Nation e-Edition

ON THE OTHER HAND: Mrs Jesus Christ?

ON THE OTHER HAND: Mrs Jesus Christ?

By Peter Laurie | Sun, October 21, 2012 - 12:00 AM

A recently discovered fragment of a fourth century papyrus text has Jesus referring to his wife.

This seems to have upset some people.

Even if the papyrus is authentic, it doesn’t prove that Jesus was married; only that someone thought he was. We know little about the historical Jesus and probably never will. The Gospels are works of theology not history.

So why are some outraged by the mere suggestion that Jesus may have been married?

Simple: sex.

It all began in the early Christian church which, departing from the sex-affirming Bible, came to consider erotic love, even within marriage, as sinful. The great Christian thinker St Augustine believed that Adam and Eve, who he thought to be real persons, only experienced sexual desire and pleasure after they disobeyed God. This we now know to be nonsense.

But for Augustine and many Christians, if Jesus had felt sexual desire, far less had sex within marriage, he would have sinned.

I know, it’s absurd; but such is the hold of false history on us.

What is worse is that this negative religious attitude to sexuality was combined with the male-dominated tribal view of women as the property first of their fathers and then, after marriage, of their husbands. Men saw women’s sexuality as threatening to their property rights.

This religious/tribalistic attitude has had devastating consequences for women historically: they have been aborted in the womb because of their gender, feared and punished as evil temptresses, shrouded from head to toe to obliterate their sexuality, regarded as unclean when menstruating, genitally mutilated, beaten and raped, killed for “dishonouring” a father or husband, and burnt as witches.

And women today still confront some of these horrors, especially in Islamist-controlled or influenced patriarchal societies. Witness the Taliban’s shooting of the 14-year-old Pakistani girl Malala Yousafzai for advocating education for girls.   

But, you say, hasn’t religion also exalted women for their virginity and purity?

Rhetorical question: has any man ever been exalted for his virginity?

Female “purity” is an attractive property feature in a patriarchal society.

This primitive religious obsession with sex detracts from the essential message of Jesus: to work for social justice here on Earth.

Another issue the papyrus raises is biblical literalism. The Bible is God’s revelation to humans. But humans can only receive revelation imperfectly, both because of the fallibility of human understanding, and because any interpretation of a revelation is necessarily expressed in terms of the existing culture. Hence we must constantly reinterpret the Bible.  

We can only ever speak of God in metaphor. This is not to debunk religion, because man is a metaphorical animal: our mental life is inconceivable without metaphor (“she broke my heart”; “she lights up my life”).

Thus it may be prudent to accept most religious phenomena – for example, the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist – as mysteries rather than tie ourselves in knots trying to give a factual and inevitably obsolescent explanation.  

A more fundamental metaphor is when we speak of Jesus as the “son of God”. This expresses a special relationship of intimacy and love, not a biological fact.

Indeed the issue of how Jesus could be human and divine at the same time has been the source of intense theological reflection and controversy, leading to the formulation of such doctrines as the Incarnation and the Trinity; but it should never lead us to deny any aspect of his humanity, including his sexuality – unless, of course, we think sex is inherently sinful.

The one event that has the ring of historical truth in the Gospels is the vivid accounts of the Resurrection experiences. They are full of unflattering, messy and contradictory details, as in real life.

Jesus’ followers are crushed by His death. Then they have these diverse, wonderful, life-shattering experiences of His real presence.

That’s how it all began; that’s where it still is: the real presence inspiring us to help realize the kingdom of God (social justice) here on Earth.

• Peter Laurie is retired diplomat and commentator on social issues.

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