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I’ve begun to wonder why Christians have readily accepted the inner conviction that Jesus had to be ascetically celibate in order for him to be divinely appointed. I realize this isn’t merely assumption, as he is portrayed that way in our modern Bibles. But, as a Christian, I felt that there was some unspoken rule conveying that the success of Jesus’s mission depended on heroic, pious sexual abstinence that transcended any human desires, as if sexual desire was unfitting, evil, or wrong.
As far as I know, the vast majority of early Jews placed undeniable importance on marriage and family, as a fulfillment of God’s edict to “be fruitful and multiply.” Did Jesus suddenly introduce the idea that there was something holier and better about being single and celibate? Would sex—even in the confines of marriage—somehow pollute any fitting son or daughter of God?
In addition, what would an appointed messiah hope to gain by his example of celibacy to his followers? A demonstration of greater self control (although most married men will admit that this is not the case)? Was it merely, as the apostle Paul supposedly taught (a contradiction to some of his other teachings), to have fewer distractions and responsibilities as one committed wholeheartedly to ministry? Must one choose such a thing for the sake of ministry—ministry to pretty much all married people with families, no less?
I find myself asking, which came first, the chicken or the egg? The developing Roman Church, with its heavy emphasis on personal moral piety and sexual abstinence for clergy, certainly shaped an image for many centuries to come of what it must mean to be “pure and powerful,” but is this the intent of Scriptures? Even the ever-revered Peter, the “first pope” of the Catholic Church (by later designation), was married. So, short of the portrayal of Jesus, where did they ever get the idea that being celibate was a necessary duty of clergy and holy men and women of God? Even Paul defended the right of marriage for all apostles in his letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 9:5). So were the Roman clergy celibate because Jesus was, or was Jesus painted as celibate to preserve a later tradition of self-abasing control and holier-than-thou standards of Church leaders? What was the standard of the earliest Church leaders in the immediate decades following Christ? According to Wikipedia:
The earliest Christian leaders were largely married men. …George T. Dennis SJ of Catholic University of America says: “There is simply no clear evidence of a general tradition or practice, much less of an obligation, of priestly celibacy-continence before the beginning of the fourth century”
Peter Fink SJ agrees, saying that underlying premises used in the book, Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy, “would not stand up so comfortably to historical scrutiny”. Dennis says this book provides no evidence that celibacy had apostolic origins.
Philippe Delhaye wrote: “During the first three or four centuries, no law was promulgated prohibiting clerical marriage. Celibacy was a matter of choice for bishops, priests, and deacons. … The apostolic constitutions (c. 400) excommunicated a priest or bishop who left his wife ‘under pretense of piety’ (Sacrorum Conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio 1:51).”.
After the onset of priestly celibacy in the 4th century, things went from bad to worse. In 530 AD, Emperor Justinian I declared all cleric marriages null and void and also declared their children illegitimate. That sounds pretty fair and reasonable.
Admittedly, on our quest to discover the more human, relatable aspect of the Jewish Messiah, I have no idea exactly why or when this view of the necessity of a virgin Jesus (from a virgin mother, no less) came into play, but we can certainly explore some interesting historical developments surrounding one early disciple, Mary Magdalene.
I was always skeptical about the claims of Mary Magdalene possibly being a disciple of Jesus’ or, much more blasphemous—thank you Dan Brown—the wife and lover of Jesus. As mentioned, my old Jesus was not allowed to love a woman or, God forbid, put that in there to make babies! Besides, I thought, there is no evidence for such a thing except by people with overblown imaginations or a desire to stir up trouble.
But then I found out that, in fact, there was evidence of another viewpoint. For a good chunk of the last two millennia, there were no other viewpoints until intriguing evidence surfaced over the last century that has rocked the orthodox position, despite the fact that the conservative Christian majority has ignored and/or suppressed the information to its followers.
If you go to this link or to Netflix, you can watch a free 45 minute documentary on the Secrets of Mary Magdalene where you will find fairly objective, balanced information about the discovery of the authentic (ancient) Gnostic Gospels, believed to have been written between the 2nd and 4th centuries AD, and unearthed over the last 120 years. Based on the historical traditions of the Gnostics, these “gospels” depict a completely different view of Mary M. and Jesus, as well as her role among the early believers. Rather than a humble, desperate prostitute, she is portrayed through the writer of this gospel (as well through some of the other gospels) as one of Jesus’s closest disciples, wife, and then later becoming one of the greatest teachers/leaders of the early Christian movement.
As an aside, though Mary M. probably didn’t write the gospel attributed to her (since it was perhaps penned 100-200 years after her lifetime), this in itself shouldn’t necessarily assign it to a place of illegitimacy or untruth. Neither were the canon gospels (in our Bible today) penned by the apostles they are attributed to (other than, possibly, Luke). The apostles were likely not literate, and their gospels were written decades after the death of Jesus, probably by scribes via oral traditions. Also, it is suggested by some scholars that the apostles they are attributed to are but guesses, made perhaps 100 years after they were written.
Whether or not the Gnostic Gospel are true and accurate, they are without a doubt legitimate, historic documents that Christians should at least know about. Why the suppression of information? Are we still living in the Dark Ages of control where we are not allowed to think for ourselves and come to our own conclusions based on where the evidence leads?
An interesting and short history lesson. The Cathars of southern France were a large sect of Christianity who believed that Mary Magdalene was a great apostle who came to live in their mountains after the death of Jesus, in order to spread the gospel. This “horribly heretical group” was one of the first to be annihilated by the Catholic Church at the onset of the first Crusade—perhaps as many as a million Cathars obliterated in bloody massacre—in order to stop this dangerous “heresy” among a religion that believed women should be silent doormats living quietly at home, submitting to their control-hungry husbands.
Here are a few random snippets from one website, “Mary Magdalene: Apostle of the Apostles,” with a lot of very intriguing info about Gnosticism (Greek: knowledge). And oh my goodness, I love this info so much as it goes hand in hand with some of my favorite Jewish Kabbalah perspectives:
It is my contention that Mary Magdalene was the carrier of a tradition of respect and reverence for the Divine Feminine, a secret initiatory tradition that leads back through Jesus, Gnosticism, the esoteric teachings of Judaism, and the Egyptian mysteries of Isis to the ultimate ground or source of all religions. By seeking out the alternative roads to understanding, by looking at the Gnostic texts, legends, symbols, and iconography, one discovers the distinct possibility Mary Magdalene was not only first witness to and herald of the Resurrection, but the chief disciple and recipient of Christ’s’ gnosis, as well as teacher and transmitter of these extraordinary Mysteries to the people of France.
Unlike the patriarchal, dogmatic, materially based teachings prevalent during this period, Gnosticism placed primary value on the feminine qualities of receptivity, intuitive perception, visionary experience and the art of healing. It was a teaching of love, selflessness, harmony and communion.
Clearly, these sacred esoteric teachings were revolutionary. Unlike the fixed, restrictive, hierarchical systems prevalent during this period, these teachings were open to all, female, male, rich, poor Jew or Pagan. This all-inclusive transmission of teachings formerly reserved for the elite was at odds with the practices of Orthodox Judaism and the emerging Church of Rome. For once the seeker had been touched by this Gnostic current, she or he came to recognise their own divine nature and perceive their place in the world from a whole new perspective. No longer did they need the intercession of a priest or rabbi to connect them with their spiritual inheritance. [BINGO]
Evidence of Mary Magdalene’s primary role as disciple, visionary, mediatrix and herald of these revolutionary teachings can be found in a number of Gnostic texts. These include The Pistis Sophia, The Gospel of Philip, The Gospel of Mary and more.
I find it so intriguing and fascinating to consider the possibilities and ask, what if? What if Jesus loved Mary that way—would it really matter?” The heart of the Father as revealed in Scripture is about the intimate love between a husband and his wife who reproduce their love into a family. What is so holy or special about being single and celibate? Again, I’m not saying for certain that Jesus was married or that he had children. I’m asking what would it matter if he did? Would it change anything really about our relationship to him? Might it even make him more human and more relatable to us, not less? And certainly it WOULD matter to oppressed, silenced, shamed women far and wide if they knew that Mary M. was actually a great leader of the early Christian movement and a close confidante of Jesus!
Join me next week for the conclusion of Jesus as a regular Joe, where we will break down the concepts of sin, perfection, and we will get to the heart of the matter of WHY we are searching for a truer understanding of the nature of Jesus. There is a beautiful secret, hidden in plain sight, that offers a picture of our incredible worth and destiny as “fellow heirs of Christ.”