No Wife for Jesus and the Critique of Patriarchy by the late Shulamith Firestone
Is there anybody left who hasn’t heard about the fourth-century papyrus Karen L. King, professor at Harvard Divinity School, calls “The Gospel of Jesus’s wife”?
The fragment contains only a few lines of Coptic text, one of them stating: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…’” It is still uncertain if the fragment is for “real,” but suffice it to say: the media went bananas over it, perhaps hoping to sell more with the “good” news of “Mrs. and Mr. Jesus Christ.” Although King did not claim that Jesus was indeed married, other commentators wondered whether it would make any difference if Jesus had been a married man. For instance, James Martin, a Jesuit priest, explained that, in his view, celibacy stands with or without a single Jesus and therefore Martin would not leave his unmarried life just because Jesus had perhaps been married two-thousand years ago.
“Mrs. and Mr. Jesus Christ”? Did anybody notice the deeply patriarchal language used in the frenzy over the savior’s possible marriage? Thus I tell you: “If Jesus was married, our salvation would vanish on the spot!”
The late Shulamith Firestone, author of The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (1970), would certainly also have disliked the idea of a married Jesus. Not that her opinion would have been related to her religious upbringing. After all, she grew up in a Jewish orthodox family.
Rather, Firestone disliked the patriarchal family system, held together by the institution of marriage, a key institution responsible for women’s secondary status in society. Firestone demanded to abolish it and she imagined a feminist revolution to do so.
So to think of Jesus as a married man would indicate utter and complete failure of a vision beyond patriarchy and oppressive gender structures. Is this the Jesus we want to believe in?
And how about another question?
Would it make a difference if Jesus had been married to a man? I can easily imagine a papyrus stating: “And Jesus said: ‘’My wife is a man!’”
More seriously, in my view, the brushfire excitement of the media reveals how relentlessly any conversation on Jesus Christ focuses on Jesus THE MAN. People are so enamored with the human Jesus that they forget that this limited focus was once declared a heretical position. It was Arianism in the fourth century C.E. stressing Jesus’ humanity and denying his divinity.
So I want to make a statement of faith here. No, in my view, Jesus Christ was certainly not married. He would have rejected the patriarchal co-optation of this institution that has contributed to so much suffering, injustice, and pain for so many women throughout history. If we were to find a papyrus that referred unambiguously to Jesus as a heterosexually married man, perhaps it would need to be classified as forgery, for theological reasons alone.
But to speculate that Jesus had a wife and then to call her “Mrs. Jesus Christ”?
Already at the end of the nineteenth century, Elizabeth Cady Stanton turned away in dismay about such sexist practices when she bitingly commented on the nameless women in Exodus 2 and beyond. She wrote:
“If we go through this chapter carefully we will find mention of about a dozen women, but with the exception of one given to Moses, all are nameless. Then as now names for women and slaves are of no importance; they have no individual life, and why should their personality require a life-long name? To-day the woman is Mrs. Richard Rose, To-morrow Mrs. John Doe, and again Mrs. James Smith according as she changes masters, and she has so little self-respect that she does not see the insult of the custom” (E.C. Stanton, The Woman’s Bible [Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1993], 73).
So, a loud and firm “no” to a married Jesus Christ, with or without papyrus.