Peering through the historical keyhole at Jesus’s sex life has always been tempting, and glimpses of his intimate relationships tend to take on a life that outstrips the available evidence. When Karen King, a historian of early Christianity at Harvard University, unveiled a shred of papyrus in which Jesus refers to his “wife” and calls her a “disciple,” religious scholars arguing for a more humanized view of Jesus and a greater role for women in the church got a boost of encouragement.
The papyrus, given to King by an anonymous collector, is written in Coptic and dates from the fourth century, three centuries after Jesus died. Because of its distance from the historical Jesus—the Gospel of Mark is believed to have been written less than 70 years after his death—the new “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” is unlikely to upend the view that Jesus was celibate. Similar texts found in Egypt referred to Jesus kissing Mary Magdalene “on the mouth,” but haven’t led the Catholic Church to take a kinder view of kissing in the priesthood.
But like other religious notions, the idea of a married Jesus does not need conclusive proof to cast a powerful spell. The Vatican proved that with its attack on Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code, which portrayed Jesus as married to Magdalene. Just imagining him having sex, apparently, can threaten the entrenched association of sacredness with sexlessness.
“It’s easier for Jesus not to have been married, it’s easier for him to not have wet dreams,” said Emilie Townes, a professor at Yale Divinity School. “That way we don’t have to encounter things that challenge our separation of our bodies from our souls.” Townes said a savior with sexual needs would confront the “skewed” equation of perfection with male celibacy, to which women are inevitably seen as a threat.
Carol Howard Merritt, a Presbyterian minister, said that very thought helped reveal her own subtle misogyny. “Many years ago, when I first read fictional accounts of Jesus being married, my reaction at some gut level was anger and repulsion,” she said. “I began to ask myself why. Was my view of sex so low that I couldn’t imagine Jesus having any part of it? Did I imagine that a woman could somehow corrupt his divine nature?”
Even if Jesus didn’t have sex with the woman mentioned in the new fragment, a close female partner in ministry would undermine the Christian tradition of seeing women as temptresses who should be kept under male authority. “It certainly gives Mary Magdalene a leg up among the saints—maybe even over the Virgin Mary,” said Emily McGowin, a doctoral student in religious studies at the University of Dayton. “Who is more important, the woman who birthed Jesus, or the one who became ‘one flesh’ with him?”