Good question...did the bible lie about Jesus not being married?

[Dec 29,2k]


I recently got this question:


Someone I know questioned the validity of the Bible since it "lies" about Jesus never being married, when it's  "obviously" his own wedding that he turned water to wine. He also said that because Jesus was a rabbi he had to have been over 40 and married. 


And I also read this on a review of Rex Deus at Amazon:


I always knew that there was something wrong with Biblical history and the Biblical view of Jesus. This book has put most things together for me. The best part was the history of Jews in Jerusalem 2000 years ago; there is no way that Jesus could have walked around, single, without being stoned to death. It was the LAW for all men to be married and be fruitful. So based on this, Jesus WAS married and had offspring!



So, the question is "would Jesus have to have been married" at the time of His life and ministry?


The answer is "not at all".



It would have been 'normal' for him to have been married, but not obligatory for that time (or any other time, for that matter).




1. The rabbinic literature--which is what people sometimes use to argue that celibacy was a capital offense(!)--notes and gives rules for exceptions to rules which were themselves non-binding:


"Celibacy was, in fact, not common, and was disapproved by the rabbis, who taught that a man should marry at eighteen, and that if he passed the age of twenty without taking a wife he transgressed a divine command and incurred God's displeasure. Postponement of marriage was permitted students of the Law that they might concentrate their attention on their studies, free from the cares of support a wife. Cases like that of Simeon be 'Azzai, who never married, were evidently infrequent. He had himself said that a man who did not marry was like one who shed blood, and diminished the likeness of God. One of his colleagues threw up to him that he was better at preaching that at practicing, to which he replied, What shall I do? My soul is enamored of the Law; the population of the world can be kept up by others...It is not to be imagined that pronouncements about the duty of marrying and the age at which people should marry actually regulated practice." [HI:JFCCE:2.119f]


Notice that this famous Rabbi was celibate because of his devotion to the Law and to studying, following, and preaching it--a situation not unlike that of Jesus and certainly in keeping with His dictum in Matthew 19.10:


His disciples said to him, “If that is the relationship of a man with his wife, it’s not worth getting married!” 11But he said to them, “Not everyone can accept this saying, except those to whom celibacy has been granted. 12For some men are celibate from birth, while others are celibate because they have been made that way by others. Still others are celibate because they have made themselves that way for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.


Notice also that Moore points out that the Rabbinic regulation were hardly binding (something we shall return to below).



2. Judaism at the time of Jesus, of course, was a "many splintered thing", with the forerunners of the rabbinics being only one sect among many, one view point (actually, multiple viewpoints!) on a spectrum of viewpoints. Accordingly, there were other groups at the time that either (a) required celibacy; or (b) allowed it.






3. But the dominant class of individuals who were 'allowed' or 'expected' to be celibate were prophetic  figures, throughout Jewish history:



"But the Essenes, Qumran, and the Therapeutae were not the only examples of Jewish religious celibates who were considered in a reverent light around the time of Jesus. The OT was not lacking in at least one celibate religious figure, and later interpretation of the OT added some others. The one case from the OT is the tragic prophet Jeremiah. Far from being some positive religious commitment, celibacy was for Jeremiah a tragic personal sign, a lived-out prophetic symbol of the destruction of life that awaited the sinful people of Judah (Jer 16:1-4)." We have, then, at least one example of an OT prophet for whom celibacy was not a minor matter, an optional life style. It was, by the order of Yahweh, a very literal and painful "embodiment" of Jeremiah's prophetic message of judgment, pronouncing imminent doom as punishment for the apostasy of God's people." [MJ:1.339]




"More well-known, though still exceptional, would have been the undoubted celibacy of wilderness prophets like Banus (Josephus Life 2.11) and John the Baptist." [DictNTB, s.v. "marriage"]




"We should not be completely surprised that another fiery prophet of judgment around the time of Jesus also seems to have been celibate, namely, John the Baptist. Granted, our sources do not speak explicitly of John's celibacy; as usual, we are left with arguments from indirection and inference. But, even apart from Luke's picture of the boy John being raised in the wilderness until the time he began his ministry (at Qumran?),"' the mere fact that this ascetic prophet feeding on locusts and wild honey roamed up and down the Jordan Valley and the Judean wilderness, apparently with no fixed abode as he proclaimed a radical message of imminent judgment on Israel, makes it probable that John was a celibate (Mark 1:4-8).... It may be no accident that Mark closes the story of John's execution by Antipas with the words: ". . . his [John's] disciples came and took his corpse and laid it in a tomb" (6:29). Without intending to reflect on the fact directly, Mark may be in effect seconding what Luke implies: there was no wife, children, or other family around John to see to one of the most sacred obligations incumbent on family members in Judaism: arranging for and participating in the obsequies of a husband or parent. In his radical itinerant prophetic ministry, John may have consciously been imitating Elijah, an OT itinerant prophet of judgment, who not only was interpreted as an eschatological figure in later Judaism (as early as Malachi and Ben Sira) but was also interpreted as a celibate by various patristic writers (e.g., Ambrose and Jerome). [MJ:1.339f]





4. Although the Rabbinic writers stressed the importance of marriage for procreation, it is noteworthy that this prophetic ideal of celibacy still showed up in the rabbinics:


"Judaism saw nothing wrong in portraying as celibate the great primordial prophet, seer, and lawgiver Moses (though only after the Lord had begun to speak to him). We see this interpretation already beginning to develop in Philo in the 1st century A.D. What is more surprising is that this idea is also reflected in various rabbinic passages. The gist of the tradition is an a fortiori argument. If the Israelites at Sinai had to abstain from women temporarily to prepare for God's brief, once-and- for-all address to them, how much more should Moses be permanently chaste, since God spoke regularly to him (see, e.g., b. Yabb. 87a). The same tradition, but from the viewpoint of the deprived wife, is related in the Sipre on Numbers 12.1  (99). Since the rabbis in general were unsympathetic--not to say hostile--to religious celibacy, the survival of this Moses tradition even in later rabbinic writings argues that the tradition was long-lived and widespread by the time of the rabbis. We should note once again the typology seen in Jeremiah, John the Baptist, and the recycled Moses figure: the prophet who directly receives divine revelation that is to be communicated to his beloved yet sinful people Israel finds his whole life radically altered by his prophetic vocation. This alteration, this being set apart by and for God's Word, is embodied graphically in the rare, awesome, and--for many Jews--terrible vocation of celibacy....While accepting the idea of an ancient figure like Moses as celibate (at least during his ministry to Israel), the rabbis did not as a general rule allow celibacy among their rabbinic colleagues and disciples. Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus (end of 1st century A.D.) is said to have equated a man's refusal to procreate offspring with murder. One rare exception, according to the same rabbinic passage, was Rabbi Simeon ben Azzai (a younger contemporary of Eliezer ben Hyrcanus), who paradoxically recommended marriage and procreation, though he himself remained unmarried. When accused of not practicing what he preached, he replied: "My soul is in love with the Torah. The world can be carried on by others" (b. Yeham. 63b).65


"That such a 'deviant' tradition could be enshrined in the Babylonian Talmud may suggest that celibacy, though frowned upon by the rabbis, was not totally stamped out in Judaism during the centuries immediately following the Baptist and Jesus. More to the point, though ben Azzai is hardly a Jeremiah or a Baptist, his rationale for celibacy is at root similar to that of the more overtly prophetic figures: an all- consuming commitment to God's word in one's whole life precludes the usual path of marriage and child-rearing. In view of this "marginal" tradition in early Judaism, it is hardly surprising that the Jewish scholar Geza Vermes has no difficulty in seeing Jesus as celibate and explaining his unusual state by his prophetic call and the reception of the Spirit." [MJ:1.340f]


Note: Geza Vermes summary is: "Against such a background of first-century AD Jewish opinion, namely that the prophetic destiny entailed amongst other things a life of continence, Jesus' apparent voluntary embrace of celibacy, at any rate from the time of his reception of the holy spirit, becomes historically meaningful." [JJ:101]



So, although it would have been 'normal' and expected for a young Jewish man to be married, we have examples of where it was accepted, encouraged, or required. Therefore, Jesus would not have had to have been married, in order to walk around alive...(smile)...



And, I might add, EVEN IF Jesus were married, the silence of the NT could not be construed 'conspiratorially' as if it were trying to 'hide the fact'. Hillel and Shammai, for example, both famous rabbi's in the period, were undoubtedly married, but the rabbinical literature says nothing about it. Silence, as such, in this case means nothing.




But let me point out one common mistake made by those that argue for 'what must have been the case' in 1st century Palestine, from the Rabbinical literature, and let me use the words of E.P. Sanders for this:


"I shall comment more briefly on Jeremias' second major mistake, which is also common in the literature, that of taking a rabbinic opinion as law...There is also a more general point with regard to calling an opinion a law: once one starts quoting rabbinic statements as laws governing Palestine, one may draw absolutely any portrait of first-century Palestine that one wants. There are thousands and thousands of pages, filled with opinions." [JPB:463]



Historians have long known the problem of using Rabbinic 'laws' and literature for constructing historical portraits, for in many cases the 'laws' represent what the Rabbi's wish were the case. Sanders goes on to identify the range of possible understandings of rabbinical 'law' statements [JPB:465ff]:


  1. "A rabbinic decree might be no more than a simple description of common practice, which someone finally decided to write down".


  1. "A rabbinic halakhah might be a simple application of biblical law."


  1. "Many Pharisaic/rabbinic laws were intended only for members of the party"


  1. "Some rabbinic prohibitions prove that most people did something else." (!!)


  1. "...some rabbinic regulations apply to another time, apparently to an ideal age."


  1. "sometimes the populace followed Pharisaic innovations" (a Pharisaic decree that everyone DID follow)


  1. "We come now to the most important point, one that will lead to consideration of the nature of rabbinic literature. The reader of rabbinic rules must bear in mind that it would have been extremely difficult to do 'what the sages decreed', since they disagreed among themselves. A very high percentage of the legal discussions in the earliest rabbinic literature lack a conclusion; the Houses of Hillel and Shammai state their views, and it appears that they agree to disagree. Are we to imagine the populace, desirous to do what the Pharisees said, one day obeying Shammai and the next day Hillel?...The explanation of this is that the Pharisees, and later the rabbis, distinguished their own rules, about many of which they disagreed among themselves, from biblical law, and with only a few exceptions regarded biblical law, not their extra rules, as being generally binding. A standard view in the Mishnah is that there are no penalties for transgressing 'scribal' rules...Once this simple fact is accepted, the genre of early rabbinic legal material becomes clear. It does not consist of set rules that governed society. It consists of debates...Saying that people generally did what 'the sages had laid down' corresponds neither to the social realities of pre-70 Jewish Palestine nor to the nature of rabbinic literature."




Perhaps a little bit more bluntly, Ze'ev Safrai can write:


"The public at large did not obey the rabbis. Among the Jews, only a minority followed the rabbis, obeyed their decisions and was influenced by their sermons and moral teachings." [HI:ERP:5]





"The scholar or reader who wishes to do real history must take into account all sorts of possibilities when he or she faces a rabbinic passage; the response, 'everybody did it because the rabbis laid it down' is seldom the correct one." [JPB:464]



The net of this is that any reconstruction of the times of Jesus from rabbinic literature must go to great lengths to demonstrate that any 'laws' it cites actually are descriptive of the situation (it cannot assume this at all), and this is, in Sander's words, "seldom correct".






  1. Jesus did not have to be married.

  2. The NT did not 'lie' or 'cover up' his marriage/celibacy

  3. Reconstructions of Jesus' situation from uncritical usage of the rabbinic material is more often wrong than not..

  4. [If Rex Deus used this flawed method to arrive at a 'married only' Palestine [and I don't know, since I have not read the book], then (a) any conclusions it draws from this are suspect; and (b) any OTHER 'descriptions' of ancient Judaism via this flawed method is likewise useless (unless the book supported that conclusion with OTHER types of less problematic evidences--but the reader will have to decide whether this major methodological flaw in historiography casts doubt on the authors' competence in other areas.]


I hope this helps...glenn


The Christian ThinkTank...[] (Reference Abbreviations)