When I received my copy of The Wife of Jesus, I must confess, I was anxious about bringing it with me to my local coffee shop (that’s what we do in Portland). I knew exactly the kinds of reactions it would provoke and the connotations I would be forced to wear. There really aren’t many topics more controversial in the Christianized West than a challenge to the ‘orthodox’ understanding of Jesus.
Which is exactly why Anthony Le Donne wrote this book. Ultimately, not to challenge the content of the consensus view of an unmarried Jesus, but rather, to challenge the reason for the consensus view.
Why, for two millennia, has the Church rejected a married Jesus? Is it for theological reasons? Well, no, marriage is not sinful or unholy. And granted that Jesus is fully human, and marriage is a very human institution, there would be no creedal conundrum there. If there is no theological reason, and no Biblical reason (the Canonical texts are silent Jesus’ “relationship status”), then what is the reason? And why does it cause so much scandal to suggest that Jesus was married?
Le Donne suggests that answering these questions will prove to open a revelatory window into our modern psyche. As we assess modern portrayals of Jesus, essentially the Western archetype for Man, we are able to learn much about our own culture. Jesus has become the object on which we project our fears and ideals.
Le Donne traces earliest texts that explicitly mention Jesus’ marriage status, beginning with Christian asceticism in the second century. As Christianity became increasingly hellenized in the following centuries, sex and sin became virtually synonymous. Folks like Jerome proposed celibacy as the natural route to holiness – marriage and its entailing sexual relations would be hindrances to the saints. In this climate, it is no wonder that the Church rejected a married Jesus.
He surveys a wide range of material throughout the course of the book. In one provocative chapter, Le Donne details the conceptions of Mary throughout history, how she has often been a sexualized character – either a prostitute (which has no basis in the text) or, more recently, the wife of Jesus. In another chapter, Le Donne recounts two examples of how Jesus has been employed in order to forward contemporary concerns. He speaks of Morton Smith’s “gay Jesus” found in the forged Gospel of Secret Mark, as well as the polygamist Mormon Jesus who allegedly has many wives. In both cases, modern concerns are clearly being projected onto the Jesus of history. Ending his analysis of the modern psyche, Le Donne addresses the modern conceptions of Romantic love. Our current understanding of marriage as an institution primarily driven by love is a very modern notion. While romantic love has always been important, prior to the French Troubadours, it was not the primary reason why one would be married. Other concerns were much higher on the list.
In the final couple chapters, Le Donne addresses more directly the question of Jesus’ marital status. He lays out the relevant data both for and against a possible wife of Jesus. The primary argument for Jesus as a married fellow is found, quite simply, in the prevalence of marriage in Ancient Palestine. Marriage was the default, and usually by the age of twenty. One’s civic masculinity was contingent on marriage. It would be dishonorable to the parents to have a son – especially the oldest son – abstain from marriage. Le Donne concludes that our default position must be that Jesus was married, probably early on, prior to his ministry, and very likely, his wife may have died before his baptism. If we are to think otherwise, there must be evidence that suggests the opposite.
That brings Le Donne to his analysis of the relevant texts in the Gospels. In short, the evidence suggests that Jesus was a sexual non-comformist. He rejected the ancient practice of civic masculinity, opting rather for a life devoted to the Kingdom of God and centered on a new family that is not bound by blood. Like his mentor, John the Baptist, Jesus chose a life of celibacy.
While Le Donne’s arguments are clearly not represented here in full, nor are all of his considerations recounted, I hope many will be persuaded of the value of this work. I was especially impressed by Le Donne’s ability to address such a controversial subject without becoming sensational. He took a great deal of serious scholarship and made it very readable and provocative. The reader will not only learn much about Jesus and ancient marriage/love practices, but also about oneself. Readers will be left aware of our tendencies to employ Jesus for our own purposes, even when he would likely protest.
I highly recommend this book. If for nothing else, that you might take it in to a coffee shop and be able to have some good conversations. The Church need not fear a married Jesus, we can be open to such considerations. Oddly enough, the Jesus who chose celibacy, in my opinion, appears much more challenging to Modernity than a married Jesus. But if we are to be faithful to history, and faithful to Christ, we must let him challenge us, even if he comes across as “wholly other”.
NOTE: This copy was provided free of charge in exchange for an honest review.
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