A few years ago, the “was Jesus married?” question made the rounds of popular culture because of Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code. Recently the question made the news again because of an alleged ancient manuscript fragment referring to Jesus’ wife — a fragment that turned out to be a modern fake. In this piece, Dr. Mike Licona tackles the question of whether Jesus could have been married.
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Is it possible to know Jesus’ marital status? The historian will need to consider any evidence suggesting Jesus was married as well as evidence that he was single.
Dan Brown provides two strands of evidence. He first cites the gospel of Phillip and describes a Jesus who loves Mary more than all the disciples and kisses her often on the mouth. He adds that the gospel of Phillip refers to Mary as “the companion of the Savior” and that every Aramaic scholar agrees that the word “companion” means “spouse.”
But there are a number of problems with this claim. First, the gospel of Phillip is a Gnostic gospel that is dated to the late second century at the earliest. That is about a hundred years after the last of the New Testament Gospels had been written. Moreover, the lone existing manuscript of the gospel of Phillip is dated to the fourth century and, due to a number of holes in it, words are missing. In order to get a text that supports his thesis, Brown reconstructed the text, adding words which actually are absent from the manuscript. A second problem concerns the word “companion.” The gospel of Phillip was written in Coptic, not Aramaic. And the Coptics had borrowed the Greek word employed here for companion (koinonos), which usually meant “friend, colleague” rather than “spouse.”
The other strand of evidence Brown provides is Leonardo da Vinci’s rendition of “The Last Supper,” in which the person standing next to Jesus, usually thought to be the disciple John, instead is said to be Mary Magdalene. Leonardo supposedly is clueing his viewers to the marital relationship between Jesus and Mary. Numerous problems plague using this as evidence for a married Jesus. It is widely recognized that the disciple John was often portrayed during the Renaissance period with feminine characteristics, due to his youth. Moreover, if the character standing next to Jesus is indeed Mary Magdalene, then we are left with one of the 12 disciples missing. Furthermore, even if Leonardo believed Jesus had been married to Mary Magdalene, how much weight should a sober historian award to the unsupported belief of a Renaissance artist who lived more than 1,500 years after Jesus? It certainly should not be preferred over historical reports written within a generation or two of Jesus.
So what is the evidence for a single Jesus? Ancient documents make no specific statement that Jesus was single. Is what is written about Jesus more consistent with a married or single Jesus? Although Jesus is said to have a mother, father, brothers, sisters, a cousin (John the Baptist), and 12 disciples, he never is mentioned as having a wife.
Moreover, according to John’s Gospel, while on the cross Jesus entrusted the care of his mother to his beloved disciple. John also reports that Mary Magdalene was there, too. However, no further plans were made for her care. This would be very odd if she was Jesus’ wife.
The most powerful evidence that Jesus was single comes from a deafening silence. In 1 Corinthians 9:5 Paul writes, “Do we [i.e., Paul and Barnabas] not have a right to take along a believing wife, as do the rest of the apostles, the brothers of the Lord, and Peter?” It appears that all of Jesus’ disciples, all of his blood brothers, and even the lead apostle, Peter, were married. If Jesus had been married to Mary, we certainly would expect for Paul to have mentioned it here, since it would have provided the ultimate example for his point.
The sober historian must go where the evidence points. When asked whether Jesus was married, we have seen that the data used to support the conclusion that Jesus was married is very poor. We likewise have seen that the evidence for a single Jesus is strong. Therefore, when reconstructing a biography of Jesus, the historian is forced to write the following: Marital Status: Single.