Was Jesus married? This question came prominently into public discussion recently due to the discovery of an allegedly ancient Coptic fragment that speaks of Jesus’ wife.
The historical accuracy of the fragment is still under debate, but as Catholics, we should be able to look at the question from what we know about Jesus from the Church. The Church has definitively taught throughout the ages that Jesus was in fact celibate.
Pope Paul VI makes this clear when speaking of priestly celibacy: "Wholly in accord with this mission, Christ remained throughout his whole life in the state of celibacy, which signified his total dedication to the service of God and men (Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, 21).
Catholic theology can help us as Catholics to know why Jesus was in fact celibate. It is not simply a question of historical fact, though this is important, but also a question of Jesus’ identity as God incarnate and as Savior of the world.
Looking at the nature of marriage and the nature of Jesus’ mission should show us that it was fitting for Jesus not to have been married.
Marriage links a man and a woman together in an exclusive bond by which they become one and share a common mission to help sanctify the other spouse and to raise children for the service of God.
The Church defines marriage as follows: "The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring; this covenant between baptized persons has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament" (Catechism, 1601).
This is clearly a partnership of two human beings that need each other’s help to advance in holiness and to build up the Kingdom of God on earth through the good of procreation. It entails a mission focused primarily on one person (which includes the family) and linked to the realization of marital and family goods on earth.
While marriage is certainly a blessing to humanity, both naturally and sacramentally, the question still remains as to whether marriage would be fitting for Jesus.
Fittingness has been used by many theologians, from the Fathers of the Church to the present time, to understand how God acts in the best and most perfect way. Christ’s life reflects this fittingness in that his actions and the events of his life are meant to reflect his Divine life and his mission as Savior of the world. Since Jesus is God, he could not enter into an earthly union of equality with a human being, and such union would have limited the scope of his universal mission.
To draw out these points further, I will offer a series of short points to support the fittingness of Jesus’ celibacy.
First, Scripture is very clear that Jesus’ mission focuses on two points: total obedience to the Father — "For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me" (John 6:38) — and giving his life for the salvation of humanity — "For the Son of man also came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45).
Jesus did not come to earth to contract a union with one particular person, but, through his complete and total obedience to the Father, to demonstrate how we all should order our lives to the Father — and through this obedience to save the world. The exclusive nature of marriage would have focused his will and action within a narrower scope.
Second, the Church’s teaching on celibacy affirms that giving up the good of marriage affirms the priority of being ordered completely toward God. This strengthens the nature of Jesus’ mission and affirms the importance of priests and religious following in his footsteps.
Blessed Pope John Paul II explains the teaching this way: "The consecrated life proclaims and in a certain way anticipates the future age, when the fullness of the Kingdom of heaven, already present in its first fruits and in mystery, will be achieved and when the children of the resurrection will take neither wife nor husband, but will be like the angels of God" (Matthew 22:30) (Vita Consecrata, 32).
Both Paul, in 1 Corinthians 7, and Jesus himself, in Matthew 19:10-12, recognize the importance of celibacy in focusing on the Kingdom of God above all else.
Third, Jesus’ mission as Savior is based upon the reality of the Incarnation, the Son of God becoming man. We could ask whether Jesus as the Son of God could actually have entered into a marriage with a human person. Jesus, who had a full and complete humanity, was not, however, a human person, but a Divine person.
In marriage, we see two free and equal human beings coming together to form a union as one flesh. Would a marriage of Jesus and a human person really accomplish the goal of marriage: to unite two human beings in marital goods such as the raising of children, mutual support and increase in holiness?
No human being would be equal to an earthly marriage with a Divine person and could not communicate and cooperate with this person with commensurability and mutual exchange.
Fourth, there is the difficulty of the children who would result from this marriage. Not only would this be a sign of a narrower focus for Jesus’ mission (the attention needed to raise children) and contradict the spiritual priority of celibacy, it would also create an ambiguous and dangerous position for the children.
Jesus came to lead all humanity into a spiritual adoption, which enables us to share in his sonship to the Father. Physical sonship would obscure this mission and create descendants who could claim a pseudo-divine status, which could easily be used for improper purposes, based on their physical descent from Jesus.
Rather than placing the focus on his otherworldly mission — "My Kingdom is not of this world" (John 18:36) — physical descendants would place emphasis on the material continuation of an earthly bloodline.
Finally, we see Jesus’ mission culminating in a spiritual marriage with the Church. This spiritual marriage required an earthly and physical celibacy, so that Christ’s gift would be complete to his bride.
Though I speak of it as a spiritual marriage, the Church is called the body of Christ because she is even one flesh with him. This is the scope of his mission: to be the Bridegroom (John 3:29) not to one woman, but to his bride, the Church, which is meant to include all of humanity.
This is a complete union of mind (in faith) and body (the Eucharist), which is meant to produce offspring (baptism) as the Church grows in number. Paul shows us that this marriage was contracted not in the normal human fashion, but through Christ’s giving "himself up for her, that he might sanctify her" (Ephesians 5:25-26). In this passage, Paul makes clear that the sanctity and sacramental nature of Christian marriage flows precisely from Jesus’ marriage to his bride, the Church.
To conclude, Jesus was actually married to the Church, but this marriage was not of the kind envisioned and popularized in our culture today. Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code is an example of how modern culture wants to limit Jesus in both his identity and mission, and the presentation of the papyrus fragment is another opportunity to do so.
As Catholics, we can look to our faith in Jesus, his identity as the Son of God and his mission as Savior of the world for certainty in affirming Jesus’ celibacy. While historical discussion of the fragment will remain important, Catholics need to draw on the theology of the Church to give "a defense to anyone who calls you to account" (1 Peter 3:15) in relation to what we believe about Christ.
R. Jared Staudt is the academic dean and assistant professor of theology and catechesis
at the Augustine Institute in Greenwood Village, Colorado.