Was Jesus a Confirmed Bachelor?

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The commandment "Be fruitful and multiply" has always been strongly emphasized in Judaism, both today and in the first century. It is therefore surprising that Jesus, who in every other way observed the commandments, did not marry—at least the New Testament gives no indication that he had a wife or children.

Revised: September 19, 2012

On September 5, 2012, a photo was released by Harvard University which shows a fourth-century papyrus fragment. Divinity professor, Karen L. King, says the fragment is the only existing ancient text that quotes Jesus explicitly referring to having a wife. King says the text contains a dialogue in which Jesus refers to “my wife” and says the fragment of Coptic script is likely a translation of a gospel written in Greek in the second century.

The eight fragmentary lines of Coptic text have been translated to read in English:
1) “not [to] me. My mother gave to me li[fe] … ”
2) The disciples said to Jesus, “
3) deny. Mary is worthy of it
4) ” Jesus said to them, “My wife
5) she will be able to be my disciple
6) Let wicked people swell up
7) As for me, I dwell with her in order to
8) an image

Below, drawing upon personal conversations with Hebrew University professor Shmuel Safrai, David Bivin examines the cultural status of first-century, Jewish bachelor sages like Jesus.

Sources: CNN | NY Times | Jer. Post | Fox News | Smithsonian

AP Photo/Harvard University, Karen L. King

The commandment “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28) has always been strongly emphasized in Judaism, both today and in the first century. It is therefore surprising that Jesus, who in every other way observed the commandments, did not marry—at least the New Testament gives no indication that he had a wife or children. On the other hand, it is not explicitly stated in the gospels that Jesus was not married. As Hilton and Marshall point out, the silence of the gospels might suggest that Jesus was married. A Jew reading the gospels might assume that Jesus was married. If Jesus had not been married, his unusual status probably would have been mentioned in the gospels (Michael Hilton with Gordian Marshall, The Gospels and Rabbinic Judaism: A Study Guide [Hoboken, NJ: Ktav, 1988], 135).

The First Commandment

The sages taught that one should perpetuate the human race by marrying. It was considered especially significant that the commandment “Be fruitful and multiply” is chronologically the first in the Pentateuch. The school of Hillel ruled that to fulfill this commandment a man must have at least one son and one daughter:

No man may neglect the commandment “Be fruitful and multiply” unless he already has children: according to the school of Shammai, two sons; according to the school of Hillel, a son and a daughter, as it is written, “Male and female created he them” [Gen. 5:2]. (Mishnah, Yevamot, 6:6; cf. Babylonian Talmud, Yemavot, 64a)

Would the members of first-century Jewish society have respected an unmarried 30-year-old teacher? Would his teaching have been given a hearing? At the urging of my colleague, Dwight Pryor, I asked Professor Shmuel Safrai for his opinion. At the time (1987), Safrai, a specialist in Jewish literature and history of the Second Temple period and one of my teachers during the 1960s, was Professor Emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

A Bachelor Sage

This Sept. 5, 2012 photo released by Harvard University shows a fourth-century fragment of papyrus that divinity professor Karen L. King says is the only existing ancient text that quotes Jesus explicitly referring to having a wife. King, an expert in the history of Christianity, says the text contains a dialogue in which Jesus refers to “my wife,” whom he identified as Mary. King says the fragment of Coptic script is a copy of a gospel, probably written in Greek in the second century.
(AP Photo/Harvard University, Karen L. King)

According to Safrai, a bachelor sage functioning within Jewish society of the first century was not as abnormal as it might first appear. Sages often spent many years far from home, first as students and then as itinerant teachers. It was not uncommon for such men to marry in their late thirties or forties. Just as some students today wait to marry until they finish their education, so there were disciples and even sages who postponed marriage until later in life.

One such sage was Rabban Gamaliel (end of first century A.D.), the grandson of Rabban Gamaliel the Elder, the apostle Paul’s teacher (Acts 22:3; cf. 5:34). As the following story shows, the younger Gamaliel was already a sage and already had disciples before he married:

A bridegroom is exempt from reciting the Shema on the first night of his marriage…. When Rabban Gamaliel married he recited the Shema on the first night. His disciples said to him: “Master, didn’t you teach us that a bridegroom is exempt from reciting the Shema on the first night?”

“I will not listen to you,” he replied, “so as to cast off from myself the kingdom of Heaven even for a moment.” (Mishnah, Berachot 2:5)

Enamored with Torah

Another unmarried sage was Shim’on ben Azzai. He lived in the generation immediately after the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. It is related of him that in his teaching he so strongly emphasized the importance of the commandment to marry, his colleagues expressed their amazement that he did not do so himself. His answer:

מה אעשה? חשקה נפשי בתורה. יתקיים עולם באחרים

What shall I do? I am enamored with Torah. Others can enable the world to continue to exist. (Tosefta, Yevamot 8:7 [ed. Lieberman, p. 26]; compare the parallel in the Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 63b)

So we see that it would have been possible for Jesus to have been accepted as a teacher in first-century Jewish society despite the fact that he was not married.

Although Shim’on ben Azzai was not married, he did not endorse the unmarried state. He may have married later in life. Jesus was probably not a confirmed bachelor either. He was still relatively young when he was crucified, and his death may have come before he had a chance to marry.


Comments 12

  1. Pingback: Was Jesus a Confirmed Bachelor? |

  2. I’m curious if the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth would have affected his marriage eligibility. Was he considered a illegitimate in any way among his community?

    1. Everyone has missed the point. Yes Yahshua – which is his real name and not Jesus – was married. He was married to Israel because He was Elohim (not god) in that body, 1 Timothy 3:16, “And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God (Elohim) was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angles, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.” KJV

      How was Yahshua married to Israel you ask? In Exodus 24:3 Moses “told the people all the words of the Lord…and all the people answered with one voice, and said, All the words which the Lord hath said will WE DO.” That was the marriage between Elohim and Israel. That was in the Law. Now see what is says in the book of Jeremiah the prophet. (According to Isaiah 8:20.)

      Elohim is telling Israel about the new covenant in Jeremiah 31:31 and in verse two (2) Elohim says of the new covenant, “Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I WAS A HUSBAND unto them…” KJV

      According to the Law, a woman could not marry another until her husband had died. When Yahshua (Elohim in that body that was married to Israel) died on the cross, that allowed the Israelites that believed that Yahshua was the Messiah to become the bride of Yahshua under the new covenant.
      James

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  4. Pingback: Jesus’ Wife? Some Scholars Weigh In | Our Rabbi Jesus

  5. Kay Money

    Historically, in Jesus’ time, it was customary that a Jewish man be established in his business and able to provide a stable/protective environment for a young bride. The marrying man in his mid-30’s was not unusual. The bride was often in her early teens. (Example: Mary & Joseph)

    Jesus, in his early 30’s was not past that “expiration” time. (One could have a strong theological argument why God had not called Him to marriage – yet, that is beside this point.)

    Rather than rest on later Jewish customs and outside writings, may I suggest an earlier author, within the Scriptures themselves. Paul was called to ministry and was not married. Likewise, he gave those with marriage concerns a gentle guideline to marry or not to marry.

    I Cor. 7 (NASB)
    8 But I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I.
    17 Only, as the Lord has assigned to each one, as God has called each, in this manner let him walk. And so I direct in all the churches.
    25 Now concerning virgins I have no command of the Lord, but I give an opinion as one who by the mercy of the Lord is trustworthy.
    26 I think then that this is good in view of the present distress, that it is good for a man to remain as he is.
    32 But I want you to be free from concern. One who is unmarried is concerned about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord;
    33 but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, 34 and his interests are divided. The woman who is unmarried, and the virgin, is concerned about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and spirit; but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how she may please her husband.
    35 This I say for your own benefit; not to put a restraint upon you, but [r]to promote what is appropriate and to secure undistracted devotion to the Lord.

  6. Good work, once again. We appreciate Jerusalem Perspective keeping us informed on the latest discoveries, and the most learned historical accounts.

  7. Pingback: Jesus’ Wife — A note on reading ancient texts for students and others « Returning to "The Way (הדרך)"

  8. Todd Bolen

    I appreciate this article and the references you provide. I would suggest a couple of things. First, I don’t think we need to have other unmarried rabbis in order to believe that Jesus was one. Everyone recognized him as unique and distinct from the rabbis in important ways, and his disciples were attracted to him by teachings and miracles that would have overcome any potential obstacle of marital status. Second, I think it would be preferable to conclude the article not by suggesting that Jesus expected he might one day marry (the Gospels are clear that Jesus knew that he would die soon), but that perhaps others may have not held his unmarried status against him because he was still of a suitable age to marry.

    1. David N. Bivin Post
      Author
      1. Elhanan Ben-Avraham

        Yeshua referred to himself as “the bridegroom” whose purpose is to prepare a “bride” for Hashem to attend the final “wedding feast” of the Lamb. It is much like Hashem referring to Himself as a “husband” to Israel, and Israel as His “wife” in the OT, the marriage covenant being the central covenant of the entire Bible, from Adam and Eve (the image of God) in Genesis to that wedding feast of the Lamb in Revelation. Therefore the question might be moot when taken in that context historically.

        Elhanan ben-Avraham

        1. Elhanan Ben-Avraham

          It might be added that Paul referred to the Genesis passage in Ephesians 5:31-32, in the context of marriage, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave unto his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” as referring to Messiah and his body of followers.

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