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Book Review: Anthony Le Donne, The Wife of Jesus

October 24, 2013

Last Friday I received in the mail a shiny copy of Anthony Le Donne’s latest book, The Wife of Jesus: Ancient Texts and Modern Scandals (London: OneWorld, 2013). Vexed by curiosity and a strange desire for self-flagellation (and also currently in the middle of three other books), I decided to drop everything and read it at once. I’m glad I did because–let me put an end to the suspense–I really like this book! This is the fourth of Le Donne’s books that I have read and here, as elsewhere, he writes with characteristic wit, attention to overlooked details, and an adept use of pop culture references. He does all of this while raising issues the reader may not be anticipating. I know that I was surprised by some of the turns Le Donne’s discussions took throughout the book. I should point out at the outset of my remarks that this book is not an academic treatise but rather an exposition of scholarly questions (and answers) in a format that is both readable and perfectly suited for the non-specialist. Now for my review:

Introduction: Le Donne sets the stage by wondering aloud, “what does it say about us that we’re so fascinated and repulsed by th[e] possibility” that Jesus was married (p. 7) ? This question betrays a much larger concern expressed throughout the book: when we in the Christianized West talk, think, and deliberate about Jesus, we are often talking, thinking, and deliberating about ourselves, our culture, and our particular religious understandings. Christian cultures have been creating Jesus in their own images for the better part of two millennia, and this is no doubt true when it comes to the unmarried, asexual, celibate Jesus of modern (mainly Western) Christian imagination. Le Donne demonstrates here and elsewhere in the book, how historical thinking about Jesus evolves, and exposes several iterations of Jesus and Mary Magdalene in order to provide a more robust historical context.

Chapter One (“According to the Flesh”): Here Le Donne looks at the Jesus of orthodox Christian confession with an eye to demonstrating why a Jesus with a sexual identity is troublesome for so many. If Jesus was “fully human,” as both the creeds insist and his earthly existence would suggest, then we would expect Jesus to be, in most respects, like everyone else. This would dictate that Jesus had some sort of sexual awareness, even if he chose to reject or ignore it. Le Donne is spot on that Westerners are simultaneously obsessed with and terrified by sex. Westerners also associate sexuality with something inherently sinful or faulty. How then, can Jesus be a model for humanity and have also had (or worse, expressed) sexual awareness? Le Donne concludes that traditional arguments for Jesus’ celibacy cannot be sustained since they are rooted in assumptions that do not fully account for his humanity.

Chapter Two (“Substance and Shadow”): Professional historians and those who draw upon the work of professional historians must be prepared to reckon with the difficult issue of silence. Our earliest texts about Jesus–the four canonical gospels and possibly the Gospel of Thomas–do not explicitly tell us that Jesus was single, nor do they affirm that he was married. As with any debate, the burden of proof lies with anyone who would make an affirmative argument. To complicate matters, we know of so many other married men in the NT (e.g., James, Peter, the brothers of Jesus, etc.) and we never meet their wives. Thus, it does not automatically follow that just because the NT is silent about Jesus’ wife, this means he never married. An ancillary point made in this chapter–and one that Le Donne raises several other times in the book–is how women are either nameless, faceless agents in the story of Jesus, or manipulated greatly (especially in the case of Mary Magadalene) as it fits the purposes of the church.

Chapters Three & Four (“Something About Mary” / “Mrs. Christ”): These two chapters have Mary Magdalene as a primary focus and trace her development from disciple to wealthy patron to prostitute. At the end of chapter four, this helpful paragraph succinctly sums up Mary’s evolution in the Christian imagination:

In the first two centuries after Mary Magdalene’s death she went from disciple, to obscurity, to a target for misogyny. Her legacy was confused with Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. Parallel to this progression, Mary became the ideal and transcendent disciple, and an object of jealousy. From the Middle Ages onward, she became the harbinger of vices. Twelve hundred years after she died, she became inexplicably wealthy. She was royalty, owner of a walled city, but tragically given to sensuality. In short, Mary Magdalene became a prostitute in the imaginations of the Christianized West. She became the exemplary sinner and the model of penitence during the Reformation. In the modern world – sexualized as she was – she became a modern, worldly woman. She was the object of Jesus’ desire and temptation. She became the lover of Jesus and then, finally, the wife of Jesus (p. 67).

Chapter Five (“Smithing Jesus”): This might be my favorite chapter in the entire book. Here Le Donne examines the way Jesus has been used to advance specific agendas by looking at the “polygamist Jesus” of early Mormon tradition and the “gay Jesus” of Morton Smith. Again, he reveals how when we talk about Jesus we are often simply using him as a means to some self-serving religious, political, or social end. He concludes that spotting the agendas behind such extreme (and extremely inaccurate) agendas as the “polygamist Jesus” and the “gay Jesus” is fairly easy for us, but what proves to be more difficult is identifying our own agendas and how we project them onto Jesus.

Chapter Six (“From Persia With Love”): I have to say that I wasn’t expecting this chapter but I thought it helped Le Donne focus his presentation more toward Westerners who view love, marriage, & sex as inextricably linked. Le Donne traces the rise of “romantic love” as a dominant concept in Western thought and suggests that we often bristle at the idea of a married Jesus because we lump together marriage and sex with romance. He points out, however, that marriage in Jesus’ socio-historical context was utilitarian and pragmatic, having implications for the survival of the family unit (in which the father-son dynamic was the most important relationship). An awareness of this fact will give us pause before insisting that Jesus could not have been married.

Chapter Seven (“Average Joe”): A brief, almost transitional chapter, “Average Joe” suggests that it was likely that Jesus was a Jewish male like other Jewish males of his time. He could have had an arranged marriage prior to his public career and his parents would certainly have felt a societal pressure to make this happen. The chapter ends with these helpful thoughts:Buddy Christ

The New Testament does not tell us that Jesus was married. But it also does not tell us if he ever skipped a stone, or laughed, or learned to dance, or countless other things that would have been common to the human experience. Are we to conclude that Jesus never whistled a tune just because the Gospels do not say so?….I would argue that our default position should be that he did skip stones, and whistle tunes, and that he did get married — unless we have good reason to think otherwise (p. 116).

Chapters Eight & Nine (“Alternative Lifestyle” / “Bride of Christ): These chapters represent the heart of Le Donne’s argument that Jesus was likely not married. He builds a case for what he calls, “civic masculinity” (chapter eight) which is “built on the premise that the ideal male would have the power and responsibility of ownership. However wealthy he was, he would wield authority over his people and possessions. In this way, the ideal civic male would contribute to the larger economic and social integrity of the nation” (pp. 120-21). But this isn’t how Jesus behaved, at least not according to the gospel tradition. Jesus encouraged his followers to forsake social and economic security and he taught in ways that would surely have been seen as undermining the “traditional” family in his context. Le Donne also emphasizes how early church tradition drew upon the idea of a “wedding feast” to paint the picture of eschatological consummation (chapter nine). This latter image is often (mis)appropriated as a theological justification for why Jesus couldn’t have been married. All that “marriage talk” must be simply spiritual, right?

Chapter Ten (“Was Jesus Married?”): In this concluding chapter, Le Donne offers his final reflections on why Jesus was likely not married, while continuing to emphasize that if you want to make this argument, it must be for reasons other than those traditionally provided. Two excerpts from this chapter, to my mind, helpfully conclude the argument of the book:

In short, our earliest and best sources for the life of Jesus do not give us the portrait of a teacher who instructed men to become civic patrons. Given all of this evidence, the pertinent question remains: Did Jesus practice what he preached? I think that he probably did. This, of course, does not prove that Jesus was unmarried before his preaching career. It does, however, make it very difficult to imaine that he was married to Mary Magdalene or to any of his followers. In his career as religious leader–short lived as it was–Jesus was a sexual nonconformist. Specifically, he had invested in the two-sided coin of economic disobligation and celibacy (p. 161).

and

I would challenge my readers to remember that the “why” questions of history are just as important as the “what” questions. Jesus was not celibate because sex is sinful or because the Church has claimed status as the wife of Jesus. If true–if our most celebrated and despised icon was celibate for other reasons–we in the Christianized West will do well to reconsider our misogynistic and fear-driven notions of sexuality. Perhaps our notions of civic masculinity will become casualties on our continued quest for the wife of Jesus (p. 162).

I would like to close by pointing out three things about this book that make it useful, especially for the non-specialist:

(1) The Wife of Jesus shows us how often we pose the right questions for the wrong reasons or attempt to answer the right questions with flawed or faulty logic. If we are going to insist that Jesus was celibate/single, let’s do it for the kinds of reasons Le Donne proposes.

(2) I have already mentioned this, but a strength of this book is it’s emphasis on how a given culture’s Jesus will change according to the ideas and sometimes, whims of the day. The Jesuses of the church and the Jesuses of academia are ever-evolving. This book shows how a little historical context can go a long way.

(3) This book does what it can to rescue, restore, and demonstrate the value of women in Jesus’ life and in the contemporary life of faith. I know it’s an ancillary concern in the overall scheme of the book, but Le Donne has skillfully kept this in the forefront of our thinking by weaving into the discussion throughout the book.

No doubt, there are things I have failed to emphasize in this review (and I invite Anthony to point those out). That said, I would like to conclude by recommending this book enthusiastically. In a culture where ideas about Jesus abound and terribly uninformed portraits like those recently provided by Reza Aslan and Bill O’Reilly receive wide attention, one can only hope that the sane, sober, careful reflections of a book like this will be noticed.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. October 24, 2013 9:09 pm

    …the back story here is that I held Cal Ripken Jr. hostage until Skinner wrote nice things about my book. You can go now Cal.

    -anthony

  2. October 24, 2013 9:56 pm

    Thanks for this Chris – really helpful review. However, I do believe that the plural form of “Jesus” is “Jesai.”

  3. John permalink
    October 25, 2013 6:37 am

    Hi, I am from Australia.
    Please find a completely differen Spiritually informed Understanding of the fabricated origins and institutional political purposes of the “New” Testament.
    It is based on the most thorough-going 50 year long depth level investigation of the origins of Christianity, and of its beliefs and dogmas. The author was thoroughly familiar with all of the modern scholarship re the origins etc of the “New” Testament.
    He was also thoroughly familar at with all of the mystical experiences described in the classic writings of the various Christian mystics. Which is to say that he experienced all of them, understood their meanings, significance, and more importantly their limitations.
    http://www.dabase.org/up-5-1.htm
    http://www.dabase.org/up-6.htm

  4. January 21, 2014 2:03 am

    I enjoyed your review and the book very much. I, also, discuss The Wife of Jesus, contrasting it with Zealot, The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, on my website: http://taniamoore.me/2014/01/21/jesus-two-contrasting-studies/

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