The Latest “Real Jesus”

Here’s an email about a website called “New Covenant Ministries” (a self described “No-nonsense, Honest, Direct, Prophetic, Apostolic, Priesthood of All Believers [Men and Women], Post-Trib, Sabbatarian, Messianic-Israelite, Patriarchal, Evangelical, Received Text, Johannine Tradition & Communion, End-Time Gatherers, New Birth, Holiness, Restorationist, New Covenant Torah, Non-Charismatic, and Sola Scriptura” group which styles itself “One Spotless Church Gathered from the Corpse of Christendom.”

That warm affirmation of ecumenism should be a tip off that this group is unlikely to be tremendously reliable when their assertions wander off the beaten path of Christian orthodoxy. But still my correspondent is worried. This group insists (as gluttons for punishment can read for themselves here) that Jesus was married and that the real “groom and bride” at the wedding in Cana (John 2) were Jesus and Mary Magdalene! (Pay no attention to the wedding portrait of the happy couple on the site. Thanks to the miracle of Photoshop and a good dose of artistic ignorance, they’ve melded an icon of Jesus with an icon, not of the Magdalene, but of his mother, the Blessed Virgin and himself as an infant.)

Anyway, these folks argue that Mary (Magdalene, not his mother) was making a crypto-reference to Jesus as her husband when she exclaimed “Rabboni” on the morning of the Resurrection (John 20:16). They also teach that John the Baptist’s reference to Jesus as the Bridegroom was yet another crypto-reference to Jesus’ marriage to Mary Magdalene (John 3:29). They argue that the early Church, influenced by gnostic hatred of sex, covered up all this wedded bliss in order to promote a gnostic emphasis on asceticism and loathing of sex. My correspondent explains that he wouldn’t take it so seriously, but that some show on the tube had also recently made a similar claim. Is there perhaps something to it, he wonders?

My answer, in a nutshell is “No.” There is nothing to it. The reality is that the intensely hypothetical and remote nature of the speculation here is simply contrary to the entire memory of Christendom on this question for 2000 years-beginning with the apostles. The simple fact is, the whole of the Christian testimony on this subject from Christ’s time down to the present is that Jesus remained unmarried. Contrary to the claim of the website, the tradition that Jesus was unmarried did not “begin in gnosticism”. It began with the apostles’ memories of Jesus and was always recognized as a genuine apostolic teaching, even by Church Fathers who were mortal foes of gnosticism and all its works and ways. Indeed, Jesus himself commended those who were “eunuchs for the kingdom of God” (i.e. “virgins”) (Matthew 19:12).

The web site’s exegesis fails to take into account the point John is attempting to convey in his account of the Miracle at Cana. In that account (and elsewhere) Jesus simply is not the earthly Bridegroom at the earthly wedding no matter how much ingenious reading between the lines we attempt. However, the earthly wedding, like all earthly marriage, does provide the archetypal image of Jesus as the Cosmic Bridegroom of the Church and that is what John wishes us to see, just as Paul wishes us to see it in Ephesians 5. John the Baptist’s language describing Jesus as the Bridegroom is clearly figurative, not descriptive of a relationship with Mary Magdalene (who is simply absent in the Johannine narrative except in the resurrection account and who comes nowhere near the wedding at Cana). The attempt to transform Mary’s cry of “Rabboni” on the morning of the Resurrection into a confession of her married status as Christ’s earthly wife is utterly without attestation anywhere in the Christian tradition. John, in fact, tells us what Mary meant: she called Jesus “Teacher”, not “husband.” (John 20:16).

One good rule of thumb whenever one encounters a “real Jesus” who is radically at odds with the picture offered by the ordinary Tradition, Scripture and magisterial teaching of the Church is to examine the dominant fixations of one’s own age and see how much of a Rorschach ink blot test that new “real Jesus” is. Oddly enough, when liberal Protestantism went gaga for the Social Gospel a hundred years ago, the Real Jesus looked very much like a Social Gospel Protestant a la Albert Schweitzer. When the world went nuts for Marxism, a new Real Jesus suddenly appeared on the scene as the First Marxist preaching the Sermon on the Barricades to the Oppressed Proletariat. Nazism was fond of discovering a Real Jesus who was “really” an Aryan eager to condemn Judaism and not beholden to his Jewish ancestry. Ironic postmodernity sees an ironic postmodern Jesus, feminism sees a feminist Jesus and New Age “prophets” see Real Jesus who offer the same sort of pantheistic tapioca they offer. Of the making of “real Jesuses” there is no end.

In our case, we live in a popular, celebrity culture that is obsessively fascinated with sex and with the sex lives (real and imagined) of the famous. By some unfathomable coincidence, that’s just what this sort of speculation about Jesus resembles too. Similarly, “documentaries” on the tube are, of course, geared to appeal to that sex-obsessed culture first and only secondarily to accuracy (the goal of TV, after all, is to sell shampoo and beer, not to be tremendously accurate). In other words, this “real Jesus”, like all the previous “real Jesuses” tells us more about our current cultural quirks and obsessions than it does about anything substantial in the record.

Further, the speculation about Jesus’ sex life feeds a primal American habit of rejecting “the official story” (and feeding our pride as People Who Aren’t Told What to Think by Sinister Vatican Officials). When you are engaged in the immensely ego-gratifying project of Gathering One Spotless Church from the Corpse of Christendom, you don’t suffer from the troubling questions of self-esteem and humility that lesser breeds without the law so often stumble over. Like Buzz Lightyear, you’re always sure. You have the inside scoop! Only fools and simpletons would accept the Official Story that, say, the earth is round or JFK is really dead. You know The Truth is Out There and you aren’t afraid to Tell It Like it Is. Only saps fall for the Commonly Accepted Story.

The trouble is, sometimes the commonly accepted story is commonly accepted because it is the true story. It becomes the official story, not because Officialdom tricked the dumb sheep into buying it, but because the whole herd of sheep, beginning with apostles who ordained the officials, told Officialdom, “This is what happened.”

Attempts to chalk up Christian belief in the celibacy of Jesus to “gnosticism” are therefore fundamentally clueless about the Catholic view of sex, just as Marxist atheist attempts to divine a Marxist atheist “Jesus” lack a basic grip on reality. Catholics do not believe Jesus was a virgin because sex is evil any more than they believe Jesus distrusted Mammon based on an atheistic theory of class warfare. On the contrary, for Catholics marriage is a sacrament and sex is therefore holy in the context of the sacrament. But as Jesus makes clear, though marriage is holy, virginity is holy too. It is not a case of good and bad but of good and better. Jesus chose the way of virginity as a sign of his consecration to the Church, his Bride. That was John’s point in the story of the Wedding at Cana. It was John’s point in speaking of Jesus as the Bridegroom, and it remains the Church’s point today-a point preserved, no thanks to gnosticism, in the apostolic Tradition, Scripture and Magisterial teaching of the Church for 2000 years. The only “real Jesus” is the one the Church has proclaimed since Pentecost. Accept no new improved versions.

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