An enigma that has been explored repeatedly over the years, both in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and in Christianity more broadly, is the marital status of Jesus of Nazareth. There is little to reliably indicate either way in the established canon of the New Testament, but that hadn’t stopped people from discussing the topic. And in organizations like the Church that emphasize marriage, there are some theological reasons to want to say that he was indeed a married man. In a recent interview over at the Latter-day Saint history and theology blog From the Desk, Christopher Blythe discussed the issue in connection with a recent article published in BYU Studies. What follows here is a copost to that interview.
In addressing how Latter-day Saints have approached the question “was Jesus married?” over the years, Blythe described how it has shifted within the Church.
It’s a little more complicated when you talk about whether Jesus was married.
Historically, the question has gone through an evolutionary process:
- First, there was a wide consensus among Latter-day Saints that Jesus was married.
- Then, there was a wide consensus that he was married (but we should not speak about it).
- And finally, it was thought that the answer is unknowable and individual Latter-day Saints might take either position.
For me, this essay belongs in the book because it shows that even when a doctrine is privately held by general authorities, that does not mean it’s is an “official” doctrine of the Church. After all, how can a doctrine be official if it should not be discussed?
It’s a good point that official doctrine is not always based on everything general authorities have said, with this being a clear example of an area that the Church does not have a position on, but on which General Authorities have expressed their views. He added that:
So far as I have been able to find, no general authority has suggested that the Savior was not married. Instead, there has been an emphasis in official and apologetic writings that this has not been revealed to us.
That being said, there has been some discussion of the subject that led to the “wide consensus among Latter-day Saints that Jesus was married,” particularly early on. For example:
Brigham Young seems to have first suggested that Jesus was married in 1847. He told his listeners that the scene of Mary washing the Savior’s feet was exactly like how other women would come meet their husbands after the resurrection. This idea of the unification of wife and husband at the resurrection (as well as other family members) was a recurring element in the sermons of Brigham Young. And before him, the discourses of Joseph Smith.
Hence, it is viewed as a subject that has not been definitively answered as things stand.
Why does this topic get coverage more broadly outside of the Church? Blythe brought up a few reasons that he sees:
It’s a fascinating question tied into larger puzzles about the “historical Jesus.” I think questions of Jesus’ marital status have been provoked by the discovery of the Gospel of Philip in 1945. As you might remember, Philip included a much debated, incomplete, and enigmatic passage about Jesus kissing Mary.
In the 1980s, speculative history works such as Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln’s, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail inspired additional interest in the topic. Of course, a similar argument drawing on the pseudo history of Holy Blood and Holy Grail and the passage from the Gospel of Philip provide the backbone for Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code.
More recently, a forged manuscript nicknamed the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife brought more attention to the subject.
A recent book about the forgery by Ariel Sabar entitled Veritas makes an interesting argument that the subject receives so much attention because of Roman Catholicism’s emphasis on celibacy. While I do not think anyone can know about Jesus’ marital status without associated claims of revelation, I must admit the discussion has always fascinated me since I first picked up Holy Blood and Holy Grail as a high school student.
Statements in artifacts (authentic or forged) that allude to romantic interest in Jesus’s life, popular books sharing theories on the topic, and theological implications for major religious organizations all play into the interest around the issue of Jesus’s marital status. (As an aside, at least one author has pointed out similarities between the “discovery” of the alleged Gospel of Jesus’ Wife and the introduction of Mark Hofmann’s forgeries, adding another area of discussion for interested Latter-day Saints.)
Now, there have been a number of suggestions of reasons for why Jesus could have been married. One is that for Latter-day Saints, marriage is necessary for exaltation, so if Jesus is the example of an exalted being then he would logically be married. Another is that the Hebrew culture of Jesus’ time would have expected Him to have been married. When asked about the latter point, however, Blythe responded that:
I’m not a scholar of ancient Hebrew culture. However, this has been a traditional argument in favor of Jesus having been married. Later scholars in the church, such as Trevan Hatch, have noted that there was a tradition of mystics and others who were celibate.
I will say that I was surprised when I started studying about early Christianity at just how much literature there was that indicated that a celibate lifestyle was the ideal, with stories about Thecla (a female convert featured in stories about Paul’s ministry) or Thomas the Apostle in India preaching and modeling celibate lifestyles being a couple major examples. So, from a historical standpoint, there is a distinct possibility that Jesus may not have been married.
In any case, we don’t really know whether Jesus was married or not. But, there is more of the interview with Christopher Blythe over at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, so feel free to head on over to read it in full.