While I don’t aim to get into the marriage equality debate here, I do want to address this article by the controversial, though well-respected Notre Dame biblical scholar Candida Moss. Moss is a generally well-regarded public voice for scholarship, coming from a liberal Catholic perspective, and while I generally enjoy her articles at CNN.com and the Daily Beast, I find the present article a bit troubling.
In an article entitled “Jesus Christ wasn’t Down with Marriage,” we arrive at Moss’s purpose quite immediately, which is to show that so-called “biblical view of marriage” is nothing like conservative Christian talking points in the marriage equality debate.
Okay, this is nothing new. Defenders of marriage equality have long enjoyed the following sort of quip:
In the Old Testament, marriage is quite clearly defined as a relationship between a man and a woman, a man and several women, a man and his fertile slave girl, and a man and his rape victim.
Yes, this is true. Marriage customs in Late Bronze age and Iron Age Palestine were quite different than our cultural mores would allow today. There is some rightful critique here against those who would try to levy a literal and straightforward application of Old Testament Law to the contemporary situation. We need context, of course. So, Moss continues:
While Jesus is adamantly opposed to divorce, he never once speaks in favor of marriage. He never celebrates a wedding (from a historian’s perspective, facilitating drunkenness at the Wedding at Cana is less evidence of Jesus’s support of marriage than of his desire to keep the party going) and describes heaven as a place where marriage no longer exists.
This is a curious statement (from a historian’s perspective), since certainly Jesus’ presence at the Wedding at Cana counts as him “celebrating” a wedding. I’m not sure what else one is supposed to do at a wedding reception other than celebrate, even if it involves copious amounts of alcohol. Does Moss really think Jesus was only interested in the amount of wine available, all the while secretly against or apathetic about the wedding itself?
Moss does, however, eventually reach a point. The Gospel accounts of Jesus (because this is all we have – how do we really know Jesus was not “down” with marriage given the paucity of his statement on it?) do present a rather bleak view of marriage. Yet Moss commits the same hermeneutical error as those literalists whom she snidely criticized for upholding a “biblical view of marriage” – she takes a 1st century religious attitude toward marriage and applies it to our contemporary situation. Let me explain.
Marriage and the Apocalypse
Scholars have long noted the apocalyptic attitudes both of Jesus and the Apostles, especially Paul and John. The early Christian Church expected Christ to return very quickly, like next Thursday, and Jesus himself seems to have expected a cataclysmic conflict in short order:
“Therefore when you see the ‘abomination of desolation,’ spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place” (whoever reads, let him understand), “then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let him who is on the housetop not go down to take anything out of his house. And let him who is in the field not go back to get his clothes. But woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days! And pray that your flight may not be in winter or on the Sabbath. For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be. And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect’s sake those days will be shortened. (Matt 24:15-22)
Now, we can quibble about the interpretation of this passage all we want, just as it has been argued about throughout Christian history, though there is ample evidence that Jesus was referring to the coming destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Romans in 70 CE. The point of this is to show that the religious climate of 1st century Palestine was very, very anxious. There was wide-spread expectation that the end of the age was imminent, and that great cataclysm was just around the corner. In such a climate, marriage is often used metonymically for the day-to-day life of people what they were expected to abandon in order to prepare for the coming End of the Age.
Up to this point (and after) marriage in Jewish society was a very honored institution. It was (and is) viewed as a mitsvah, a commandment of God “to be fruitful and multiply.” Therefore, even the holiest of the religious elite were expected to marry, and celibacy was extremely rare. It was a certain group of Essenes, a strange and secretive sect of Judaism, who practiced celibacy, living communally, sharing property, and living in a constant state of ritual purity as they awaited the coming Day of the Lord. There is some indication from the early chapters of Acts that the early Christian community was organized much like the Essenes and the (possibly distinct) groups behind the Damascus Covenant and The Rule of the Community (1QS). That the first Christians likely thought marriage was somewhat pointless in light of the hoped impending coming of Christ is probably the reason that Paul has to encourage certain people to marry in 1 Corinthians 7.
Seek First the Kingdom of God
It is in this same apocalyptic context that Jesus makes his statements about marriage. Far from being opposed to the idea or denigrating the institution, he took up the apocalyptic fervor felt by the majority of the people and used it to preach the Kingdom. In doing so, he placed the Kingdom of God as a higher priority than marriage and family. In fact, it is because of this rearranged priority that many Christians throughout history have abandoned the world for the monastic life.
Surprisingly, Moss, as a Catholic, seems to be unappreciative of monasticism or the hagiographic tradition:
There’s no shortage of stories of young Christian women who abandoned their families and husbands in order to join Christianity and branch out on their own as missionaries. When she overheard the Apostle Paul preaching through a window, a young woman named Thecla was inspired to abandon her fiancé, cut her hair short, and dress as a young man spreading the good news. A cross-dressing single woman with a successful career? Those are traditional Christian values right there. If Kern wants to preserve them, then perhaps no one should get married.
Moss’s point gets lost in her rhetoric. What were we talking about here – whether or not Jesus and early Christians had a positive view of traditional marriage or that they nevertheless placed the Kingdom of God above it? Just because St. Thecla and other women resisted societal pressures to marry in order to devote themselves to the Lord, or just because St. Paul regarded marriage as being more burdensome than the unmarried life, doesn’t mean that they did not regard marriage as a holy state.
Just a Concession?
The Apostle Paul is equally ambivalent about the desirability of marriage. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul is clear that he would prefer that followers remain unmarried and celibate like him. If you really can’t handle celibacy and find yourself on fire with lust, then you should marry. As Paul puts it, it’s “better to marry than burn with passion.” But before you get swept up by the romance of Paul’s argument, remember: you should remain unmarried if you’ve got enough self-control to do so. Matrimony is a concession for the lusty; from Paul’s perspective—ironically—marriage was designed for people like John F. Kennedy and Tiger Woods.
Referring to the infamous 1 Corinthians 7, a chapter riddled with interpretive difficulties, Moss seems unnecessarily reductive in her assessment of Paul’s attitude toward marriage. Certainly this is not all we can say about Paul’s view of marriage! We could, for instance, demonstrate Paul’s likening of marriage to the relationship between Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:25-32), which has given rise to the Christian understanding of matrimony as a sacrament. Though, even if Moss were to take the critical position that Paul did not write Ephesians, the epistle was attributed to him at a very early date and was nonetheless extremely important in the early Church and was influential in its theological formation. Even if Paul was less than enthusiastic about marriage, expecting the End of the Age to be near, this was not a view shared in other pieces of early Christian literature.
Getting our Priorities Straight
Was Jesus “down” with marriage? Perhaps that’s the wrong question to ask. Did Jesus give other things priority over marriage? Yes he did, and Christianity has followed him ever since. Indeed in this age, more than ever, we need this message. Marriage is holy and beneficial, and many (perhaps most) are called to it, though there are others for whom marriage holds little appeal. What are these to do, languish in self-pity that they are unable to fulfill God’s commandment? No, because Jesus and the Apostles were clear that the pursuit of the Kingdom of God was the highest pursuit of both man and woman, either in the state of marriage or, more freely, outside of it.
And in this reprioritization, marriage finds it’s purpose, its telos, for marriage finds its purpose not in sexual fulfillment, companionship, rearing of children for its own sake, or the maintaining of society. Marriage, like the celibate state, is about the Kingdom of God and salvation. In marriage, the husband and wife face a severe asceticism, denying their own individual desires for the sake of the other and for the sake of their children. Oh, the sacrifices that married couples make for each other and for their children, and the love that is born from them! In this, the image of Christ is formed and perfected over a lifetime.
When marriage is cast in terms of the Kingdom of God, it finds its place within a “biblical context,” and the contemporary debate about marriage equality can be redirected. What is marriage equality about? Is it about the Kingdom? Salvation? Holiness? the upbringing of children in the fear of God? Denying oneself for the sake one’s spouse? Or is it about sexual fulfillment, attraction, and orientation? Is the marriage debate about finding salvation in another and with another, or is it about what is and is not permitted by the Bible/Jesus/the Church? These questions do not necessarily lead to one side of the debate or another, but they do form the only rightful grounds for which the debate should be argued.
Unfortunately, Candida Moss does not demonstrate a sensitivity to the religious context or theology of Jesus, the Apostles, and the earliest Christians. She, like her interlocutors, are more concerned about dragging them into the contemporary debate rather than dragging the contemporary debate into the context of early Christianity, and what Jesus, Paul, and Thecla really thought about marriage.