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Was Jesus married?

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

An actor plays Jesus in a passion play in Trafalgar Square in London
An actor plays Jesus in a passion play in Trafalgar Square in London. Photograph: Getty Images

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.