I wasn’t surprised to read that the Vatican has published a response to the September 18th announcement of a tiny piece of papyrus that includes a dialog where Jesus refers to “my wife.” It is, in their words, a “clumsy forgery.” I only wonder what took them so long.
As you have no doubt read, Dr. Karen King, a professor of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School, released findings last week regarding a newly found original document that offers evidence suggesting Jesus was married. It was front-page news and lit up social media, with some claiming that it provides support for women priests and a married Roman Catholic clergy.
Veracity of the fragment aside, this wasn’t news to those of us who think about sexuality and the church. More than forty years ago, William E. Phipps wrote a book entitled The Sexuality of Jesus, in which he postulated that Jesus would have been betrothed by his parents during his teen years as was the custom for Jewish men based on the mores of the time. With an average age of marriage of 14, Phipps argued, Jesus was in all probability married. By the time we meet Jesus again at age thirty, when the Gospel story introduces him as an adult, he was likely a widower. (Women on average died in the first century at the age of 25, most often in childbirth.)
The Jesus of the Gospels enjoys weddings, drinks wine, spends time with women in their houses, ministers to prostitutes, and refuses to censure a woman caught in adultery or a woman with a history of many partners. He allows a woman to bathe his feet at a dinner party and he invites women into his ministry. He is surely a charismatic man, and it is not difficult to imagine that people fell in love with him. There is no way to know for sure if the historical Jesus was married or had sex, but surely we know he was a sexual person.
As a Jewish Unitarian Universalist, it’s hard for me to fully understand why a married Jesus causes such dismay. Regardless of one’s beliefs about the humanity and divinity of Jesus, the embodied Jesus was sexual from birth to death as all humans are. There is nothing in the Gospels that suggests that Jesus was asexual or celibate his entire life—something that would have been so extraordinary that surely it would have been mentioned by their authors. Paul indeed addresses that celibacy is a gift for him but not required for all others in the First Letter to Corinthians, but Jesus himself is silent on the subject. Indeed, the ideal of a celibate clergy was not decided until the late seventh century: the Quinisextine Council in 691 was the first to decree that clergy couldn’t marry after ordination, although it did allow for currently married men to become clergy.
Rather than decrying the idea that Jesus was married (and therefore most likely sexually active with at least one woman), perhaps the discovery of the papyrus fragment will reopen the too-often missing dialogue about sexuality in those denominations that would rather wish it away. If sexuality is one of God’s gifts to us, if sexual diversity is part of God’s blessing, if people of all genders are created in God’s image—then surely there is the possibility that Jesus too enjoyed this good gift.