Friday, November 23, 2007

First it was The Last Temptation of Christ; then came The Da Vinci Code.

A fascination with the sex life of Jesus is understandable. On the one hand, there are those in the conservative religious establishment who see the very idea of Jesus ever having a sexual thought or emotion as bordering on blasphemy. After all, Jesus was the perfect God-man who walked head and shoulders above the human plane of carnal desire. On the flip side, there are those inquiring individuals who want a Jesus they can relate to. The Bible claims that Jesus was a fully human man who was fully tempted, just as we are. Don't all red-blooded males want sex? And if Mary Magdalene really was as hot as Monica Bellucci, the actress who portrayed her in Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, how could Jesus not have been passionate about her? I guess that would give the title The Passion of the Christ a whole different meaning.

Most of Christianity holds the position that all sexual thoughts and actions outside of marriage are sinful. If that is true, then wouldn't logic dictate that a sinless Christ must have either been married to his closest female follower or she was sexually undesirable? Our inquiry is further complicated when we consider that not only was Jesus fully man, but He was also fully God. According to John 1:3, all created things were created through Jesus. That means that Jesus was the creator of Mary Magdalene, as well as the inventor of sex and marriage.

It is without question that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were very close. So at the very least, they must have had a Platonic love for each other. But many want to know whether or not Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a romantic love for each other. And if they did, did they get married and have children? Or was Jesus totally without any sexual desires whatsoever? If so, was Mary Magdalene a repentant ex-prostitute who took a vow of celibacy in order to follow Christ? These are good questions, though some claim they are questions we shouldn't even ask.

To further complicate issues, the Bible sheds little light for those seeking answers. Consider Christ's temptation in the wilderness. When Jesus began his ministry, he was about 30 years old. Immediately after his baptism, Jesus was led into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil (Matthew 4:1). After forty days of fasting, the tempter said to Jesus:

"If You are really the Son of God, command that these stones become bread." Jesus replied, "It is written, 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God' "(4:3-4). Then the devil took Him up into the holy city, set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, "If You are really the Son of God, throw Yourself down. For it is written: 'He shall give His angels charge over you,' and, 'In their hands they shall bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone.' " Jesus replied, "It is written again, 'You shall not tempt the LORD your God'" (4:5-7). Finally, the devil took Him up on a very high mountain. He showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world. "All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me." Jesus responded with, "Away with you, Satan! For it is written, 'You shall worship the LORD your God, and Him only you shall serve.' " Then the devil left Him. Afterwards, angels came and ministered to Him (4:8-11).

So there were three temptations. First, Jesus was tempted to turn a stone into bread to satisfy his hunger. Second, the devil assaulted Jesus' ego by challenging His claim to deity. "If You are really the Son of God, throw yourself off the pinnacle of this temple." Third, the last temptation of Christ was an appeal to worship the devil, which would've been an act of idolatry. The curious thing to me is that nowhere in the Bible is it recorded that Jesus was tempted by sex - not even once! Did Jesus ever have a sexual thought? One can read the Bible cover to cover and not have the faintest clue.

My guess is, these same unanswered questions got the wheels turning clear back in 1951 when Nikos Kazantzakis wrote a highly controversial novel entitled The Last Temptation of Christ, which became an equally controversial film back in 1988. It was adapted by Martin Scorsese and starred Willem Dafoe as Jesus. I'm both fascinated and dumbfounded by the enormous amount of protest and controversy that surrounded both the book and the film. The gist of the story goes something like this: Jesus, though sinless, was nevertheless subject to every form of temptation that humans face, including fear, doubt, depression, reluctance, and lust. By facing and conquering all of these weaknesses, Christ became the perfect role model for all humans. Jesus sacrificed not only on the cross, but throughout his entire life. Jesus struggled to do God's will, without ever yielding to temptation.

So far, it seems Kazantzakis was right on target. The Bible itself tells us that Jesus sympathizes with our weaknesses because He was in all points (not just some) tempted as we are, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15). So again, why all the controversy?

I confess, I have not read the book, though I have read commentaries on the book. I have, however, seen the movie. The movie was, in one sense, unsettling because it showed a side of Jesus we've never seen. We see Jesus falling in love with Mary Magdalene, then marrying her and having children. Sounds like blasphemy, right? Many say yes. Like The Da Vinci Code, the movie portrayed Jesus as both a husband and a father with Mary Magdalene as his wife. However, unlike The Da Vinci Code, we learn at the end of the movie that Jesus was never really married to Mary Magdalene after all; it was simply the devil tempting Jesus to come down from the cross and marry the woman of his dreams. Hence the title: The Last Temptation of Christ. In the movie, the human side of Jesus wanted to marry her but the God side just said no. The God side won the battle against temptation. Jesus did not come down from the cross.

I guess critics of the movie were offended that Jesus would have had any desire whatsoever to get married and have children. Yet prior to his crucifixion in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed, "Oh My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will" (Matthew 26:39). The human side of Jesus certainly didn't want to die. But the God side of Jesus knew it had to happen.

If Jesus really was fully human, it seems that He must have been tempted sexually. Yet nowhere does the Bible record such a temptation. Why is this? I suppose it's possible that Jesus had the gift of celibacy. Evidently Paul had this gift, which allowed him to do his job of evangelism unencumbered by the responsibilities of married life. The Protestant reformer Martin Luther, an ex-monk, acknowledged that such a gift exists. But according to Luther, only one person in a thousand had this gift. Modern studies, however, suggest that approximately one person in a hundred has no desire whatsoever for sex.

So maybe Jesus was numbered among that small percentile of celibates. It's possible. On the other hand, since sexual temptations are the most powerful temptations facing most humans, how could Hebrews 4:15 say that Jesus was in all points tempted as we are if He had no desire whatsoever for sex? Furthermore, since Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:9 that those who have sexual desires should marry, which would seem to include everyone that does not have the gift of celibacy, then doesn't it seem logical that Jesus, who fulfilled the Scriptures perfectly, would have married if He did have sexual desires? And since Jesus was probably closer to Mary Magdalene than any other female, doesn't it seem logical that she would have been the most likely candidate?

Though fully God, Jesus was also fully human, yet without sin. As sinful humans, we are constantly bombarded by sex. Sex is everywhere. It's in advertisements, on the internet, and at the workplace. There's no place to hide. Every street corner, park, club, and supermarket provides a potential encounter for visual erotic stimuli. So what would Jesus do? How would Jesus respond to the avalanche of eye candy that we all face on a daily basis?

When searching the Scriptures for answers, many see Jesus portrayed as a sexless stoic. Certainly thousands, perhaps millions, have taken vows of celibacy believing they were following Jesus' example. So if the Bible offers no clues to the sex life of Jesus, where do we turn? Many, like Dan Brown, author of the New York Times best-seller The Da Vinci Code, have embraced the Gnostic Gospels to support their view that not only did Jesus have a sex life, but He was, in fact, married to Mary Magdalene.

What Are The Gnostic Gospels?
According to Luke 1:1, many gospel accounts had been written regarding the life of Jesus. So the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, were merely four of many such accounts. Most of the others did not survive. But one fine day in 1945, everything changed. In a cave near Nag Hammadi, Egyptian peasants found a sealed jar which contained ancient manuscripts now known as the Gnostic Gospels. This includes: The Gospel of Thomas (circa 30-150CE), The Dialogue of the Savior (circa 100-150CE), The Gospel of Phillip (date uncertain), and The Gospel of Mary Magdalene (circa 80-180CE). Nobody knows for sure who wrote these Gnostic Gospels, or even when and where they were written.

Nevertheless, many Christians even today believe that Mary Magdalene was the leading disciple of Jesus. According to The Gospel of Phillip, the disciples were perplexed and bewildered by their close relationship. Were Jesus And Mary Magdalene Married? According to The Da Vinci Code, Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married. Author Dan Brown cites this passage from The Gospel of Phillip to support that position:

And the companion of the Savior is Mary Magdalene. Christ loved her more than all the disciples and used to kiss her often on the mouth. The rest of the disciples were offended by it and expressed disapproval. They said to Him, ‘Why do you love her more than all of us?’ ” ( The Da Vinci Code, page 246)

So what are we to make of all of this? Granted, many question the reliability of The Gnostic Gospels. But even if they are somewhat accurate, and even if Jesus really did kiss Mary Magdalene often, critics of Brown respond with, "So what? The Gospel of Phillip does not define the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene in terms of physical intimacy or marriage." True. Nevertheless, if we were to find credible documentation that they were kissing often, wouldn't it be logical to conclude that they were, at the very least, intimately involved?

Maybe; maybe not.

When we examine similar language used in other documents written at approximately the same time, this could mean something else. For example, this same text goes on to commend Mary Magdalene for her unique spiritual insight. Jesus was the great teacher, she was his prize pupil. She understood his teachings when the other disciples didn't always quite get it. According to The Gnostic Bible, which is a standard scholarly translation of the passage:

The companion is Mary of Magdala. Jesus loved her more than His students. He kissed her often on her face, more than all His students (Barnstone, page 273).

So what was the significance of Jesus kissing Mary Magdalene often? According to The Gospel of Phillip:

For it is by a kiss that the perfect conceive and give birth. For this reason we also kiss one another. We receive conception from the grace that is in one another (58:30-59:6) .

Another gnostic writing, The Apocalypse of James, uses similar language to describe Christ’s special revelation:

And He kissed my mouth. He took hold of me saying, ‘My beloved! Behold, I shall reveal to you those things which neither the heavens nor the archons have known’ (Olson, Miesel, page 95) .

Male-Female Relationships In Jesus' Day: A Closer Look
In some ways, Jesus' treatment of Mary Magdalene and other women was a radical departure from the norm. In other ways, it was not. Similarities: A History Of Kissing First, let's look at some similarities. Kissing was commonplace during the time of Jesus (See Matthew 26:48, Mark 14:44, Luke 7:45, Luke 22:47, Luke 22:48, Romans 16:16, 1Corinthians 16:20, 2Corinthians 13:12, 1Thessalonians 5:26, 1Peter 5:14).

Even today, it is a common practice in many Mediterranean cultures for friends to kiss on the mouth. Mediterranean people commonly greet each other with a kiss and say goodbye with a kiss. They also use kissing for other forms of affection. So for Jesus to have kissed Mary Magdalene often would not necessarily have had a sexual connotation. Kissing in Jesus' day was the equivalent of a handshake in our culture. And given the teacher-student setting, for Jesus to kiss Mary Magdalene often may have been the equivalent of a pat on the back or an "A" on a report card.

In both The Gospel of Mary and The Dialogue of the Savior, Mary Magdalene receives privileged teachings from Jesus, things he doesn't share with anyone else. In the Manichean Psalm Book, the resurrected Christ entrusts her with the task of inspiring the rest of his disciples. The Dialogue of the Savior refers to her as "the woman who knew All." The Catholic Church has long called her "the apostle to the apostles." The Eastern Christian churches call her '"the holy equal unto the apostles."

Differences: The Treatment of Women In Jesus' Day
However, there are also ways in which Jesus departed radically from the status quo in his treatment of women. Consider the cultural situation in the time of Jesus. Jewish women had little freedom. Generally speaking, women were considered to be inferior to men. They were under the authority of either their father or their husband. From the Second Temple period, women weren't allowed to testify in court. They couldn't go out in public, or talk to strangers. Outside their homes, they were veiled. They were excluded from worship. Their status was similar to women in Afghanistan during the Taliban dictatorship.

Jesus' Revolutionary Treatment of Women
Since Jesus consistently treated women and men as equals, many considered Him a revolutionary. In Jesus' day, it was a major transgression for a man to even talk to a woman outside of his household. He also ignored ritual impurity laws when he healed a woman suffering from menstrual bleeding (Mark 5:25-34). He also instructed female students. According to the Jewish tradition at the time, women were not allowed to be taught. Rabbi Eliezer wrote this in the 1st century CE:

Rather should the words of the Torah be burned than entrusted to a woman...Whoever teaches his daughter the Torah is like one who teaches her obscenity.

Jesus not only taught women, but He accepted women into his inner circle (Luke 8:1-3). Perhaps half of His closest followers were women. This included Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and many others.

How Important Was Mary Magdalene?
So how important was Mary Magdalene?

The Bible seems to attribute great importance to her. She is one of a few people, and the only woman, given the distinction of a "full name." Whatever else she was, Mary Magdalene was crucial.

In John, Mary Magdalene and John were the only ones of Jesus' inner circle who witnessed the crucifixion. She was the first to see Jesus after his resurrection in Matthew, Mark, and John. In Luke, she's recorded as having the unique privilege of being first to see the signs of the resurrection.

Then, for a period of several hundred years, many Christians revered Mary Magdalene above even Peter and Paul. In fact, many even considered her more worthy of reverence than the other Mary: Mary, the mother of Christ.

So were Jesus and Mary Magdalene married? To prove or disprove this claim is probably impossible. But it is fascinating. Unfortunately, there is nothing in the Bible and little in The Gnostic Gospels to suggest that they were husband and wife. But here are a few things to consider.

First, Jesus came to this earth with a purpose. His ministry was only 3 and one half years long and He had much to do. He knew He had to die. Therefore, He knew that if He married Mary Magdalene, He would have to leave her as a widow in just a few short years. Mary Magdalene must have known this also. Perhaps leaving her widowed and leaving their children as orphans would not have been the responsible thing to do.

On the other hand, since some say that she was rich, and since her children would have had the God-Man as their biological father, maybe their marriage would have been perfectly responsible.

Second, Jesus was fully God and fully man. He was the only perfect man to ever live. He was the only man to perfectly love God and neighbor. Therefore, it is fair to conclude that Jesus loved Mary Magdalene perfectly. It logically follows therefore that since Jesus did love Mary Magdalene perfectly, and since no other man to ever live has ever loved any woman perfectly, Jesus must have loved Mary Magdalene more than most men love their wives. In fact, Jesus must have loved Mary Magdalene more than any man to ever live has ever loved any woman.

Ephesians 5:25 says:

"Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved [and continues to love] the church [which is Jesus' wife], and gave himself for it."

Notice, this verse does not say: "Christ loves the church, even as husbands love their wives." The obvious connotation is, Christ's love is infinitely greater than the finite love of any fallen husband who ever has lived or ever will live. In fact, it's pretty much a no-brainer that Christ's love for his bride the church is greater than the combined love of all husbands for all wives throughout history.

But it also logically follows that not only did Jesus love Mary Magdalene more than any man has ever loved any woman, Jesus must have also loved all of his other female followers more than any man has ever loved any woman. Furthermore, Mary Magdalene must have loved Jesus more than any woman has ever loved any man. First, Jesus was the only perfect man to ever live. Second, consider what Matthew 10:37 says:

He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me (NKJV).

Luke 14:26 puts this even more strongly:

If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple (NKJV).

Since other parts of the Bible tell us we are to honor our parents and love even our enemies, Jesus was evidently using vivid hyperbole. Hyperbole is an exaggerated figure of speech often used to get a point across. We do this all the time: I'm starving! I'm dying to meet him! In Hebrew, to "hate" sometimes means to "love less" (see Genesis 29:31-33; Deuteronomy 21:15). Jesus was emphasizing that our supreme love must be for Him alone. Everyone and everything else must take a back seat in priority. In other words, we should love Jesus so much that our love for everyone and everything else will seem like hatred in comparison.

There's another thing to consider. We often think of "love" and "hate" simply as emotions. But in Jesus' day, these terms meant more than that. They referred to a decision of the will. Loving someone often referred to choosing to submit to his authority. Hating someone often meant the opposite; refusing to submit. Therefore, when Jesus demanded that His followers hate their closest family members, He was not referring exclusively to an emotional response. He was also speaking of submission, which is an act of will. To be a disciple of Christ, one must choose to submit to the authority of Christ. This may mean breaking family ties if there is a conflict of interest.

It seems that Jesus meant both. Our emotional love for Him should far exceed our emotional love for anyone or anything else. In addition to that, our obedience to Him should take top priority to our obedience to anyone else. After all, Jesus was not only fully man, He was fully God. And what does the Bible say about loving God?

And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might (Deuteronomy 6:5).

Since this command to love God with all our heart applies to all three members of the Trinity, it most certainly applies to Jesus. Furthermore, the Bible teaches that love for God includes having God as our top priority. Anything less is an act of idolatry. The first commandment says:

You shall have no other gods before Me (Deuteronomy 5:7).

To love Jesus is to obey Jesus. Love for Christ and obedience to Christ go hand in hand. In John 14:15, Jesus said:

If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.

However we slice it, Jesus must take top priority. Love and loyalty to Jesus must come first. Love and loyalty to family and everything else must take a distant second place. Surely Mary Magdalene knew this as well as anyone. Considering that she was one of Jesus' best students, if not "the" best student He ever had, it seems logical that she must have loved Him emotionally while submitting to His authority completely.

So again I ask, were Jesus and Mary Magdalene married? Obviously, they were very passionate about each other. Just as obvious, they were also very close. Since the church is the Bride of Christ, and since Mary Magdalene was and is a part of that bride, then in that sense, she is now in Heaven living in a relationship with Christ that can best be described as a marital relationship. But Christ is also the bridegroom of all Christians who ever have lived and ever will live (Matthew 9:15, 25:1).

I know what you may be thinking: "C'mon, this guy's tap dancing. I want to know if Mary Magdalene and Jesus were "really" married. Did they have sex? Did they make babies?

At the very least, I want to know if they kissed and how they kissed? Did they kiss like brothers and sisters? Did Jesus simply give her a little peck on the cheek or forehead? Or did they kiss passionately, like lovers do?"

These are questions everyone would like answers to. And if I had "the" answers and I could back those answers up with solid proof, I'd probably be writing this from my private yacht while sipping pina coladas. But just because I may not have irrefutable proof, that doesn't mean I don't have evidence. Or perhaps, before we go fishing for irrefutable proof, we should all employ a little common sense. Maybe common sense is not as common as we assume.

After Christ's resurrection, little is known for certain about what happened to Mary Magdalene. But there is a lengthy smorgasboard of opinion. Some believe she died a peaceful death in Ephesus. Others claim she went into seclusion for 30 years and lived in either the desert or a cave. What's fact? What's fiction? This is virtually impossible to determine since there are no reliable records of her whereabouts. No wonder so much speculation abounds.

Perhaps the solution to this complex puzzle lies in our understanding of marriage. At some point in time, marriage, as we know it, will in some sense cease to exist (Matthew 22:30, Mark 12:25, Luke 20:35). Jesus constantly referred to Himself as the bridegroom (Matthew 9:15, 25:1, 25:5, 25:6, 25:10, Mark 2:19-20, Luke 5:34-5). But He was also the King of the Kingdom of Heaven. Though that kingdom will probably not be fully consummated until some future date, depending on your view of escatology, Jesus came to set things in motion. Since Jesus came to establish a kingdom, and He was the King of that kingdom, isn't it logical that He would mirror what that kingdom will be like? So before we can answer whether or not Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married, perhaps we first need to define what it means to be married. Secondly, we need to discover what it means to neither marry or be given in marriage.

The plot thickens. Stay tuned!