April 12, 2009


The following is an excerpt from the book Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code: A Historian Reveals What We Really Know About Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Constantine by Bart D. Ehrman (via FSB Associates)

Men in the Ministry of Jesus

The first thing to be said is that it appears that most of Jesus' followers, and certainly his closest followers, were men. The vast majority of the stories about Jesus -- both those that can be established as historically authentic and those about which we might have some doubts -- concern his interaction with men. This is not to be unexpected: women in the first century were typically under the authority of the men in their lives -- their fathers and/or husbands -- and would not have been allowed, for the most part, to be traipsing about the countryside after an itinerant teacher when there was so much work to be done in the home: preparing food, making and mending clothes, taking care of children. These were women's activities; men had more of a public profile outside the home. For a woman to be active outside the home usually meant either that she was not under a man's authority (father or husband) because she was, say, an older single adult or that she was an upper-class woman of means who had others, such as slaves, to take care of her household duties. And even though a select few of Jesus' followers may well have been from the upper classes -- and probably were, as we will see -- the vast majority of them were peasants. And peasant women in areas such as rural Galilee would necessarily have spent most of their time at home working; there was not a lot of time (if any) for leisure activities such as going out midweek to hear a good sermon.

And so it is no surprise that most of Jesus' followers were men, who were more likely to be out and about rather than stuck at home. Moreover, it is a firmly rooted tradition in our historical record that the closest followers of Jesus were all men. These are the twelve disciples, whose gender is not open to serious dispute -- twelve men drawn from the larger company, predominantly of men, around Jesus. This was not only the actual situation attending Jesus' public ministry but also the ideal situation that he himself appears to have envisaged. For, as we have seen, one of the firmly grounded traditions of Jesus' teaching is that he expected the imminent arrival of the kingdom of God in which God would rule his people through human mediators. And who would those human mediators be? Recall the saying of Jesus preserved for us from Q, a saying that passes our historical criteria for authenticity: "Truly I say to you, in the renewed world, when the Son of Man is sitting on the throne of his glory, you [disciples] also will be seated on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel" (Matt. 19:28; cf. Luke 22:30). The future rulers of God's people would all be men.

Women in the Ministry of Jesus

This does not mean that women were absent from Jesus' ministry. Quite the contrary, even though women are not prominently featured in the stories of Jesus in comparison with men, they do appear there on a regular basis, far more than one might anticipate given the patriarchal society that restricted women's public activities in the first century. More than other teachers, including other Jewish teachers, Jesus appears to have been publicly involved with women in his ministry. This is born out by a careful examination of our surviving sources, utilizing the various historical criteria that I spelled out in the previous chapter.

To provide a brief synopsis of the material, I can summarize as follows. It is attested independently in two of our early sources, Mark and L (Luke's special source) that Jesus was accompanied by women in his travels (Mark 15:40-41; Luke 8:1-3). This tradition is corroborated, independently again, by the Gospel of Thomas (e.g., Gosp. Thom. 114) and by other passages where Jesus interacts with women (e.g., Luke 10:38-42; Matt. 15-21- 29). Mark and L also indicate that women provided Jesus with financial support during his ministry, evidently serving as his patrons (Mark 15:40-41; Luke 8:1-3). That is to say, since Jesus during his ministry had no source of income, these women (one of them is named as Mary Magdalene) provided him with the funds that he and his disciples needed in order to live. These obviously would have been wealthier women who would not have been forced to remain at home to do the work necessary to keep a household together. It may be that some of these women, including Mary Magdalene, were single, but not all of them were. One of them is named as "Joanna, the wife of [King] Herod's steward Chuza" (Luke 8:2). Another is called Susanna, but, as with Mary, we are not sure of her marital status. Luke tells us that there were "many others who provided for him [Jesus] out of their own resources." The others named by Mark include one named Salome and another Mary, who is identified as "the mother of James the younger and of Joses." It is possible that this is none other than the mother of Jesus, who is earlier said in Mark 6:3 to have two other sons named James and Joses. In any event, it is clear that Jesus was accompanied in his travels not only by the twelve men disciples but also by women, some of whom provided for him out of their means.

Not only was Jesus accompanied by women, he also was actively in contact with them during his public ministry. In both Mark and John, Jesus is said to have engaged in public dialogue and debate with women who were not among his immediate followers (John 4:1-42; Mark 7:24-30). Both Gospels also record, independently of one another, the tradition that Jesus had physical contact with a woman who anointed him with oil in public (Mark 14:3-9; John 12:1-8). In Mark's account this is an un- named woman in the house of a leper named Simon (this same account is found in a different form in Luke as well, who appears to have gotten it from Mark but changed it in some key ways; see Luke 7:36-50); in John's account it is Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, in her own home. And Jesus is said to have helped women in need on several occasions (e.g., Matt. 15:21-29).

In all four of the canonical Gospels, the women who accompanied Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem during the last week of his life are said to have been present at his crucifixion (Matt. 27:55; Mark 15:40-41; Luke 23:49; John 19:25). The earliest traditions in Mark suggest that they alone remained faithful to the end -- all of his male disciples had fled. In addition, it is clear from all four of the canonical Gospels, along with the noncanonical Gospel of Peter, that women followers were the first to believe that Jesus' body was no longer in the tomb (Matt. 28:1-10; Mark i6:i-8; Luke 23:55-24: 1 0; John 2 0:1-2; GOSP. Pet- 50-57). These accounts all differ in significant ways concerning how many women there were at the empty tomb: was it Mary Magdalene alone, as in John? Or Mary Magdalene and other women, as in the other Gospels? And if it was with other women, which other women? It depends on which account you read. In any event, it was these women who were the first to proclaim that Jesus had been raised from the dead. As some feminist historians have pointed out, it is hard to underestimate the importance of this tradition about the women at the tomb: without these women, there may well have been no proclamation of the resurrection -- and thus no Christianity.

There are other interesting traditions about Jesus' contact with women that are found in only one or the other of our Gospels and so do not meet our criterion that multiply attested stories are more likely to be authentic. These would include the memorable moment found only in Luke's Gospel when Jesus encourages his friend Mary of Bethany in her decision to attend to his teaching rather than busy herself with "womanly" household duties (Luke 10:38-42).

What can we say about the contextual credibility of these traditions, in light of our criterion that any tradition about Jesus must plausibly be situated in a first-century Palestinian context to be accepted as historical? It is true that women were generally viewed as inferior to men in the ancient world. But there were exceptions. Greek philosophical schools such as the Epicureans and the Cynics, for example, advocated equality for women. Of course, there were not many Epicureans or Cynics in Jesus' immediate environment of Palestine, and our limited sources may suggest that women, as a rule, were generally even more restricted in that rural part of the empire with respect to their abilities to engage in social activities outside the home and away from the authority of their fathers or husbands. Is it credible, then, that a Jewish teacher would have encouraged and promoted such activities?

We have no solid evidence to suggest that other Jewish teachers had women followers during Jesus' day. But we do know that the Pharisees were supported and protected by powerful women in the court of King Herod the Great. Unfortunately, the few sources that we have say little about women among the lower classes, who did not have the wealth or standing to make them independent of their fathers or husbands.

There is one other consideration, however, that makes it easy to believe that Jesus may have had women publicly following him during his ministry. This involves the particular character of his proclamation of the coming kingdom of God. If you'll recall, Jesus maintained that God was going to intervene in history and bring about a reversal of fortunes. The first would be last, and the last would be first. Those who were rich would be impoverished, and the poor would be rich. Those who were exalted now would be humbled, and the humble would be exalted. As a corollary of his message, Jesus associated with the outcasts and down-trodden of society, evidently as an enactment of his proclamation that the kingdom would belong to such as these. If women were generally looked down upon as inferior by the men who made the rules and ran the society, it does not seem at all implausible that Jesus would have associated freely with them and that they would have been particularly intrigued by his proclamation of the coming kingdom.

Some recent scholars have proposed that Jesus in fact did much more than this, that he preached a "radically egalitarian society" -- that is, he set about to reform society by inventing a new set of rules to govern social relations, creating a community in which men and women were to be treated as absolute equals. This, however, may be taking the evidence too far and possibly in the wrong direction, for there is little to suggest that Jesus was concerned with pushing social reform in any fundamental way in this evil age. In his view, present-day society and all its conventions were soon to come to a screeching halt, when the Son of Man arrived from heaven in judgment on the earth. Far from transforming society from within, Jesus was preparing people for the destruction of society. Only when C-@-od's kingdom arrived would an entirely new order appear, in which peace, equality, and justice would reign supreme. This kingdom, though, would not arrive through the implementation of new social reform programs. It would arrive with a cosmic judge, the Son of Man, who would overthrow the evil and oppressive forces of this world.

To this extent (and I would stress, only to this extent), even though Jesus did not urge a social revolution in his time, his message did have radically revolutionary implications. He may have urged his followers to implement these implications in the present (hence his association with women). And in any event, it should be clear that some persons would find his message more attractive than others -- especially those who considered themselves downtrodden and oppressed in the present age, who would be rewarded in the age to come. If there were women who felt this way, given the patriarchal structures of their society, small wonder they would have been attracted to the apocalyptic message of Jesus and the hope it held out for life in the kingdom that was coming.

Was Jesus Married?

We can now turn to the thorny question of whether Jesus him- self was married. In The Da Vinci Code there is no question about the matter, as both Robert Langdon and Leigh Teabing speak of Jesus' marital status.

As Teabing says at one point to Sophie Neveu:

"Jesus as a married man makes infinitely more sense than our standard biblical view of Jesus as a bachelor."

"Why?" Sophie asked.

"Because Jesus was a Jew," Langdon said . . . According to Jewish custom, celibacy was condemned, and the obligation for a Jewish father was to find a suitable wife for his son. If Jesus were not married, at least one of the Bible's gospels would have mentioned it and offered some explanation for His unnatural state of bachelorhood." (p. 245)

Once again, however, we appear to be in the realm of sensationalized fictional claims instead of the realm of historical reality. I will be dealing in a moment with the general question of whether Jewish men were always married and whether celibacy was "condemned." But first, what have historians said about Jesus' marital status?

It is true that there have occasionally been historical scholars (as opposed to novelists or "independent researchers") who have claimed that it is likely that Jesus was married.6 But the vast majority of scholars of the New Testament and early Christianity have reached just the opposite conclusion. This is for a variety of compelling reasons.

Most significant is a fact that cannot be overlooked or underestimated: in none of our early Christian sources is there any reference to Jesus' marriage or to his wife. This is true not only of the canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John but of all our other Gospels and all of our other early Christian writings put together. There is no allusion to Jesus as married in the writings of Paul, the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of the Nazarenes, the Gospel of the Egyptians, the Gospel of the Ebionites -- and on and on. List every ancient source we have for the historical Jesus, and in none of them is there mention of Jesus being married.

And just think of all the occasions each of the authors of these books would have had to mention Jesus' marriage or his wife, had he been married. Jesus' mother is mentioned in these books, as are his "father" (Joseph), brothers, and sisters. Why would his wife never be mentioned? His disciples are mentioned; his other followers (including other women) are mentioned. Why would his wife never be? Moreover, the spouses of his followers are occasionally alluded to. And in one passage there is a reference to the wives of the apostles and to the wives of Jesus' earthly brothers (i Cor. 9:5)- Why not to the wife of Jesus? (That this is not just an argument from silence will become clear in a moment.)

More specifically with reference to Mary Magdalene, if Jesus were actually married to her, why would there be no reference to it? Why is she not singled out as special anywhere in the canonical Gospels? Why in fact, apart from Luke 8:1-3, where she is mentioned by name along with two other named women (Joanna and Susanna) and several others, is she not mentioned during his ministry at all, let alone as one who stood in a special relationship with Jesus? Why does she figure in none of the stories about Jesus in these Gospels? And even in Gospels where she is thought of as someone special, such as the Gospel of Mary, why is it as someone to whom Jesus delivered an important revelation, rather than as someone to whom he was married?

More telling still, why is she identified as she is, as Mary Magdalene? Scholars are widely agreed that she is called Magdalene to differentiate her from the other Marys named in the New Testament, including Mary the mother of Jesus and Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. Magdalene indicates her Place of origin -- the town of Magdala, a fishing village on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. If one wanted to differentiate this Mary from other Marys, why not indicate that this is the one to whom Jesus was married, rather than to say where she was from? Moreover, if they were married, how is it that Jesus is never portrayed as leaving his hometown until his public ministry, but this woman actually comes from a different town (Magdala, rather than Nazareth)?

These are imponderable difficulties for most scholars considering the question of whether Jesus was married, let alone married to Mary Magdalene. She simply doesn't figure prominently in any of our earliest traditions of Jesus, except at the very end, when she along with other women come to anoint his body for burial. And as I pointed out, not even the later Gospels, such as the Gospel of Philip, indicate that they were married (more on these Gospels in the next chapter).

But if in fact Jesus was not married, how can we explain that he was not? Is Robert Langdon right to say that Jewish men were expected to be married and that celibacy was "condemned"?

Unfortunately, this again is simply part of the narrative fiction of The Da Vinci Code; it has no basis in historical reality (or, perhaps, is based on a tendentious reading of much later Jewish sources). For we do know of Jewish men from the time and place of Jesus who were single, and it is quite clear that they were not "condemned" for it. And what is striking is that this tradition of remaining single and celibate can be found in precisely the same ideological circles as Jesus himself, among Jewish apocalypticists of the first century who expected that the world they lived in soon was to come to a crashing halt when God intervened in history in order to overthrow the forces of evil and bring in his good kingdom.

We know about one group of Jewish apocalypticists in particular from this time and place, as we have already seen. This is the group of Essenes who produced the Dead Sea Scrolls. As it turns out, according to ancient records of these Essenes, they were predominantly single, celibate men. This is the testimony of Jewish sources from the time, such as the first-century philosopher Philo, who indicates that "no Essene takes a wife," and the historian Josephus, who indicates that the Essenes shunned marriage; on the other hand, this view is affirmed even by non-Jewish sources, such as the writings of the Roman polymath Pliny the elder, who indicates that the Essenes renounced sex and lived "without any woman."

*Endnotes have been omitted.

In this hilarious and fascinating book, Mr. Ehrman does for Dan Brown's bestseller what Paul Tibbets did for Hiroshima.

[Originally posted: 11/29/04]

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 12, 2009 12:30 AM
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