Jesus’ Wife

You have more than likely heard about a small fragment of papyrus that suggests that Jesus had a wife. The fragment was recently dated to be authentic from somewhere between 659 and 859 CE. Some who love conspiracy are saying that this proves Jesus had a wife but the Church buried it because that would give too much power to women. I have two thoughts in response to that.

From Wikipedia

1st Century vs 7th?

First of all, look at that date again. It’s at least 6 centuries after Jesus’ life. Even the most liberal scholars put the last of the 4 canonical Gospels (John) within one century of Jesus’ life, and most would put it more like 50-60 years after. Some of the other texts (some of the epistles) were probably early 2nd Century or maybe even mid 2nd Century. Of course, it isn’t like the 1st century Gospels ever actually say that Jesus didn’t have a wife, but still, if nobody thought to mention her in those first generations, why would we assume that one tiny reference to her 500 years or more later is more likely to be reality than the multiple authors closer to the events?

Jesus the Feminist

Even more problematic for the conspiracy theories, though, would come from simply looking at attitudes toward women in each time period. The early Church was incredibly radical in the freedom given to women. There was at least one woman apostle among other notable women in Romans 16. There were women deacons. There were women leading house churches as well as overseeing larger regions. Many scholars believe that a woman even wrote the book of Hebrews.

And perhaps the most radical of all, women were explicitly encouraged to stay single if they could and wanted to. Women were killed for insisting on this freedom and refusing to marry the men they were arranged to marry. To this day, we say that being given the option to be single is more feminist than being handed from your father’s household to your husband’s. Singleness was extremely radical, especially for a woman, as it arguably still is for many today. For a woman to be single she was defying the entire social structure whereby she changed hands from the ownership of her father to the ownership of her husband that her father arranged for her.

If Jesus had been married, that would have been completely the status quo, especially for a Rabbi. Sure, we could extrapolate and talk about how he treated his wife so much better than normal, as an equal, and that is a fair assumption from the rest of his teaching. That part would have been radical and feminist, but being married was the opposite.

In other words, if you want to paint Jesus as a feminist, there’s plenty of material to do that with right in front of us in the canonical Gospels, perhaps most of all the call to singleness.

By the time of this fragment, the Roman Empire had collapsed in the West and the institutional church was the primary power there while the Byzantine Empire ruled in the West aligned with the Eastern Orthodox Church (they hadn’t officially split yet but mostly had in practice). By this point there were no women in leadership; that had slowly faded out through cultural accommodation by about 300, not long before the alliance with Empire was formed. Women were not, as far as I know, encouraged to be single with the exception of if they were joining monastic communities.

The Two Options

So we basically have two options. There are varieties of course, but I’ll stick to the traditional one or the conspiracy theory. In option one, the so-called conspiracy:

  • Jesus, along with Paul and much of the Early Church, praised singleness, but Jesus did so while married. Since he doesn’t say that everyone has to be single, it isn’t a contradiction, just a little strange.
  • Even though the early Church was radically feminist and many other important women were spoken about as equals, none of the earliest writers bothered to mention Jesus’ wife because…. no particular reason.
  • Marrying a woman in a patriarchal culture was actually better somehow than setting her free to be single or marry as she wished, which is why Jesus did it. How it is better I still have no idea.
  • Centuries later somebody somehow discovered Jesus really did have a wife but was squashed by the patriarchy, even though Jesus having a wife probably would have reinforced patriarchal norms.

Or Option Two:

  • Jesus, along with Paul and much of the early Church, praised singleness. Jesus, like Paul, did so while being single himself.
  • Allowing women to remain single if they wanted to was better than forcing her to marry who her father wanted her to marry, which would possibly carry with it abuse, sex whenever was demanded, or at the bare minimum with a benevolent husband, still being essentially property bought from her father.
  • The early Church being radically feminist and radical in many other ways did not invent a wife to make Jesus more culturally acceptable, even though they knew how strange it was for a Rabbi – or anybody with authority, really – to be single since they knew it wasn’t true and there were enough witnesses of Jesus’ life alive to contradict them if they lied.
  • 500 or more years later, singleness is much less accepted within the Church (other than monasteries), so somebody created a wife for Jesus, but even then it completely failed to become accepted by many people. Reasons for being rejected are as simple as that no other text later than early 2nd century were ever considered authoritative Scripture. Without knowing much about the rest of the text, it was probably also espousing theology contradictory to basic Christian thought present since the beginning (e.g. how the Gnostics tried to make Jesus non-physical, rejecting the Incarnation), so that probably also contributed to its rejection.

Which option is more reasonable? Seriously, this is one of those conspiracies that just doesn’t even make logical sense.

My faith would not be harmed at all if it turned out Jesus had a wife. He could have preached singleness as a high calling without being single himself and I am sure he would have treated her like an equal even though that would have been a radical concept. But there’s still absolutely no reason to believe that was the case and there are good reasons to believe it isn’t.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.