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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The campaign to keep Britain in Europe must be based on hope, not fear

Together we can show the world a generous, outward-facing Britain we can all be proud of.

Today the Liberal Democrats launched our national campaign to keep Britain in Europe. With the polls showing the outcome of this referendum is on a knife-edge, our party is determined to play a decisive role in this once in a generation fight. This will not be an easy campaign. But it is one we will relish as the UK's most outward-looking and internationalist party. Together in Europe the UK has delivered peace, created the world’s largest free trade area and given the British people the opportunity to live, work and travel freely across the continent. Now is the time to build on these achievements, not throw them all away.

Already we are hearing fear-mongering from both sides in this heated debate. On the one hand, Ukip and the feuding Leave campaigns have shamelessly seized on the events in Cologne at New Year to claim that British women will be at risk if the UK stays in Europe. On the other, David Cameron claims that the refugees he derides as a "bunch of migrants" in Calais will all descend on the other side of the Channel the minute Britain leaves the EU. The British public deserve better than this. Rather than constant mud-slinging and politicising of the world's biggest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War, we need a frank and honest debate about what is really at stake. Most importantly this should be a positive campaign, one that is fought on hope and not on fear. As we have a seen in Scotland, a referendum won through scare tactics alone risks winning the battle but losing the war.

The voice of business and civil society, from scientists and the police to environmental charities, have a crucial role to play in explaining how being in the EU benefits the British economy and enhances people's everyday lives. All those who believe in Britain's EU membership must not be afraid to speak out and make the positive case why being in Europe makes us more prosperous, stable and secure. Because at its heart this debate is not just about facts and figures, it is about what kind of country we want to be.

The Leave campaigns cannot agree what they believe in. Some want the UK to be an offshore, deregulated tax haven, others advocate a protectionist, mean-hearted country that shuts it doors to the world. As with so many populist movements, from Putin to Trump, they are defined not by what they are for but what they are against. Their failure to come up with a credible vision for our country's future is not patriotic, it is irresponsible.

This leaves the field open to put forward a united vision of Britain's place in Europe and the world. Liberal Democrats are clear what we believe in: an open, inclusive and tolerant nation that stands tall in the world and doesn't hide from it. We are not uncritical of the EU's institutions. Indeed as Liberals, we fiercely believe that power must be devolved to the lowest possible level, empowering communities and individuals wherever possible to make decisions for themselves. But we recognise that staying in Europe is the best way to find the solutions to the problems that don't stop at borders, rather than leaving them to our children and grandchildren. We believe Britain must put itself at the heart of our continent's future and shape a more effective and more accountable Europe, focused on responding to major global challenges we face.

Together in Europe we can build a strong and prosperous future, from pioneering research into life-saving new medicines to tackling climate change and fighting international crime. Together we can provide hope for the desperate and spread the peace we now take for granted to the rest of the world. And together we can show the world a generous, outward-facing Britain we can all be proud of. So if you agree then join the Liberal Democrat campaign today, to remain in together, and to stand up for the type of Britain you think we should be.