Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code introduced a new generation to the idea that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married. A decade later, a forgery of “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” capitalized on the issue’s sensational nature. In this interview, historian Christopher Blythe expounds on his BYU Studies Quarterly article about open questions and says that Latter-day Saints have been comfortable with different answers to this quandary at different times.
Read the article by Christopher Blythe about whether Jesus was married.
Table of contents
- Why is this an important question?
- Why do 21st century scholars research Jesus’ marital status?
- Would Jesus’ culture expect Him to have been married?
- Why do people think Mary Magdalene was married to Jesus?
- When did Latter-day Saints start discussing this issue?
- How did Orson Hyde interpret Isaiah 53:10?
- How did Brigham Young interpret the story of Mary clinging to the Savior’s feet?
- Did the Manifesto affect the way Latter-day Saints talk about it?
- What have general authorities said?
- What does the Bible say about it?
- Who is Christopher Blythe?
- Where do I learn more?
Why was the question of whether Jesus was married included in the Yet to Be Revealed issue of BYU Studies?
This was a crucial question for early Latter-day Saints and it remains a question that Latter-day Saints frequently pose. The special issue of BYU Studies Quarterly focuses on beliefs in which the Church has not taken an official position and thus it is considered permissible to have multiple positions.
It’s a little more complicated when you talk about whether Jesus was married.
Historically, the question has gone through an evolutionary process:
- First, there was a wide consensus among Latter-day Saints that Jesus was married.
- Then, there was a wide consensus that he was married (but we should not speak about it).
- And finally, it was thought that the answer is unknowable and individual Latter-day Saints might take either position.
For me, this essay belongs in the book because it shows that even when a doctrine is privately held by general authorities, that does not mean it’s is an “official” doctrine of the Church. After all, how can a doctrine be official if it should not be discussed?
Why do 21st century scholars research Jesus’ marital status?
It’s a fascinating question tied into larger puzzles about the “historical Jesus.” I think questions of Jesus’ marital status have been provoked by the discovery of the Gospel of Philip in 1945. As you might remember, Philip included a much debated, incomplete, and enigmatic passage about Jesus kissing Mary.
In the 1980s, speculative history works such as Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln’s, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail inspired additional interest in the topic. Of course, a similar argument drawing on the pseudo history of Holy Blood and Holy Grail and the passage from the Gospel of Philip provide the backbone for Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code.
More recently, a forged manuscript nicknamed the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife brought more attention to the subject.
A recent book about the forgery by Ariel Sabar entitled Veritas makes an interesting argument that the subject receives so much attention because of Roman Catholicism’s emphasis on celibacy. While I do not think anyone can know about Jesus’ marital status without associated claims of revelation, I must admit the discussion has always fascinated me since I first picked up Holy Blood and Holy Grail as a high school student.
Would the Hebrew culture of Jesus’ time expected Him to have been married?
I’m not a scholar of ancient Hebrew culture. However, this has been a traditional argument in favor of Jesus having been married. Later scholars in the church, such as Trevan Hatch, have noted that there was a tradition of mystics and others who were celibate.
Why is Mary Magdalene thought to have been the possible wife of Jesus?
The closeness between Mary Magdalene and the Savior shows up in a number of stories. She anoints Jesus’ feet in John 12. More importantly for early Latter-day Saint commentators, Mary is the first witness of the resurrection later in that Gospel.
Obviously, the relationship between Mary Magdalene and the Savior is pronounced well enough that it is not just early Latter-day Saints that have pondered the possibilities of their relationship.
Between early Latter-day Saints and Dan Brown, there was the Last Temptation of Christ and Jesus Christ Superstar that both presented Mary as romantically interested in the celibate Jesus.
When did Latter-day Saints first begin discussing this issue?
There are memoirs that claim Joseph Smith was teaching the idea of Jesus having offspring in the era just before his death. In terms of contemporary sources, we can trace the idea to the period just after Joseph Smith’s death. Brigham Young briefly mentioned it in a public sermon in 1847, but the discussion didn’t really get started until the early 1850s.
The idea that marriage was a divine trait was revealed only in the Nauvoo period and after Doctrine & Covenants 132 was published 1852. I’m sure it created the space to discuss these subjects openly.
How did Orson Hyde interpret Isaiah 53:10?
Orson Hyde probably said more about Jesus being married than any other nineteenth century apostle. He was the first to state that the Wedding at Cana was Jesus’ wedding, for example.
When it came to Isaiah 53:10 (“When thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed”), he saw it as an actual prophecy. That is, Hyde speculated that before his death, Jesus saw his literal children who had gathered to witness his crucifixion.
How did Brigham Young interpret the biblical story of Mary clinging to the Savior’s feet?
Brigham Young seems to have first suggested that Jesus was married in 1847. He told his listeners that the scene of Mary washing the Savior’s feet was exactly like how other women would come meet their husbands after the resurrection. This idea of the unification of wife and husband at the resurrection (as well as other family members) was a recurring element in the sermons of Brigham Young. And before him, the discourses of Joseph Smith.
Did the Manifesto affect how often Latter-day Saints talked about Jesus possibly being married?
Absolutely. Some early Latter-day Saints believed Jesus had multiple wives. It was sometimes suggested that he specifically had three: Mary, Martha, and Mary Magdalene.
In the 20th century, among members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the interest seemed to reside in whether He could have been married in general or married to Mary Magdalene.
Among Fundamentalists, there was additional speculation. As I mention in the essay, Lorin C. Woolley, the father of early Fundamentalism, proposed eight names for women married to Jesus.
Have any general authorities stated that Jesus was not married?
So far as I have been able to find, no general authority has suggested that the Savior was not married. Instead, there has been an emphasis in official and apologetic writings that this has not been revealed to us.
What does Andrew Skinner say the Bible teaches about Jesus being married?
Andrew Skinner was one of a handful of Brigham Young University Religious Education scholars to respond to the Da Vinci Code movie in 2006. His argument was that contrary to traditional Latter-day Saint ideas that Jesus was likely married since he “fulfilled all righteousness,” that there were many unique elements in the Savior’s life and this could have included celibacy.
Skinner was in agreement with mainstream Bible scholars who point to the absence of any mention in the historic record about Jesus’ marriage. The implication, of course, is that we should not speculate where the scriptures are silent.
That said, Skinner did not disavow the possibility entirely—nor have any other major Latter-day Saint thinkers.
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About the author
Christopher James Blythe is an assistant professor of English at Brigham Young University. He has a Ph.D. in American Religious History from Florida State University, and has worked on religious projects at the Joseph Smith Papers Project, Utah State University, and the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. He specializes in apocalyptic literature, won a prestigious award for his first book, and discovered a new Brigham Young revelation while conducting research on dreams and visions in the 19th century.
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Was Jesus married resources
- Was Jesus Married? (BYU Studies Quarterly)
- The Unbelievable Tale of Jesus’ Wife (The Atlantic)
- The Question of Whether Jesus Christ Was Married (FAIR)
- There’s Something about Mary . . . Magdelene (James D. Tabor)
- The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Issues Statement Regarding ‘The Da Vinci Code’ (KSL)
- Debunking the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife: An Interview with Ariel Sabar (Religion & Politics)