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
Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.