blog archives

Blog Archive 1/18/04 - 1/24/04

Reflection: Was Jesus Married? Part 5
Series: Questions and Answers About Jesus, Part 5
Posted at 9:10 p.m. on Saturday, January 24, 2004

So far I have examined the historical evidence for the alleged marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. To summarize:

From the New Testament:

We find evidence of Mary's unusual inclusion among Jesus' closest followers, but no support for the view that their relationship was unique or that they were married. So the oldest and most reliable sources for knowledge of Jesus lean heavily against the marriage thesis.

From Non-Canonical Gospels:

The Gospel of Thomas: Mary plays a minor role, though it is implied that she was included among the disciples of Jesus. No hint of marriage here.

Today I'll look at two other non-biblical gospels.

The Gospel of Peter

This gospel, written in the second century A.D., focuses only on the last hours in the life of Jesus. It is noteworthy for its view that Jesus felt no pain when crucified (section 10) and for its exoneration of Pontius Pilate for the death of Jesus (sections 1, 45-46). Mary Magdalene appears only on Easter morning, when she and her women friends come to the tomb of Jesus to weep for him. She is described as "a female disciple of the Lord" (section 50). At the tomb, Mary and her friends see an angel who announces the resurrection of Jesus, and they run away frightened (section 56-57).

Once again, we find no evidence whatsoever for a marriage between Mary and Jesus. But, once again, Mary is portrayed as a female disciple of Jesus (using the Greek word mathetria, similar to the usual masculine word for disciple, mathetes ).

The Dialogue of the Savior

This gospel, also written in the second century A.D., is a dialogue between the Savior (never called Jesus or Christ) and some of his disciples, including Mary. The disciples ask questions about esoteric religious things, and Jesus gives equally esoteric answers. Although Mary is one of the frequent interrogators of the Savior, at one point she makes an observation. The text explains, "This word she spoke as a woman who knew the All" (Section 139, trans. Harold Attridge).

There is no hint in The Dialogue of the Savior of a marriage between Jesus and Mary (or the Savior and Mary). Mary is seen, once again, as central among the disciples of the Savior, and as a person with special insight.

In my next post in this series I'll examine some of the other non-canonical gospels, the ones that are most often taken (or mis-taken) to suggest that Jesus and Mary were married.


Reflection: Was Jesus Married? Part 4
Series: Questions and Answers About Jesus, Part 4
Posted at 10:17 p.m. on Friday, January 23, 2004

In parts 1-3 of "Was Jesus Married?" I examined the biblical evidence for Jesus' purported marriage to Mary Magdalene. To summarize my findings in a nutshell: there is no evidence. But this has not deterred advocates of the marital hypothesis, who claim that ancient writings outside of the New Testament reveal what the biblical records fail to mention (or intentionally cover up).

Most people are not familiar with the non-canonical gospels. Thus when they hear that these writings show Jesus' marriage to Mary Magdalene, they are at a loss to evaluate this claim, and often accept it at face value. Many even assume that the non-canonical evidence for Jesus' marriage must be strong and ample, since some writers get so excited about it. In fact the actual evidence is both weak and scanty, as we'll see.

In the rest of this post and in the ones that follow I'll summarize what we learn about Mary Magdalene from the non-biblical writings. If you're interested in looking at the original sources (in translation), I'll provide links to these writings. (Hat tip to Peter Kirby, who has collected these links on his very helpful Early Christian Writings website.)

A word of caution: Dating non-canonical gospels is perilous because we have so little solid evidence. Those who want to see these gospels as reliable historical sources often push their authorship as early as possible, sometimes even into the first century A.D. For reasons I can't pursue here, this dating is unlikely in almost every case. Most credible scholars date the writing of the non-canonical gospels in the second or third century A.D. These writings are, at any rate, later than the biblical gospels by a long shot (with the possible exception of the Gospel of Thomas, which may have been written in the first century, though this is not at all certain). Several of the non-canonical gospels are named after one of the original disciples of Jesus, but these disciples had nothing to do with the actual writing of the extra-biblical gospels.

Mary Magdalene in the Gospel of Thomas

Since I've mentioned the Gospel of Thomas, and since it's probably the earliest and best known of the non-canonical gospels, let's begin by seeing how it portrays Mary Magdalene.

Mary plays a minor role in the Gospel of Thomas, asking Jesus a question about the disciples (section 21). This is the only place she speaks. She is mentioned at the end of this gospel in a most curious passage, which reads:

Simon Peter said to [Jesus], "Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life." Jesus said, "I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven." (Translation of Thomas O. Lambdin )

One would be hard pressed to see in this passage much hope for women, let alone for the thesis that Jesus and Mary were married. This passage, in its own strange way, does affirm what we already know from the canonical gospels: that Mary was included among Jesus' followers and that Jesus himself intentionally included women. Of course in the biblical record he valued them as women, not as beings that had eternal value if they became male (whatever that actually means. It shouldn't be taken literally.).

So, one who is looking for evidence of a secret marriage between Jesus and Mary will be disappointed by the earliest of the non-canonical gospels. But there are other writings we have still to consider. Several of these will be the subject of my next post.


Request: Don't Turn The Passion Film Into a Cause for Division Between Jews and Christians
Posted at 1:35 p.m. on Friday, January 23, 2004

Yesterday the AP wire contained a story with this headline: "Jewish leaders screen Gibson film, condemn depiction of Jews" (AP, January 22, 2004). Leaders of the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League have spoken out against the film, claiming that it includes "unnecessary and destructive imagery of Jews" and that it "represents a disturbing setback" to relations between Jews and Christians. They were particularly upset about the purported inclusion in the film of a line from the Gospel of Matthew: "His blood be on us and on our children!" (27:25). Rabbi David Elcott of the American Jewish Committee said, "The movie undermines the sense of community that has existed between Jews and Christians for decades."

I have gone on record with an in-depth review of this movie, in which I explain why it is not anti-Semitic and how it may in fact promote positive relations between Christians and Jews. But, as I read the AP story, I became worried about possible tensions between these religious groups. The real danger, I think, is not the movie itself, but what people, both Jews and Christians, say and do in response to the movie. Thus I would issue the following appeal to Christians and Jews, especially pastors, rabbis, and other leaders.

An appeal to Christians: Remember the sad history of Christian anti-Semitism. Throughout the centuries millions of Christians have hated Jews, even persecuting or killing them, and often defending their anti-Christian behavior on the grounds that "the Jews killed Christ." Thus when Jewish leaders fear the rise of anti-Semitic feelings, they're not operating in a vacuum. In light of our sorry history as Christians, we must listen carefully to Jewish expressions of fear and even unfair condemnation of The Passion of the Christ. We must seek to understand and respond, not with harshness, but with compassion. Moreover, we must use the opportunity afforded by this controversy to affirm in no uncertain terms that anti-Semitism is wrong, utterly contrary to the spirit and truth of Christ. Christian leaders must speak up now and in the weeks to come, calling Christians to repent of any negative feelings toward Jews and to express genuine love to Jewish people.

An appeal to Jews: As I read the recent statements of Jewish leaders, I felt afraid -- afraid that these statements will in fact inflame anti-Jewish sentiment far more than The Passion of the Christ will. I would appeal to Jews to speak carefully and sensitively about this movie. Jews must understand that most Christians will experience The Passion of the Christ on a deeply personal, emotional level. It will be a profound religious experience for us. Harsh criticism of the film will feel like public condemnation of our mothers. Our response, naturally enough, will be hurt and anger. Or consider another analogy. It would be rather like if I, as a Christian, condemned the celebration of the Passover because it commemorates "the senseless slaughter of innocent Egyptian babies." Even if I believed such a critique to be correct, which I don't, it would be inflammatory for me to speak this way about something so precious to Jews as the Passover. Furthermore, some Jewish leaders who have spoken out against The Passion of the Christ have also criticized the New Testament gospels and their truthfulness. I would warn against such unwise condemnation. Faithful Christians love and honor the gospels much as faithful Jews love and honor the Torah. Open criticism of the New Testament by Jews will in no way contribute to mutual understanding and harmony.

I'm not suggesting that Jews should just put and shut up, however. They should continue to share their concerns and fears. But they should do so in a way that models the kind of sensitivity they would like from Christians.

I don't believe that The Passion of the Christ is anti-Semitic or will necessarily fuel division between Christians and Jews. But if Jews condemn the movie in ways that are insensitive to Christian feelings and beliefs, and if Christians respond with harshness, then we may indeed experience a growing tension between Jews and Christians. If this happens, it will be a result, not of Mel Gibson's movie, but of the inconsiderate communication of Jews and Christians in response to the movie. I hope and pray that this will not happen.

P.S. Since writing this piece, I have found three examples of Jewish commentary on The Passion that exemplify the sensitivity I'm talking about, and that help Christians understand the Jewish side of things. I'm grateful to the following writers: Dennis Prager, Michael Medved (USA Today article and American Enterprise article), and Rabbi Daniel Lapin (below Medved's article) for their insightful and courageous comments. (Thanks also to Prof. Zev bar-Lev for making me aware of the Prager article.)


Reflection: Make Sure You Have a Reliable Guide
Posted at 10:15 p.m. on Thursday, January 22, 2004

Ben Nevis is Britain's tallest peak. A challenge for experienced hikers even in good weather, it can be a death trap in bad conditions, which come frequently to the 4,406-foot mountain in Scotland. So Trail , the best-selling hiking magazine in Britain, published a definitive guide for hikers caught on Ben Nevis in bad weather. Unfortunately, this guide, found in the February 2004 edition of Trail , isn't quite as helpful as it was meant to be. According to an AP wire story today, anyone who follows the magazine's instructions will fall right off the edge of a cliff and plummet to a certain death. Oops!

There must be a moral here somewhere.

I'm reminded of a simple question: Is the guide I'm following for life reliable? We all follow some guide(s) as we seek to move forward on life's path. It might be our religion, or our family, or our favorite guru, or simply our own intuition. Most of us are quite fond of our particular guide, and we vehemently defend our right to choose whatever guide we please, or even to write it ourselves. But is your guide really trustworthy? Or might it lead you off the edge of a cliff?

Christians embrace the Bible as the ultimate guide for living. We believe that, though penned by human authors, Scripture is fully inspired by God, the One who knows where life's paths lead, and whose guidance is always trustworthy. Yes, at times biblical counsel contradicts the conventional wisdom of our culture, and it's in these times that we most need God's perspective.

Several years ago I met a man whose guide for living - a concoction of cultural wisdom and individual feelings -- had led him to the edge of the moral cliff. Though he was married and had two small children, this man, whom I'll call Jeff, had had an affair at work, which ultimately led him to begin divorce proceedings. By the time he showed up at my church, his divorce was almost final. But he "just happened" to come to worship on a day when I preached on the Old Testament text in which God says "I hate divorce" (Malachi 2:16). For the very first time Jeff wondered if maybe he was making a bad decision to end his marriage.

To make a long story short, Jeff and I had a heart-to-heart conversation, which led him to approach his wife and see if she had any openness to reconciling with him. By that time she had no desire to be married to this man who had hurt her so much, but she sought to follow biblical guidance for her life and realized that she should give Jeff a chance. The next months weren't easy as they tried to bring healing to their marriage. But, in time and by God's grace, that healing came, and their marriage was not only restored, but stronger and healthier than it had ever been before. The Bible had rescued Jeff and his family from plunging off a cliff. It showed them a sure path to fulfilling life.

May I be so bold as to ask you: Do you have a reliable guide for living? And if you do, are you using it?


Riddle: Perhaps It Really Was "It Is As It Was"
Posted at 9:39 p.m. on Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Earlier today I lamented the Vatican's retraction of the Pope's reaction to The Passion of the Christ. Earlier reports that the Pontiff said "It is as it was" have been retracted by Vatican spokespersons.

Ah, but the plot thickens. In her piece in the Wall Street Journal's Opinion Journal, Peggy Noonan explores the peculiar history of "It is as it was." Lots of Catholic Church intrigue here. Better get Dan Brown on the phone. There's gotta be a novel in here somewhere.

Thanks to Steve at Norris Realty Advisors for this tip.


Reflection: Was Jesus Married? Part 3
Series: Questions and Answers About Jesus, Part 3
Posted at 9:05 p.m. on Wednesday, January 21, 2004

These days the question of Jesus' marriage generally focuses on his supposed wife: Mary Magdalene. So what exactly can we know about this woman, both from the New Testament and from other ancient documents? In this post I'll focus on the New Testament evidence. The extra-biblical material will be examined in future posts.

Once again, my main point is to look carefully at the real historical evidence, not to posit wild theories or to defend orthodoxy simply because I happen to be orthodox. I begin with the New Testament gospels because they are the oldest evidence we have, having been written only a few decades after the death of Jesus, but containing sources that are much older.

Several women named Mary are mentioned in the biblical gospels, including Jesus' mother and Mary from Bethany (sister of Martha and Lazarus whom Jesus teaches, Luke 10:38-42). One of these "Marys" is referred to as "Magdalene," which means "from the village of Madgala."

Mary Magdalene is first mentioned as one of the women who accompanied Jesus on his preaching mission and helped to support him financially (Luke 8:1-3). Luke adds that seven demons had been cast out of her, presumably by Jesus (Luke 8:2). Nothing in this passage suggests that there was anything unusual about Mary's relationship with Jesus, other than the very unusual fact that she was included among Jesus' retinue. Jewish teachers in Jesus' day usually didn't teach women or include them as followers. In his inclusive practice Jesus was virtually unique, and his relationship with Mary and her female counterparts quite counter-cultural.

The next time we run into Mary Magdalene she is among the women who observe the crucifixion of Jesus (Mark 15:40). Then, on Easter morning she and a couple of female companions go to the tomb of Jesus, only to find it empty. Mary, according to John 20, encounters Jesus near the tomb, and then goes to announce his resurrection to the other disciples (John 20:1-18). In a sense, she is the first Christian evangelist, the one who first passes on the good news of Jesus' resurrection.

This is all we know about Mary Magdalene from the biblical gospels. Several centuries after these texts were written, Mary became associated with the prostitute who bathed and anointed Jesus' feet (Luke 7:36-50). But there's nothing in Scripture that makes this connection.

There's also nothing whatsoever to suggest that Mary was Jesus' wife, or, as some have suggested, his girlfriend. What is exceptional about Mary, when understood in her own cultural setting, is that she was one of Jesus' closest followers. Moreover, she was the first witness to the risen Christ, a role of exceptional honor and privilege. Surely Jesus held Mary in the highest regard, though not as his wife. Ironically, the efforts to turn Mary the disciple of Jesus into Mary the wife of Jesus actually minimize how truly extraordinary she was as a central follower, supporter, and witness of Jesus.

Because nothing in the New Testament suggests that Jesus and Mary were married, those who advocate this position claim to rely on the evidence of non-canonical "gospels." Do these extra-biblical writings in fact reveal a secret marriage between Jesus and Mary? In my next posts I'll scrutinize this evidence.


Riddle: "It Is As It Was" or Is It?
Posted at 8:28 a.m.on Wednesday, January 21, 2004

It seemed like the ultimate review of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. First, Billy Graham signs off on the movie, vouching for its historical faithfulness and emotional power. Then the Pope gives the film a papal thumbs up, reportedly saying: "It is as it was." Now that's a review! Short and to the point. Wow!

But Vatican officials are scurrying to deny that the Pope made such a statement. Though he saw the film, he is holding his critic's cards close to his chest. Nobody knows what the Pope actually thought of the film, apparently.

'Tis a pity, I think, for the film, because a papal endorsement wouldn't hurt, and for the Pope, because "It is as it was" had to have been one of the all time great movie reviews. Can't you just see the ads in the paper? Ebert & Roeper: "Two thumbs up!" Joe Schmoe: "A real winner in 2004! Gonna be bigger than Scooby-Doo 2! " The Pope: "It is as it was." But I'm afraid "It is as it was" isn't as it seemed to be.

Years ago Miss Clairol asked the question: "Does she . . . or doesn't she? Hair color so natural only her hairdresser knows for sure." Now, when it comes to the Pope's perspective on The Passion of the Christ, we're left in a similar quandary. "Does he . . . or doesn't he? Only the Pope himself knows for sure. And he ain't telling!"


Reflection: Was Jesus Married, Part 2?
Series: Questions and Answers About Jesus, Part 2
Posted at 9:41 p.m. on Tuesday, January 20, 2004

In my last post I began to answer the question: "Was Jesus married?" Today I'll continue to answer this question, which has come into the spotlight because of the bestselling novel, The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown. This book, though fictional, seems to be based on historical evidence of Jesus' marriage. Many readers, unaware of the historical evidence, easily confuse fiction with fact. (See my review for more information.)

My intent in this post and those to follow is to lay out the evidence as plainly as possible. We don't need more ranting and raving about this issue, no matter what the position of the ranters and ravers. Rather, in the mythical words of Joe Friday, we need "Just the facts, ma'am."

In my last post I mentioned that the New Testament contains no explicit answer to the question of Jesus' marital state. It never mentions his wife, nor that he was unmarried. In fact, whenever the New Testament gospels refer to Jesus' natural relatives, they speak only of his father, mother, and siblings, but never of a wife.

Although almost all scholars of all religious persuasions take this as strong evidence of the singleness of Jesus, a few have proposed that, in fact, Jesus was married. In 1970, for example, William E. Phipps published Was Jesus Married? The Distortion of Sexuality in the Christian Tradition. In this book Phipps argued that the silence of the New Testament about the marital status of Jesus indicates that Jesus was in fact married. Why? Because virtually every Jewish man in Jesus' day did marry, especially those who were considered to be Rabbis.

One major problem with this argument, among several, is that it makes no room for an exception. Jesus was not required by law - either governmental or religious - to marry. And, though he was in many ways a normal Jewish man (see chapter 2 of my book, Jesus Revealed), in others ways he was utterly unusual. If, when he reached the age at which young men in his day married, Jesus and his family realized that he had a special calling which would make marriage quite difficult, then he could surely have remained single. Yes, this would have been perceived as an unusual, even counter-cultural choice. But then Jesus never shied away from the unusual or counter-cultural, especially when it came to his relationships with women.

Unlike other Jewish teachers of his day, Jesus had close relationships with women, many of whom were his followers (Luke 8:2-3) and learned from him (Luke 10:38-42). Several of these women are mentioned by name, including, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna, who together helped to support Jesus and his other disciples financially (Luke 8:2-3). But nothing in the New Testament suggests that Jesus was ever married to any of these women, or to any other woman, for that matter.

But, you might wonder, what about Mary Magdalene? Isn't there evidence that suggests she was in fact married to Jesus? In my next posts I'll examine this evidence, looking both at the New Testament and at the non-biblical gospels that are touted to contain evidence of Jesus' marriage to Mary Magdalene.

For now, we must acknowledge that the main argument in favor of Jesus' marriage is at best weakly circumstantial. It fails to reckon with the unique calling of Jesus and his tendency to flaunt certain cultural conventions. Moreover, it forces us to believe that the most reliable accounts of Jesus' life failed to mention one of the most salient aspects of that life. How unlikely!

Two sane, online discussions of this issue have been written by Deborah Caldwell and Darrell L. Bock.


Thanks Again!
Posted at 8:08 a.m.. on Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Continued thanks for your support of this website! I've had over 4,000 visitors in less than four weeks. A fine start! I want to thank all of those who refer people to my site, including one of my newest friends in the blogosphere: Rusty Lopez at New Covenant. Other faithful supporters include: : Hugh Hewitt, Todrakes, Broken Masterpieces, Pastor2Youth, Evangelical Outpost, Damascus Road, and Neophyte Pundit.

Reflection: Was Jesus Married?
Series: Questions and Answers About Jesus, Part 1
Posted at 10:00 p.m. on Monday, January 19, 2004

I find it interesting that one of the questions I often receive about Jesus these days has to do with his marital status. This question didn't just drop out of heaven, however. It was born of the popularity of Dan Brown's controversial novel, The Da Vinci Code (see my review). This novel advocates the thesis that Jesus was in fact married to the woman we know as Mary Magdalene, that they had a child together, and that this fact was covered up by the church for self-serving reasons.

Many readers of The Da Vinci Code, believing the fictional history of the novel to be true, have been buzzing about the possibility, or even the factuality, of Jesus' having been married. In a recent survey conducted by the online religious website beliefnet, 19% of respondents said they believe that Mary Magdalene was in fact Jesus' wife.

In this post I want to begin to look at the evidence for and against Jesus' purported marriage. Whether we'd like to think of him as married or not is not particularly relevant here. What matters is historical evidence.

The main problem is that we have very little overt historical evidence for or against the marriage of Jesus. The earliest and most reliable records of his life - the New Testament gospels - do not tell us explicitly whether Jesus was married or not. They certainly don't mention his having a wife. Nor do they state that he was unmarried.

From the silence of the New Testament gospels comes a cacophony of conflicting voices. Some see in these writings a plot to cover up the truth about Jesus. Others see the silence of the gospels as proof that Jesus could not have been married. It does seem rather fantastic to imagine that if Jesus had been married to Miriam of Magdala, or to any other woman for that matter, this fact would have been completely omitted from all of the earliest records of Jesus' life.

But there are some who argue that the silence of the New Testament gospels should be taken as strong evidence for the marriage of Jesus. To this argument I will turn in my next post. Go home

Reflection: Telltale Signs of Life
Posted at 2:01 p.m. on Sunday, January 18, 2004

The Spirit is at work as we speak! Lest you misunderstand me, I'm not making a faith statement here, but a statement of scientific fact. I'm speaking not of the Holy Spirit, whom I certainly believe to be at work among us, but the Spirit now exploring the surface of Mars: that five-foot tall, six-wheeled mobile geology lab called "Spirit."

This little Martian explorer is searching for, among other things, telltale signs of life on Mars. In reality these signs aren't very impressive to non-scientists, consisting mostly of microscopic evidence of water. At best the experts are hoping to find tiny hints that life on Mars might once have existed. We're not exactly talking about little green men here!

I think they're setting the bar too low. I'd like to suggest five telltale, indisputable signs of life on Mars. You find any one of these, and you've got real life.

Telltale Sign of Life on Mars #1 - While digging around in the rocks, Spirit finds an autograph book with Ray Walston's and Orson Welles' autographs. (That's for you trivia buffs.)

Telltale Sign of Life on Mars #2 - Prominently placed all over the surface of the Red Planet are John Campbell's election signs.

Telltale Sign of Life on Mars #3 - While searching for geologic evidence of microbic life, Spirit hears a faint voice sighing: "ET phone home."

Telltale Sign of Life on Mars #4 - In the middle of the crater they're exploring there is a large sign reading "Yankee Go Home"

Telltale Sign of Life on Mars #5 - As Spirit roams over the surface of Mars, it runs right into a Starbucks.

Now there are some indisputable, telltale signs of life on Mars, don't you think?

So what are the telltale signs of "real life," Christian life, life in Jesus Christ? If you were to observe the actions of an individual, what evidence would point to the fact that this person is truly alive in Christ? Or suppose that you're seeking to join a church and you want to find one that's really alive? What should you look for? What are telltale signs of life in Christ?

For the answer to these questions, see my sermon for January 18, 2004.