Sunday, September 30, 2012

Didn't we already believe Jesus was human? (So what if he had a wife?)

"Jesus said to them, 'My wife...'"

It was clear at coffee hour last Sunday that the publication of the 4th Century Coptic papyrus with those words was a hot topic.

To me, the key question is not, "Was Jesus married?" That is a question we will never know the answer to definitively, because it is not answered by the four authoritative texts we have: the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. None of the Gospels say directly that Jesus was married, and none of them say he was not married.

A better question would be "When we say we believe Jesus was fully human, what do we mean by that?" Since the third Century, the church has affirmed Jesus' fundamental humanity, as well as his divinity. Human beings form relationships, some of them intimate, some of them not. If Jesus was truly human, with human desires, relationships, and societal expectations, it is certain that Jesus as a man of his era would have felt pressure to marry, and may or may not have chosen to do so. It's something I believe we must have room for in our image of Jesus.

Imagining a married Jesus can unleash our creativity in wondering what turns his life took aside from the fairly narrow window we get through the Gospels-was the reason he suddenly bursts onto the scene at age 30 because that was when he was widowed? If Jesus had a wife, to whom he owed support and allegiance, did he abandon her to enter into his ministry, and if so did he feel guilty about that? Did she feel betrayed? Did he know the joy-and frustration-of raising children?

And if Jesus choose not to get married, why not? Was it because he knew his identity and calling would not allow him to offer the consistent support and allegiance that a husband was required to give? Did he just never find the right partner? Or did Jesus actually believe in the type of sexual purity projected on him by future centuries, and find himself untouched by lust and desire and consequently have no use for marriage?

When I was single and met a man I didn't know in a bar, and he found out what I did for a living the first question out of his mouth was usually, "Can you get married?" Now, I am quite certain that a first glimpse of me didn't send 90% of men into a fantasy of walking down the aisle. The real question they were asking was "Can you have sex?" (To which the answer was, "Not with you, and not tonight." That answer ended most of those conversations.)

Similarly, it strikes me that most of the media coverage is fueled less by whether Jesus lived in a state of matrimony and more by the question of "Did Jesus have sex?" because we still associate sex-even within marriage-with impurity, lust, and sin. The institutional church has much to answer for that. We do not believe that sex between loving, consensual, blessed partners is sinful, nor do we believe that sexual desire is something to be squelched and denied, as it is one of God’s many gifts. 

The papyrus in question is probably more interesting in how it describes Jesus relating to women in terms of their ministry: the phrases, "Mary is worthy of it...", "She will be my disciple...", and "..as for me, I dwell with her in order to.." hint at an elevated presence for women beyond what traditional Christianity has accorded them.

Now, you can go to many of the extra-canonical texts to find heightened roles for women-the Gospel of Mary and the Acts of Paul and Thekla are available online. But I don't think you need to look that far. Within the canon of our own New Testament, when you really study it and try to unburden it from 1900 years of interpretation specifically to diminish the authority and role of women, there emerges a picture of Jesus (and even Paul!) that places both men at the center of a movement of empowering, admiring, and engaging women as equals:

The Hebrew word "messiah," which is translated as "Christ" in the Greek, means "anointed one." The person who anoints Jesus and literally makes him the Messiah/Christ, is a woman in all four gospels. In all four gospels, it is the women who are at the cross, and who first encounter the empty tomb, and carry the message of the resurrection to the male disciples. Many of Paul's authentic letters are addressed to women, who were clearly among the leaders of the churches he founded.

If you'd like to learn more, a webinar on the papyrus with the Rev. Dr. Katherine Shaner and Dr. Deirdre Good of the General Theological Seminary will soon be available for replay at www.gts.edu. Dr. Shaner will be teaching two Sundays later this fall on the book of Revelation, so you can also ask her questions directly then. For more information on non-canonical gospels and the communities who wrote them, Dr. Karen King's The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle is available on Amazon, as is Dr. Elaine Pagels' Beyond Belief: the Secret Gospel of Thomas.

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