Sexuality, Marriage, and Jesus’ “Wife”

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Though scholars seem to be settling in on the view that it’s a fake, the “Jesus’ wife” manuscript fragment still has a tale to tell, one with ramifications beyond what I had earlier realized.

April Deconick is Isla Carroll and Percy E. Turner Professor of Biblical Studies at Rice University. On September 22 and 24 she raised two questions that I think she would still consider relevant whether that fragment were genuine or not: Who’s Afraid of the Married Jesus? and Is Jesus “Too Holy” For Sex? On the first of those questions she writes,

The recent announcement of a papyrus fragment in which Jesus refers to his wife has brought us face to face with the sexual Jesus again. And there are many people who do not like this image. Something sacred feels threatened. Corrupted. The married Jesus is inconceivable. It is impossible. Maybe the text is a fake? Or heresy. Yes, that is it. We dismiss it as heresy and feel relieved.

Why is the idea of a married and sexual Jesus so inconceivable to us? Why do we see it as a corruption of the sacred?

On the second question she notes

how communally we are struggling with the problem of a sexual Jesus and how this transgresses our commonly (and cherished) Christian view of the Holy as male and celibate.

Deconick appears to be have no confidence in the historical records documenting the life of Christ. She asks, for example, “why did the sexual Jesus become the heretical Jesus while the glorification of the celibate male become the dominant orthodox view?” That’s easy: there’s no evidence for a “sexual” Jesus. (The glorification of the celibate male is another matter altogether, a Catholic tradition I have no interest in defending.) Apparently she thinks what matters is not the record of history but the “myth” of Jesus.

That debate is old news, though. Something more current caught my eye. Re-read those quotes, or better yet, read her two blog posts on the topic. Do you notice anything missing? If it’s not flashing at you like a strobe light, then you’re more stuck in your times than you realize, and more than is good for you.

Deconick equates a married Jesus with a sexual Jesus, and wonders why it bothers us that Jesus would have had a sexual nature. Now, why would that be the primary question she would ask? Why wasn’t this her concern: Why would it bother us that Jesus would have had a wife and kids? Why would that be regarded as heresy?

Is it clear enough yet what’s going on here?

Deconick’s question (and the question she failed to ask) reflects a historically recent de-coupling of sex and children, of marriage and family. It took artificial contraception for that to become possible. If Jesus had been married he would have had children. That raises problems beyond all imagining. To name just one of them, his children would have had three human grandparents plus the Holy Spirit. To allow the possibility of Jesus having children is to disallow his virgin birth—or to confuse its multi-generational implications beyond all recovery)—and if Deconick can’t see why the church would consider that heretical, she ought to be doing something else for a living.

The Jesus we know from Scripture would not, by the way, have used supernatural powers to ensure his or anyone’s marriage would have been sterile. He never performed a miracle to disable a person.

I am stunned at how easily Deconick passed over the obvious here. To some extent I’m sure it reflects her predilection for the theology of feminist resentment (you’ll see that in her posts clearly enough). At the same time, though, it demonstrates how even a highly educated person can forget that marriage implies family—or that it used to, at least. Our whole culture has forgotten it.

There was a time not so long ago that marriage (and sex within marriage) implied procreation, the generative act of bringing forth children. It still should. A seminal paper by Girgis, Anderson, and George (PDF) makes a strong case for that. Not surprisingly their paper is directed toward the gay “marriage” controversy: for gay “marriage” could never have been conceived of apart from a culture of contraception, birthed from within a damaged world of heterosexual coupling.

The word play there is intentional, to highlight the irony of creating a whole new class of intentionally sterile “marriages.” Mostly, though, I want to help us see that it didn’t start with gay “marriage.” It started with child-free sex, which permitted child-free marriages, which allowed a professor like April Deconick to think that the relevant question surrounding a married Jesus was his having a sexual relationship–and to miss what should have been blindingly obvious to all of us.

Gay “marriage” is a gross distortion of the real thing, but it never could have gotten off the ground if the real thing hadn’t already been badly distorted between men and women—and if that distortion hadn’t been so thoroughly instilled into our culture that we could forget it was ever any different.