This week, we celebrate Valentine’s Day. In the third century when Claudius II was the Roman Emperor, Saint Valentine helped persecuted Christians and secretly married Christian couples. For this he was captured, beaten by clubs and beheaded by Rome on the 14th of February.
The notion of secret marriage brings me to Mary Magdalene. For two millennia people have wondered whether there was a secret marriage between Mary Magdalene and Jesus. So, who was she, and was she married to Jesus?
She is famous because she was the first one to meet the resurrected Jesus and a source of speculation for two millennia because who she was to Jesus is shrouded in mystery. Her name is correctly Mary of Magdala, because she came from Magdala, a village along the shore of the Sea of Galilee located in northern Israel. She is the one that Jesus had cast seven demons out of (Mk 16:9, Lk 8:2).
There are several Mary’s featured in the Gospels and some think one or more of the unnamed women that Jesus interacted with are Mary Magdalene. However, those are guesses, not evidence. Many in pop culture have also labeled Mary Magdalene as a prostitute but there is no evidence for that.
Later extra-Biblical texts elaborate on her significance. One is the gospel of Philip, written approximately in the late 2nd or early part of the 3rd century and found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt. The writer says there were three women called Mary who always walked with Jesus. They were Mary his “mother,” Mary his “sister,” and Mary Magdalene “his companion.”
The gospel of Mary is another manuscript from the Nag Hammadi collection that describes Mary Magdalene. In it, Peter tells her, “Sister, we know that the Savior loved you more than the rest of women. Tell us the words of the Savior which you remember – which you know (but) we do not, nor have we heard them.” But when Mary recounts what Jesus taught Andrew does not believe her. Peter also questioned whether Jesus would really have spoken to a woman privately without their knowledge and questioned if they should listen and if Jesus really preferred “her to us?” Mary gets upset, weeps and asks Peter how he can think she would lie. Following this Levi (another name for Matthew) defends Mary. He goes on to tell Peter that he has always been hot-tempered and now he contends against a woman like an adversary: “if the Savior made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her? Surely the Savior knows her very well. That is why he loved her more than us.” He goes on to say that they should not lay down any rule or law “beyond what the Savior said.”
Another text mentioning Mary is the gospel of Peter, found at another location in Egypt. There is evidence that it existed in the 3rd century but could be older. It is short and relays Jesus’ death and resurrection. In it Mary Magdalene is a “disciple of the Lord” who had not yet been able to do at the “sepulcher the things which women are wont to do for those that die and for those that are beloved by them” such as weep and lament and then she finally “took her friends with her and came to the sepulcher where he was laid” on the “Lord’s day” (Sunday).
The Didascalia is an ancient script known to Epiphanius in the 4th century who considered it Apostolic. Mary Magdalene is called a disciple (chap. XV) as well as a deaconess (chap. XVI). In another text named Miscallenous Coptic texts in the dialect of upper Egypt (Budge, 1915), the title “mother” is passed on to Mary Magdalene, who is about to go to the Jerusalem in heaven. She will now be the one to represent a group of virgins, in what appears as a depiction of the first Christian female monastery.
These texts are all examples of the early church’s continued interest in Mary Magdalene’s special relation to Jesus. She called him “Rabboni,” meaning “Teacher” (John 20:16) and was the leading figure of those who went to lament and care for Jesus’ body at the tomb in all the canonical Gospels. Because she had a close relationship with Jesus but not related by blood some speculate if she was Jesus’ wife.
If Jesus was married the only likely candidate would be Mary Magdalene but the New Testament is silent on this. If there was anything romantic between Mary Magdalene and Jesus, they would not have been physically intimate outside of marriage. That was out of the question for a Torah-adhering Rabbi. It is important to understand the weight Jesus put on matrimony. The Pharisees asked Jesus if it was permitted to divorce a wife for any reason, and he responded by asking if they had not read the Scriptures where God instituted marriage between the man and woman who became one flesh. What God has joined no man should put asunder. The Pharisees then asked him why Moses gave them the right to divorce and Jesus answered it was because of the hardness of the human heart but it was not so from the beginning. The only valid reason to separate was, according to Jesus, for sexual immorality (Mt 19:3-9). This highlighted the bond that occurred in the sexual union. It was the most powerful of all and only granted in marriage.
After Jesus answered the question regarding divorce the disciples in turn wondered if it was better to not to marry at all. Jesus then described eunuchs saying that some were born that way, others made so by men, while others made themselves eunuchs “for the kingdom of heaven’s sake” (Mt 19:12). A eunuch was an emasculated man, incapable of intercourse through either birth defect or castration. The Hebrews did not practice castration, but other nations did. However, voluntary celibacy—for the Kingdom of heaven—existed among Jews, and Jesus validated it here.
Jesus expounded on eunuchs because it parted from the standard understanding that one should marry. At creation God blessed the man and woman and told them to be “fruitful,” “multiply,” and “fill the earth” (Gen. 1:28). The disciples appear to have been discouraged by the strict reasons to divorce. If they could not live up to that perhaps it was better to not marry. This could suggest that Jesus was married since he was seemingly not a role-model for the disciples to be single. In Jesus’ time the Essenes practiced voluntary celibacy which could suggest that he was originally an Essene if he was not married. Jesus could have also been single because he had not found someone he wanted to marry. Contrary to popular belief, economics and other social reasons did not exclude love as a driving force. The strongest reason not to marry for Jesus though would undoubtedly have been his mission as the Messiah that led to the fate he knew awaited him on the cross.
Paul, a Pharisee, chose to be celibate for his faith. Paul discussed marriage on several occasions and among other things said, “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain single as I do. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry” (I Cor 7:8-9). He also encouraged believers to stay in the state they were in—married or unmarried—because he believed the second coming was imminent (1 Cor. 7:25-40). On one occasion he asked, “Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a wife, as the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?” (1 Cor 9:5). Paul is talking about the right to bring a wife along when they received food and drink (v. 4) while evangelizing. Clearly, Paul was not opposed to the Apostles being married and seemed to want to be married himself at this point. In passing, we read that Peter was married (Mt 8:14, Mk 1:30, Lk 4:38) as well as Philip because he had two daughters (Acts 21:9).
Many say that the lack of any mention that Jesus was married means he was not. For instance, when Paul discussed the Apostles being married, he could have brought that up. However, one can just as well wonder why Paul did not invoke Jesus’ unmarried state when he defended being single. That would have given him the strongest case.
If Jesus was married, it could be that the Gospel writers, Paul, Peter and the others deliberately avoided stating it to protect his family. Eusebius wrote that Hegesippius (ca 110-180) recorded that the Roman Emperor, “Vespasian, after the capture of Jerusalem, ordered a search to be made for all who were of the family of David that there might be left among the Jews no one of the royal family and, for this reason, a very great persecution was again inflicted on the Jews” (Eusebius: Eccl Hist, book 3, chap.12). Vespasian was emperor 69-79 A.D. and since Jesus was executed for being the “Son of God”—a competing title with the Roman Emperor—and a descendent of King David, the search for Jesus’ family would intensify if he had a son constituting a greater threat to Rome. Later, when Domitian was emperor (81-96 A.D.) he ordered the execution of anyone who belonged to the family of David, because they were afraid of the coming of Christ. At that time, the grandsons of Judas, who was a brother of Jesus, lived. Rome questioned them about how much money they had and so forth. They explained that they had some land they worked hard on to survive, showing their hands and skin toughened by manual labor. When asked about the Kingdom of Christ they explained that it was not of this world, but heavenly, and that Christ would come at the end of the world to judge the living and the dead. Upon this the Roman officials released them and “despised them as simple folk” (Eusebius: Eccl Hist, book 3, chap.20). So, Jesus’ family was hunted down long after he was crucified because they not only feared Jesus’ descendants but Jesus’ second coming. Many Christians thought this was impending, and Rome knew it.
All this brings me to the gospel of Jesus’ wife. In 2012 Harvard Divinity Professor Karen King announced the existence of a 4th century Coptic fragment where Jesus speaks of Mary as his wife. This was headlined as a bombshell discovery. Two leading Coptic papyrus experts confirmed the text to be of ancient origin based on several criteria before it was public. But, once out in the open, some immediately contested the authenticity of the Coptic after seeing photos of it. Carbon dating proved unreliable due to different readings although it showed it was written at least over a millennia ago, and experts believed the ink to be genuine. More information surfaced about the person who had given it to Professor King which revealed quite a shady character. However, that is not proof for falsification. One academician, Dr. Askeland, thought it was a fraud because Dr. King was also given another fragment which he said was forged because every other line was copied from the Gnostic gospel of John. Others concluded it was false because the gospel of Jesus’ wife had lines found in the Gnostic gospel of Thomas. One of them concerns Mary being “worthy” and includes a typo which is identical to one in the gospel of Thomas. However, if an ancient scribe copied lines from the gospel of Thomas, it could simply mean that the typo was duplicated as well. People had various levels of linguistic knowledge then too. If the copied lines were not in the same order as the original, it is important to remember that some Gnostic manuscripts such as the gospel of Thomas strongly appear to be a compilation of older small notes. You have paragraphs from the canonical Gospels inserted in between other passages that are previously unknown or known in other Gnostic or canonical texts. Copied lines, or bad grammar, are not conclusive proof of forgery.
Most Christians, as well as scholars, do not believe this papyrus is genuine. However, since there is no conclusive evidence either way, I want to address what this fragment says. Below are the translated lines of both sides of this small Coptic piece:
1 ] “not [to] me. My mother gave to me li[fe…”
2 ] .” The disciples said to Jesus, “.
[ 3 ] deny. Mary is (not?) worthy of it
[ 4 ]…” Jesus said to them, “My wife . .
[ 5 ]… she is able to be my disciple . .
[ 6 ] . Let wicked people swell up …
[ 7] . As for me, I am with her1 in order to .
[ 8 ] . an image … [
1 ] my moth[er
2 ] thr[ee
3 ] … [
4 ] forth …[
5-6 ] (untranslatable) [
What I find striking here is where Jesus says, “my mother gave to me li[fe]” This line is not given any attention because the great implications it could carry are ignored. It is also found in the gospel of Thomas and could, in my opinion, be based on the Gospel according to the Hebrews. Several reliable early sources claimed it was Matthew’s original Gospel and quotes Jesus calling the Holy Spirit “my mother” in it. My two books address the significance and scope of this extensively (as well as earlier blogs).
In the gospel of Thomas the line “my mother gave me life” comes after the passage from Luke 14:26 where Jesus say you cannot be his disciple unless you hate your father and mother. It is just slightly differently worded. The relevant line in Thomas reads,
For my mother [ . . . ]. But [my] true [mother] gave me life.
The brackets mean that this is damaged or for some other reason not possible to read. When these brackets are filled in it is a scholarly guess as to what is missing. In another version of this Nag Hammadi text a scholar has filled in the first empty bracket with the words “gave me falsehood.” It is my guess that it instead would be something like, “bore me” because Jesus likely presented a contrast between being born into earthly life from Mother Mary and being born again to eternal life via the feminine Holy Spirit (see John 3:3-6).
The wording reveals Jesus’ belief in the Holy Spirit as his divine Mother which may explain Jesus’ defense of Mary Magdalene as wife, and disciple based on the role the feminine Spirit presents in relation to the male Yahweh. This could be why these passages appear together in the gospel of Jesus’ wife if it is authentic.
It is possible that, if forged, the gospel of Jesus’ wife fragment included the phrase “my mother gave me life” and Mary being “worthy” borrowed from the gospel of Thomas to give it a believable context for Mary being Jesus’ wife but without any deeper thought of the meanings. The phrase, “my moth[er]” on the backside would have added to this. Since the Gospel of the Hebrews is nearly entirely unknown or ignored it is unlikely that that some obscure criminal put together a line about Jesus’ wife with “my mother gave me life” to signal that the Holy Spirit is Jesus’ divine Mother. It is either a forged coincidence or perhaps an indication of the fragment being authentic.
If the gospel of Jesus’ wife fragment is genuine, what would that mean? It would merely fall into the category of other extra-Biblical texts that claim Mary was special to Jesus. We would still have to go by what the Bible says, read between the lines and guess about certain things. If we find an early copy of the Gospel of the Hebrews, that may shed light on this. Notice too, all these texts elevating Mary Magdalene were almost certainly written by men. The incentive for a man to invent exaltations of a woman as Jesus’ wife may not be plausible, unless it was an attempt to oppose to the church’s later push for a celibate priesthood.
There are valid arguments for both sides regarding Jesus’ marital state which leaves us in limbo. I will close out with this: at the tomb Jesus called Mary Magdalene by name and told her, “Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (John 20:17). Her first instinct was to hold him, and Jesus in turn trusted her to tell his male disciples about his resurrection.
Happy Valentine’s Day.