(Jn. 20:17) Was Jesus married to Mary Magdelene?

CLAIM: Here, Mary Magdalene is “clinging” to Jesus. In this culture, men and women wouldn’t relate like this. Also, in Luke 7:36-39, a woman who is a “sinner” or prostitute lets down her hair and kisses Jesus’ feet (thought to be Mary Magdalene). This was scandalous behavior to see between a woman and rabbi in this culture. Moreover, critics argue that the Gospel of Philip (63:33-36) and the Gospel of Mary (17:10-18:21) also mention Jesus “kissing” Mary often. In addition, it was customary for a Jewish rabbi to be married—not single—at this time. This perspective was popularly put forth by Dan Brown’s fictional novel The Da Vinci Code.

RESPONSE: Many Bible believers have no theological objection with Jesus being married. God created marriage, and he called it “good” in the Genesis creation record. God uses marriage as an illustration for his relationship with his people in the OT (Jer. 31:32), and he has no problem using marriage to describe the way he relates to humans. Instead, they have historical objections with Jesus being married. In other words, many Bible believers have no objection to Jesus being married if he was. However, the Bible clearly teaches that he wasn’t. There are a number of reasons for believing that Jesus was single.

First, celibacy was actually not looked down upon in first century Judaism. Many Jewish Essenes were known for their celibacy (Josephus, Jewish War; Philo, Hypothetica 11.14-17), and Josephus states that the Jews admired the celibacy of the Essenes:

It also deserves our admiration, how much they exceed all other men that addict themselves to virtue, and this in righteousness; and indeed to such a degree, that as it hath never appeared among any other men… There are about four thousand men that live in this way, and neither marry wives (Josephus Antiquities

From this passage, we can infer that the Jews found it a “virtue” of “righteousness” to remain unmarried. Therefore, Jesus’ celibacy was not unusual for his culture; in fact, it was extolled as virtuous. In addition to this, Jesus’ actions were typically countercultural. Therefore, even if the culture didn’t believe in celibacy, it’s possible that Jesus was carving out a different path.

Second, there is no mention of Jesus being married in any ancient source—Christian or non-Christian. In fact, the silence is deafening! For instance, Paul makes an argument for his right to take a wife. He writes, “Do we not have a right to take along a believing wife, even as the rest of the apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?” (1 Cor. 9:5) Here, Paul appeals to Cephas (or Peter) having a wife to show that he has the right to take a wife, too. If Jesus was married, why wouldn’t Paul appeal to Jesus’ marriage, instead?

We have only two references of Jesus kissing Mary and no references to Jesus being married in all of extra-biblical literature! Post-Constantinian Christianity (~AD 325) venerated Jesus’ mother Mary to an extraordinary degree. Many scholars believe that this was a cultural phenomenon to have a female object of veneration, which was common in the Greco-Roman world of this time. However, if there was any historical record of Jesus having a wife, why wouldn’t they have purported her to venerate instead? And yet, there is no trace of Mary being married to Jesus in early Christian history whatsoever. Scholar Darrell Bock writes,

In my office there are thirty-eight volumes of early church documents, each of several hundred pages, double columns, in small print. The fact that out of all of this material, only two texts can be brought forward as even ancient candidates for the theory shows how utterly unlikely it is.[1]

Therefore, we have both a strong motive for finding a wife of Jesus (because of post-Constantinian veneration of Jesus’ mother Mary), and we have no mention of a wife of Jesus (even in the non-Christian sources). The sinful woman of Luke 7 is never identified as Mary Magdalene or as a prostitute. Mary Magdalene is introduced in Luke 8:2, but Luke does not connect her with the woman in the previous chapter. If Mary Magdalene was the sinful woman of Luke 7, surely Luke would have mentioned this. The first mention of Mary Magdalene being a prostitute comes from Pope Gregory in 591—not from the Bible.[2]

Third, these Gnostic texts are hundreds of years later than the canonical gospels. For instance, the Gospel of Philip dates to the second half of the third century (~200 years after Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). The Gospel of Mary dates at least to the middle of the second century (~100 years after). The four gospels are more historically reliable for this reason.

Fourth, these passages about Jesus kissing Mary (from Gnostic gospels) could refer to the “holy kiss.” The NT describes a “holy kiss” between believers in Christ (Rom. 16:16). In the Gnostic text Gospel of Philip, we read, “And the companion of the […] Mary Magdalene. […] loved her more than all the disciples, and used to kiss her often on her mouth” (63:33-36). However, earlier in the Gospel of Philip, a kiss is a harmless way to give and receive grace: “For it is by a kiss that the perfect conceive and give birth. For this reason we also kiss one another. We receive conception from the grace which is in one another” (58:34-59:4).

Fifth, for these reasons, even highly critical scholars do not believe Jesus was married. For instance, Darrell Bock writes, “One of the few things on which a vast majority of liberal and conservative Jesus scholars agree is that Jesus was single.”[3] Even Jesus Seminar scholar John Dominic-Crossan writes,

There is an ancient and venerable principle of biblical exegesis which states that if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it must be a camel in disguise. So let’s apply that to whether or not Jesus was married. There is no evidence that Jesus was married (looks like a duck), multiple indications that he was not (walks like a duck), and no early texts suggesting wife or children (quacks like a duck)… So he must be an incognito bridegroom (camel in disguise).[4]

Recently (in 2012), an ancient papyrus fragment from the fourth century was discovered that claims that Jesus had a wife. One of the lines reads: “Jesus said to them [his disciples], my wife…” However, there are definite problems with using this manuscript to claim that Jesus was married. For one, this is one manuscript from the fourth century. We would have to pit this one manuscript against the mountain of early manuscript evidence that states Jesus was single. Also, other scholars claim that this manuscript is actually a fake. NT scholar Francis Watson claimed that it was a modern forgery. After closely analyzing the papyrus fragment, he writes, “I would be very surprised if it were not a modern forgery.”

[1] Bock, Darrell L. Breaking The Da Vinci Code: Answers to the Questions Everyone’s Asking. Nashville: Nelson, 2004. 27.

[2] Bock, Darrell L. Breaking The Da Vinci Code: Answers to the Questions Everyone’s Asking. Nashville: Nelson, 2004. 28.

[3] Bock, Darrell L. Breaking The Da Vinci Code: Answers to the Questions Everyone’s Asking. Nashville: Nelson, 2004. 33.

[4] John Dominic-Crossan “Why Jesus Didn’t Marry” http://www.beliefnet.com/Entertainment/Movies/The-Da-Vinci-Code/Why-Jesus-Didnt-Marry.aspx.