September 28, 2012

on Jesus' not being married

April DeConick has the most intriguing post I've yet seen on the recent discussion. The intrigue I feel has - of course - nothing to do with Jesus' historical life, but with the religious traditions about celibacy. And, obviously, that's the main reason this fake gospel text is being pushed in the media and blogosphere.

Catholic priests shouldn't be forced to abstain from marriage. That's obvious, except maybe to diehard Roman Catholics themselves. But what can you say? Some traditions die harder than others.

What offends me about the recent silliness is the same thing that often offends me about religious arguments over history. It should not be necessary to create revisionist backgrounds in order to promote current agendas. Promoting this idea that Jesus was married - as a political ploy - is no better than David Barton's false characterization of America's Founders as proto-evangelicals.

As for Jesus himself, he almost certainly remained single, but why? I can only think of two possible explanations, and the first - divine guidance - may be at least somewhat true but isn't worth much discussion for historiographically. The more practical reasons are what I find interesting.

A parallel presents itself in the larger issue of family-in-general. The reason Jesus denied having a mother was most likely to protect her. We don't know how many years in advance Jesus conceived (or had revealed to him) what his mission was going to be, but once that mission began the threats were obvious. The Gospel of John suggests Jesus had some inkling in advance, because it suggests Jesus moved his mother and father from Nazareth to Capernaum. The Gospel of Luke shows why Nazareth may not have been safe for Jesus' parents and brothers. (The married-off sisters were no longer accountable.) The Gospels also suggest some advance foresight about Jesus' final fate, and securing his mom's future welfare at Golgotha. The man who washed others' feet would not fail to care for his intimates.

In this light, it's not extreme to deduce that Jesus' bachelorhood was most likely chosen responsibly. How could the Lamb of God, who came for the world, commit himself to take care of a wife? As songwriter Rich Mullins said in the song Homeless Man, "There were pretty maids all in a row/ Who lined up to touch the hem of your robe/ But you had no place to take them, so/ You did not take a wife."

But what of Jesus' marriageable age? Why did he not marry earlier in life? Again, there's the catch-all Divine Guidance, but that's not very helpful. Much better, perhaps, is specific estimating. If Jesus predicted his death near the end of his ministry, and if Jesus predicted his Mom's need for safety just before the start of his ministry, then how far in advance might Jesus have predicted his unsuitability as husband material?

For the sake of discussion, let's assume girls marry around 13 to 15, to established bachelors with some means, maybe 18 to 20 or more. That would mean Jesus needed to have some specific sense of his future mission about ten or fifteen years before being baptized by John. I won't seek to defend or explore that idea further right now. It's enough at the moment to delineate the boundaries. This is what we're discussing.

It's wrong to suggest Jesus' failure to marry was all about sex. Wrong on all sorts of levels. It's just as wrong to think the only alternative to celibate Jesus was sexually active Jesus. These are twin sides of the same obsession coin. We ought neither be overly prudish nor overly sensual. Nor should we be, hypocritically, both. But now I really digress.

As for Jesus himself, I find it much more historically plausible to suggest simply that the young man didn't marry because of a secret and building fanaticism. Such an 18 or 20 year old wouldn't be too far removed from - and I think also fits very nicely as a natural extension of - the 12 year old we read about via Luke. We don't have to suppose God spoke and said, "By the way, don't get married." We just have to understand this very special young man had begun, from an early stage in life, to form a specific direction for his future life. And just like the 12 year old was ready to consecrate his future to the academics in Jerusalem, the 18 to 20 year old (it seems) was prepared to consecrate himself more than that.

It wasn't anti-sexual. It was devotional. I've known more than one teenage (male) athlete who broke up with his girlfriend for hopes at a golden season in his sport of choice. What - I'm proposing - Jesus actually did isn't too much different, in aspect, from that.


Chris Jefferies said...

This makes a good deal of sense to me, Bill. Maybe we sometimes forget that Jesus is human as well divine. He had an appetite for food, for wine, no doubt he enjoyed beautiful sunsets, laughed at jokes, and needed to relieve himself several times a day.

He felt hunger pangs in the wilderness and was tempted to transform stones to delicious loaves - yet he resisted. He always did what was right in his Father's eyes. (We tend to do what is right in our own eyes. That's a big difference.)

I have no doubt this applies to every human attribute for he surely had them all just as we do.

Ammie E. Harrison said...

I think one reason why this makes a good deal of since is because of the idea that, as a Jewish practitioner, the need and ability to take care of one's immediate family is a crucial part of the faith. It has been an important part of the sociohistorical fabric of Judaism. So, even if it would have been extremely odd for a man of Jesus' age to remain unmarried, it would have been equally rare for him to take a wife and be unable to provide for her and/or his offspring. Both may have been frowned upon.

I think the discussion of whether Jesus was married or not is an interesting one, but one that has always seemed a bit peculiar, and I have always been curious to why people seem so obsessed with it.

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