Jesus and Marriage? A Theological Response | R. Jared Staudt, Ph.D. | Homiletic & Pastoral Review
The celibacy of Jesus, and the Christian response to it, is ultimately a question of love, an intimate relation that is hard to grasp for modern man looking in from the outside.
On September 18, 2012, Karen L. King introduced an alleged Coptic papyrus fragment, which speaks of a wife of Jesus. The Christian response to the discovery of this fragment has been overwhelmingly historical in nature, focusing on either the inauthenticity of the fragment or the lack of evidence in the Gospels to support the claim. This approach has been significant, raising doubts on its authenticity based on striking parallels with the Gospel of Thomas and certain grammatical irregularities. Only to respond on this level, however, seems to play into the comments that King herself made during her press conference in Rome: “Christian tradition has long held that Jesus was not married, even though no reliable historical evidence exists to support that claim.” 1 In order to respond fully and adequately to a position alleging a marriage for Jesus, it is necessary to complement the historical response from a theological perspective. Even if the fragment were authentically from the fourthcentury, Christians could still be able to affirm confidently the celibacy of Jesus, drawing on the Gospels’ portrayal of, and the Church’s unbroken teaching in, the divine identity of Christ and his mission as Savior of the world. The need for such a response is significant given the climate of contemporary culture in relation to sexuality and its questions about the identity of Jesus in relation to sexuality and marriage. The debate surrounding the papyrus fragment is only the most recent in a series of popular presentations of Jesus having a wife. In response to these claims, this article seeks to demonstrate the overwhelming theological evidence necessary to support the Church’s teaching on Jesus’ celibacy. It will draw upon Scripture, the Church’s magisterium, and the Catholic theological tradition, especially St. Thomas Aquinas and Bl. John Paul II, to demonstrate the incompatibility of marriage with the identity and mission of Christ. It will conclude by addressing the root of the question in contemporary culture, which uses the question of marriage precisely to question this identity and mission.
The Testimony of the Magisterium and Tradition
The first argument in favor of Jesus’ celibacy is the unanimous witness of the Church through the centuries. It is true that Scripture is silent on the topic of a wife of Jesus, at least directly, but the Church has not been silent. Unlike an historical document, or a fragment dug out of the past for that matter, the Church has a living and continuous voice and witness concerning Christ. While there are no major pronouncements from a Council or any great theological treatises concerning Jesus and marriage, Christians have always held to Jesus’ celibacy. One example of a treatment of the topic from the Fathers, however, can be found from writings of St. Ambrose: “Don’t you see that Christ is chastity, Christ is integrity?” 2 Even if the topic were not regularly addressed, the absence of official pronouncements and theological controversy is significant in its own right. The issue was simply not controversial, with Jesus’s celibacy being accepted by orthodox Christians unanimously.
The place where the celibacy of Jesus is explicit in Christian thought is in the Church’s pronouncements on priestly celibacy.