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Book review: “The Wife of Jesus” by Anthony Le Donne

Was Jesus breast-fed?

That’s a question that Anthony Le Donne asks near the end of his reasonable and provocative new book The Wife of Jesus: Ancient Texts and Modern Scandals (Oneworld). And, if it’s the sort of question that unsettles you or angers you, this book isn’t for you.

Le Donne, a scholar in the study of the historical Jesus, is attempting to understand the flesh-and-blood human being who walked the roads of Judea and Galilee and the lanes of Jerusalem 2,000 years ago. He’s an historian, not a theologian.

That’s why he’s asking the question of whether Jesus was breast-fed.

And also whether Jesus had a wife.

Le Donne’s conclusion on that latter question — spoiler alert! — is that, no, Jesus probably wasn’t married. But his book is courageous anyway. Simply to ask the question is to make himself a lightning rod for controversy.

le donne - wifeAsk Reza Aslan, the author of the recently published Zealot, a book that characterizes Jesus as a political revolutionary. And one that became a bestseller after a clumsily antagonistic Fox News interview went viral this summer in which Aslan was bashed as a Muslim who dared to write about founder of Christianity.

La Donne and Aslan

La Donne covers some of the same ground as Aslan, but their authorial voices are vastly different.

Reviewers have consistently taken Aslan to task for his bombastic approach. (“There is an odd intemperance about the tone of this book, with vociferous assertion often replacing argument,” wrote Stuart Kelly in the Guardian.) By contrast, La Donne presents his research in an even-handed, almost quiet manner.

Consider whether Jesus had siblings. The gospels mention brothers and sisters, but, for two millenniums, the Catholic Church has asserted that Mary, the mother of Jesus, remained a virgin all her life, and that those relatives were actually cousins.

Aslan is pugnacious on that question: “That Jesus had brothers is, despite the Catholic doctrine of his mother Mary’s perpetual virginity, virtually indisputable….There is no rational argument that can be made against the notion that Jesus [had siblings]…” La Donne, on the other hand, is more understated: “Every indication from the New Testament is that Jesus was the firstborn among several siblings.”

The Wife of Jesus is likely to anger some readers — and some Christians who only hear of the book — simply because La Donne doesn’t reject out of hand the idea of a Mrs. Jesus.

Careful thought and analysis

Instead, he spends the 166 pages of his text sketching the background of the world in which Jesus lived and then weighing the arguments for and against the idea of Jesus as a husband. He roots his analysis in the ancient texts and in the world of modern-day Biblical scholars. And he reaches his conclusion with much careful thought and analysis.

Consider the issue of breast-feeding.

Le Donne quotes these verses from the Gospel of Luke:

“One of the women in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, ‘Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts at which you nursed.’ But he said, ‘On the contrary, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it.’ ”

This shows an expectation among members of his audience that Jesus had been breast-fed. Le Donne acknowledges that there is no way to be absolutely sure, but, as he points out, historians have determined that just about every infant in the ancient world was fed from the breast because no better way had been found to provide babies with nourishment.

A cultural given

There are parallels with the marriage question. “Both breast-feeding and marriage were practiced to ensure survival,” Le Donne writes.

He notes that marriage was “a cultural given” and considered essential to the perpetuation of one’s people, in a culture where the group, rather than the individual, was the key consideration.

“[The modern attitude] has been to assume that Jesus was celibate because he was too holy for sex. But most people in Jesus’ culture would have considered celibacy to be altogether unholy….Marriage was a path to holiness, it was an avenue to civic contribution and economic stability, and it was a way to extend the lifeblood of one’s patriarchs into the future.”

Indeed, Le Donne quotes the sentence from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (9:5), “Do we [meaning Paul himself] not have the right to be accompanied by a believing wife, even as the rest of the apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?”

This, Le Donne asserts, indicates that marriage was the norm among the disciples of Jesus and his brothers.

Still, even with all this cultural weight indicating the ubiquitousness of marriage in the Jesus’ culture, Le Donne comes down on the side of Jesus as a celibate.

A cultural nonconformist

His reasoning has nothing to do with Jesus being too holy for sex. Or too holy for loneliness.

Rather, for Le Donne, Jesus was a cultural nonconformist who preached a new way of living — one that wasn’t tied to the past approach in which the family was the center of all life and the family’s patriarch was the maker of all decisions.

Le Donne argues that, in violation of all cultural norms, Jesus repeatedly placed the family below the community of believers, as in these two examples:

• In Luke 14:26, Jesus says, “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”
• In Mark 3: 32-34, someone says to Jesus, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, asking for you.” Jesus replies, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” Then, looking at those who sat with him, he says, “Here are my mother and my brothers.”

These are statements that seem to go against the family values that modern Westerners, including modern Christians, hold dear. And Le Donne acknowledges that he finds them unsettling.

Nonetheless, he writes: “Jesus seems to want to drive a wedge through societal norms. It is also crucial to notice that Jesus models his teaching by belittling (dishonoring?) his own family…The early Christians used these words to unify themselves as a spiritual family.”

In this context, Le Donne writes, it makes sense that Jesus was a celibate — that he had no wife.

How countercultural?

He acknowledges that his book isn’t likely to settle this question. I’m sure, as I said above, that he will be excoriated by many Christians, even though, from their point of view, he concludes with the “right” answer.

Make no mistake, though. The Wife of Jesus is an eminently sensible, thoughtful and balanced look at an important question.

Its significance has to do, of course, with who Jesus was. But, even more, it has to do with how Christians model themselves after him.

For Le Donne, Jesus wasn’t celibate because sex was dirty. He was celibate because faith in God and doing right were more important than family connections and cultural imperatives.

This is a book that raises a deeper question for all Christians:

How counter-cultural — how Jesus-like — are his followers willing to be?

Patrick T. Reardon

This book review originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row on 11.17.13.

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