Was Jesus married to Mary Magdalene?

The short answer is: no. The slightly longer answer is: there is absolutely no reliable evidence that this was the case, and if Jesus was married, then we would see at least some indication of that in the New Testament documents—just as we know that Paul was not married, and Peter was, from a throw-away comment about the rights of an apostle (1 Cor 9.5). More to the point, there is some awkwardness in Jesus not being married. It was not unknown, but normally taking a wife and having children would be expected of a rabbi, and Jesus was at least unusual in not being married. It is one of several awkward things that, had the early ‘church’ (i.e. the Jesus movement) been making up stories about Jesus, they would have ironed this out, along with other embarrassing awkwardnesses:

  • Jesus apparently not knowing things, even though he was claimed to be the Son of God—sufficiently awkward that early copyists of Matt 24.36 ‘corrected’ it
  • Jesus not having the power to heal when people did not believe (Mark 6.5)
  • Jesus making ‘Son of Man’ his favourite title for self-designation, which Christians have struggled to interpret ever since.
  • Jesus failing to make any really clear pronouncements on the burning questions of food laws and circumcision.

So we can be confident that Jesus was indeed single. Does it matter? Most observers suggest that the chief problem of a married Jesus for the Church would be the justification of celibacy for the Catholic priesthood, but that derives at least as much from Paul’s example and teaching in 1 Cor 7 anyway (and mistakenly). If Jesus was married, the metaphor of the people of God as bride to the bridegroom Messiah might look odd—but then we are called ‘brothers [and sisters]’ when Jesus had actual brothers. And Orthodox Jews don’t have a problem doing a bridal dance with a Torah scroll, their true love, when they are married. Such things are not always subject to rational analysis. The more significant issue, which is beyond the general media, is that in being single, Jesus displaces the centrality of the command to ‘Go forth and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it’ (Gen 1.28) with ‘Go and make disciples of all nations’ (Matt 28.19). Evangelism is now the primary way to be fruitful, rather than procreation.

But why am I mentioning this at all? Because, at the end of the August silly season, the so-called Gospel of Jesus’ Wife (pictured above) is receiving publicity again.

New tests on a highly controversial papyrus fragment may add credence to evidence suggesting Jesus had a wife.

The so-called “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” is a fragment of Coptic text no bigger than a business card, in which a translated line refers to Jesus saying the words “my wife”, as well as referencing a disciple called “Mary”.

(Note use of the terms ‘controversial’ and ‘may’.) The most remarkable thing about this document was not, in fact, what it claimed, but the way it provoked the academic community to collaborate very quickly in demonstrating, from every angle, why this was clearly a fake when it first appeared in 2012. Mark Goodacre, of Duke University (formerly in Birmingham) took a lead; from the beginning he thought that the piece looked odd:

I am not a papyrologist but I can’t get over how amateurish and blotchy the fragment’s text looks.  It is clearly written by someone using a thick nibbed pen and it looks weird.  Several letters are particularly bold, as if someone has written over them them for emphasis, including TA, the “my” in “my wife”.

Quite soon after that, Francis Watson of Durham University offered an in-depth analysis, demonstrating that it was a poor forgery copied from some text of the Gospel of Thomas.

Of the three articles, the first is for the non-specialist and the other two include discussion of the language.  The second here is the main piece:

The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife: How a fake Gospel-Fragment was composed 


The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife: How a fake Gospel-Fragment was composed Francis Watson

Addendum: The End of the Line?  Francis Watson

Perhaps the most accessible explanation of the problems with the text are in a Christianity Today article by Simon Gathercole of Cambridge. His five main points are:

  1. The fragment came with another fragment, from the Gospel of John, which was even more clearly faked.
  2. Carbon dating showed that the piece of papyrus was 8th century—but the style of writing used had died out 500 years earlier.
  3. The text appears to match a text available on the internet—including a mistake in the writing.
  4. The fragment has no clear origin; no archeological origin has been given, and the donor has remained anonymous.
  5. The ideas in the text tie in rather well with the current vogue following Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code.

Gathercole concludes:

It is no longer that the finger of suspicion points in the direction of a forgery. Leaving aside the circumstantial evidence, each of the three main pieces of evidence mentioned above would be enough to disprove claims that the fragment is truly ancient. As a result, like other curiosities like the Tibetan Life of Issa, the so-called “Archaic Mark” manuscript, and Jesus’ saying about dental provision, the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife should be consigned to the filing cabinet under for fakes, frauds, forgeries, and fabrications.

In one sense, as an evangelical scholar, it could be argued that Gathercole has a vested interest in this view. But the latest edition of New Testament Studies, perhaps the most prestigious journal in the subject, is devoted to this document, and the consensus is that it is not genuine. The contents are, unusually, available free, and Larry Hurtado of Edinburgh gives a summary of each of the papers. He comments:

The articles in the new issue of New Testament Studies…collectively give interested readers a rather full presentation of reasons why the GJW fragment is now widely regarded a hoax, Prof. King [of Harvard, who first publicised the fragment] perhaps the scholar most seriously and cruelly the victim of it.  It appears that surely now, however, the appeals of various scholars for a candid response to the collective judgment that the fragment is a hoax must be heeded, and (unless the combined judgments of the aforementioned scholars can be shown to be erroneous) an effort should be made to trace (and disclose) the process by which it was attempted.

GJW-cereal-mixed-inSo why does this keep resurfacing?

  • Someone is hosting a conference on the fragment, and this looks like good free publicity.
  • Anything that ‘could have a significant impact on the origins of Christianity’ (the headline on the Indendent Facebook link) looks like a good way to boost circulation in a post DaVinci Code age.
  • Money. In an age where there is increasing interest in origins, but artefacts are being destroyed on a daily basis, the poverty resulting from the chaos of war makes the financial appeal of fakes almost irresistible.
  • You might have noticed the different general response to questioning the integrity of Mohammed and the Qur’an to questioning the origins of Christian belief.
  • It is cool to be sceptical of everything, except the idea of being sceptical.
  • In an age of post-modern uncertainty, it is simple to assert that ‘there is no evidence for anything, in particular Jesus’ when actually there is good historical evidence—better in many ways than for other comparable ancient figures.

Despite appeals for closure—and despite all the evidence—this story is likely to run and run.

I do not think it is unreasonable at this time to call for closure with respect to the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.  “[T]he piles of evidence suggesting that the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife is a forgery” mentioned by Joel Baden and Candida Moss in The Atlantic have now been systematically presented in detail in the most recent issue of New Testament Studies (Cambridge University Press). And as I have explained above, it seems quite clear to me that the person who brought the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife to Karen King has some serious explaining to do.

In the meantime, arm yourself with the facts!

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14 thoughts on “Was Jesus married to Mary Magdalene?”

  1. The fact that a national newspaper’s science page can publish this rubbish *after* the leading academic journal has proved it is thoroughly discredited makes me despair for the British media.

  2. The reason that Roman Catholic priests are not allowed to marry is purely for practicality and convenience. In early centuries priests did marry.as did popes,but offspring became entitled to church property after the deaths of priests,so the celibacy rule was brought in to avoid the loss of church property to priest’s families.

    • Thanks Elizabeth. I can see that that would be a practical reason–but there are surely easier ways to prevent this. I am not sure this solution could have arisen without some theological rationale.

      By the way, this tradition is of course the reason why University degrees in the western tradition are called ‘Bachelor’s’.

  3. I find the role of the Harvard prof intriguing.
    Why, in the face of an outstanding academic case against genuineness, is she – seemingly – unwilling to publicly agree with the case?

    • Peter, I think this is something that most are finding baffling. Part of it arises from an earlier misjudgement I suspect—she promised to keep the donor’s identity confidential. I am not sure why one would make such a commitment; one of the most important issues in verifying artefacts is the context from which they have come (the artefact’s provenance), and without that information (in a world now awash with people wanting to make some money) there were always going to be significant questions.

      The difficulty now is that the argument has progressed too far down the road of a consensus on the forgery—so, having done something ‘in good faith’ it is much harder to recant.

      Having said that, many have hinted that it was extremely unwise to go public in the first place without wider consultation, which suggests an unhealthy quest for publicity—though I have not come across anyone who has made that accusation publicly.

  4. I think a married Jesus wouldve caused more of a problem for the early church. Correct me if wrong, but I think for the first thousand ish years of Christianity, marriage was seen as less than the gold standard (ironically the reverse now seems to be true at least in Protestantism). So to have a married saviour would be less perfect lamb and more like second best ram.

    I think the idea he had children is more problematic because it creates a second strain of humans not descended through Adam and able to inherit by birthright and not by faith.

    • The dark ages and medieval church spoke in Latin and not the native tongue so the idea that, as you put it, “for the first thousand ish years of Christianity, marriage was seen as less than the gold standard…” is odd in that the ordinary person actually probably wouldn’t have understood them.

    • Yes, you are wrong! As Rodney Stark highlights, the church’s positive view of marriage in the first three hundred years, together with its equal demands of sexual morality amongst men and women, were both in stark contrast to paganism, and led to a higher level of fertility, which contributed to Christianity’s growth.

      • Didnt Augustine and contempories view any desire as being a barrier between them and God? Or do you think that’s an entirely separate issue. Do you think sexual desire is necessarily sinful and is that a reason why Jesus didn’t marry since marriage implies sexual desire

  5. My point is that when the Scripture is written in another language you almost certainly don’t bother with tortuous interpretation points but simply concentrate on the gospel message.

  6. The New Testament itself gives at least two indications that Jesus was not married.
    John 4 (the Samaritan woman at the well) takes pains to remind its readers of the familiar Old Testament scene in which a Jewish bachelor travels to a foreign land, meets a woman at a well, and marries her (Genesis 24, 29, Exodus 2). Jesus meets the woman at Jacob’s Well, and the two even talk of marriage. Vanderbilt’s Amy-Jill Levine says the reversal of the traditional scene probably had John’s original audience rolling in the aisles. Surely, the pericope would have been framed differently had John thought Jesus was married.
    In 1 Corinthians 9:5, Paul asks “Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a wife, as the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?” Including Jesus would have made Paul’s argument stronger, so the omission strongly implies that Paul didn’t think Jesus had a wife.

    • Steve, thanks for this. I agree…though some of the people interested in The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife have an agenda, which is to show how the canonical NT covers up the truth, and these marginal documents, which the church has ‘suppressed’ shows us who Jesus really is.


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