Monday, September 24, 2012

Is Jesus is "too holy" for sex?

Thus is the title ("Too holy" for Sex? The problem of a married Jesus) of Becky Bratu's just-published piece (NBC News) on public reactions to the idea of "Jesus' wife".  She too sees how communally we are struggling with the problem of a sexual Jesus and how this transgresses our commonly (and cherished) Christian view of the Holy as male and celibate. 

Whether authentic or not (yet to be determined), our discussion of the Jesus' Wife papyrus is fascinating.  It shows us the faultlines, the borders, the limits of our theological views.  It shows how they were constructed hundreds of years ago, and have become "natural" for us.  They are part of our internal selves.  God is male and celibate.  Sexual desire is sin. 

Even after the counter-cultural sexual revolution of the 1960s, these parameters still grip our religious views.

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.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Upcoming conference on historical Jesus

Speaking of how difficult it is to recover the historical Jesus, there is a conference on October 4 and 5 put together to critique the "Third Quest of the Historical Jesus". 

Here is information about the conference and the LINK to details about registration and how to do it. 

United Theological Seminary and The University of Dayton (Dayton, OH) are co-hosting a two-day conference to critique the assumptions and methods of the so called "Third Quest of the Historical Jesus" on October 4 and 5, 2012.   The conference will be held at Southpark United Methodist Church, 140 Stonemill Road, Dayton, OH 45409.

Bringing together world-class authors and speakers, this conference will discuss "authenticity" and "criteria" as these concepts have been traditionally understood and employed in New Testament studies. 
Speakers include Dale C. Allison Jr., Mark Goodacre, Chris Keith, Anthony Le Donne, Loren Stuckenbruck, Jens Shroeter, Barry Swartz, Dagmar Winter, and Rafael Rodrígue.

It is my understanding that the conference will focus on Keith and Le Donne's newest book: Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity.  

You can read more about this on Keith and Le Donne's new blog: The Jesus Blog HERE. 

It should be a great conference.   

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Did Jesus have a wife?

Kilmore Church, Isle of Mull, Scotland, 1906
So many of you have been e-mailing me, wondering about the significance of the new gospel fragment recently published on the internet by Karen King of Harvard University.  Many are expressing amazement that there is a text that mentions Jesus' wife.  It is exciting to see the words "My wife" in bold Coptic scrawl.

But let's keep in mind that we actually already have a text that mentions Jesus' wife.  It is the Gospel of Philip.  We already know that there were some early Christians, in particular the Valentinian Gnostics, who taught that Mary Magdalene was Jesus' consort or wife.  They wrote about it in the Gospel of Philip.

The reason that their tradition remembered Mary in this way is because they believed that marriage was the sacred creative activity of God and God's manifestations or Aeons.  They also believed that their own human marriages were reflections - what they called "an image" - of the eternal marriages of the Aeons.  Jesus' human marriage to Mary Magdalene was believed to reflect the sacred marriage of the Aeons Jesus and Sophia.   Furthermore, the Aeons Jesus and Sophia were the spiritual twins or angelic dopplegangers of the human Jesus and Mary.  If you are interested in learning more about this practice and its sexual implications, I have written a chapter about it in Holy Misogyny, called "Is Marriage Salvation?" along with a chapter on Mary, called "How do we solve a problem like Maria?"

The new gospel fragment supports this Valentinian picture.  If it turns out to be an authentic gospel fragment from antiquity, it likely came from a page of yet another Valentinian gospel that contained sayings of Jesus.  Valentinian Christians were very prolific and they preserved an entire sayings tradition of counter-memories that supported their creative metaphysical outlook and Gnostic spirituality.

But does this mean that Jesus had a wife?  It depends on who you ask.  If you asked a Valentinian Christian, the answer would have been a definitive "yes".  If you asked an early Catholic Christian, the answer would have been "no".  If you ask a scholar today, depending on the methods they use to reconstruct the historical Jesus, you will get "yeses" and "noes'.

What do I think?  I think that it is next to impossible to reconstruct the historical Jesus from the theological portraits of him in any of the gospels, the New Testament included.  Aside from a few broad strokes, the historical Jesus remains shrouded in theology, including his sex life and marital status.  I continue to emphasize how necessary it is for us to think critically about these old texts and not take their statements as simple statements of historical facts, at least without first reasoning carefully through them.

Was Jesus married?  I like to think so.  But this has more to do with my own view of the blessedness of marriage than it does with any historical argument I might make.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Gospel of Jesus' Wife

Intriguing name that Karen King has given this fragment.  My initial read of the fragment is thus:

The fragment reads very much like a paraphrase of sayings of Jesus found in the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Philip.  In the Gospel of Thomas 101, Jesus says that his true mother (probably a reference to the Spirit) gave him life, while his birth mother gave him death.  At the end of the Gospel of Thomas 114, there is a saying that indicates conflict between Jesus and Peter over Mary, whether women are worth to have life.  Jesus says yes that he will guide Mary so that she can become a living spirit.  In the Gospel of Philip, Mary Magdalene is referenced as Jesus' wife in the context of a discussion about discipleship which is what we seem to have here too in this gospel fragment.  But here marriage is referenced rather than singlehood or maleness.

So what is the fragment about?  Jesus is talking to his disciples about discipleship and life.  Jesus connects life with his mother, who he says gave it to him.  If other texts can help us, the disciples are probably responding, how can this be?  Women don't have life or aren't worthy of life.  Then Jesus tells them that Mary is worthy, and that his wife (probably Mary) will be able to be his disciple.  He says that he is with her because of something (text is fragmented).  If the reference in the next line (8) to "an image" is connected to the "because of" clause in line 7 (which I think is highly likely), then we might have evidence of a Valentinian Gnostic worldview where Jesus and Mary's earthly marriage is an image of their future aeonic marriage.

I would translate line 7 thusly: "I am with her because..." and the because has something to do with an "image".

I am thinking that the fragment is from a Valentinian text, like the Gospel of Philip, whose author is aware of the alternative sayings traditions that we find also embedded in Gospel of Thomas.  It makes perfect sense in this context and is consistent with what we already know about ideology in early Valentinian Gnostic Christianity.

My initial translation based on the photograph published on King's Harvard website is: " mother gave me li[fe...] The disciples said to Jesus [...] deny. Mary is worthy of it [...] Jesus said to them, "My wife [and...] Let men who are wicked [...] I am with her because [...] an image [...]"


A reference to Jesus' wife?

Karen King, professor at Harvard University, has announced today that she has been working on a new Coptic fragment from an unknown gospel which she is calling the Gospel of Jesus' Wife, because Jesus makes reference to having a wife.  While this reference may have nothing to do with the historical Jesus, she says, it certainly tells us that issues of celibacy and marriage of clergy were being debated among the Christians.  This should remind us that the Gospel of Philip has a similar reference, there to Mary Magdalene as Jesus' wife.

The reference to "my wife" occurs in line 4 on the right hand side.

Read more HERE.  Photo is from Boston Globe's story. 

And HERE is Karen King's transcription and translation.