Mrs. Christ, teacher of Christology

“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 Jr. an adjunct professor at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism and Staying with the Catholic Church: Trusting God's Plan of Salvation.