While many biblical scholars have ignored non-canonical texts like the gnostic and apocryphal gospels that suggested that Jesus had a wife, they are no longer ignoring the 2012 discovery of an ancient, faded fragment of papyrus that makes just such a suggestion.
According to this month’s New York Times article “Papyrus Referring to Jesus’ Wife Is More Likely Ancient Than Fake, Scientists Say,” the document is known as the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.” However, this discovery disrupts modern Christianity’s depiction of Jesus in many ways.
The church doesn’t want to say that Jesus had a wife, because the fact that he spent all his time evangelizing with 12 male disciples seems to indicate that he wasn’t a family man. Also, the church doesn’t want to consider that Jesus might have been married to Mary Magdalene — the second most important woman in the New Testament, after Mary, the mother of Jesus — because the misogyny written into the patriarchal accounts of Jesus’ ministry casts her as a whore. But new evidence suggests that Mary Magdalene may have been one of Jesus’ disciples, may have bankrolled his ministry, may have been his wife, and was clearly his go-to woman for a lot of things.
This latest discovery also reopens the “down-low” debate about Jesus’ sexuality that not only threatens the pillars of Christianity but profoundly challenges the oppression that women as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people face today in both church and society. And that debate about Jesus’ sexuality — about whether he was married or possibly even gay, not that the two are mutually exclusive if Jesus was on the “down low” — gets to the heart of several culture-war issues that we are wrestling with today, namely the institution of marriage, women in the church, and gay clergy.
The debate about Jesus’ sexuality follows him from his mother’s womb to his tomb. The Christian depiction of Jesus as a lifelong virgin who had no sexual desire and never engaged in sexual intercourse would raise anyone’s suspicion, especially considering the homosocial environment in which he moved and the reasonable assumption, given simple probability, that at least one of his 12 male disciples was gay. And with the compulsory heterosexuality inherent in Jewish marital law during Jesus’ time, if Jesus were indeed gay, he might have been forced to be on the “down low.”
Encrypted in Leonardo da Vinci’s 1498 painting “The Last Supper” may be a spiritual and sensual narrative about both the sacred feminine and homoeroticism found in religious life. And while many Christian fundamentalists and evangelicals find da Vinci’s sensuous painting blasphemous, the possible homoerotic subtext in the painting evokes that alluring quality of the Catholic Church that many gay men find both rabidly homophobic and ravenously homoerotic. Indeed, when asked in 2002 why so many gay men are attracted to religious life and the priesthood, Mark D. Jordan, then a professor in the religion department at Emory University and the author of The Silence of Sodom: Homosexuality in Modern Catholicism, told The Boston Globe:
Homoeroticism is written into the Catholic imagination and its institutions. Many gay believers feel a strong calling to the priesthood or religious life. The call doesn’t seem to deny same-sex desires; it seems instead to complete them. It is a call to act out your manhood against social expectations, outside heterosexual marriage and in the company of other unmarried men.
They are promised an exchange of their “disordered” identity as outsiders for a respected and powerful identity as an insider. They want to remain in the beautiful, sexually ambiguous space of liturgy. They are drawn to public celebration of suffering that redeems [and] they want to live in as gay a world as the Catholic Church offers.
The scriptures talk about Jesus’ beloved disciple John, which raises the question of precisely how Jesus loved John and, just as importantly, how John loved Jesus. And the Gospel of Mark references a naked youth running away from the Garden of Gethsemane on the night of Jesus’ arrest, whom scholars have suggested might have been John, the beloved disciple. Many queer biblical scholars have suggested that Jesus and the naked youth were engaging in what we now call public sex.
And let’s not forget the theological significance and homoerotic overtones of the ritual kissing that was a vital part of worship during the early centuries of the church, just as passing the peace with a hug and/or handshake is a vital part of worship in today’s churches. Kissing on the lips was a way of binding a community together, and it always followed the communal prayer, the Eucharist, or rites of baptism and ordination. And it was only permitted among those of the same gender. Homophobia in today’s Christian churches is antithetical to the early church.
Given ancient Jewish marital custom, it is simply unlikely that Jesus was unmarried, and he probably was assigned a wife long before he became an itinerant preacher and met up with male and female disciples on the road. I just find it hard to believe that this wandering rabbi and his gang of 12 surely horny men were unmarried and celibate.