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:
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.
AP Photo/Harvard University, Karen L. King
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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
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.