The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife: Update and Thoughts from a Rabbi

The story of the papyrus fragment labelled “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” has taken some significant turns in the week since the news of it was first reported. While the jury is still out regarding the authenticity of this document, it is important to note that there are significant questions in this regard. A recent post by Dr. James McGrath offers a roundup on this score. In my view, this aspect of the story is beneficial because it helps the larger public see how scholarship is conducted. Academics do not offer carefully worded statements simply to be opaque but rather because they appreciate that establishing certainty and fact can at times require time, effort, and careful investigation. In a context in which many governments seem eager to lay the axe to funding humanities programs in colleges and universities, offering a public example of how such disciplines go about their work is a good thing.

Another key aspect of the discussion about this papyrus is it returns attention to the historical Jesus and his Jewish context. A common trope is that it would have been out of the ordinary for a Jewish male not to have been married in the first century. On his blog, Tony Jones posted a guest opinion by Rabbi Joseph Edelheit in which he argued that divergence between Jews and Christians about the marital status of Jesus offers an opportunity for dialogue. Edelheit argues that Jews would assume the marital status of Jesus because of his identity as a Jew but Christians focus on Jesus as the risen and incarnate Messiah for whom marriage is not a possibility. He urges Jews to understand that when they engage with Christians, they are talking to believers whose faith is located in but transcends history. “But if the rabbi wants to understand how Christians must intellectually multi-task, having both a Jesus in history and a Christ beyond history, then listening might be the best tactic.” This suggests a divide that must be crossed in dialogue.

While I am sympathetic to what Edelheit is up to in terms of encouraging dialogue, I wonder about some of the underpinnings of his argument. Is it a priori that Christian faith requires a celibate Jesus?  More important for the work I do in Jewish-Christian relations, he seems to assume that it is appropriate for Christians to abandon belief in Jesus as a first-century Jew and maintain a belief in the Christ beyond history. There has been much work in Christian circles to retrieve the Jewish Jesus and we have only just begun to sort through the theological implications of this move. I would prefer that the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” move us to more deeply consider the Jewish context of Jesus than assume that it is rightly abandoned by Christian theology.

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10 Comments

Filed under Early Christianity, Gospel of Jesus's Wife

10 responses to “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife: Update and Thoughts from a Rabbi

  1. Katja Vehlow

    I wonder if many Jews aren’t uncomfortable with a Jesus who is on the one hand seen as Jewish, but also as a messianic figure; that is, recognizably Jewish on the one hand, but also recognizably Christian.

  2. I was a bit startled by the assertion that Jesus being married is impossible to reconcile with his role in salvation. On second thought it might be a development of the notion of the Bridegroom. But even at that I’m not sure that Jesus’ celibacy is crucial to his Messiahship.

    More interesting, and I think on the money is the issue of living in that historical/transcendent mode of thinking that at least modern Christians, with greater knowledge of historical issues, have to wrestle with. The GJW, even if shown to be a forgery, is part of that wrestling, and raises important issues.

    Thanks for this!

    • Thanks for the comments, Tobias. I too am curious about the origins of this pairing and would be eager to find out more.
      I hope to produce more on the theological implications of the Jewish Jesus. There is a lot to mull over there.

  3. Is it a priori that a Jewish identity necessitates marriage?

    • Thanks for the question, Chris. We certainly can point to some members of the Essene community as practicing celibacy, but even there that was a feature of the community but not a requirement. Based on reading New Testament and other early Jewish sources (Josephus, Mishnah), marriage was a strong norm. Celibacy would be quite rare. But at the same time, I am inclined to read the Gospel sources as indicating the celibacy of Jesus over any thing else. Little mention of a home, except in passing. Most domestic activity occurs with other people (ie, Peter; Mary, Martha and Lazarus).

  4. Pingback: Jesus’ wife between Jews and Christians « Iyyunim

  5. ‘I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife—and his interests are divided.’ (1 Cor. 7:32 – 34).

    It would not be a sin for any man to marry. However, as Paul explained, the issue in ministry is one of supreme availability for service and we should be unwillingness to speculate wildly in the absence of reliable testimony.

    Even though many of the apostles had wives, they were unaware of their role in the kingdom of God until they were called. They would have to balance their marital priorities with the calling to proclaim the gospel to ends of the earth.IN contrast, Christ is the Lord and supreme servant of mankind. Christ appeared perfectly aware of His calling from a child in the temple to an itinerant life of service and the ultimate sacrifice: ‘Jesus said unto him, Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.’ (Luke 9:58)

    Considering the demands of His itinerant ministry, His reference to ‘eunuchs for the kingdom of God’, the lack of any apostolic corroboration of His marital partner and Christ’s prioritisation of spiritual kinship over earthly kinship (“Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.”…“Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:31 – 35), it is more inductive than deductive reasoning that leads us to the conclusion that Christ was celibate.

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