Saturday, September 22, 2012

Who's afraid of the married Jesus?

The recent announcement of a papyrus fragment in which Jesus refers to his wife has brought us face to face with the sexual Jesus again.  And there are many people who do not like this image.  Something sacred feels threatened.  Corrupted.  The married Jesus is inconceivable.  It is impossible.  Maybe the text is a fake?  Or heresy.  Yes, that is it.  We dismiss it as heresy and feel relieved. 

Why is the idea of a married and sexual Jesus so inconceivable to us? Why do we see it as a corruption of the sacred?

If it is authenticated, then we have a second piece of evidence from an ancient Christian gospel that someone in the ancient world didn't have a problem with the married Jesus.  The first piece of evidence comes from the Gospel of Philip where Mary Magdalene is identified as Jesus' spouse.  The word used in that context has definitive sexual connotations (koinonos).  It means his consort, the woman he is yoked to sexually, his spousal partner.  Thus he kisses Mary in the Gospel of Philip, and is said to have three Marys in his life: his mother, his sister, and his spouse.  In the new fragment, the generic word (shime) is used.  It means "woman, wife". 

So no doubt about it.  There is a solid tradition in the ancient world that Jesus was married.  The tradition appears to come from the Valentinian Gnostics who envisioned marriage and sex as the greatest of sacred mysteries.  Their view of God reflected this.  The Godhead consisted of aspects of God like Truth, Life, Church, etc.  These aspects existed as married partners, and it was their sexual activities that generate the divine world and life.  Human marriages were believed to reflect the pattern of the divine marriages.  In the afterlife, one's spiritual self or angelic twin would continue to live as an married entity in a blissful state of eros.  So the Valentinians remembered Jesus as a married man with a sexual life.

Now it is true that this early Christian tradition did not survive.  It was identified as heresy by the Christians who did become dominant and eventually created the orthodox catholic view of Jesus. We wouldn't even know about it had it not been for these accidental discoveries of old papyrus that survived buried in Egyptian graves. 

My question is why did the sexual Jesus become the heretical Jesus while the glorification of the celibate male become the dominant orthodox view? 

We can't seem to get away from it.  We are back to sex and gender, and the distorted picture of the female body that Christianity has maintained.  We are confronting holy misogyny.

We are looking directly through the eyes of the ancient male who valorized the male body while vulgarizing the female.

We are facing the fact that our Christian tradition made this ancient male hatred of women and their bodies sacred.  This hatred is embedded in biblical texts starting with the Genesis story.  It continued to be the foundation for all theology built by the catholic Christians, including Augustine's ideas.  The worldview of Christianity sees the female body and sex through Augustine's distorted lens and his doctrine of original sin.

As long as the female body is viewed as substandard, subhuman, and naturally deficient as stories like Genesis reflect, as long as sexual desire is perceived to be the penalty for sin as Augustine taught, there is no way we can conceive of Jesus as married or partaking in the pleasures of sex.  Our distorted views of human sexuality and the female body will not give us permission to consider the possibility.

The truth is that the sources we have do not permit us to know whether Jesus of Nazareth was a married or celibate man.  Both views of Jesus were constructed by different groups of ancient people to reflect their understanding of God and the human condition.  It just so happens that the Christian tradition that we have inherited as our own is the one that created the glorified male celibate as its view of the ideal human and god.


22 comments:

Stephen Goranson said...

Claiming they are afraid in order to dismiss observations by numerous scholars who suggest writing on this ms is a modern fake may not be particularly helpful if the goal is to get as close to truth as collegial scholarship allows.

Robert Mathiesen said...

I see no claim here about whether the new fragment is a fake or not.

What I do see is a claim that the theological stakes here are very high for Christians, and also an awareness of the very real fact that a scholar's own theological positions may and sometimes do -- often unconsciously -- influence his scholarly judgement.

This fact is abundantly exemplified by all the scholarly literature about the authenticity of the famous letter on "Secret Mark," apparently written by Clement of Alexandria, which is still very much an open question.

Also, long ago I worked on one of the forgeries of Mark Hoffman (The Oath of a Freeman), and I had to read through a good deal of scholarship on forgery in general. It became very clear in the course of this reading that it is much easier for later generations to detect a forgery than it ever is for contemporaries of the forger. So many of the hallmarks of any contemporary forgery are things that we take for granted in our own world, but that succeeding generations may find particularly odd and revealing.

This is not to say that one cannot detect a contemporary forgery; often one can, *but not always*. Sometimes the strongest indications of forgery lie hidden in the blind spots that we scholars share with the forger as his contemporaries.

Jeremy Wales said...

"My question is why did the sexual Jesus become the heretical Jesus while the glorification of the celibate male become the dominant orthodox view?"

Could it be because the latter was the first century view, giving it a two-century head start on the former, so that it had the advantage of wide acceptance long before the alternative even arose? That would seem to be another possibility worth considering.

Stephen Goranson said...

Robert, perhaps reread the words "So no doubt about it."

Robert Mathiesen said...

Stephen, the "it" in "no doubt about it" doesn't refer to the fragment or its authenticity, but to what follows, namely, "there is a solid tradition in the ancient world that Jesus was married. The tradition appears to come from the Valentinian Gnostics who envisioned marriage and sex as the greatest of sacred mysteries."

Robert Mathiesen said...

PS The above-mentioned Gnostic tradition was "solid," that is, documented, before the new fragment was discovered, and it remains "solid" if the new fragment is a fake. "Solid" does not mean "historically true" in such a context. There are plenty of solidly documented, but provably false traditions out there in the world.

Stephen Goranson said...

"So" in "So no doubt about it" typically refers to a prior antecedent. And what's prior: "In the new fragment, the generic word (shime) is used. It means 'woman, wife'." At minimum, the post used the new fragment as one of two main(interpreted) texts presented as a tradition. Whether Jesus was married or not is not what I am attempting to comment about here. Rather, I am suggesting that some of the questions about whether the fragment is genuinely ancient writing or modern writing are worth addressing, while the post here, unless I misread, seemed to brush such questions aside, dismissing questioners as misguidedly fearful.

Robert Mathiesen said...

The most natural prior antecedent to which "so" refers is the cited passage in the Gospel of Philip, which is discussed in the previous paragraph.

This becomes even more clear when one remembers that the preceding paragraph starts with "If it is authenticated, then we have a second piece of evidence . . ."

I will grant you one thing: if someone hasn't paid much attention to the flow of the argument in the entire post, but is hanging on its every word instead, then that someone *could* take the "so" as referencing the immediately preceding two sentences, which read: "In the new fragment, the generic word (shime) is used. It means "woman, wife"."

But these two sentences interrupt the flow of the argument, and taking the "so" as a reference to them is incompatible with the argument in the rest of the post. That is in itself a good and sufficient reason to look for another antecedent to which "so" refers.

Susan Burns said...

I don't know why they are so afraid but their fear is definitely showing. These questions you ask are monumental. It seems others want you to stick to the question of authenticity. Please,please keep asking these questions.

lightseeker said...

Hear, hear! I echo Susan Burns' comment. The questions April poses are important questions to keep asking if fear of a sexual Jesus is to be confronted and transcended.

Perhaps April you could also address any concepts of sacred union and the bridal chamber in the context of Jesus' teachings as a mystic (apocalyptic, i.e., seeing beyond the veil to reveal the true nature of God and humanity). I have a suspicion that the concept of union in the bridal chamber had a real-life component that was more than mere metaphor or allegory (than strictly God's marriage to his bride Israel/the Church). Union of God's male and feminine aspects (yin-yang, anyone? The symbol of the Mogen David itself?) bring wholeness to heaven and the world. As above, so below... This surely was a part of soome Jewish thought, not just Hellenistic Gnosticism. I would love to hear your thoughts on this, April.

Thank you so much for your valuable contributions via this blog and your books.

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john B said...

Has anybody considered the fact that Jesus never married because His messianic ministry called for His death at an early age 33years of age"

Jesus is not against marriage! He chose it not, Knowing what awaited Him "The Cross"
Traditionally the Jewish custom is all about marriage and procreation.. seems very wise on Jesus' behalf not to leave behind a young widow and siblings.

You folks are full of IT Just like the Devil!

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