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Tales From the Hollywood Zone: Was Jesus actually married?

You probably heard the story before a hundred times before.

A Catholic scholar, devoted to the Church and its doctrines throughout his life, died and went to Heaven, where he was greeted by St. Peter. For his heavenly reward, the scholar asked to see the heavenly archives where he could examine the original manuscripts of the New Testament. Hours later, St. Peter discovers that the scholar is distraught by what his eyes had discovered. One of the main tenets of the manuscript that was believed to state that all members, “…should stay celibate in all matters of sex…” has been found to be in error. The new translation has found the phrase to more accurately read that members, “…should stay, and celebrate in all matters of sex…” In other words, “Celebrate,” not “Celibate!”

The Church and sex . . . it sort of reminds me of the biblical prohibition against mixing meat and milk together–well, guess what? They don’t mix!

Well recently at my Introduction to Judaism class, one of my conversion students asked me the following two questions: “After reading the Da Vinci Codes, I began to wonder: Was Jesus actually married? Was a rabbi of that era supposed to be married? Secondly, what did you think of the movie’s overall premise?”

Let me say from the outset, that in ancient times, there was no official office of the rabbinate in the first century; generally speaking the epithet “rabbi” was an honorific title. Oftentimes, a wise person was called a “Chacham” (a Sage), or “Abba” since a spiritual teacher was considered to be like one who had given birth to a child or a disciple. Let us now examine the issues this person raised.

Now with respect to the old question, “Was Jesus ever mary-ied?” (great pun on “Mary”) The Talmud records an interesting question about Rav Huna (216-296) of Babylon. He is recorded as saying to one of his student, “‘See to it that you do not appear before me again before you are married,’ said he.” The Talmudic redactor observes, that R. Huna felt that “A man who has reached twenty years of age and still has not married, he will spend all his days in sin. ‘In sin’ — can you really think so? — But say, spends all his days in sinful thoughts.”

Another teacher, Rava (Abba ben Joseph bar Ḥama, ca. 280-350) adds, “The Academy of R. Ishmael also taught until the age of twenty, the Holy One, blessed be He, sits and waits. When will he take a wife? As soon as one attains twenty and has not married, he exclaims, ‘Blasted be his bones!’”  In the discussion that immediately follows, the Talmud cites a view from R. Hisda, who got married at a much younger age than 20. He recalls, “The reason that I am superior to my colleagues is that I married at sixteen. And had I married at fourteen, I would have said to Satan, ‘An arrow in your eye.’” [1]

It would be fairly safe to say that many Jews in the first century generally got married at a fairly young age so that they could fulfill the precept of raising a family. One rabbinic aphorism attributed to Ben Azzai (ca. 2nd century) reads: “Whosoever abstains from the precept of procreation is considered as if he shed blood” (T.B. Yebamoth 63b). Despite Ben Azzai’s endorsement of marriage, Ben Azzai remained a bachelor for all of his life, although some rabbinic traditions claim that he was married for a short period of time and got divorced. When accused of not practicing what he preached, he answered: “What shall I do if my soul yearns for Torah? The world can be performed by others” (Ibid.).

After Ben Azzai died, people used to say, “With the passing of Ben Azzai, diligent scholars passed from the earth” (Sot. 9:15). His intellectual pursuits were intensely passionate; he never wanted to be distracted from his Torah studies.

Perhaps Jesus had a similar attitude; and for that reason, he never married. On the other hand, perhaps he did get married; in all likelihood we cannot  know for sure. New Testament scholars readily admit that we know practically nothing about Jesus’ formative years.  This question is of little importance to Jews per se, but is obviously important to Catholics who have long rejected the idea of marriage as a biblical ideal for all of its spiritual leaders, which would explain why celibacy is so important in the Catholic faith.

Now, with respect to the Da Vinci Codes, Brown seems to take the goddess imagery a bit too far.  The protagonist Professor Langdon, observes, “The Grail,” Langdon said, “is symbolic of the lost goddess. When Christianity came along, the old pagan religions did not die easily. Legends of chivalric quests for the Holy Grail were in fact stories of forbidden quests to find the lost sacred feminine. Knights who claimed to be “searching for the chalice” were speaking in code as a way to protect themselves from a Church that had subjugated women, banished the Goddess, burned non-believers, and forbidden the pagan reverence for the sacred feminine.” [2]

The book suggests an interesting archetypal spin: a woman’s body is symbolically a container and makes a container symbolically a woman’s body. And that container has a name every Christian will recognize, for Brown claims that the Holy Grail was actually Mary Magdalene. She was the vessel that held the blood of Jesus Christ in her womb while bearing his children.

The novel exploits the Church’s long history of misogyny because it is an easy target to attack. However, the idea that the church wants to hide the importance of Mary Magdalene as one of the early disciples, involves a teleological leap of faith (as Kierkegaard might say). It is absurd to say that the Gnostic gospels are more pro-women than the Bible or traditional theology–especially when the exact opposite happens to be more accurate.

In the Gospel of Thomas, Mary is described as being given the ultimate reward for her devotion as one of Jesus’ disciples and apostles: Jesus performs a sex change on her (without surgery!) “Simon Peter said to them, ‘Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of Life.’ Jesus said, ‘I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven’” (114).

Gadzooks, what do we have here?! Shades of Gnostic sexism?!

Needless to say, no such teaching can be found in the Gospel narratives, but the Gospel of Thomas (ca. 117 C.E.)  reeks with the kind of sexism that existed in the Gnostic age of Late Antiquity.

Tom Hanks is a great actor; he made the movie quite entertaining, but I would not take the film too seriously. The Da Vinci Codes is fine work of fiction–that is all it is.

I have often thought that Midrash–regardless of its form, whether it be literary, cinematic, artistic, or whatever–says more about our desire to interpret the world in categories we find most familiar. Midrash says more about the interpreter than it does about a given biblical text. There can be no doubt that the Da Vinci Codes says more about its author Dan Brown, than it does about the origins of the NT.

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Notes:

[1] BT Kiddushin 30a-b.

[2] The Da Vinci Code, 238-239.



Discussion

  1. Yochanan Lavie  March 7, 2010

    I don’t believe the Da Vinci Code, but Jesus was probably married. The wedding at Cana was probably his marriage; he acts like the host (no pun) there. The celibacy stuff is an influence from other traditions, just as Christianity was influenced by Greco-Roman religion and philosophies.

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  2. Mary  March 7, 2010

    The Da Vinci Code is just another example of how authors, book publishers, and Hollywood studios try to use Christianity as a way to make money. I really doubt that Mary Magdalene was married to Jesus.

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  3. admin  March 7, 2010

    If he was married, his wife probably would have been at the crucifixion.

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  4. Yochanan Lavie  March 7, 2010

    Inconvenient facts are often written out of official histories. Jesus would not have been taken seriously at his time if he wasn’t married. When early Christianity became influenced by aestheticism, his marriage would have been inconvenient. His descendants probably quietly blended in with the Jewish community.

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