Anthony Le Donne, The Wife of Jesus: Ancient Texts and Modern Scandals (London: Oneworld Publications, 2013). (Amazon.com)

Le Donne, THE WIFE OF JESUS
Le Donne, THE WIFE OF JESUS

A book titled The Wife of Jesus: Ancient Texts and Modern Scandals may excite those who seek the newest, juiciest The Da Vinci Code style rumors about Jesus. Similarly, it may trouble those who adore and worship the Jesus of Westernized, orthodox Christianity. Yet this book is neither an attack on the Jesus beloved by many (though it may tread on ground considered sacred by some), nor another attempt to feed the appetite of the TMZ-loving public. Instead, it is a model of what careful, levelheaded historical research can contribute to our understanding not only of past events, but ourselves as people interested in those events.

Aim of the Book:

This book has two primary intertwining goals. First, Le Donne asks whether or not there is any evidence that Jesus was married. Second, he exposes “ancient and modern attempts to project sexual identities onto Jesus.” [1] Le Donne observes that we have assumed that Jesus was celibate and unmarried and that the burden of proof is on those who would suggest otherwise. [2] On the contrary, the author shows that young Galilean men in the first century were expected to be married, so the burden of proof actually lies with those who suggest that Jesus differed from his contemporaries in this regard. So, was Jesus married?

Summary of the Contexts:

In Chapter 1 (According to the Flesh) Le Donne asks, “…why is it so difficult to imagine a fully human Jesus who was married?” [3] He suggests that part of the problem is that we may be “projecting our own sexual hang-ups onto Jesus”. [4] In other words, as members of an overly sexualized culture we recognize that our own sexuality causes much shame and secrecy. We cannot imagine someone maintaining both a sexual identity and freedom from those things that embarrass us about ourselves. Since Jesus is an “archetype” human for many of us he is more easily understood as a “pure” virgin than as someone who delved into the messy world of human sexuality. Le Donne shows that this is not new with us. Early Christianity did the same thing with Jesus. Ascetic idealism and gnostic anti-materialism (amongst other things) were the factors that contributed to an understanding of a Jesus disconnected from the world in which we live.

Chapter 2 (Substance and Shadow) tackles one of the biggest objections to the idea of a married Jesus: no one mentions Jesus’ wife. This was one of my own objectionss when I began to read the book, but Le Donne does a fine job of showing how our androcentric histories have often marginalized and silenced women. Sometimes this has been intentional. Sometimes it has been an unfortunate by-product of the ancients writing about things that mattered to them that don’t always matter to us while failing to address things that matter to us (like Jesus having a wife) that weren’t important to them.

Le Donne shows how there are several places in the Gospels where women who we’d perceive to be important are either ignored or only mentioned in passing. This includes Jesus’ sisters, Peter’s wife (who we know only because Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law, implying he was married), the wives of the other disciples, and so forth. Women who do receive attention —like Salome and Mary Magdalene—come to have interesting and complicated reception histories.

Chapters 3 (Something about Mary) recounts how early Christians understood Mary Magdalene . In this chapter Le Donne helps readers understand the usefulness of what we call the “non-canonical Gospels” for our understanding of early Christianity. In these early chapters he discusses the Proto-Gospel of James, The Gospel of the Egyptians, The Gospel of Philip, The Gospel of Mary, and The Gospel of Thomas. These Gospels may not tell us much about the historical Jesus, but they do tell us about how Jesus was interpreted within the first few centuries, which in turn helps us better understand our own tendencies to reinterpret Jesus to fit our contemporary agendas, just like the ancients did.

In Chapter 4 (Mrs. Christ) Le Donne builds on the previous chapter by highlighting how Mary Magdalene has been misremembered as everything from a prostitute and to a queen (as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code presented her). In keeping with Le Donne’s goal of helping us see where we project our own sexuality on others there are few personalities that serves us better than Mary. In any given age Mary’s sexuality, morality, and relationship to Jesus often better reflected the present age than the historical realties being sought.

Le Donne traces Mary’s evolution from Pope Gregory I’s merging of “Mary Magdalene, Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus, and the nameless ‘sinner’ who washed and kissed the feet of Jesus in Luke 7” into one and the same person to modern reinterpretations of Mary including the Mary of Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ and the recently “discovered” (though likely forged) Gospel of Jesus’ Wife. [5] (Le Donne provides a excellent summary of the events surrounding this manuscript.) In Chapter 5 (Smithing Jesus)  Le Donne summarizes some of the other controversies of recent memory: Morton Smith’s The Secret Gospel of Mark which presented to us a gay Jesus and the polygamous Jesus of early Mormonism.

In Chapter 6 (From Persia, with Love) we begin to see how these modern controversies regarding Jesus’ status as married or single are guided by our own ideas about marriage as “romantic” or the result of “courtly love”. Le Donne helps the reader understand how marriage became a “romantic” idea in Europe which happens to be an idea that would have been foreign to the marriage arrangements of Jesus’ day.

Chapter 7 (Average Joe) is a historical reconstruction of marriage customs in Jesus’ day. Le Donne convincingly argues that if Jesus was married it would not have been the result of something like a romanic rendezvous with Mary, but a social arrangement determined primarily by his father, Joseph.

Chapter 8 (Alternative Lifestyle) is a fascinating discussion “civic masculinity” in Jesus’ day and how Jesus as the first born male of his family did not conform to the gender expectations of his time and place — a failure which would have brought much shame upon his family. Chapter 9  (Bride of Christ) is a very insightful and well-argued attempt at explaining why Jesus wasn’t remembered as married. Jesus’ own apocalypticism seems to have been the central motivation for challenging the social norms of his day (in other words, Jesus wasn’t merely an anti-institutional hippie, but someone who was convinced that the Kingdom of God was coming soon). The Jesus Movement redefined familial allegiance altogether with God as Father and King, Jesus seeing himself as a son, and eventually the Church coming to see itself as Jesus’ bride dependent upon Jesus the husband.

In Chapter 10 (Was Jesus Married?) Le Donne ties together the discussions from Chapters 6-9. In gist, Le Donne suggest that it would have been common place for Jesus to be married. Those who suggest that he was not are those with the burden of proof. Yet Jesus’ actions, teachings, apocalypticism, and how Jesus was remembered lead us to suggest that at least around the time when Jesus began his public ministry he was not married (though we cannot unequivocally deny that Jesus had been married at an earlier point).

Concluding Thoughts:

As I’ve written elsewhere, “Le Donne’s writing is scholarly, yet readable. He is honest, as objective as possible, careful with the facts, and cautious with speculation.” In the same previous blog post I wrote the following, which summarizes this book quite well:

For anyone aiming to make their studies of the historical Jesus, or early Christianity, or early Judaism accessible to the public without compromising the need for rigorous research I think this book can serve as a model. People who read it will be introduced with necessary levelheadedness to things that the media enjoys sensationalizing, such as The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, Morton Smith’s Secret Gospel of MarkThe Da Vinci Code, and those Gospels that were not canonized (e.g., Gospel of Peter, Thomas).

Methodologically this book is sound. Le Donne doesn’t ignore the memories of Jesus relayed to us by his earliest followers, but neither does he fail to ask the hard questions necessary for us to understand why Jesus seems to have been remembered as a man who did not establish a traditional family, but rather gathered an apocalyptic community around him that served as an alternative family.

This book reminds us that we don’t need to ignore important questions about Jesus like, “Was he married?” Neither do we need to chase the newest rumor about Jesus’ sexual identity or married life uncritically. While this book may not settle the question it sure does offer a very plausible explanation for why Jesus was likely not married while simultaneously reminding us that if Jesus wasn’t married this was not normal. Men in Jesus’ culture did marry. There were expectations for when they should marry and cultural procedures used to secure a bride for young Jewish men. If Jesus was not married then we must provide a (historical, not necessarily theological) rational for why he would have chosen to live counter-culturally in this way.

This book was provided for free by Oneworld Publications in exchanged for an unbiased review.

__________

[1] p. 147

[2] p. 25

[3] p. 9

[4] Ibid.

[5] p. 54

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