Printer Friendly

Itinerating wives and Mary Magdalene.

Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code (1) has launched a wide search to find any factual basis for what Brown claims to be anchored in history. His novel--as well as an earlier one on which he relies, Holy Blood, Holy Grail (2)--borrows from my 1970 book, Was Jesus Married? (3) After researching that question in a thorough manner, I concluded that he probably was married, and possibly to Mary Magdalene.

Regarding marriage among leaders in early Christianity, firm historical data is contained in 1 Cor 9:5, which pertains to spouses itinerating. After Paul defends his unmarried status in 1 Corinthians 7, he goes on to admit that marriage was the standard practice among church leaders--even though he and Barnabas have not exercised their marital right. Paul asks, "Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas [Peter]?" Second-century historian Hegesippus also indicates that Judas, one of the Lord's brothers, was married. (4) Clement of Alexandria explains that those wives functioned as evangelistic co-partners: "It was through them that the Lord's teaching penetrated also the women's quarters without any scandal being aroused." (5) The New Testament indicates that successful marriage was a main criterion for choosing bishops, elders, and deacons for office. Being a good husband and father was viewed as displaying an aptitude for the wider responsibility of ministering to "the household of faith" (1 Tim 3:2, 5, 12; Titus 1:6; Gal 6:10).

Yet, some have relied on 1 Cor 9:5 to show that the founder of Christianity was not married. Catholic scholar Richard McBrien cited it in rejecting my position, but he has since allowed that Jesus and Mary Magdalene might have been married. (6) For Anglican Bishop John Robinson, that verse provided the "decisive" evidence: "If Jesus, like his brothers, had been known to have been married, it is inconceivable that Paul would not have appealed to the fact." (7) However, a conceivable reason why he did not mention Jesus along with the others who traveled with their wives is that he was describing the current practice of persons engaged in mission activity decades after Jesus' death. A more plausible Pauline argument from silence pertaining to Jesus' marital status can be found in 1 Cor 7:25, where the apostle admits that he had received no guidance about celibacy from traditions about Jesus. If such had been his lifestyle, Paul could have strengthened his position by pointing to that model.

The lifestyle for missionary travel when Paul was writing was probably similar to the pattern established by Jesus when he and his disciples were spreading the gospel. Luke 8:1-3 as well as 1 Cor 9:5 tell about gunai accompanying the men. The Greek word gunai designates, according to context, either "women" or "wives," and in the New Testament it more often has the specific meaning. Etymologically it is associated with gone, a mother, the root word for "gynecology." In some verses where "woman" is found in older English versions, "wife" is sometimes now recognized as the better translation. In Luke's Gospel, gunai is used in different contexts to refer to spouses of particular husbands and to women generally, unmarried or married.

In view of the danger that a parent would surely have seen in permitting a single daughter to live with men, it can be assumed that all of the respectable women who went from village to village with Jesus and his disciples had married. Indeed, the very thought of a traveling ladies' aid society composed of virgins is so unfitting in first-century Palestine as to be ludicrous! Even today such an arrangement would be suspect. Some of the women might have been widows, but some probably were wives of the men with whom they camped. Otherwise Jesus' opponents would probably have called them whores.

In Gospel records of itinerating gunai, Mary Magdalene is honored by usually heading the lists, even as Peter is so treated in the male disciple listings. What gave her special prominence? That first gune companion of Jesus whom Luke names may have been his wife. The stated role of women in that traveling band was to "provide for" the men. This suggests that they brought in food and prepared meals, one traditional function of wives.


Mary Magdalene not only was with Jesus in Galilee but was among the women who journeyed with him until he was crucified in Jerusalem (Mk 15:40-41). Moreover, in one account she seeks to claim Jesus' corpse, a next-of-kin duty. That Easter story also tells of her postmortem vision of Jesus when she came to realize that she could no longer physically hug him (Jn 20:15-18).

When on a training mission, the disciples traveled "two by two" and lodged wherever accommodations could be found (Lk 10:1-7). Far from asking married Peter and the others to become celibate, Jesus sent them out in pairs, which may well have been husband-and-wife teams. Since it is plausible to assume that some wives were present in the band of Jesus from its inception, there is no reason for postulating a basic change in attitude toward spousal partnership after the apostles witnessed Jesus' resurrection.

Tertullian, the eminent third-century patristic, followed Paul's understanding of gunai when he stated, "The apostles too were allowed to marry and take their wives with them." But later he became more ascetic and reinterpreted New Testament verses according to his bias. He then asserted that Paul had in mind "simply the unmarried women who used to minister to the apostles in the same way as they did when accompanying the Lord." (8) Jerome, assuming virginity to be prerequisite to the saintly life, translated gune in the Latin Vulgate as mulier (woman) rather than uxor (wife). Consequently, he indulged in this eisegesis, "James, the brother of the Lord ... was distinguished by perpetual virginity." (9) For many centuries the false interpretation of that alleged authority prevailed, but translators now display no doubt that Paul was referring to wives.

The heavy impact of Jerome and Augustine, who equated even having sexual desire with sin, has made it difficult to understand the marital mores of people who were part of the Jewish culture, such as Jesus and Mary Magdalene. The outlook of those church fathers spread in Europe, resulting eventually in the Vatican mandating celibacy for priests. My book Clerical Celibacy (10) traces how that requirement, allegedly to follow Jesus' example, has been the source of many of the sexual irregularities of Catholic clergy over the past millennium.

Commonly even biblical scholars claim that the New Testament suggests nothing about Jesus being married. That may be dependent on whether it is read in the original Greek or in translation. A linguistic case can be made that Jesus and other married disciples traveled together in Palestine and that the apostles continued the pattern of itinerating with their wives. But even if nothing were said about Jesus being married, it does not follow that he chose to be celibate. The absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence.

It is sound to assume that Jesus followed the mores of his people unless there is reliable evidence to the contrary. Along with all fathers in his culture, Joseph of Nazareth was responsible in his culture for finding spouses for his children at puberty (11) and would probably have arranged marriage for Jesus as well as for his younger brothers. In Judaism holiness was associated with being espoused, and only married men could become religious leaders. (12)

Those who are disturbed by the thought of Jesus being married to Mary Magdalene may show little more than that they are carriers of a Gentile heritage of presuming that it is impure for holy men and women to marry.

William E. Phipps

Professor Emeritus of Religion and Philosophy

Davis and Elkins College, Elkins, West Virginia

1. Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code (New York: Doubleday, 2003).

2. Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln, Holy Blood, Holy Grail (New York: Delacorte, 1982).

3. William E. Phipps, Was Jesus Married? (New York: Harper, 1970).

4. Eusebius, Church History 3:20.

5. Clement, Miscellanies 3:53.

6. Richard McBrien, Catholicism (San Francisco: Harper, 1994), 559.

7. John Robinson, The Human Face of God (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1973), 56.

8. Tertullian, An Exhortation on Chastity 8; On Monogamy 8.

9. Jerome, Against Jovinian 1:39.

10. William E. Phipps, Clerical Celibacy: The Heritage (New York: Continuum, 2004).

11. Kiddushin 29a.

12. Lev 21:13-14; Kiddushin 4:13.
COPYRIGHT 2006 Lutheran School of Theology and Mission
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2006, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Phipps, William E.
Publication:Currents in Theology and Mission
Article Type:Viewpoint essay
Date:Oct 1, 2006
Previous Article:China today.
Next Article:Dale Martin's "arsenokoites and malakos" tried and found wanting.

Related Articles
Who framed Mary Magdalene?
Worshipping Corpus Christi: Mary Magdalene in the English mystery cycles.
The Gospel of Thomas and Christian Wisdom.
Searching for Mary Magdalene.
Invoking Mary Magdalene.
Invoking Mary Magdalene.
Mary Magdalene: The Illuminator.
Adam, Betty Conrad. The Magdalene mystique; living the spirituality of Mary today.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters