Was Jesus scandalous? Perhaps not in the ways many people think.
Jesus may have had a wife, but if so, we’ll probably never know who she was.
Jesus seems to have opposed taxes, but his anger was directed at an agrarian empire that had little in common with the targets of modern libertarians.
Jesus could have been gay, but the odds are he wasn’t, and a certain “lost gospel” hinting that he was is probably a hoax.
In my next three posts I’ll review recent books about Jesus, and see what experts and popular writers have been saying about these things.
The first I really enjoyed: The Wife of Jesus by Anthony Le Donne, a biblical scholar who suggests that Christians have been right for the wrong reasons. Jesus was celibate, not because he was “too holy for sex,” but because he had wild ideas about honor and family.
Marriage was a cultural given in Jesus’ day and the most important way of honoring your parents and surviving economically. But at least by the time he was in his thirties (by the time of his gospel ministry), Jesus was dishonoring his blood ties and reshaping a spiritual family around him. Like John the Baptist, he lived as if the world was coming to an end. Providing for future generations (property rights secured through marriage) wasn’t a part of his message.
And he said there were different kinds of eunuchs–those who lack reproductive organs, but also those who choose celibacy for the sake of God’s kingdom (Matthew 19:12). “In all of these ways,” says Le Donne, “Jesus subverted civic masculinity and quite possibly the institution of marriage, which stood at the center of civic masculinity.” (p. 128)
Severing his blood ties
Le Donne thinks Jesus may have been married prior to all of this–say, in his twenties–and that his wife died in childbirth, as was common. Only when he left home and became a prophet was he flagrantly dishonoring his blood ties. Of course, from his point of view, he wasn’t being dishonorable at all: he thought of his followers as his true family; his blood relations were no longer real.
And here we get some unpleasant gospel teachings: Jesus said that his family were not his biological kin, but those who did the will of God (Mark 3:31-35). He said that he hadn’t come to bring peace but division–“to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother”; that if you loved your biological family more than you loved him, you were unworthy (Matthew 10:34-36). Indeed, you had to hate your biological family to become a disciple (Luke 14:26).
Following Jesus meant surrendering your social security, sacrificing your inheritance rights, hating your family, and becoming a homeless itinerant. The irony is that Christians who see Jesus as “above sex” tend to be the same who champion “family values,” which Jesus had no use for.
I love this book and wish there were more like it. It’s carefully argued without any sensationalism. Jesus was scandalous, but for his celibacy, not for (plausibly) having a wife at an earlier point. I find it intriguing that celibacy was considered unholy . . . and yet Jesus took the unholy and made it his badge of honor.
Next up: Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Jesus and Reza Aslan’s Zealot.
About Loren Rosson
Loren Rosson heads up the circulation department at the Nashua Public Library. He's worked at the library since graduating from Lewis and Clark College, with the exception of the two years he spent in Lesotho with the Peace Corps, teaching high school.