Friday, October 25, 2013

The Wife of Jesus

No, this isn't crankville. Anthony Le Donne isn't Simcha Jacobovici or Michael Baigent. The Wife of Jesus doesn't even really argue that Jesus had a wife, though it allows for the strong possibility that he had one in his 20s, prior to his prophetic ministry. The only thing the book shares in common with sensationalist cousins is its accessibility: it's written for everyone, not just academics, and well about time on this subject from a reliable scholar.

Le Donne's argument is essentially that many Christians have been right for the wrong reasons. While the gospels don't say that Jesus had a wife, neither do they say he didn't, and silence means nothing. Wives were a given and weren't mentioned unless context warranted it. (Peter's wife, for instance, is never mentioned, but his mother-in-law is healed.) Silence on the subject of marriage is no different than silence on the subject of breastfeeding:
"Marriage was a cultural given. It was ubiquitous. It was seen as the foundational element of honoring one's parents and the lifeblood of one's ancestors. It was a path to economic integrity and manhood. Marriage was considered necessary for the survival of one's people... Awkward as it may seem to us in the West, our default setting has been wrong. Our default setting has been to assume that Jesus was celibate because he was too holy for sex. But most people in Jesus' culture would have considered celibacy to be altogether unholy." (pp 151-152)
We should assume that Jesus was married unless we have reason to believe otherwise.

Though that last is the rub. In scrutinizing the New Testament, it appears that Jesus was abnormal -- not on account of being too holy for sex, but for having wild ideas about honor and family. By his 30s at least (i.e. by the time of his gospel ministry), he was dishonoring his blood ties and reshaping a spiritual family around him. He had embraced many (though not all) of the ascetic and non-conformist teachings of his mentor John the Baptist.
"While our default stance should expect that Jesus was probably married, the gospels give several indications that he might not have been the marrying type. He did not seem to hold blood ties in high regard. He did not choose a lifestyle that would provide for a household. He seemed to live as if the world as he knew it was coming to an end. Thus provision for future generations [family property rights secured through marriage] was not a part of his message. In all of these ways, Jesus subverted civic masculinity and quite possibly the institution of marriage, which stood at the center of civic masculinity." (p 128)
Le Donne allows that Jesus may well have been married prior to becoming a prophet. In fact, it's much more plausible that he was married, say, in his 20s and that his wife died in childbirth (as was extremely common), than that he would have shamefully dishonored his family by rejecting the Abrahamic blessing of progeny (pp 152-153). Only by the time of his itinerant prophetic career was he engaged in the flagrant dishonor of severing blood ties. Of course, from his radical point of view, he wasn't being dishonorable at all: he thought of his disciples and followers as his true family; his blood relations weren't even real (p 159).

The gospels are replete on this point, and Le Donne discusses all the relevant passages:
"While Jesus was speaking to the people, his mother and brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. But he replied, 'Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?' And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, 'Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister, and mother." (Mt 12:46-50; cf. Mk 3:31-35; Lk 8:19-21)

"'Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have come not to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a man's foes will be those of his own household. He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.'" (Mt 10:34-36)
Luke's Gospel is even stronger than Matthew's:
"'If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.'" (Lk 14:26)
It's impossible to exaggerate how scandalous these sayings were in the Jewish setting of ancient Palestine. But they obviously scandalize Christians today too. I was certainly never taught them in Sunday school or high-school religion classes; I never heard them preached from the pulpit. And as Le Donne points out, the astounding thing is that modern Christians who see Jesus as "above sex" tend to be the same who champion "family values" -- which Jesus clearly had no use for (see p 142). Blood ties were meaningless in his movement. Indeed, you had to hate your biological family to be a full-fledged devotee. Following Jesus meant surrendering economic and social security, sacrificing your inheritance rights, and living like a shameful itinerant.

So yes, Jesus was probability celibate throughout his gospel career. He was known for saying there were different kinds of eunuchs -- those who lack reproductive organs, but also those who choose celibacy for the sake of God's kingdom (Mt 19:12). And I can't see any problem with Le Donne's suggestion that he may have been married at earlier age, prior to becoming a follower of John the Baptist and assuming his own prophetic mantle; it seems perfectly plausible.

The Wife of Jesus, as I said, is a sober analysis devoid of sensationalism, but don't fear: sensationalist claims are addressed by the author, which makes the book fun (and amusing at times) to read. He covers the recent hoax of the Jesus' Wife fragment, noting that whoever forged it had internet access to a source with a typographical error which the forger copied. He even discusses the Secret Mark hoax, which of course depicted a gay Jesus. He traces the evolution of Mary Magdalene, who began in the gospels as a follower of Jesus, was later cast a prostitute by the church, and in recent years became the actual wife of Jesus (in the hack novel by Dan Brown). It's a concise and well-written book that couldn't be more timely, and I hope many people will read it.


Blogger Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks for a great review, Loren. I really liked LeDonne's book too.

Blogger .............. said...

Thank you for this Loren. I think you've really nailed my argument for the connections in honor, economics, and marriage. And thank you for reposting this on Amazon!


Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

My pleasure, Anthony, it's a terrific book. Glad you liked it too, Mark.

Blogger Paul said...

Not apropos of this post in particular, but I thought you might appreciate this:


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