The Lost Gospel: Unpacking what's behind the Jesus and Mary marriage theory

Mary Magdalene by Guido Reni, 1616.Collection des Princes du Liechtenstein

Two authors, Israeli-Canadian writer Simcha Jacobovici and York University Professor Barrie Wilson, claim in The Lost Gospel that a 1,500-year-old papyrus in the British Library says that Jesus and Mary were married.

It is the latest in a long line of books to posit that Jesus was married to Mary, and has sent the internet into a predictable meltdown. So what's it all about really? 

Haven't we heard this before?

Oh, yes. It is a theme which pops up periodically. Nikos Kazantzakis used it in The Last Temptation of Christ in 1953, long before the internet, and Dan Brown used it in The Da Vinci Code. Both of these are FICTION.

Anything special about the latest one?

Jacobovici and Wilson say that a 6th-century Syriac work called Joseph and Aseneth is really about Jesus and Mary; the names were disguises.

How likely is it that they're right?

On a scale of one to 10, where one is very improbable indeed, it's somewhere in the high minuses. Read a takedown here if you are a scholarly type, or here if you want to be amused as well.

But the Jesus and Mary thing keeps coming back. Is there any evidence at all to support it?

Little to none. In the 3rd-century Gospel of Philip Mary is depicted as Jesus' 'koinonos' or companion; in the 5th-century Gospel of Mary Jesus is said to have "loved [Mary] more than the rest of women". There is also a 4th-centuryCoptic fragment including the words "Jesus said to them, 'my wife...'". It was called The Gospel of Jesus's Wife for reference purposes, but Prof Karen King, who discovered it, said that it "should not be taken as proof that Jesus, the historical person, was actually married".

Why is it such a big deal?

Interesting question. The assumption is that Jesus was not married because no wife was ever mentioned in the four canonical Gospels. But singleness and virginity loomed very large in Christian thinking, particularly in the Western tradition, thanks to St Augustine, who was very negative about the whole sex thing. It became impossible to think of Jesus in that way. Add in a former prostitute, and it's just not going to happen.

No! Was she really?

Afraid not. She has been wrongly identified with the repentant sinner in Luke 7: 36-50.

Back to Jesus, though: the argument from silence is a bit weak, isn't it?

The truly honest answer is that we don't know whether he was married or not. It would have been unusual for someone capable of supporting a wife not to have been married by the age of 30. It has been convincingly argued that Paul was married (though widowed) as it was a requirement for rabbis. However, against this is the question of Jesus' parentage; some scholars argue that he carried a stigma of illegitimacy (in Mark 6:3 he is called "the son of Mary", not Joseph) that would have meant he was an undesirable match.

Does it really matter?

Again, an interesting question. Some might argue that it makes him more 'human'. Others would rightly ask what that says about single people. For most people thinking about Jesus in a sexual content is just not on; though Hebrews 4:15 says that he was "tempted in every respect just as we are", so that's quite wrong. It is probably best to assume that he was not married, but to critique our own theological and other hang-ups about sex as we do so.

Are any reputable biblical scholars backing The Lost Gospel?

No.

Isn't this just because they tend to be Christians and are terrified at this challenge to their faith?

Again, no. They may be Christians, but they also work in the cut-throat, kill-or-be-killed world of academia. Any scholar who could establish that Jesus and Mary were married would have libraries named after them, win the most glittering prizes and never need to work again. Go figure.

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