Nothing seems more ridiculous than to ask whether Jesus celebrated Valentine’s Day.
For one thing, Saint Valentine lived about 250 years after Jesus, and the feast honoring him was established in AD 496.
For another thing, many people would say that it’s sacrilegious and crazy to think Jesus might have had a wife or a girlfriend.
But a surprising number of people think that Jesus was secretly married, and that his wife was Mary Magdalene.
It’s worth asking why anyone would think so. It’s rather an old idea, but it became famous in this century with the publication of the best-selling novel, The Da Vinci Code.
Mary Magdalene and The Da Vinci Code
The Da Vinci Code is a novel written by Dan Brown and published in 2003. The book made a couple of weird claims:
- The church suppressed the early gnostic gospels because they taught that Jesus was purely human, not at all divine.
- One of these gnostic gospels, the Gospel of Philip, says that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, referring to her by the Aramaic word for “wife,” and the early church suppressed this “fact.”
Both of the above claims are false.
Here are the facts:
- It’s true that the church suppressed the gnostic gospels, but they weren’t early, as compared to the canonical gospels, Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. And none of the gnostic gospels taught that Jesus was purely human, not at all divine. The gnostics leaned heavily the other way, that Jesus was all or mostly divine, hardly human at all. That’s right—it’s the canonical gospels that (for the most part) stressed the humanity of Jesus, while each making room in their own way for his divine status.
- The Gospel of Philip was written in Coptic, not Aramaic, and it refers to Mary Magdalene as a “companion” of Jesus, which could mean many things, but it is not a synonym for “wife.” If you’re looking for Aramaic words, you’ll find a few in the canonical gospels, but none that say anything remotely about Jesus having a wife.
Of course, Dan Brown was not the first person to think Jesus might have been married to Mary Magdalene. She was clearly a close friend of Jesus, and she’s listed first in some of the lists of women in the gospels—in the crucial final scenes of his life and in the “empty tomb” scenes on Easter Sunday.
So it’s a fair question to ask what we know about this woman.
What Do We Know About Mary Magdalene?
It’s a blunt fact that we know very little about Mary Magdalene from the four canonical gospels. And she’s not mentioned anywhere else in the entire Bible.
Mary Magdalene is mentioned only once in the gospels before the crucifixion—in Luke 8:1-3, where she’s mentioned with a few other women who supported Jesus from their own pockets.
One of those other women was Joanna, the wife of Chuza, who was the manager of the household of Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee. This Joanna must have been quite a wealthy and powerful woman. Hang on to that fact. We’ll come back to it.
Another woman was named Susanna, and we know nothing more about her.
Apparently, there were other women. All that we know of them is that Jesus healed them of various things—diseases or “evil spirits, and they provided money to support Jesus.
It’s a fair and reasonable guess that all these women were wealthy.
It’s worth remembering that in first-century culture, wealth was respected, just like today. But unlike today, age was also venerated. If you made a list of people, you’d typically put the wealthiest and/or the oldest first.
Unfortunately, we have no indicator at all of the age of these women. They could have been in their twenties. They could have been in their eighties. Or anywhere in between.
As I said already, aside from this one verse in Luke, the only mentions of Mary Magdalene come in the crucifixion and burial scenes and the scenes on Easter morning. We’ll look at those next.
The Many Marys at the Cross
The four gospels are a bit confusing on the question of which women were at the cross with Jesus in his final hours.
Mark 15:40 names them as Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of “James the Less” and Joses, and Salome.
Most scholars would equate “Mary the mother of James the Less and Joses” with the mother of Jesus himself, because Jesus had four brothers, and the two oldest were named James and Joses.
It’s not clear from this text who Salome was.
A bit further on, when Jesus was laid in a rock-cut grave nearby, the women are named again in Mark 15:47 as Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses. Salome is not listed this time.
Matthew has similar lists in his parallel account of the scene. (Note that Matthew used Mark as a source for his gospel and often follows him closely.)
In Matthew 27:56, we read that the women included Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.
The sons of Zebedee were the two disciples James and John, and it’s possible this woman was the “Salome” named in Mark.
Then in Matthew 27:61, at the burial, two women are named, Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary.” Presumably, this “other Mary” was the mother of Jesus, although we can’t be certain.
In the gospel of Luke, the women at the cross and the burial are not named at all. They’re just called “the women who accompanied him from Galilee.”
The gospel of John mentions some women at the cross, but now in a different order, starting with Mary the mother of Jesus, followed by Mary’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.
It’s not entirely clear if this is three women or four. Did Mary the mother of Jesus have a sister who was also named Mary? That seems a bit unimaginative on the part of their parents. Maybe this other Mary was actually her sister-in-law? We can’t really know.
In any event, in John’s gospel, Mary Magdalene still makes the list, but now she’s last.
Why Put Mary Magdalene First?
It’s natural to ask why Mark names Mary Magdalene first, ahead of the mother of Jesus. (Matthew follows Mark closely in many passages, so it seems likely that Matthew names Mary Magdalene first because Mark does.)
Was Mary Magdalene named first in Mark because she was the wife of Jesus? Some scholars have argued this. And it’s logically possible. This is reasoning backwards from an effect to a possible cause. (The effect is that Mary Magdalene was named first in the list of women. The possible cause is that Mary Magdalene was the wife of Jesus. If she really were his wife, that would explain why she’s named first.)
But that’s not exactly an airtight case. When you reason backwards from effect to cause, Sherlock Holmes taught us that you need to consider all possible causes. You can’t just grab one possible cause and claim that’s the only possible cause for the effect.
Could there be other causes why Mary Magdalene comes first in Mark’s list? Yes, there could.
We know that Mary Magdalene probably had a fair bit of money, whereas Mary the mother of Jesus probably had little. So it’s possible that Mary Magdalene came first in the list because she was a woman of wealth.
We don’t know how old Mary Magdalene was. Mary the mother of Jesus would have been around fifty years old. In case Mary Magdalene was noticeably older, say beyond sixty, then that could also account for her being named first—because she was the oldest of the women.
So now we have three possible causes why Mark names Mary Magdalene first in his list of women:
- Possibly because Mary Magdalene was the wife of Jesus.
- Possibly because Mary Magdalene was the wealthiest of the women.
- Possibly because Mary Magdalene was the oldest of the women.
Can we say more to sharpen these up?
Mary Magdalene at the Tomb of Jesus
The women also play a role in the gospel scenes at the empty tomb of Jesus on Easter morning.
Mark 16:1 names three women who came to the tomb. He names them in the same order as he named them at the cross—Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome.
So there’s really no new information in Mark. It appears to be the exact same list he gave for the women at the cross.
Matthew 28:1 again follows Mark, and he again calls them Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary.”
Again, no new information.
Luke 24:9-11 now names some of the women at the tomb, following the same order as Mark and Matthew, but adding in Joanna. His list is Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James.
Luke commonly follows Mark pretty closely, but he also commonly adds in bits of new information. In this case, the new information is this wealthy woman Joanna, who comes ahead of Mary the mother of James (who was presumably the mother of Jesus).
Let’s be clear that this is useful new information. Joanna, as we saw above, was the wife of a wealthy and powerful man, Chuza, who was the manager of Herod’s household.
So Luke’s new information puts Joanna between Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus.
If these women are being sorted by wealth, then Mary Magdalene must have been a very wealthy woman.
If they’re being sorted by age, then we have two women older than Mary the mother of Jesus.
But Luke is not sorting them by “wifeliness.” Joanna comes ahead of Mary the mother of Jesus, but Joanna was absolutely not the wife of Jesus, and not his girlfriend either. Joanna had a husband, and his name was Chuza.
John 20:1 lists Mary Magdalene as the only woman who came to the tomb.
Make of that what you will. Why list only her and nobody else? That’s not clear. With some imagination, we could come up with several possible reasons, but they’d all be guesses.
In the following verses in John 20, Mary Magdalene has an encounter with the resurrected Jesus. Clearly she loved him a lot, but the text says nothing at all about whether she had any romantic feelings.
Those who want to read in a romance between Jesus and Mary Magdalene will do so.
But I can’t see any reason to read in a romance here. We’ll see why I’m skeptical next.
Isn’t it Sacrilegious to Ask if Jesus Had a Wife?
Many modern readers will ask if it isn’t a terrible sacrilege to even hint that Jesus had a wife.
We should remember that first-century readers would not think that way. For them, Jesus was first and foremost the messiah, the anointed king of Israel, the son of David. And of course David had a wife. Several wives, in fact. In the first century, a messiah was expected to arise, and he would have every right to be married.
Jesus was also a rabbi, and rabbis were generally married.
Jesus was a first-century Jew. In Jewish thought, the first commandment of Torah is to be fruitful and multiply. If you’re a man, you do that by marrying a woman and having children.
In first-century Judaism, hardly anyone thought that celibacy was a sign of holiness. (The Essenes possibly thought this, but they were ascetics and Jesus was very far from being ascetic.)
So in first-century Judaism, there would have been no scandal if Jesus had been married.
Nobody would have batted an eye. Being married was expected.
In The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown claims that the marriage of Jesus was covered up because it was somehow scandalous, a secret to be contained.
That’s just silly. Not one Jew of the first century would have thought a marriage of a rabbi to a woman was scandalous. Or a marriage of the messiah to a woman.
Marriage was utterly normal in the world of Jesus.
If Jesus were actually married, there would have been no reason to hide the fact. We would hear about his wife, just as we hear of his mother and father and brothers and sisters. For more on the family of Jesus, see my blog post Mother’s Day With Jesus.
His children, if he had any, would have played an important role in the early Jesus movement, just as his brother James and his cousin Simon did. For more on James, see my blog post James the Brother of Jesus.
But we don’t hear about any wife or children of Jesus. It’s goofy to claim that there “must have been a coverup.” Nobody would have thought to cover it up until hundreds of years later, when the church lost its Jewish roots and began valuing celibacy and began teaching that sex was sinful.
If people knew for hundreds of years that Jesus was married, no amount of “coverup” could possibly cover it up. You can’t put public knowledge back in a bottle. Information wants to be free.
The most plausible reason that we never hear of a wife of Jesus is that he had none.
And why would he have no wife, when most Jews of his time did?
That calls for speculation. You can speculate all you want, but the Bible doesn’t comment on it.
The upshot is this. For whatever reason, it doesn’t seem that Jesus had a special woman to be his Valentine. He loved his mother. He loved his sisters. He had many women friends. But I can’t see a wife in this picture.