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'Too holy' for sex? The problem of a married Jesus

Karen L. King/Harvard University via Reuters

A previously unknown scrap of ancient papyrus written in ancient Egyptian Coptic is pictured in this undated handout photo obtained by Reuters September 18, 2012. The papyrus has four words written in Coptic that provide the first unequivocal evidence that within 150 years of his death, some followers of Jesus, believed him to have been married.

If a fourth-century fragment of papyrus that purportedly quotes Jesus telling his disciples about "my wife" is authenticated, it could upend the modern church’s understanding of the “son of God.”

“If Jesus is a normal human being and he’s sexual, that’s the real fear,” James Tabor, a biblical scholar at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and the co-author of books about Jesus and his family, told NBC News. “You can’t think of Jesus like that because he’s too holy.”

The Bible contains no explicit mentions of Jesus being either married or not married, but few churches have room for the idea of a sexual Jesus. The Catholic Church’s celibate priesthood is built on the belief that Jesus was not married. Eastern Orthodox priests are often married, but the church teachings don’t mention a married Jesus. Protestant ministers are allowed to marry, but there again, it is not common to teach that Jesus himself was married.

Reality check on Jesus and his 'wife'

"I would say that the more conservative groups might be more inclined to be bothered by the idea of a married Jesus, and especially that he might have had a child, god forbid, since that would really raise questions about his 'divinity,' since they see him as fully human and fully God," Tabor subsequently explained in an email.

"Can God sleep with a woman and have a child? It just doesn't fit the concept they want for Jesus," he said.

New questions are being raised about whether Jesus was married after Dr. Karen King, a historian at Harvard Divinity School, found an ancient papyrus with words translated to Jesus referencing a wife. NBC's Anne Thompson reports.

The Unification Church, however, does believe that Jesus was supposed to get married, and some of the early teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints stated Jesus was married and even fathered children, although that belief is not widespread today.

The Mormon and the Unification Church’s beliefs, however, have more to do with their own theology of marriage rather than with scripture, Ben Witherington III, a New Testament professor at the Asbury Theological Seminary, told NBC News.

Unlike their modern counterparts, there is evidence that some early Christians -- the Valentinian Gnostics -- believed Jesus was married, according to April DeConick, a biblical scholar at Rice University. The recently discovered papyrus, she told NBC News, would be the second piece of evidence from an ancient Christian gospel that early Christians were not bothered by the idea of a married Jesus. The first piece of evidence -- which DeConick said comes from the Gospel of Philip -- identifies Mary Magdalene as Jesus' wife.

NYT: Historian says piece of papyrus refers to Jesus' wife

Karen L. King, the Harvard Divinity School professor who unveiled the papyrus, cautioned that the discovery does not serve as evidence that the historical Jesus was married.

Harvard University/Rose Lincoln/EPA

Karen L. King, the Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard University holds a previously unknown ancient papyrus fragment from Egypt that has four words written in Coptic that provide the first unequivocal evidence that within 150 years of his death, some followers of Jesus, believed him to have been married.

"This new gospel doesn't prove that Jesus was married, but it tells us that the whole question only came up as part of vociferous debates about sexuality and marriage,” King said in a press release. “From the very beginning, Christians disagreed about whether it was better not to marry, but it was over a century after Jesus' death before they began appealing to Jesus' marital status to support their positions."

The Christians who eventually became dominant, DeConick said, believed celibacy was the route to heaven.

“Catholicism was deeply shaped by monasticism in its formative period,” Witherington said, adding that he thinks this belief brought about “a very deficient view of the goodness of human sexuality as a gift from god.”

“There’s just nothing biblical about that,” he argued. But Catholics couldn’t imagine Jesus as married, because that would have “tainted” his holy image, he said.

DeConick, who explored sex and gender in early Christianity in her book, “Holy Misogyny,” said that in the ancient world, the female body was considered weak, pitiful and wretched.

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“We have so many hundreds of years of an understanding of sexuality that in some way sex is not divine, it’s not sacred,” she said. “It’s going to be a long hard road for people to see a figure that they think is god as being engaged in a sexual activity – even with a wife.”

Witherington believes most churches will likely be ambivalent about a married Jesus because the implications are unclear. But he said some liberal Protestants might even accept the idea that Jesus could have had children in the same way as some Protestant churches no longer teach the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary.

“It doesn’t mean [the children]'d be as perfect as dad,” he said. “That would be a hard act to follow whether you’re a wife or a kid.”

The public, however, appears more open to the idea of a married Jesus. Ongoing for centuries, the debate about the possibility that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene was also the subject of author Dan Brown’s bestseller, “The Da Vinci Code.” Both the book and the recent discovery of the papyrus fragment that reignited the debate have garnered a positive reaction from the public.

“Maybe it makes him more human for us,” Tabor said.

Witherington, who wrote a book debunking some of the statements made in “The Da Vinci Code,” said he encountered the same “enormous positive reaction” on his book tour at the time.

“There was such a willingness to believe that what Dan Brown was saying was the gospel about Jesus,” he said.

“Jesus was an early Jew. I don’t think Jesus had any qualms about marriage,” Witherington added. “But [Jesus] also thinks it was perfectly viable for an able-bodied man to become single for the sake of [god’s] kingdom.”

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