When I was young, there wasn’t a lot of talk about Jesus’s domestic life. It was assumed that if he’d been given the short-form census, he’d have checked the box that said, “deity made flesh, saviour of man, lives alone.”
Even when I went to visit my great-aunt Sister Mildred – who was, in the parlance of the times, a “bride of Christ” – there was no discussion of Jesus’s living arrangements. We’d talk about the depravity of miniskirts and why only prophets should wear beards and whether our uncovered heads were an affront to God, but it would have been unimaginable to ask her, “Sister Mildred, what if Jesus had a wife? Apart from you, of course.”
It’s still taboo to consider that this most exceptional man might have been unexceptional in that regard, and that there might well have been a Mrs. Jesus. This week, Harvard divinity professor Karen L. King unveiled a controversial document at a scholarly conference in Rome. It was a 1,600-year-old bit of papyrus (described by Smithsonian Magazine as “a shade smaller than an ATM card”), on which were several sentence fragments written in Coptic. One of them was translated as, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife’ ” and other fragments said, “she will be able to be my disciple” and “I dwell with her.” The name Mary was also mentioned.
In the brouhaha that followed, Dr. King made it clear that she did not view this as proof that there was once a nice couple down the road called the Christs, but instead that some early Christians at least entertained the possibility that their saviour might not have always led a celibate life.
As she told Smithsonian Magazine, the bit of text should cause soul-searching among thoughtful Christians: “Why is it that only the literature that said he was celibate survived?” she asked the magazine’s Ariel Sabar. “And all of the texts that showed he had an intimate relationship with Magdalene or is married didn’t survive? Is that 100-per-cent happenstance? Or is it because of the fact that celibacy becomes the ideal for Christianity?” Dr. King is set to publish her findings in the Harvard Theological Review, in a paper called “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.”
I don’t know about you, but I find the phrase Jesus’s Wife pretty fertile territory. Imagine a little one-bedroom above a sheep pen, where the metaphysical and marital live uncomfortably side by side. Mary is furious: “You expect me to feed how many people with five loaves and two fishes?” And then, as Jesus stomps out, “Fine! Be a martyr! Go hang out with your annoying friends who think you’re so great … But show me how to use the new papyrus before you go.” In my head it’s all a bit Ricky and Lucy go to Galilee, which is perhaps why I’m not an ordained minister.
I think we’ll know the day Dr. King publishes her paper by the steam rising from the Vatican. The Catholic Church, to be diplomatic, has not embraced the idea that Christ may have had a wife, even when the suggestion was buried between the lurid covers of an airport bestseller. Church authorities denounced the publication of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, a thriller that argues (spoiler alert for the last person in Papua New Guinea who hasn’t read it) that Christ and Mary Magdalene were married, and that their descendants include a chic French policewoman. The church also called for a boycott of the film adaptation, with one cardinal calling it “a sack full of lies against the church … against Christ himself.”
It wasn’t the only time fundamentalist Christians had taken umbrage at the idea of the worldly Jesus: Around the world, protests greeted Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ, which briefly shows a sex scene between Christ and Mary Magdalene, whom he has married in a dying fantasy. It was banned in certain countries, and in Paris several people watching the movie were hurt in an arson attack launched by people who had never taken Irony 101: Molotov cocktails in defence of the prince of peace.
It’s odd to think that the suggestion that Christ had a loving human relationship is a slur against him. For the people who are deeply invested in protecting his name, perhaps it seems to diminish him in some way, to dilute his divinity. Fundamentally rethinking the human Christ would mean rethinking practices carried on in his name. Even Dr. King admits that the papyrus she’s studying offers no proof that Jesus was married – but there’s also no proof he was not. There was a lamb of God. Who’s to say there wasn’t a ewe, too?