We know little about Jesus’ personal life. The four canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) provide few details — and they say nothing about his life between adolescence and early adulthood. We are introduced to Jesus at his birth in the manger in Bethlehem. We next meet him at age 12 at the Jerusalem temple where he is skillfully debating the Jewish scholars during the Passover celebration. Jesus then disappears for 18 years. He resurfaces at age 30 at the River Jordan, where he is baptized by John the Baptist. The Gospels then track his ministry over the next three years, culminating in his crucifixion.
Because there are so many gaps in Jesus’ biography it is not surprising that pundits can spin almost any story about his personal life with shreds of “evidence” to support their views. But questions persist: Was Jesus celibate (Church doctrine)? Did he have a romantic relationship with Mary Magdalene (some alternative Gnostic Gospels)? Was he married (Jesus says “my wife” in a papyrus fragment)? Did he father a child with Mary Magdalene? (Magdalene researcher Margaret Starbird and Dan Brown, in his novel, “The Da Vinci Code”)? Finally — and most provocatively — was Jesus gay? This possibility generated a media storm when popular radio host Don Imus (“Imus in the Morning”) suggested it to his national audience on April 3.
To support his speculation, Imus cited the close relationship between Jesus and Judas depicted in the Gospel of Judas, an alternative Gospel dating to the third century that has recently surfaced. In contrast to the usual “turncoat” image of Judas, this Gospel depicts him as Jesus’ closest, most trusted and most spiritual disciple. Jesuit priest James Martin disputes the gay claim. He insists there is nothing in the Gospel of Judas to suggest a homosexual relationship.
But Anglican priest Paul Oestreicher found another reason to believe that Jesus was gay. In a 2012 Good Friday sermon he preached that Jesus’ close relationship with his disciple John — the only disciple who fearlessly showed up at the crucifixion — suggested that Jesus was probably gay. Oestreicher added that John’s commitment to care for Jesus’ mother, Mary, after the crucifixion was further evidence of his homosexual relationship with Jesus. Theologian Morton Smith cited a controversial second century “full” version of the Gospel of Mark (“The Secret Gospel of Mark”) which refers to Jesus spending the night with a man “clothed only in linen cloth upon his naked body.” Other scholars and commentators have also speculated that Jesus was gay.
However, when we examine these assertions in the context of first-century Judaism, they appear questionable. If Jesus were gay, given the severe taboo in Judaism against homosexuality (Leviticus 18:22–“it is abomination”), he surely would have married—and would have displayed it publicly, even if just to cover up homosexuality—the “beard” as it was called in later–and contemporary–homophobic societies, in which gays married or conspicuously dated heterosexually to avoid being ostracized.
NBA basketball player Jason Collins just created a media sensation as the first currently active male professional athlete to “come out.” Others are expected to follow, but many still feel that gay exposure will pose a threat to their safety and livelihood — and those fears may be justified. Former Green Bay Packers football player LeRoy Butler had his scheduled $8,500 church speech canceled for merely tweeting congratulations to Jason Collins for his bold action. The Wisconsin church offered to reinstate Butler’s engagement, “if I removed the tweet, and apologize and ask god forgiveness.” He declined. So it should not be surprising that in first-century Judaism gay cover-up would be fiercely pursued. If there was even a hint of homosexuality in Jesus’ persona or behavior, it’s doubtful that he would have attracted a following — and he might have been stoned to death long before the crucifixion: “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death” (Liviticus 20:13). The same goes for his disciples, whose sexuality has also invited lively debate.
As for marriage, we only know for sure that Peter was married. In the Gospels of Matthew (8:14-15), Mark (1:29-30) and Luke (4:38-39), Jesus visits and heals Peter’s mother-in-law: “When Jesus came into Peter’s house, he saw Peter’s mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever”(Matthew 8:14; similar in Mark and Luke). But what about the other disciples and Jesus? Some early church officials believed that most of the disciples were married. Unfortunately, the Gospels do not help us with explicit narrative, as they do with Peter.
It’s puzzling that three Gospels inform us that Peter was married but offer nothing about the marital status of the others, or Jesus. Wouldn’t they know that telling us about Peter begs the question about the others? And if they were not married, wouldn’t the Gospel writers feel compelled to offer an explanation, since young Jewish men — particularly rabbis and holy men — were always married? There was nothing sacred about celibacy in Judaism. On the contrary, the Torah prescribes, “And you, be you fruitful, and multiply; bring forth abundantly in the earth, and multiply therein” (Genesis 9:7) — and that means everyone. More unusual, if not scandalous, would be a band of unmarried tradesmen who were well into adulthood when recruited as Jesus’ disciples. More likely, in writing for a first-century audience, the Gospel authors would assume that their readers would know that the disciples were married, and probably Jesus as well. No exposition would have been necessary. Otherwise, if they wanted to cover up that the other disciples were not married they wouldn’t have casually leaked that Peter was married — opening a can of worms, which persists only because we are reading with present-day eyes not first-century ones.
So was Jesus gay? Not likely. But if he were, should Christians worry? No, says Father Oestreicher: “Whether Jesus was gay or straight in no way affects who he was and what he means for the world today.”
Bernard Starr is a psychologist, college professor, and journalist. He is author of Jesus Uncensored: Restoring the Authentic Jew, which is available at Amazon (grayscale and color edition), Barnes and Noble, and other major outlets.