Saturday, March 3, 2007

Married, with children? Or buried, with family?

In today's Ventura County Star, journalist John Scheibe weighs in on the "Jesus Family Tomb". Having spent an hour with John on the phone two days ago, I am one of the local scholars he features in the piece.

Which is why I'd like to follow up, not because I was misquoted but because of the way the article frames the controversy in terms of two key issues:

The claims are an assault on two of Christianity's central tenets: The first is that Jesus was resurrected after his brutal crucifixion and ascended to heaven in his earthly body some 40 days after he arose from his tomb. The second is that Christ lived a celibate life on Earth free of any knowledge of the flesh.
Apart from the odd way the final sentence is formulated, the quote suggests that the celibate status of Jesus is a "central tenet" of Christianity. So whether or not Jesus was "married with children" ranks right up there with whether or not Jesus' body remained in the grave.

In fact Scheibe credits Julia Fogg, assistant professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at California Lutheran University, with the idea that whether Jesus was a family man is "the deeper question" raised by the documentary.

Jesus' celibacy is a "central tenet"? It's "the deeper question"? Even though my favorite comedian, Jon Stewart, apparently agrees, this seems to me to be a fundamental misreading of the New Testament story. Even Dan Brown (The Da Vinci Code, p.245) knows that the New Testament is completely silent on Jesus' marital status. But for Brown and a few others, this silence counts as evidence that Jesus was married. Every good Jewish boy got married, the argument runs. So we should assume marriage unless told otherwise. The burden of proof is on those who argue for Jesus' celibacy.

This is problematic on several levels. As Bart Ehrman, religion professor at UNC Chapel Hill, points out:
Not a single one of our ancient sources indicates that Jesus was married, let alone married to Mary Magdalene. All such claims are part of modern fictional reconstructions of Jesus’ life, not rooted in the surviving accounts themselves.
More positively, there is good reason to believe that a Jewish apocalyptic prophet who was fully convinced that God was present and active in his ministry would forego marriage for the Cause. Since others have posted at length on the subject, you can read more at "Religion Facts" as well as the BeliefNet comments of Darrell Bock and Bart Ehrman.

My point in this post is that, in contrast to the New Testament's silence on Jesus' marital status, the noise it makes about Jesus resurrection is deafening. Not only do the Gospels contain stories about the empty tomb and about Jesus' appearances, but the book of Acts makes it clear that early Christian proclamation could be boiled down to a simple one-liner: God raised Jesus from the dead. Here's a sampling:
Acts 2:24; 3:15, 26; 4:10; 5:30; 13:30, 33, 34, 37; 17:30-31; 23:6; 24:15, 21; 25:19; 26:8, 22-23.
Was Jesus married, with children? I don't think so. If he were I'd be surprised (and would feel for his wife), but nothing essential to my faith would change. Was Jesus buried, in the family tomb, and were his bones collected and tucked into an ossuary? I don't think so. But if he were, the ground would move under my feet. My first moves would be to resign my teaching post at an evangelical college and cancel my membership at church. After that I'm not sure what I would do. Probably go back to carpentry.

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