A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, October 14, 2012
Last week I talked about Facebook as one of the two technological innovations that has drastically changed the world over the past few years. I noted that the number of Facebook users is approaching one billion, or one in every seven people now living on the earth. Some years ago, when we were still living in New York, one of my minister friends strongly encouraged me to sign on to Facebook. I really didn’t want to, but my friend convinced me that in order to reach out to the younger generations, I needed to have a Facebook presence. So, I hurriedly went in and set up a Facebook page. But I didn’t take time to answer all the questions and enter all the data that it is possible to enter. For instance, you can list your birthday, the town you live in, your hobbies and other interests, groups you are affiliated with, and so on. And you can indicate whether you are married or single or something in between. Well, when I first set up my Facebook page, I didn’t answer all those questions and enter all that data. But a few months later I went back in and added some more personal information, including the fact that I was married. Well, all my Facebook friends got a message informing them that my Facebook status had changed. The message said, “Randy Hammer’s status has changed; he is now married.” A lot of my friends got a big kick out of that and posted messages on my Facebook page saying such things as, “Mary Lou will be glad to know that!”
Now, the reason I am telling you this is to say that a couple of weeks ago it might could have been posted on Jesus’ Facebook page, “Jesus’ status has changed; he is now married.” If you missed it in the news, what I am talking about is the recent discovery of a small piece of papyrus fragment that scholars believe dates back to the fourth century. But it may be a copy of a much older document originally written in Greek but translated into Coptic (an Egyptian language), perhaps as old as the middle of the second century. The fragment contains six words that could prove to be a significant milestone in better knowing and understanding Jesus of Nazareth. And the six words are these: “Jesus said to them, My wife . . .” And the rest of the sentence is cut off. But the fragment seems to indicate that the “wife” Jesus was referring to was Mary.
Well, it is not my intention to shatter anyone’s faith. And it is not my aim to try to convince you one way or the other. Rather, my aim is just to present the facts. It needs to be stated from the get-go that the fragment has not yet been completely authenticated, though many scholars believe it to be authentic; that is, a true, fourth-century copy of a much older document. And the fragment does not serve as evidence that Jesus was in fact married. But it does offer fresh hope for those who believe Jesus probably was married. But the mere consideration of Jesus having had a wife gives rise to a number of questions:
Such as, is it even plausible that Jesus might actually have been married? Karen King, professor of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School, who revealed the fragment to the world, noted that “Christian tradition has long held that Jesus was not married, even though no reliable historical evidence exists to support that claim.” Some scholars have long contended that it would have been unusual for Jesus not to have been married. It was sort of expected in that day and time that rabbis (and Jesus was considered by many to be an itinerant rabbi and Mary Magdalene even addresses Jesus as rabbi in today’s reading) would be married. So if Jesus did not have a wife, it would have made him an anomaly. The four gospels that made it into our Christian Bible nowhere mention Jesus’ marital status. They nowhere state that Jesus was married, but neither do they state that he was not. However, other Gnostic gospels like the Gospel of Mary Magdalene do lean toward the idea that Jesus could have been married. In the Gospel of Mary Magdalene it is written that Jesus used to kiss Mary on the mouth.
And speaking of Mary Magdalene, the canonical gospels themselves offer some interesting and what I consider to be the most compelling data. We know from the gospels that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were close. There is no question about that. Two of the gospels (Matthew and Mark) cite Mary Magdalene as being one of the women who were present at the tomb of Jesus when he was buried, and all four of the gospels cite Mary Magdalene as being at the tomb on Easter morning. And as John’s gospel puts it, it was to Mary Magdalene exclusively that Jesus first appeared. Is it a coincidence that Mary Magdalene is mentioned as being so close to the tomb of Jesus, or was there a reason for it? You see, when it came time for a body to cleaned and anointed with spices for burial, only those who had some close connection to the deceased would have done so. It is unlikely, some scholars argue, that Mary Magdalene would have been present to do something so intimate, to help anoint the body of Jesus, had there not been a close familial relationship between them.
Another question: What are the ramifications for issues of human sexuality? As Karen King points out in a recent TIME magazine article, the papyrus fragment dates from a time when the “early Christians were struggling to put sexuality and marriage in their proper place. Some believers appear to have favored celibacy as a route to spiritual purity.” In other words, sometime after the beginning of Christianity, some of the church leaders got it in their heads that there was something wrong, something less than pure, with human sexuality, and if one wanted to be spiritually pure then he or she devoted his or her life to complete celibacy. Now, what’s wrong with that line of thinking? Well, first, it is in direct opposition to the creation story in the opening chapters of Genesis where human sexuality and procreation are deemed “good.” And secondly, human sexuality is the way of the universe. None of us would be here were it not for human sexuality. So for early church leaders to have said that Jesus must have been celibate to be pure or to be God’s appointed one seems to me to be flawed theology. It is believed by some that early on great efforts were exerted to cover up Jesus’ marriage to Mary Magdalene in attempts to keep him “pure,” as it were. Dan Brown touched on these matters, you may remember, in his best-selling book The Da Vinci Code. So if Jesus was indeed married, what would that say about celibacy as being the purest way of a life devoted to God, as was contended in the early centuries of the Church and as some groups, like the Shakers, have thought? Does the rationale still hold water? But the truth is, human sexuality was created to be a good thing and for Jesus to have been married would have been nothing more than fulfilling his own Jewish beliefs and heritage.
A third question: Would the fact that Jesus was married really change anything? This is really the question that needs to be addressed, isn’t it? If Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married, would it change who Jesus was, or the truth that he taught, or the way of compassion that he extolled? The Church has long contended that Jesus was authentically human. Jesus even referred to himself as “the Son of Man.” For him to have been thoroughly and authentically human, having a wife would have been the natural thing for him to do.
Regarding the nature of Jesus, I like what Universalist minister Erik Walker Wikstrom had to say about Jesus in a past issue of UU World. Wikstrom said, “Jesus must have been, first and foremost, a human being like any and every other human being who has ever lived. The difference was the depth of his faith—his trust—in God, the intimacy of his relationship with the divine, and the clarity of his awareness. . . The man we know as Jesus was so in touch with the sacred as to be as one with it, yet he was ever and always a human being.”
And I sort of like what commentator Ina Hughs had to say about the possibility of Jesus having a wife in this past Wednesday’s News Sentinel. Ina said, “Actually, I like the idea that Jesus might have been married. It does nothing to change my core beliefs or water down his message and example. Why should it? . . . . What is at the heart of the Gospels, the core message of the Christian faith, is certainly not—as I see it—disrupted by the idea that Jesus’ earthly role included that of husband.”
Perhaps you are wondering what I personally think about all of this. To be honest, I really don’t know. But I am open to the idea that Jesus could have been married to Mary Magdalene. It wouldn’t shake my faith in the least. Such would make him much more personable, I think. Someone I could much more readily relate to. But such is a question that each of us must decide for our self, and as I said earlier, I am not trying to persuade you one way or the other. My intent was just to present the facts.
But the debate regarding Jesus’ marital status will, no doubt, continue for some time to come. It may never be settled. But it does give us food for thought, doesn’t it, about early Christian debates and politics? There is so much about early Christianity that we still do not know. And it gives food for thought about issues involving human sexuality. And it gives food for thought about what it really was about Jesus that made him who he was. Amen.
Ina Hughs, Knoxville News Sentinel, October 10, 2012.
TIME magazine, October 1, 2012.
USA Today, September 19, 2012.
Erik Walker Wikstrom, UU World, Jan/Feb 2004.