Was Jesus Married?

“The marriage of ­­ Jesus and Mary Magdalene,” declares the character Leigh Teabing in the The Da Vinci Code, “is part of the historical record.”

Drawing from Holy Blood, Holy Grail, one of his main sources, novelist Dan Brown then has Teabing explain that Jesus, as a Jewish man, would undoubtedly have been married since “Jewish custom” condemned celibacy. Readers are told the evidence for such a marriage is found in the Gnostic “Gospel of Philip,” which apparently depicts Jesus kissing Mary Magdalene on the mouth.

Is this a marriage made in heaven or simply a marriage of fictional convenience? Some have said that it doesn’t matter. After all, if Jesus were married, wouldn’t it merely indicate that he really was fully human?

There are serious problems with this line of reasoning. First, if Jesus was married, it means the Church got it wrong, and has been teaching falsehood for 2,000 years. And if the Church is wrong about this key fact, what other errors might she be promoting? In addition, Christianity is based on the important belief that Jesus — fully human and fully divine — committed himself completely to the task of bringing about the Kingdom of God through his words, life, death and resurrection. This single-minded devotion would be difficult to square with the cares and demands of marriage, especially if Jesus understood, as he did, that he would end up dying at Golgotha.

Besides, the New Testament contains no references to Jesus being married to Mary Magdalene or any other woman. The Da Vinci Code insists that if Jesus were not married, “at least one of the Bible’s Gospels would have mentioned it and offered some explanation for his unnatural state of bachelorhood.” But the assumption that first-century Judaism viewed celibacy as unnatural is incorrect. It was not unheard of for a Jew to abstain from marriage for religious reasons. The prophet Jeremiah was directed by God to remain unmarried (Jeremiah 16:1-2), and Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, was apparently unmarried. During the time of Christ there were Jewish groups embracing celibacy, notably the Essenes, who had members who remained unmarried.

A variation on this argument is that since Jesus was a rabbi, he had to be married since single rabbis were unheard of in first-century Palestine. But Jesus did not hold any official position nor was he formally trained. In Mark’s Gospel the chief priests and the scribes ask Jesus, “By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority to do them?” (Mark 11:28), and John’s Gospel depicts the Jews as marveling and asking, “How is it that this man has learning when he has never studied?” (John 7:15). The term rabbi (literally, “my great one”) was used honorifically, but the title of “rabbi” was used much more loosely in Judaism prior to the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. The use of that title for an official teacher or scholar took on a more exact and structured meaning in the late first century, when the local synagogue became the focus of Jewish worship, thus changing the role of the rabbi.

Scholars have speculated that Jesus’ remark about people “who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:10-12) was made to explain the relationship between his celibate state and the Kingdom he came to establish. “He who is able to receive this”, Jesus states, “let him receive it”. This echoes a passage in Isaiah in which eunuchs who “keep my Sabbath” and “hold fast my covenant” will be blessed (Isaiah 56:3-5). The state of celibacy was strongly endorsed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 7, where he states that he wishes that “all were even as I myself am” (1 Corinthians 7:7), that is, unmarried.

Supposed evidence from the Gnostic gospels is equally lacking. The fragmented text of the “Gospel of Philip” describes Jesus kissing Mary Magdalene. But it was written many decades after the canonical Gospels, perhaps as late as the third century, raising serious questions about its historical reliability. This is especially the case since the Gnostics had little concern for historical fact in their writings. When asked why he loves Mary more than the disciples, the Gnostic Jesus didn’t speak of marital motives, but of Mary’s spiritual insight into his teaching. Another Gnostic text, “The (Second) Apocalypse of James” described Jesus kissing James on the mouth and calling him, “My beloved!” This was a non-sexual act demonstrating James’ privileged position as one who is given gnosis (secret, saving knowledge). These kisses, in their Gnostic context, likely symbolize the gift of spiritual insight from the teacher to the disciple.

Paul compares the marriage relationship of husband and wife to that of Christ and his bride, the Church. If Jesus had been married it makes no sense for such an analogy to be employed. Yet the Church, from the beginning, taught that Jesus is the bridegroom (Matthew 9:15; Mark 2:19) who has taken as his bride the Church, as the final book of the Bible describes beautifully: “Let us rejoice and be glad and give the glory to him, for the marriage of the Lamb has come and his bride has made herself ready. … And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues, came and spoke with me, saying, “Come here, I shall show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:7).

Carl E. Olson is the co-author, with Sandra Miesel, of The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code (www.davincihoax.com), published by Ignatius Press.