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Jesus Was Otherwise Engaged: Impacting All Women, Not Just One

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Harvard researcher Karen King's unveiling of a fourth century Coptic text containing a reference to Jesus' wife has launched intense speculation about his life and message.

However, it's not a serious question as to whether or not Jesus was married. A 300-year time gap is just a tad too long to count as eyewitness material.

What's most striking is the grip that this one life continues to have on the human imagination. Who would have guessed that, after 2,000 years, Jesus' marital status would generate more media buzz than Jennifer Aniston's?

Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code" speculated that the early church knew Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, but covered it up because it would reveal that Jesus was just human, not divine. "Any gospels that described earthly aspects of Jesus' life had to be omitted from the gospel."

The irony is that the Gospels speak about earthly aspects of Jesus' life all the time: he was born in poverty-filled conditions, entered the world as a realbaby, got sad and cried real tears; had a job as a carpenter, got thirsty, hungry and tired.

It's the later, non-eyewitness accounts of Jesus' life that are the wildest stories that make Jesus look least human. In one of them, Jesus as a little boy makes pigeons out of clay and turns them into real birds. In another, Jesus as a little boy gets mad at a friend, curses him and the boy dies. While in yet another story, after the crucifixion, Jesus comes out of the tomb, but he's now a giant the size of Paul Bunyan and the cross exits the tomb and speaks (picture the resurrection if produced by Disney).

The New Testament doesn't present Jesus as a single man to cover up his humanity. It presents him as a single man because ... he was a single man.

But perhaps what matters most in this discussion is the impact Jesus had -- not on one woman -- but on the status of women as a whole.

In the ancient Greco-Roman world, there was a huge shortage of women -- about 140 men for every 100 women. The "missing" women were left to die when they were born the wrong sex.

A first-century letter from a husband to his pregnant wife shows the contrast of his tender regard for his wife and hoped-for son, versus his disregard for a possible daughter: "I ask and beg of you to take good care of our baby son ... If you are delivered of a child [before I come home], if it is a boy, keep it; if a girl, discard it."

By the Law of Romulus in Rome, a father was required to raise all healthy malechildren, and only the firstborn female; any others were disposable. According to the Greek poet Posidippus (third century B.C.), "Everyone raises a son even if he is poor, but exposes a daughter even if he is rich."

This would change, too slowly, under the influence of the movement that Jesus launched.

The longest discussion Jesus is recorded as having with an individual is with a woman (even further an "ethnically other" Samaritan), where he treats her with dignity and respect. He teaches women as well as men; has them travel with him in his community, and even fund his ministry without offending his male ego. Women are the first witnesses to the resurrection and pillars of the early church.

Widows, who were fined by Rome for out-living their husbands and being a drag on the economy, were cared for by the early church who remembered one of Jesus' last acts was to make sure his mother would be cared for after his death.

This influence of Jesus led the apostle Paul to write that in Christ there is neither male nor female, a statement historian Thomas Cahill called the first egalitarian expression in the history of literature.

Although the church has often been far too slow to follow his lead, Jesus' insistence that women, as well as men, bear the full image of God has had a way of sparking reform movements across the centuries. It is no accident, though not widely known today, that the first women's rights convention in Seneca Falls New York in 1848 was sponsored by a group of Quaker women and held at a Methodist chapel (about 30 men were allowed to attend, but told they must keep silent).

The under-valuing of a life because it is female is not confined to the ancientworld. In 1990, Amartya Sen wrote a much-noticed essay entitled "More than 100 Million Women Are Missing," about the gender imbalance in China, India and elsewhere. Twenty years later it was far worse: Mara Hvstendahl published "Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls and the Consequences in a World Full of Men."

Asia alone has an imbalance of 163 million more males than females; once a fetus has been identified as a female, it is more likely to be unwanted. This imbalance in turn has consequences for women: rich families cannot find brides for their sons, so poor families are more likely to sell their daughters, which leads to a rise in sex trafficking and the marriages of girls sometimes younger than 12 years old.

Jesus is why mystic Julian of Norwich in 1393 wrote the first book in English written by a woman, "The Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love," which is so profound that it is studied to this day.

Jesus is why women have traveled continents, spent decades learning a strange language so they could translate the Gospel, planting churches, caring for the sick, educating the illiterate and marching for the oppressed.

Is it possible that our world has still not caught up to Jesus?

The binding of the feet of women in China, the suicide by funeral pyre of widows in India, the practice of female genital mutilation in Africa, polygamy, lack of education, lack of opportunity...

Sigmund Freud once wrote, "The great question that has never been answered, and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is: What does a woman want?" Freud's stock has not been rising for the last 50 years or so and his views on women have not helped. How striking that Jesus, although he lived 1,900 years earlier, seemed remarkably absent of condescension toward women. He seemed, in his life and interactions, to somehow know what eluded Freud.

Dorothy Sayers, a contemporary of Freud's who was the first woman to graduate from Oxford, was quite clear on what it was she wanted:

"Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man -- there never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronized; who never made arch jokesabout them; who never treated them either as 'The women, God help us!' or 'The ladies, God bless them!'; who rebuked without demeaning and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend..."

Although the Coptic text may be too dated to reflect Jesus' marital status, it is a reminder of his unusual ability to shape cultural conversation -- not least of all where women are concerned. Perhaps the world is still waiting to catch up to this man.

John Ortberg is the author of 'Who Is This Man? The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus' and senior pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, Calif.