An LDS couple I’m friends with asked me recently about the so-called Gospel of Philip, and specifically, about its claim that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. Let’s address the reliability of the “Gospel of Philip” first, and then the broader question: how do we know that Jesus wasn’t married?
Strangely, the “Gospel of Philip” doesn’t even claim to be written by St. Philip. Neither does it claim to be a Gospel, in the sense of being either a biography of Christ, or even a Book of Sayings by Christ. The name “Gospel of Philip” came much later, and is misleading. Put another way, the Gospel of Philip is neither a Gospel, nor written by Philip. Discuss.
|St. Philip the Evangelist,
who the Gospel of Philip is falsely attributed to.
Instead, the “Gospel” is a second- or third-century collection of Gnostic teachings, like this one: “God is a man-eater. For this reason, men are sacrificed to him. Before men were sacrificed, animals were being sacrificed, since those to whom they were sacrificed were not gods.” As you might expect from a Gnostic text, it’s full of heretical claims, including the denial of the Incarnation and the Virgin Birth, the claim that the Holy Spirit is a woman, and a belief that matter was evil. You can see this in several places, like the claim that circumcision existed in the Old Testament to teach us that “it is proper to destroy the flesh.” This, by the way, is why the Gnostics had to deny the Incarnation: if flesh is inherently evil, Jesus cannot take on flesh and stay God. To get around this predicament, the book claims: “Jesus took them all by stealth, for he did not appear as he was, but in the manner in which they would be able to see him. […] He appeared to the angels as an angel, and to men as a man. Because of this, his word hid itself from everyone.”
You get a sense for both the Gnostics’ general discomfort with matter (and specifically, the body), and their use of seemingly-intentionally esoteric teachings in this passage:
The forms of evil spirit include male ones and female ones. The males are they which unite with the souls which inhabit a female form, but the females are they which are mingled with those in a male form, though one who was disobedient. And none shall be able to escape them, since they detain him if he does not receive a male power or a female power, the bridegroom and the bride. One receives them from the mirrored bridal chamber. When the wanton women see a male sitting alone, they leap down on him and play with him and defile him. So also the lecherous men, when they see a beautiful woman sitting alone, they persuade her and compel her, wishing to defile her. But if they see the man and his wife sitting beside one another, the female cannot come into the man, nor can the male come into the woman. So if the image and the angel are united with one another, neither can any venture to go into the man or the woman.
As both history and as a Christian holy book, then, it’s untrustworthy. The Apostles and other early eyewitnesses of Jesus of Nazareth have one version of events, and then a century or two later, you get another (very different) version of events from the author of the Gospel of Philip. It’s not particularly hard to know who to trust.
It is worth mentioning that, while the book tells us nothing reliable about Jesus, it gives us important details about Gnostic sacramental theology. For example, it claims, “The Eucharist is Jesus. For he is called in Syriac ‘Pharisatha,’ which is ‘the one who is spread out,’ for Jesus came to crucify the world.” This is significant, since as St. Ignatius of Antioch mentioned in his letter to the Smyrnaeans, the Gnostics “abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again.” What’s striking is that the Gnostics acknowledged that the Eucharist is more than a symbol, and is actually Jesus… they just denied that Jesus actually came in the Flesh.
I think that the important question is less whether the Gospel of Philip can be trusted, and more whether it’s possible, given what we know as Christians, that Jesus of Nazareth was married.
|El Greco, Penitent Magdalene (c. 1590)|
There are several arguments against this notion. The usual argument presented is actually an argument from silence. If Jesus was married, it seems wholly implausible that none of the early Christians would mention (or even allude to) this fact, either in Scripture, or in the Patristic writings. We don’t have a record of any of the early Christians calling themselves the “wife of Jesus,” or claiming to be a biological son or daughter of Jesus. For example, there are several ancient Catholic traditions about the life of St. Mary Magdalene, like that she went on to become a hermit in her later days. But there’s no tradition that she was married to God the Son, which is the sort of detail that you would expect a hagiography to remember to include. So although it’s an argument from silence, it’s a strong one. But I think that there are stronger arguments yet, based on what Scripture does say.
In my own view, the strongest argument is this. After Jesus lays down some tough teachings on marriage, including an absolute prohibition against divorce, His Disciples say, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry” (Matthew 19:10). Jesus doesn’t deny this. In fact, He says that “some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.” (Mt. 19:12). Given this teaching, Jesus had to be a celibate. Otherwise, He’d be calling His Followers to something that He, the perfect God-Man, couldn’t achieve. Since Jesus obviously could accept His own teaching, we know that He did.
Related to this point is what St. Paul tells us in Ephesians 5:25-32, in which Paul explains that the relationship between a man and his wife is a type of the relationship between Jesus Christ and His Bride, the Church. So Jesus was dedicated to the Church, the Kingdom of God, in the way that a married man is to his wife. This also explains St. Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians 7:32-35,
I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs —how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife—and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.
Is Paul calling the unmarried to have a greater devotion to the Church than Jesus Christ had? Of course not. Rather, he’s calling some of his followers to celibacy modeled off of Christ’s own celibate love for the Church.
The final Scriptural proof for Christ’s celibacy is found in Matthew 8:20, in which Jesus says, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” If He was a married man, it’s unthinkable that He could have failed to provide for His wife (and children?) in this way.
One final point. These arguments aren’t just good reasons to believe that Jesus of Nazareth was celibate, something that virtually all Protestants agree with the Catholic Church on. They’re also good reasons to believe that clerical celibacy should be the norm, or at least the ideal. The reasons that Jesus was celibate are the very reasons that celibacy is the norm for Catholic priests, and religious brothers and sisters today, since these men and women are called in a particular way to devote their lives off to the union between Christ and His Church.