This is a treatment of a sensitive subject which I feel strongly about. I've
tried to distance myself from the emotional appeals of the various arguments, and I'm sorry if this means the text is a little dry. My own views on the subject appear at the end of the article. This write-up was originally triggered by an e2 article entitled 'Was Jesus Married?', but has expanded in response both to my research for other projects, and the popularity of a certain novel.
The possibility that Jesus was married, or had a sexual relationship, is one which has been debated from very early in church history. In discussing these issues, it is very important to bear in mind what the source of each claim is, and to recognise that conjecture will predominate over provable fact a lot of the time. As the canonical gospels do not speak explicitly about the issue, claims made on it are often couched in sensational language. Assertions are often made that because a given thing is possible, but the church does not teach or believe it, it has been covered up. The dictum that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, while not in fact a principle of formal logic, is often used to attack the church. In this case, it may reasonably be aimed at the church's critics when they say there has been, or is, a conspiracy of silence about these or other issues.
Before we address the question of Jesus' marriage, and his relations with women, we should first consider the alternatives. It is entirely consistent with the canonical gospels to believe that Jesus was celibate, and did not express his love for others in any sexual way whatever. This is the default assumption for most Christians, and will be taken as such in this discussion. A further alternative which occurs perennially, but never achieves widespread currency, is that Jesus had one or more homosexual partners. There is a limited amount of circumstantial evidence for this view. St John's Gospel refers several times to 'the disciple Jesus loved'. From the grammar, it is clear this disciple is male, and it is generally thought to be St John. The claim that this means John and Jesus were lovers has been made by, among others, King James I and the playwright Kit Marlowe. Both of them were gay, and Marlowe was also an atheist, so there may well be bias rather than serious criticism at work here. Jesus is always depicted by the evangelists as an observant Jew, and while his own brand of Pharisaism was radical and revolutionary, it is highly doubtful that he would have ignored the injunction against physical relations between men. A second claim of this nature is based on a late and unverified, but plausible copy of a letter attributed to Clement of Alexandria in which reference is made to a Secret Gospel of Mark. Clement cites a passage from this book, in which Jesus spends a night initiating a young man (identified with Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha). According to Clement, Egyptian gnostics had been claiming that this showed Lazarus to have been Jesus' lover. Clement does not dispute the authenticity of the text, but rebuts the gnostics' interpretation of it. In each case, the documentary evidence, if believed, could be interpreted as presenting Jesus engaging in a special emotional relationship with another man, but neither contains anything to suggest a physical act.
The remaining claim, that Jesus was married, or had one or more female followers whose relationship with him was sexual, is the more popular of the two alternatives to the standard view. It could be expected that a budding rabbi from a middle-class family would be married at an early age. No such event is explicitly referred to in the Bible, and the fact that the leadership of the Christians at Jerusalem passed to Jesus' brother James suggests he did not leave any sons. The usual partner named in connection with Jesus' marriage is Mary Magdalene - not to be confused with Mary of Bethany (Lazarus' sister) or Mary the wife of Cleopas, the mother of James and Joses. Mary of Magdala is identified in Mark 16:9 and Luke 8:2 as having had seven devils cast out of her by Jesus, although there is no direct account of such an incident. She is mentioned in all four canonical gospels as a witness to the Resurrection, and Luke 8 mentions her among those who provided for Jesus (and according to some manuscripts, his disciples) out of their own resources. She is often identified as the sinful woman in Luke 7:36-50, but there is no scriptural evidence for this, nor for the frequent claim that she was a prostitute. It is her prominence in the resurrection narratives which lends to her appeal to later writers, although it should be noted that St Paul, in his list of Resurrection appearances in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, does not mention her - perhaps due to lack of information, or even sexism. In any case, that is all that the Bible has to say about Mary Magadalene.
Those who wish to enlarge on the theory that Jesus and Mary were married therefore have recourse to the extensive apocryphal literature loosely associated with the New Testament. Two that have been cited are the gospels attributed to Thomas and Philip. It should be made clear that in both cases we mean the texts found in 1945 at Nag Hammadi in Egypt. A previously known Gospel of Thomas, with numerous fantastical childhood incidents, has never been seriously regarded by scholars. It is alleged that these works were excluded from the canon of scripture because of their more charitable attitude to women. This is certainly not the case with the Thomas Gospel, the more generally convincing of the two, which contains this as its 114th and last saying:
Simon Peter said to them, 'Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of Life.'
Jesus said, 'I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.'
This is the only point in the text at which Jesus says anything about Mary (although he addresses her in an earlier saying), and from its uncharacteristically sexist content, we may deduce that this is in all likelihood a later, gnostic amendment of the earlier text. So much for Thomas. The book attributed to Philip is of a much more dubious provenance, seeming to be entirely gnostic sayings such as those about the 'light', and containing some extravagant and uncharacteristic miracle stories. It speaks of human sacrifice, and contains a specific identification of the Holy Spirit with Sophia, the spirit of Wisdom. It also talks about marriage more than the canonical gospels, but in highly esoteric terms, with extensive details on how to defeat incubi and succubi. It is from this work that the claim about Jesus and Mary's relationship comes. The following is the most plausible reconstruction of the damaged text:
The Lord loved Mary Magadalene more than all the disciples and used to kiss her often on her mouth. The rest of the disciples ... said to him, 'Why do you love her more than all of us?' The Saviour answered and said to them, 'Why do I not love you like her? When a blind man and one who sees are both together in darkness, they are no different from one another. When the light comes, then he who sees will see the light, and he who is blind will remain in darkness.'(Philip 64: 2-9)
Given in its full form, this text clearly belongs with the rest of the gnostic sayings in the 'Philip' gospel. Given its complete lack of connection with the historical evidence for the life of Jesus, it is hardly surprising that this book is not part of the New Testament canon. Moreover, the text is not notably feminist, despite its enthusiasm for the female spirit Sophia, and for marriage. Another Nag Hammadi text, The Sophia of Jesus Christ, although couched in the form of a conversation between the resurrected Christ and his disciples, bears much closer resemblance to the viewpoint of the gnostic Hypostasis of Archons than to Jesus' established teaching. Its inclusion of seven women among the hearers is hardly remarkable when we have seen that all four canonical gospels agree that Mary Magdalene was closely involved in the events of the first Easter, along with other women.
We are now well into the realm of the improbable and obscure. The principal reason for the selection of the four canonical gospels by the early church was that they were the ones which were most complete and accorded most fully with the common understanding of Jesus' life. The picture they give of him is focussed on his ministry, in the last few years of his life. They make no statement one way or the other about his being married - a silence which is perhaps easier to take as a negative statement than a positive one. At this point our quest for truth begins to run into what we will see are outright lies. Two well-known sources of (dis)information on this topic are The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, and the works of 'Sir' Laurence Gardner (www.graal.co.uk), including Bloodline of the Holy Grail. I'll tackle a few specific points before discussing these authors' wider agenda.
- The claim that the Mary who anoints Jesus with spikenard in John 12:3 is Mary Magdalene is obviously untrue, as the event takes place at the house of Lazarus, in Bethany. The Mary referred to is Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus.
- The claim that the wedding at Cana in Galilee in John 2 is Jesus' own wedding is not borne out by the text, which states at verse 2 that Jesus (and his disciples) were called to the wedding - which would hardly be necessary if it were his own! No other even slightly reliable source mentions the wedding, so we have no reason to doubt that the obvious meaning of John's text is the intended one. Also, the miracle at Cana is described as Jesus' first miracle - so he could not at that point have exorcised Mary Magdalene, if we are to believe the text. Gorgonzola informs me that Baigent and Leigh's collaborator Henry Lincoln developed this theory, mostly by self-persuasion.
- The word 'companion', used of Mary and others, does not mean 'spouse', or the translators would say so. In Latin at least the two concepts are distinct.
- The unlikely issue of blood and water from Jesus' spear wound is clearly seen as unusual, even miraculous, in the Gospel. It does not suggest that Jesus was alive. However, had he been, the blow, after which he is left bleeding on the cross, would have almost certainly have killed him. In any case, the blow is only struck once the decision has been taken not to break Jesus' legs, because he was already dead.
- Jesus' cry 'Into thy hands I commend my spirit' (Luke 23:46) is a quotation from Psalm 31:5, and is definitely addressed to God, and not to any bystander.
- The Ascension cannot plausibly be dated to September. Acts 1:3 states that Jesus was seen by his disciples for forty days, following his resurrection at Passover (as dated by John 13:1, for example). Passover could not fall later than late April, so that it would be a stretch even to place the Ascension in June. (Arieh suggested to me that if the first Palm Sunday were linked to the feast of Tabernacles, with which it shares some features, the Ascension could be pushed into late summer. However, the extensive specifics relating to the Passover in the Gospels show that the authors mean the events to occur close to the Spring new moon.)
- The word 'grail' is probably derived from the medieval Latin gradalis, a dish, and not from Sang Real, which is apparently a folk etymology. It can be traced to two English writers, John Hardyng and Henry Lovelich, both writing in the late 15th century, and not having French as a first language. As for 'the Grail' to describe the cup or dish of the Last Supper, this comes from the writing of Chretien de Troyes' The Story of the Grail in the mid 12th century, with 'Holy Grail' appearing in related works shortly afterwards. In medieval Welsh the word is 'greal', and in the medieval German of Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival, it appears as 'gral' (and describes a stone, not a chalice).
- Although the date of Christmas was selected for pragmatic reasons relating to the timing of the Saturnalia and Natalis Solis Invicta, making Sunday the Christian sabbath was done because the Resurrection is recorded as occurring on a Sunday, and God is said to have begun his work of creation on that day also.
- Hairesis means 'choice' in Greek, not Latin. Although the condemnation of Arianism at Nicea is a famous example of an attack on heresy, such struggles long predate the Council.
So who are the people making these claims? Baigent and Leigh are well known to the world of biblical research and criticism. Another of their works, The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception, attracted harsh criticism from many scholars, most notably Otto Betz and Rainer Riesner, of the University of Tübingen, whose book Jesus, Qumran and the Vatican sold out twice in six months - an unusual feat for a work of serious scholarship. Baigent and Leigh were rather more successful: 'The fact that professional historians slated the book did not stop The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail from becoming a bestseller.' (Betz and Riesner, Ch. 1) Their research methods are, to say the least, unorthodox. The acknowledgements for Deception include a reference to a medium who introduced them to the spirit of an Old French poet. American thriller writer Dan Brown has latched onto their work for the substance of his hit novel The Da Vinci Code, as well as including The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail as a prop and immortalising its authors with a character called Leigh Teabing. Despite this tribute, they are reported to have sued Brown for plagiarism.
It is worth quoting two contemporary historians here. Richard Barber, in The Holy Grail: The History of a Legend (Chapter 19), describes The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail as 'a text which proceeds by innuendo, not by refutable scholarly debate'. Barber summarises the problem with the book, as regards the Grail and the descendents of Jesus, as follows: "If the Holy Grail is not the 'sang real', or 'blood royal', the whole argument (such as it is) falls to the ground, and the splendidly imaginative construction of a 'bloodline' of Merovingian kings descended from a Jesus who was never crucified can have no connection with the Grail, or indeed anything else in the real world.' Richard J Evans, in describing conspiracy theories about Nazi Germany, adds this comment: "[B]ooks claiming ... that Klaus von Stauffenberg, who tried to blow up Hitler in July 1944, was not acting as part of a relatively recently founded German resistance movement but in the service of a centuries-old secret society founded at the time of Christ ... belong to what some called a paranoid style of historical writing, in which nothing was quite what it seemed, and terrible secrets had been suppressed by mainstream historical scholarship for decades or even centuries." (Evans, chapter 4) This is Baigent and Leigh again, in their 1994 book Secret Germany: Claus von Stauffenberg and the Mystical Crusade Against Hitler.
Laurence Gardner is a similarly interesting character. Following the success of The Da Vinci Code, he has produced a new volume, The Magdalene Legacy, which features a detailed royal family tree in the back showing how the emperor Constantine, King Arthur, Lohengrin, King David and numerous other factual and legendary - even outright fictitious - characters are genetically related. He describes himself as 'Prior of the Celtic Church's Sacred Kindred of St Columba, an internationally known sovereign and chivalric genealogist, distinguished as the Chevalier Labhràn de Saint Germain, Presidential Attaché to the European Council of Princes, formally attached to the Noble Household Guard of the Royal House of Stewart, and the Jacobite Historiographer Royal.' Which sounds wonderful, except that the 'prince' who is Gardner's backer in all of this is the self-styled 'Prince Michael of Albany', who claims to be an heir to the British throne, but is actually a Belgian fantasist named Michel Lafosse. So much for Gardner's credentials. For an 'internationally known sovereign and chivalric genealogist', his work is curiously unused by Monarchies of Europe, a website noted for its completeness in such matters. His claims about Jesus' relationship to the royal houses of Europe should be treated with as much caution as the claims of his patron.
Barbara Thiering's claim that Jesus was married twice, once to Mary Magdalene and once to Lydia of Philippi (Acts 16:14), may be easily dismissed. Thiering bases her entire thesis on an allegorical interpretation of the Gospels in the light of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The most obvious demonstration of why this is wrong is that the Scrolls considerably predate the life of Jesus. Additionally, the interpretation she places on the texts, especially the Habbakuk pesher from cave 1 at Qumran is so stretched that it is hard to see how it could be arrived at without having one's conclusions in mind in advance. The high profile her claims have received is as undeserved as that of Baigent and Leigh's various deceptions.
The church has distorted various points about scripture, and has certainly kept women down. The cult of the Blessed Virgin Mary has been promoted in spite of several statements in the Gospels that Jesus had (presumably full) brothers and sisters. Priestly celibacy has been promoted despite the fact that St Peter was married, and St Paul encouraged all church leaders to marry. However, the claims that Jesus was married, and especially that he had descendants, are inextricably linked to a familar web of conspiracy theories, dealing with the Knights Templar, the Rosicrucians, Rennes-le-Chateau, the Freemasons, and of course King Arthur and the Holy Grail. It should not be a surprise to anyone familiar with this field that David Icke believes in, and opposes, the 'grail bloodline', of which he claims Laurence Gardner is a member.
So what do I think? I can't be scientifically certain of anything much in this case except that the 'researchers' described above are obvious frauds. I don't think there's sufficient evidence to choose any one of the three models of Jesus' sexuality with absolute certainty, but I consider the reasonable, rational assumption was the Jesus was single and celibate, or quietly married before the start of his public ministry. If he was married, it was probably not to Mary Magdalene, and certainly not as part of the bizarre 'escape fantasy' of Baigent and Leigh.
Ian Wilson, 'Are these the words of Jesus?', Lennard, 1990
Otto Betz and Rainer Riesner, 'Jesus, Qumran, and the Vatican', SCM Press, 1993 tr. 1994
Ed. T F Hoad, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, 1986
Richard Barber, 'The Holy Grail: The History of a Legend', Penguin, 2005
Richard J Evans, 'Telling Lies About Hitler: The Holocaust, History, and the David Irving Trial', Verso, 2002
Gospel of Philip: www.gnosis.org/naghamm/gop.html
Sophia of Jesus Christ: www.gnosis.org/naghamm/sjc.html
Prince Michael's claim: www.chivalricorders.org/royalty/fantasy/stuart.htm
Monarchy references: www.btinternet.com/~allan_raymond/Monarchies_of_Europe_Sources.htm
Thanks to arieh, Cletus the Foetus, SEF, and everyone else who's helped with this writeup.