The discussion on whether Jesus was married has been a fairly common one of late, but not a discussion where the side supporting his having been married has much evidence, so I was understandably surprised when my Facebook news feed featured an article from the Huffington Post entitled “Jesus’ Marriage to Mary the Magdalene Is Fact, Not Fiction”. I clicked the article, of course, thinking that they must have some new evidence if they are going to make such an extreme claim on the topic.
The arguments I found within the article were not only bad, but at times plainly false. We will examine these arguments together to demonstrate this.
What’s The Deal With Attis
Attis’ story is weird. His father, Agdistis, had two sets of genitals, male and female. The other deities feared Agdistis and solved this problem by cutting off his male genitals and casting them to the ground. They grew into an almond tree, the fruit of which was used by a Nymph named Nana to impregnate herself. The offspring was Attis, and as he grew up, Cybele (A goddess who was likely Agdistis, so this is kinda incesty) falls in love with him, but he is shipped off to wed the daughter of a King. Cybele is displeased, she shows up in all her power and it drives Attis mad, so he cuts off his own genital. She repents later and, as he is dying, she ensures his body will not decay, many stories indicate this was done by turning him into a pine tree. It is also worth noting that, for a time and in some mythologies, he was a shepherd.
Where does HuffPo’s article go astray? Well, first of all, this is perhaps the most inaccurate representation of events that I have ever seen:
Attis had a great love in his life, Cybele. On their wedding night, Attis decided to make the supreme sacrifice and offer his testicles on the altar of his love. He surprised his virgin bride by castrating himself.
He was not set to marry Cybele, he didn’t sacrifice his testicles “on the altar of his love”. This point in the article features the author simply making things up. The Galli, the priests who emasculated themselves, did so to honor the memory of Attis, who ended up passing away. Perhaps one could argue that this was a display of his love for Cybele, a “this isn’t what it looks like, I know I am going to marry her but these will always be yours” or something silly, but the story attributes it to madness in the face of Cybele’s glory, and not only this celibacy not a positive, Cybele feels bad about how harsh it was later.
Another bizarre error made by HuffPo is their conclusion that “Paul’s Jesus looked a lot like Attis” on the basis of the shepherd analogy. It is a good analogy, a lot of important people in Jewish history were shepherds, and there are multiple places in the Old Testament where God is called a shepherd (Ezekiel 34, Psalm 23) as well as King David himself (2 Samuel 5:2). These images were not “incorporated” into “Paul’s Jesus”, they were existing images from the Old Testament. Similarly, the idea of a death and resurrection being something Paul brought in from Attis dishonestly misconstrues the nature of Attis’ “resurrection”, which was nothing like Jesus’. These two things do not justify the assertion made that Paul was bringing in ideas from Attis, especially since Paul was raised as a Jew, not as a worshiper of Attis, and there is no reason to believe his attitude would have differed from the general Jewish opinion of pagan deities (far from positive). Keep in mind that this is a man who dedicated a segment of his life to hunting down and killing a group of people who were leading Jews away from what he perceived to be “the true God” and it is just very strange to suggest that the city of his birth is sufficient evidence to conclude that he had this kind of fondness for Attis.
While Paul does encourage celibacy, he is very careful to ensure that others know that it is his personal opinion, not God’s. He says so before every such declaration. Paul believed the second coming of Christ was imminent, and believed that anything that distracted people from getting the word out was a hindrance with so little time. His opinion regarding celibacy makes far more sense if you simply consider this worldview. Furthermore, the story of Attis is not one supporting celibacy, it is about a deity who was two timing his lover, and that lover using her power to cause him to cut them off in madness. Unlike Paul’s actual second-coming-centric worldview, there is nothing in the worship of Attis that would encourage genital-intact celibacy. The fact that Paul portrays castration as a negative in Galatians 5 is, from where I sit, the final straw that breaks the camel’s back of the “Attis” section of this article.
Mary Magdalene Seeking To Anoint Dead Jesus
The article goes on to argue that it is impossible that a female who was not family would be allowed to anoint the body as described in Mark 16:1. Unfortunately for HuffPo, there is nothing in ancient Jewish tradition to that effect, and no reason to believe that they would have been as squeemish about such things as we are in the modern era. You can read the Talmudic rundown on this process in the tractate Shabbat, here, and the process is something done by people who respect the dead out of respect for the dead. If HuffPo’s claim here were true it would beg the question of who exactly the other woman in the story, Salome, was, and what she was doing there. Traditional views hold that this woman was not, in any way, related to Jesus, and some have argued that she is related to Herod, but what matters here is that there is no evidence she is a relative of Jesus. Mary M. being there to wash the body is not evidence of her being married to him, it is just evidence of him having been important to her.
The article makes the claim that the gospels found at Nag Hammadi “all” tell of a married Jesus. I can only assume that what the author meant was that one, the Gospel of Philip, had some verses that indicated they might have been married. Scholars generally pin the date of this text at between 150 and 350 AD, often favoring the third century, making this a relatively late text to use as a source for something that contradicts all known previous works on the topic. Furthermore, the text is filled with gaps, and people arguing that it claims that Jesus had a romantic relationship with Mary dishonestly fill in those gaps to indicate so. The actual text we have says:
“And the companion of the S[avior . . .] Mary Magdalene [ . . . loved] her more than [all] the disciples [and used to] kiss her [often] on her [ . . . ]”
The …s are all gaps where we do not know what the words were. Only the stuff outside of the brackets is written, the rest is inferred. Given the lateness of the text and the vagueness of its reference, using it to claim that Jesus’ marriage to Mary Magdalene is “fact” is dishonest.
More than this, for his Gnostic followers, Jesus’ marriage and sexual activity was more important than his death and resurrection. Simply put, they were more interested in his passion in bed than in his “Passion” on the cross.
This is perhaps one of the most shockingly uneducated statements made in the whole of the text. None of these texts detail Jesus having sex, and many Gnostics shunned the material body as the Creation of the evil Demiurge. Some sects of Gnostic Christianity even held that sex was sinful because it pleased the body, while others believed that the issue with chastity was that enforcing it on one’s self drew one’s mind to the body too much. Many gnostics were also docetists, and believed Jesus did not have a real physical body at all. A brief knowledge of who the Gnostics were should rebut the idea that they were super focused on Jesus’ sexual activities, but even without that knowledge, it is a fact that none of the texts at Nag Hammadi detail the sexual activities of Jesus (although the Gnostics were known for using sexual imagery at times to describe theological concepts). This author is lying to you.
But they found Jesus’ family tomb!
This view of the finding has been rebutted by legitimate scholars left and right. You can read some thorough responses to this claim here and here. There is dispute over whether the worn name even says “Jesus” (a scholar in one of the links I provided thinks it looks more like “Hanun or something”) and a lot of reason to believe that this does not refer to our Jesus. Amos Kloner, one of the first to examine the tomb upon its discovery, rejected the idea that this was the New Testament Jesus, saying that the people making a “documentary” were “using it to sell their film” (I just realized that the author of this article is also the maker of the film).
The Sixth Century Syriac Document
This text is about the Biblical Joseph and his Biblical wife Aseneth. Those are their names in the Bible. There is nothing in the text or in related Gnostic scripture to indicate that this is covertly a story about Jesus, and the actual story found within the text is nothing like the story of Jesus. The author of this HuffPo article is one of a handful of scholars that hold that this is a 4th or 5th century Christian work derived from a 1st or 2nd century Jewish tradition. If this is true, then it would not make sense for the original tradition to be based on Christ, even if the (very late) Christian reworking is. Rendering it irrelevant to this discussion, especially given the lack of specificity and the general scholarly near-consensus that this is a Jewish work with no necessary connection to Jesus.
Wouldn’t A First Century Rabbi Like Jesus Have Been Married?
Contrary to “common knowledge”, it actually wasn’t that weird for a Rabbi in his early 30s to be unmarried. As David Bivin points out:
A bachelor rabbi functioning within Jewish society of the first century was not as abnormal as it might first appear. Rabbis often spent many years far from home, first as students and then as itinerant teachers. It was not uncommon for such men to marry in their late thirties or forties. Just as some students today wait to marry until they finish their education, so there were disciples and even rabbis who postponed marriage until later in life. One such rabbi was Rabban Gamaliel, the grandson of Rabban Gamaliel the Elder, the apostle Paul’s teacher (Acts 22:3; 5:34). As the following story shows, the younger Gamaliel was already a rabbi and already had disciples before he married: A bridegroom is exempt from reciting the Shema on the first night of his marriage…. When Rabban Gamaliel married he recited the Shema on the first night. His disciples said to him: “Master, didn’t you teach us that a bridegroom is exempt from reciting the Shema on the first night?” “I will not listen to you,” he replied, “so as to cast off from myself the Kingdom of Heaven even for a moment.”3
Jesus died at an age that was young enough that it would not have been at all weird or noteworthy for him to have been unmarried. A traveling Rabbi of this era had a lot on his plate and it often made sense to them to wait a bit before tackling the additional responsibilities of marriage and child-rearing.
The article has failed to provide any true evidence for Jesus having been married, yet it is circulating as something worthwhile. We, as a society, need to be better about not allowing ourselves to be persuaded by any article that happens to cross our news feed without fact checking. Such laziness allows authors like this one to make a living peddling misinformation, which is not cool.
That said, I am glad I was able to put this issue to rest.