Was Jesus married?

Perhaps if the Son of God had had a wife, Christianity would be a bit less hung up about sex.

It would be fascinating to know more about Jesus. Few human beings have greater historical significance, and probably no one of comparable importance lived a life of such obscurity and left so little in the way of material for biographers.

Of course, the Gospels provide enough information to satisfy most Christians. They record (or appear to) those aspects of his career that matter most from a religious perspective - his parables, his miracles, the names of his leading disciples, some birth stories, above all the great drama of his trial and crucifixion. Enough sense of a personality emerges from the four canonical gospels to create the illusion of an historical Jesus about whom the essential facts are known. We can surmise that he liked wine and fish sandwiches, was sometimes rude to his mother and was a compelling enough speaker to draw large crowds to hear him preach.

But a vast amount is simply not there. We don't know what he was doing for the first thirty years of his life, what he looked like (even though we all think we know what he looked like) or what prompted him to chuck in the carpentry - though even the carpentry is tradition rather than a matter of historical record - and hit the road as a would-be Messiah. We know nothing at all about his personal life. To a modern world that hates mystery and wants to know everything about everybody, this can be very frustrating.

The desire to know more, or even anything, about this pivotal figure fuels endless speculation and an ever-growing deluge of books, which range from the scholarly to the ridiculous. A personal favourite (in the nuttiness stakes) is the theory devised in the late 1960s by Dead Sea Scrolls scholar that Jesus was a mushroom. A hallucinogenic mushroom, indeed. His basic idea was that the early Christians were a sect of drug-takers who had visions of the God while high on a fungus-based hallucinogen, which they came to personify as the "Son of God". The mushroom's phallic shape was of some consequence here.

The paucity of real evidence allows for such wild speculation. And it guarantees headlines for any scrap of new material that emerges. The latest fragment of papyrus to hit the news would be particularly sensational if true, suggesting as it does that Jesus was married. Unveiled earlier this week by Professor Karen King of Harvard Divinity School, the passage appears to come from a lost gospel and contains the words "Jesus said... my wife". That does not, needless to say, prove that Jesus actually had a wife. Even if genuine (and this is contested), it dates from the 4th century, far too late to provide historical proof of events that took place three hundred years earlier. That would still be true even if, as King believes, the text draws on material closer in time to Jesus' own.

But it does show one thing, and that is highly significant, if not entirely unprecedented. It shows that there was an early tradition - perhaps later than the canonical Gospels, but still early - that Jesus was married. It matters that Jesus' marital state was something that early Christians had differing views about, not because it proves anything in itself, but because it sheds light on how Christianity developed, how the concept of Jesus as a divine saviour emerged and, perhaps, how the religion ended up with a conflicted and rather contradictory attitude towards sex.

We will almost certainly never know the truth. What might provide convincing evidence for a married Jesus? Short of an authenticated letter from Pontius Pilate saying, "I felt really sorry for the man's wife", probably nothing. The main evidence to the contrary is the absence of any reference in the Gospels to a wife. This is still absence of evidence rather than evidence of absence.  But given that his mother is mentioned, it would seem to be a remarkable omission, requiring explanation. The explanation beloved of conspiracy theorists and, thanks to Dan Brown, widely known, is of course that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene - they even had children - but that the evidence was suppressed by the Church, perhaps because the existence of Jesus' descendants would have provided an alternative centre of allegiance for Christians or raised awkward theological questions. (For example: If Jesus was divine, as Christianity teaches, would his children and grandchildren share in that divinity?)

There are actually more plausible reasons why Bible might be silent about the wife of Jesus, perhaps the most likely being that she was dead and thus had no part to play in the story. Jesus began his ministry at around the age of thirty. It would have been unusual at that time and in that culture for him to have been unmarried at that age, but not at all unusual, sadly, for him to be a young widower. Many women died in childbirth. One might even speculate that such a tragedy precipitated a spiritual crisis that led him to believe that he had been called by God, and that his wife and child had been taken from him in order that he might pursue his ministry free of any human ties.

Jesus' presumed status as a celibate has been the source of a lot of trouble for Christianity down the centuries. While the man himself is recorded in as affirming marriage, since ancient times there has been an unfortunate tendency to see his virginity as bound up with his purity and his perfection as the Son of God. Hence the implication that marriage and family life are somehow second best; that a truly dedicated follower of Christ would abjure all that and devote themselves to God. The celibacy of monks and nuns, and of the Catholic priesthood, follows from that. Worst of all, it suggests that sex itself is defiling: that Jesus (and, for Catholics and Orthodox Christians, his mother) were pure because they were virgins.

It's hard to escape the conclusion that if Jesus had been married - or known to have been married - Christianity might be a bit less hung up about sex.

 

An actor plays Jesus in a passion play in Trafalgar Square in London. Photograph: Getty Images
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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.