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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.