By Miguel De La Torre
A faded tiny scrap of papyrus caused an uproar when first unveiled in 2012. Why? Because this ancient fragment contains the phrases: “Jesus said to them, My wife…” and “she will be able to be my disciple.”
A debate ensued, inflamed by some church scholars over whether women should be clergy. Skepticism about the papyrus’ authenticity and charges of forgery were immediately made. Nevertheless, when tested by experts in electrical engineering, chemistry and biology at Columbia University, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it was proven this month that the ink and papyrus are indeed ancient, and thus not a modern forgery.
Even though the papyrus is authentic, it does not necessarily prove that Jesus had a wife or that women disciples existed.
Still, I wonder: what would be so wrong with Jesus having a wife and engaging in marital bliss? Most Christians would find it blasphemous to imagine Jesus participating in any sexual act. But why? Contrary to popular belief, nowhere in Scripture is the concept of asceticism — the denial of sexual pleasure for the purpose of religious devotion — advocated as a lifelong practice for believers.
To the Hebrew mindset, celibacy was unnatural. The Talmud states that anyone who is not married is deficient because they live for the self. In Judaism, embracing the other through marriage is an underlying component of being human.
Unfortunately, from the middle of the third century through the start of the fourth, an ascetic movement developed among Christians, in part as a response to how the biblical text was interpreted, as in St. Paul’s writings: “I chastise my body and subjugate it, lest when preaching to others I myself should be rejected” (1 Co 9:27).
The idea of Jesus engaging in sex is highly sacrilegious because of how Christians have historically defined sex. The dualistic relationship created between the flesh and the spirit led to the development of practices that encouraged the denial of bodily pleasure in exchange for the pursuit of the spiritual. The danger of sex was that humans, specifically men, would lose themselves to the bondage of the flesh. Sexual pleasure had to be restricted by religious authorities to avoid what they ascertained to be detrimental to both the physical and spiritual welfare of the believer. The church perceived sex outside of what was constructed as an acceptable space, as something profane, wicked, evil or sinful.
Why? Because it celebrated and focused on the body, which, said the church, is dirty and temporal and thus distracted from the spiritual, which is eternal. Some early Christian sects (Gnostics, Marcionites and other Syriac traditions) had such an aversion to the material world that they made salvation contingent on the renunciation of sex. This revulsion of the human body developed over time, influenced the evolution of Christendom.
In part, the ascetic movement was the result of the Christianization of the Roman Empire (313) brought about by Constantine (274-337). Some Christians saw the faith becoming perverted with the trappings of the empire’s power and privilege. As a response, they fled to the desert to concentrate on achieving God’s perfection in this life. They renounced wealth, property, power, privilege, comfort, family and household responsibilities. And most of all, they renounced sex. Asceticism became the denial of bodily sexual pleasure and the repression of erotic desire, understood by the faithful to be a holy act of religious devotion required to enter God’s service. Or as St. Anthony (c. 250-356) said, “the fiber of the soul is then sound when the pleasures of the body are diminished.”
Pain, suffering, deprivation and self-mutilation were spiritualized, whereas love was desexualized so that desire for sex could be replaced with desire for God. Pleasure was found in self-denial so as to concentrate on things of the spirit rather than of the flesh. As a result, desire of sexual pleasure was demonized, an urge requiring suppression. Through pain, the opposite of sensual pleasure, the joy of salvation could be achieved. Suffering because of faith (as in the persecution of Christians) was replaced by suffering for faith (namely self-denial and self-repression). Pain and suffering no longer were derived from confronting injustices; rather, pain and suffering were romanticized for their own spiritual sake.
Such anti-body views are then read into the life of Jesus, dehumanizing him through Christian pious sensibilities. But if we claim that Jesus was sinless (Hebrews 4:14–15), and connect this to the claim that Jesus did not engage in sex, we might falsely conclude that sex is sin, which is why Jesus abstained.
One need only recall the controversy resulting from Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ, in which during a dream sequence Jesus envisions himself marrying Mary Magdalene. The concept of Jesus engaging in sex so enraged some arch-conservative Christians that they set fire to a Paris theater during a showing of the movie, resulting in the injury and death of moviegoers. To the perpetrators, burning people alive was less repulsive then a movie dream sequence that explored Jesus’ sexuality.
The life and message of Jesus is what shapes my life. Whether Jesus was married and engaged in sex or not is truly unimportant to me. If Jesus’ sexuality is important to you, I must ask, why?