- which DeConick said comes from the Gospel of Philip -- identifies Mary Magdalene as Jesus’ wife.

Karen L. King, the Harvard Divinity School professor who unveiled the papyrus, cautioned that the discovery does not serve as evidence that the historical Jesus was married.

"This new gospel doesn’t prove that Jesus was married, but it tells us that the whole question only came up as part of vociferous debates about sexuality and marriage,” King said in a press release. “From the very beginning, Christians disagreed about whether it was better not to marry, but it was over a century after Jesus’ death before they began appealing to Jesus’ marital status to support their positions."


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