So the Biblical studies Internet is all abuzz with the discovery of a Coptic papyrus which has Jesus referring to his own wife. And of course there is the predicable knee-jerk from a lot of Christians that this must be wrong because we have no evidence of Jesus having a wife. But this seems to be the wrong way to approach the argument.
Picture a random 1st Century Palestinian Jewish male. If you know nothing else about him than that, what is your assumption about his marital status? Married or unmarried? Your answer ought to be “married,” because this was the cultural default at the time. Now let’s say this Palestinian Jewish man was a rabbi with disciples. Does this change your assumption? It should, if anything, make your assumption that the man is married even stronger, because according to, say, the Talmud, rabbis pretty much had to be married.
So here is our default assumption, our null hypothesis:
H0: Jesus was—at some point in his life—married.
(“At some point in his life” is more than a useful hedge: it reminds us that there are more states than “married” and “never married”, including divorced, widowed, and so on. I think the scholarly consensus at the moment is that Paul, for instance, was widowed.)
And so one can debate the merits of the Coptic papyrus and how much evidence that provides for the null hypothesis, but you know what, that’s kind of uninteresting, because you don’t need evidence for the the null hypothesis. H0 is what you were planning to accept anyway until convinced otherwise. If you want to argue the case for H1 (Jesus was never married), you need to come up with evidence for that. The burden of proof is on the alternative hypothesis.
The traditional sources of evidence in favour of H1 are, to be honest, pretty poor:
- The Bible never mentions Jesus’ wife, therefore he didn’t have one. This is backwards; the claim is that Jesus is doing something wildly unusual for a Jewish rabbi and we know this to be true because nobody mentions it. The Bible omits a lot of biographical detail about Jesus’ life, particularly between the ages of twelve and thirty, so we have to assume that his life was pretty normal. Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence; it’s actually fairly strong evidence, if anything, in favour of the null hypothesis. Why? Because unusual is noteworthy and normal isn’t.
- The Bible says that Jesus was tempted in every way, which includes sexually, therefore he must have been single. Married men can also be sexually tempted.
- But he was God! All the more reason to understand his life to see what God is actually like, rather than project our ideas of what God must be like onto his life.
- Church Tradition says that Jesus was unmarried. Bizarrely this is the one I have most sympathy for even though it’s the weakest from an evidential point of view. I am a firm believer in the Church’s ability to tell its own story; but at the same time I am aware that, from Origen and Augustine onwards, many theologians have not had the most healthy approach to sex, owing more to Greek philosophy and gnosticism than to Judeo-Christian teaching, so I can imagine how a sexless Christ would be a useful story for them to tell.
There may be better arguments, but I am unaware of them. And so H0 comes out looking pretty strong; the case for H1 hasn’t been made very well, even though it’s quite widely accepted.
And that, in a sense, is a reflection of how a lot of people understand faith: faith, in the sense of “blind faith”, is a Dawkins straw man but it is also quite alive and well in certain circles of the Church. And it can be defined pretty neatly as the process of, when faced with little decent evidence either way, rejecting the null hypothesis and accepting H1.