As a pastor, one of the most enjoyable parts of my job is doing basic Bible study in preparation for preaching and teaching.
This week I was working through John 5. John 5 follows the typical pattern of the Gospel of John, with a "sign" and a discourse section that illuminate each other. The discourse of John 5 is particularly dramatic. Jesus performs a miracle on the Sabbath and rubs it in the faces of the religious authorities in order to set up His audacious claims.
Jesus, like Yahweh, works on the Sabbath, bringing life. He, together with His Father, is the source of life, will raise the dead and judge the resurrected. The better you understand the cultural and religious context of these dramatic claims, the more astounding the text is. It's a text that makes it obvious why Jesus was killed. Someone making such claims is either a lunatic or must be worshiped.
The same day I'm working on these claims in John - and wrestling with them emotionally, intellectually and in terms of my own life - I hear about the discovery of a fragment of papyrus, likely from a Gnostic text, in which Jesus mentions His wife. The cynical side of me asks, "Couldn't they have waited until Easter? That's usually when the media trots out things like the Gospel of Judas or the tomb of Jesus."
There is, of course, a long tradition of playing matchmaker for Jesus. Mary Magdalene is always pushed forward as a top contender, especially when she is needlessly merged with the "sinful" woman of Luke 7. If Jesus is going to get a wife, we want her to be hot, with a sketchy, sexy back story. In the Church of the Latter Day Saints tradition, many have taught that Jesus was not only married, but had multiple wives.
There is no wife mentioned in the Bible for either Jesus or Paul, which opens the door for speculation that they were gay. Peter had the good sense to have Jesus heal his sick mother-in-law, helping us locate at least one Gospel family. There are no spousal references for James and John, just one ambitious mother.
What this list demonstrates is that we look for what we are interested in, which was exactly the issue of John 5. In the midst of the religious authorities’ culture war against Roman contamination, while they were trying to maintain their community's religious identity, Jesus intentionally healing on the Sabbath was a challenge to their worldview assumptions. In chapter 4, a Samaritan village came to see Jesus as Messiah, as did the whole household of a Roman official. Yet the men most steeped in the authorized religious text couldn't see Jesus embodying the Sabbath.
As religious consumers, every new discovery offers support to whatever type of Jesus we want to believe in. It's easy to read the Gospel of John and say, "Oh, these were later Christians putting words in Jesus' mouth contriving the Trinity." OK, but which is harder to believe: that Jesus had one or more wives, as most Jewish men had, or that Jesus was secretly gay, or that He made these most audacious claims, which far outstripped those of the other revolutionary messiahs of His time who died under Roman repression?
The Jesus of John is not nice, convenient or safe. He is exactly the kind of man that would be so offensive, counter-cultural and dangerous to all sides that the Romans and their conservative, Jewish culture-war adversaries could agree on crucifying Him. What faction, Roman or Jewish, could tolerate such claims? Even I, while being heavily invested as a Christian teacher, read the text and swallow hard. He leaves me so few convenient religious options.
If the author of the Gospel of John thought the world could not contain enough books to fill the works of Jesus, how many worlds would we need for all we lay on top of Him? At some point you have to contend with the majority witness. In my opinion, this stuff that pops up seems weak and insignificant - at least if I can see a Jesus beyond my curiosity or convenience.
What Do You Think?
- What is your reaction when you hear about ancient, religious texts such as this?
- What would it mean for you if it was revealed that Jesus was married?
- Why do you think the Gospels left such details of Jesus’ life unmentioned?