There is nothing totally new in the discovery by a Harvard scholar of a fourth-century papyrus fragment indicating that Jesus was married. The so-called "Gnostic Gospels," which were written by early Christian sects and uncovered in the Egyptian desert in 1945 ("Nag Hammadi Library"), also reported a romantic relationship -- and possibly marriage -- between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. The Gospel of Philip says: "There were three who always walked with the Lord: Mary, his mother, and her sister, and Magdalene, the one who was called his companion."
Another passage from this Gospel is even more explicit about Mary Magdalene: "[Jesus] loved her more than all the disciples, and used to kiss her often on her mouth. The rest of the disciples said to him, why do you love her more than all of us?"
The Gospel of Mary, found in the 19th century near Akhmim in upper Egypt, also describes a special relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene: "Peter said to Mary, Sister we know that the Savior loved you more than the rest of women. Tell us the words of the Savior which you remember which you know, but we do not, nor have we heard them."
That these documents may well be authentic is reinforced by the fact that there is no tradition of celibacy in Judaism. Throughout history Jews have embraced the Old Testament dictum: "Be fruitful and multiply" (Genesis 9:7). All the great rabbis were married and had children. And Jesus and his disciples were dedicated practicing Jews. The notion that Jesus and the 12 disciples would appear, for example, at the wedding in Cana (the occasion of Jesus performing his first miracle -- turning water into wine) as single men and avowed celibates would have been scandalous. But were they unmarried? We know for sure that Peter was married. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke tell us that Jesus visited Peter's mother-in-law and healed her: "And when Jesus was come into Peter's house, he saw his wife's mother laid and sick of a fever. And he touched her hand, and the fever left her: and she arose, and ministered unto them" (Matthew 8:14-15; similar citations in the Gospels of Mark and Luke).
It's curious that Matthew, Mark and Luke casually drop in this reference to Peter being married, with no elaboration. If he were the only disciple who was married wouldn't this be the perfect spot to say that -- and explain why? And if Jesus and the other disciples were unmarried and celibate, the Gospel writers could have easily omitted this brief reference to Peter's mother-in-law so as not to beg the question about marriage and celibacy. But looked at another way, they may not have thought it necessary to explain or elaborate. In the context of Jewish culture and practices they would assume that the readers would know that all the disciples were married. And isn't it interesting that the married Peter was designated by Jesus as the one who would lead the disciples: "And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church" (Mathew 16:18).
Even more mysterious are the 18 years missing from Jesus's biography. In the New Testament Gospels we encounter Jesus at his birth. After that, we find the 12-year-old Jesus debating the scholars at the Temple in Jerusalem during the Passover celebration. His next appearance, at age 30, is at the River Jordan where he is baptized by his cousin John the Baptist.
Where was Jesus and what was he doing during those missing years? The huge information gap has invited spin and speculation about his life and marital status. It enabled Dan Brown, in his novel "The DaVinci Code," to weave a story about Jesus, his wife Mary Magdalene and their child Sarah.
The discovery of the lost parchment, along with the earlier documents that suggest that Jesus was married, resurrects a subject that demands reevaluation by the Catholic Church. We can only hope that the deserts and caves will eventually yield lost Gospels that will give us indisputable evidence about Jesus's marital status and his views on celibacy.
But will a critical mass of documentation prompt the Catholic Church to reconsider celibacy, marriage of priests, and the role of women in the Church hierarchy? One wonders.
Bernard Starr is the author of a forthcoming book, 'Jesus Uncensored: Restoring the Authentic Jew.'