Was Jesus of Nazareth Married to Mary Magdalene?
It is common to hear or read that Jesus Christ, who lived on earth between 4 BC and 33 AD (Castro), lived a single and celibate life (Swiatocho). From at least 12 years of church attendance, I remember this basic assumption that Jesus was unmarried from mentions in both Bible class and from sermons without any evidence being cited to prove or even make a case for his singleness. The only information I have ever heard used in attempt to counter a claim that he was married was that the Bible does not say that he was. The counterpoint, that the Bible also does not say that he was single, I never heard mentioned.
It appears that, despite the lack of a direct statement either way from the Bible, most people believe that Jesus never married. A survey conducted by the online religious website Beliefnet resulted in 19% of respondents saying that they believed that Mary Magdalene was the wife of Jesus (Roberts). Though finding a survey of Christians or other groups being asked if they believe that Jesus was married to anyone at all has proven difficult, it appears that the 19% statistic in the Beliefnet results could be comparable to a survey asking the generic question of Jesus being married to anyone at all. The reason for this is that the biblical account shows Magdalene to be the central woman in the life of Jesus and his constant company with her in addition to the lack of mention of another female candidate would likely rule out a marriage to anyone else. So, when people were asked if Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, it’s possible they answered the same way they would if they were simply asked if he was married.
If Jesus was married and we are looking for candidates, it appears that we only see Mary Magdalene as a possibility. For example, in terms of her importance to the life of Jesus, it was Mary Magdalene who he appeared to first after the Bible reports that he was resurrected following his execution (John 20:11-18) and he told her to represent him to his disciples by being the one to tell them about his resurrection (John 20:17-18) which made her the first person in recorded history to share the message of the gospel. The Bible also says that she traveled with Jesus as he went from town to town (Luke 8:1-3) in addition to reporting that she went to the tomb where Jesus was buried to anoint his body with sweet-smelling oil (John 20:1).
Is There Evidence That Jesus Could Have Been Married?
It appears that there is evidence that Jesus could have been married or at least that him being single should not be a forgone conclusion. One piece of evidence that he potentially could have been married is the way that the Jewish people during that time perceived marriage and its role in the life of someone subject to Yahweh (God). Since the first command of God that is recorded in the Bible says, “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground’ (Genesis 1:28).
This command is repeated after the flood of Noah in Genesis 9:1. During the time of Jesus of Nazareth, in the middle of what is known as the Talmudic Period, which was between 400 BC to 500 AD (Dorff), the command to “be fruitful and multiply” was considered an essential part of Jewish religion and law. We learn in Even Ha’Ezer 1:1, a section of Rabbi Jacob ben Asher’s Code of Jewish Law:
“Every man is obligated to marry a woman in order to be fruitful and to multiply and anyone who doesn’t engage in being fruitful and multiplying, [it] is as if he spills blood, and lessens the appearance, and causes the divine presence to depart from Israel. He who does not marry is not allowed to make a blessing or to engage in Torah etc. and he is not called a man…”(Asher)
The Rabbi continues explaining the way the Jewish people applied this command by God in passage 3:
It is incumbent on every man that they should marry a woman at the age of 18 and the diligent get married at 13 and this mitzvah is for those who choose it, but before the age of 13 one should not marry, because it is similar to harlotry. If 20 years go by and he has not taken a wife and he who lets 20 years pass, or he who does not want to marry, the courts can force him to marry in order to fulfill the mitzvah of being fruitful and multiplying.(Asher)
Though such a culture is difficult to imagine to those who live in today’s United States and most of Europe, the Jewish people centered their lives around fulfilling the command of God to be fruitful and multiply and they did not see it as something that was optional. Judith R. Baskin, Director of the Harold Schnitzer Family Program in Judaic Studies at the University of Oregon said:
Rabbinic Judaism considered marriage as foreordained and essential for all adults. Within the confines of marriage, procreation, a legal obligation for men, could take place and the lineage of children, a significant concern in rabbinic culture, could be assured.(Baskin)
If Jesus had not fulfilled his “obligation” to the command of God to “be fruitful and multiply,” it seems almost certain that his enemies, the Pharisees, would have seized the opportunity to proclaim him breaking a law, since they could not find him breaking other laws despite their best efforts. Yet we see no statement of the Pharisees stating that Jesus disobeyed the command of God from Genesis 1:28. What’s more, since the Pharisees had clear motivation in that, according to the Bible, they were plotting to kill Jesus (Matthew 12:14), there was no reason for them to overlook such a violation of, not just Jewish custom, but law. In fact, if he had broken the law that required him to be fruitful and multiply, the Pharisees and judges would have the very words of Jesus to add hypocrisy to their claims to discredit him when he said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17), meaning that he came to fulfill the entire law of God. He then said, in the next verse, “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” So based on the words of Jesus, he considered himself fulfilling the Law and under the laws that had been in place for thousands of years.
The Actions of Mary Magdalene Suggest That She And Jesus Were Married
The Bible mentions Mary Magdalene a great deal and many of the things that Mary did would have only been done if she were married to Jesus. For example, when she uncovered her head to lower her hair to dry the feet of Jesus, perhaps there is a reason that John says that she was behind Jesus, shielding herself from the other men in the room when she did such a thing in Luke 7:38:
…and stood at His feet behind Him weeping; and she began to wash His feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head; and she kissed His feet and anointed them with the fragrant oil. (Luke 7:38. New International Version)
During the Talmudic Period in which these actions of Mary took place, women were required by law to completely cover their heads in public and were only allowed to uncover their heads in the presence of their husband. According to the Journal of Biblical Literature, “Among Jews in the Talmudic period, both married and unmarried women wore head coverings in public (Cosgrove).” Jewish historians also note, “Women also transgressed the boundaries of rabbinic tolerance when they appeared in public places alone, particularly if they were not properly covered (Baskin).”
Not only did Mary lower her hair in front of Jesus, something that was considered immodest and that “transgressed the boundaries of rabbinic tolerance,” but this action was conducted in a room of Pharisees and of the disciples of Jesus according to John 6. The Pharisees would have likely capitalized on Jesus participating in such immodesty if she hadn’t been his wife because of their previously mentioned motivation of plotting to kill him. The disciples wanted to make him king of Israel, even if it meant doing so by force according to John 6:15, and it would have been difficult to rally the people behind the idea of Jesus reclaiming the throne of Israel to overtake the Romans by force if his credibility had been decimated by reports of immodesty and sexual immorality. So, if that appeared to be happening, two groups who were present for this event likely would have spoken out if this had occurred without the two involved people having been married to each other.
We also read that after Judas complained about the cost of the oil that Mary used (John 12:5) and that is the only complaint that is recorded of this event. Jesus spoke out in defense of Mary, telling Judas to “Leave her alone.” He then said, “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial.” Jesus not only defended her, but revealed to everyone that she had planned to use this to anoint his body after his death.
Not only does this show that Jesus had already spoken to Mary about her plans, but the act of anointing a man’s body after death was something that only a close relative, another man, or his wife would do according to historian Michael Haag who said that the act of anointing a man’s body after death was “a task undertaken by a wife” (Haag). The reason for this is because the anointing with oil would happen after the body was stripped of its burial cloths and would be exposed as naked. The Jewish people, especially of that day (The Talmudic Period) would have seen a woman who wasn’t married to Jesus but who anointed his body as having committed a sexually immoral act and yet the Pharisees and disciples who are present in the room when Jesus said that Mary planned to anoint his body after his death did not object or even reference such plans being out of place. The only complaint that was stated was that the perfume that Mary used in that moment to anoint Jesus was expensive.
If Mary was not married to Jesus, what she did, and planned to do, would have been immodest and illegal. The religious leaders present would have pointed it out if Mary didn’t have a right to do those things because she wasn’t married to Jesus, but if the two of them were married, she would have had a right to do what she did and that would explain why no one spoke up to point out anything had been done that was wrong. I propose that the two were married and that was why there was not a single word of criticism with the exception of how expensive the oil was that married used.
We later read that Mary attempted to fulfill those original plans by going to the tomb with the intention of anointing the body of Jesus (Mark 16:1) until she found it empty of his body. The people of the days when the New Testament gospels were written would have understood the significance of Mary Magdalene going to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus and of Jesus mentioning those intentions even before his death. The Romans, who occupied Israel and would have likely sought to execute Mary because of the potential of her giving birth to the children of Jesus who would have also been in the bloodline of King David, would likely not have understood the meaning of Mary anointing the body of Jesus and would have been less likely to make the connection than the Jewish readers of that day. In this way, it’s possible that the gospel writers protected Mary Magdalene. They did not state explicitly that she was the wife of Jesus, but, like the book of Revelation, they used writing and provided details that would have only been understood by a specific and Jewish audience.
In conclusion, I submit the following quote from Professor Schalom Ben-Chorin who wrote 30 books on Jewish historical and cultural themes: “I am therefore of the opinion that Jesus of Nazareth, just like every rabbi in Israel, was married. His disciples and his opponents would have questioned him if he had deviated from this universal custom” (Ben-Chorin). Professor Ben-Chorin was a Jewish historian who understood Jewish law and the culture in which Jesus lived. His informed opinion is more credible than a modern-day Christian merely looking at Jesus through the eyes of someone who grew up in the church and wasn’t aware of the specifics of Jewish laws during the days that Jesus walked the earth.
Castro, Joseph. “When Was Jesus Born?” Live Science, 11/20/2021, https://www.livescience.com/42976-when-was-jesus-born.html
Swiatocho, Kris. “Jesus…Single Like Me: He Knew His Purpose.” Cross Walk, 5/18/2010, https://www.crosswalk.com/family/singles/jesus-%E2%80%A6-single-like-me-he-knew-his-purpose-11631389.html
Roberts, Mark. “Was Jesus Married? A Careful Look At The Real Evidence.” Patheos. 4/10/2011. https://www.patheos.com/blogs/markdroberts/series/was-jesus-married-a-careful-look-at-the-real-evidence/
Dorff, Elliot. “Judaism as a Religious Legal System.” The Hastings Law Journal Vol 29. Page 1334
Asher, ben Jacob. “Siman 1:1-3.” Shulchan Arukh, Even JaEzer. https://www.sefaria.org/Shulchan_Arukh%2C_Even_HaEzer.1.1?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en
Baskin, Judith. “European Judaism Volume 37. No. 2.” (pp. 88-102). 2004. Berghahn Books. https://www.jstor.org/stable/41443729 (UTS Library)
Cosgrove, Charles. “A Woman’s Unbound Hair in the Greco-Roman World, With Special Reference to the Story of the ‘Sinful Woman; in Luke 7:36-50.” Journal of Biblical Literature. Volume 124. No. 4 (Winter, 2005), pp. 687. (UTS Library)
Baskin, Judith R. “European Judaism: A Journal for the New Europe: Vol. 37, No. 2” (Autumn 2004), page 97. (UTS Library)
Haag, Michael. “The Quest for Mary Magdalene: History and Legend.” Harper Collins 2016 (page 37).
Ben-Chorin, Schalom. “Brother Jesus: The Nazarene Through Jewish Eyes.” The University of Georgia Press, 2001. Page 102