The Catholic Thing
Mrs. Christ, teacher of Christology Print E-mail
By David G. Bonagura, Jr.   
Saturday, 06 October 2012

“Mrs. Christ.” “The God wife.” So ran the headlines after the announcement that Professor Karen King of Harvard Divinity School had discovered a fourth century papyrus written in Egyptian Coptic whose few legible sections quote Jesus referring to his wife. Never mind that we cannot determine the papyrus’s authenticity, broader context, author, or even every word on the three-inch page. The public impression has been made: Jesus could well have been married, and why not? He was fully human like us, wasn’t he?

Immediately after the announcement reputable scholars rushed to disprove Professor King’s hypothesis based on the biblical texts, written by eyewitnesses only a few decades – not centuries – after Jesus. Jesus’ earthly father and mother are mentioned by the Evangelists, as are his brothers and sisters (thought to be cousins), but there is no mention of a wife.

When Jesus returned to Nazareth after he began his public ministry, he was rejected by the locals who noted his family members, but do not mention a wife.

When he was crucified, he was accompanied by a number of named women, though no one is identified as his wife.

When he said metaphorically that “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20), that might also have excluded a literal home and a wife.

Based solely on the biblical evidence, the statistical probability that Jesus was married is near zero. But there are also theological reasons that prove Jesus’ celibacy, and these underscore not only his divinity, but also his humanity.

From his first recorded words in the Temple at age twelve, to his words in his greatest agony on the cross, to his final words before his ascension into Heaven, Jesus continually expressed his singular focus and mission: to perform the will of the Father. “I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me.” (John 5:30)

What was the Father’s will for his Son? “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45)

“Son,” Pope Benedict has taught, is a relational term. As the eternal Son made flesh, Jesus did not exist for himself. He is sent from God for “us men and for our salvation.” By becoming man the Son has brought to himself all of humanity, which he has elevated to share in the divine life of the blessed Trinity through grace. Through the Eucharist Jesus has taught that his flesh and blood are not reserved for one person in particular, but for the life of the world.

In exercising his singular mission, therefore, Jesus, the eternal “from and for” of God, indeed has a bride: the Church, the People of God. We form his Mystical Body, having been born “not of blood nor of the will of flesh nor of the will of men, but of God” (John 1:13). In giving himself totally to us, we are able to have life in him.

But the reality of Jesus’ celibacy does not just rest on his divinity; it also depends on his humanity and the Catholic understanding of the marital vocation. In marriage, you give yourself completely to a spouse in a unique way until death. The marital covenant is privileged and exclusive; it claims priority in the spouses’ lives and regulates all their subsequent relationships, including the love of children and of friends.

This is why Jesus was celibate, and why the Catholic Church requires celibacy of her clergy and religious: their vocation is not to give themselves to one person in particular, but to all people equally. Jesus’ mission was to serve the Father by serving all of us, which required him to remain celibate in order to give all of us the gift of himself.

This reality does not undermine marriage; it strengthens it. Marriage and celibacy are not antithetical, but mutually complementary. Both require the complete gift of self. The difference lies in the gift’s recipient.

Some have stated that a change in Jesus’ marital status would have no bearing on their faith in him. This opinion only holds because the historical and theological evidence clearly disproves the marriage hypothesis. If, however, undisputable proof revealed that Jesus was married, then we would have to reinterpret our entire understanding of him if we truly believe that he is both fully God and fully human.

Jesus’ claim that “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30), along with so many other statements, would take on a very different meaning if Jesus were also one with another human being.

Of course, no such reinterpretation is required. As it turns out, the alleged “Mrs. Christ,” upon closer examination, has proved a far more effective professor of Christology than not a few theologians who, suspicious of supernatural faith, fabricate portraits of Jesus according to their whim.

She has reiterated for us what Catholics have known for two thousand years: that the only way to understand and interpret Jesus is through the biblical testimony within the context of the faith of the Church. All other theories, and their professors, need not apply.

David G. Bonagura, an adjunct professor of theology at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception, Huntington, New York
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (6)Add Comment
written by Jack,CT, October 06, 2012
Great read,
written by Dave, October 06, 2012
Once again, one of the things I most love about The Catholic Thing, together with the perspective and the depth of articles that are by nature brief, is its linkage to superb bibliography. Thank you, Professor Bonagura.

There will be some who will never accept that a fully alive, fully adult person could voluntarily choose to be a eunuch for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven and who grab onto any shred of "evidence," however fragmentary, however inconclusive, to make their case for can we call it "hypergonadalism?" So what if it was a fourth century text written in Egyptian Coptic? Here are the questions that come to this layman's mind: how widely spoken was Coptic at the time? How do we know the author of the text was even a Christian? What do we know about the author's ecclesial situation in the local church - in communion, under ecclesiastical discipline, excommunicated? What do we know about the texts's wider claims? How did the fourth-century Church respond to the fragment ludicrous assertion? All we know is that someone, somewhere long ago in an old language made an assertion that is universally repudiated by those who profess the religion at the time of the assertion, before it, and after it, about whose founder the assertion was made. It's important that it be answered, but still. And secondly, notice how no one ever to assert claims about Mrs. Buddha? The world readily accepts the claims of the Buddha's celibacy because people know that adults can live without sexual activity; what Prof King's "discovery" supports in the end is not an attack against celibacy, but an attack against the divinity of Christ. If he hadn't been divine, if he hadn't claimed to be the Son of God, and if the Church did not follow Him in teaching this claim, no one would care whether he was celibate or not. Vivat Christus Rex.
written by Mack Hall, October 06, 2012
But there MUST have been a Mrs. Christ because, like, y'know, a professor said it, like, and it was, like, on the internet, you know, like, and they had these pictures and stuff, like, you know, and real old writing, and, like, stuff, you know the Vatican and that old Pope are covering this up and the albino monk and stuff, and they've found that the Pope was Hitler's cousin, yeah, but do you ever read that, noooooooooooo.

For the very literal -- sarcasm alert.
written by Randall, October 06, 2012
@Mack, Like, for sure, and that Lady Pope, Joanna, or whatever.

ha ha
written by DS, October 06, 2012
Mandatory celibacy is indeed loaded with symbolism, but it is discipline and not dogma.

To be accurate, the Roman (ie, Latin Rite) Catholic Church requires celibacy. Other Catholic Churches (eg, Ukrainian, Melkite) do not. Do married Catholic priests in these traditions not give themselves to all people equally or inadequately reflect Jesus' ministry? And even within Roman Catholicism, we are all aware of the recent exceptions that the Church has made re. married Anglican clergy.
written by Dave, October 07, 2012
The issue is not priestly celibacy, DS, but Christ's. You're right about married priests in other Catholic rites -- to be accurate, about the possibility of ordination to priesthood for married men, since, once ordained, they cannot marry nor, if widowed, marry a second time; their bishops are all celibates, no?, as will be the bishops of the Anglican Ordinariate. If Jesus was married, he was "just a man," and if he was "just a man," then what he has on offer is merely one more religious option. And that is what many professors of Harvard Divinity School, and others, would like to see proclaimed as true. Jesus Christ made claims about himself that no other historical figure has, and the Church he founded makes unique claims about him. Those claims are either true or false; and, if false, they are advanced by liars or fools; and even if a third option were available as to the character of the proponents, certainly all that Christ teaches would not be binding. There are many who would like it to be so...

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