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Jesus the Nazarene and Celibacy

This issue contains more thorns than appear at a superficial level. The Jewish Torah promotes procreation. Yahweh commands his people, "Be fruitful and multiply." Genesis 1:28. There are very few examples of leading Jews who practiced celibacy. The prophet Jeremiah is one example. "The only known celibate among the rabbis of Talmudic times is Ben 'Azzai, who preached marriage to others, but did not practice it himself." jewishencyclopedia.com. But rabbinic Judaism arose out the Pharisee movement, who were enemies of Jesus the Nazarene. References to Jesus in the Talmud, as interpreted by Jewish scholars, make the clear point that Pharisees viewed Jesus as a heretic. See Jesus In the Talmud by Peter Schafer. Thus, one does not search for the core principles taught by Jesus through reference to doctrines of the Pharisees / rabbinic Judaism. The obvious starting point is the New Testament.

Celibacy In The New Testament

The strongest quote attributed to Jesus on the issue of celibacy comes from the Gospel of Matthew.
But He said to [his disciples], "Not all men can accept this statement, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it." Then some children were brought to Him so that He might lay His hands on them and pray; and the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, "Let the children alone, and do not hinder them from coming to Me; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these [children]."
Matthew 19:11-15, emphasis added. Jesus referred approvingly to individuals who made themselves eunuchs "for the sake of the kingdom of heaven". Then, with the next breath, he pointed to children and said the kingdom of heaven belongs to children. What is the connection between eunuchs and children? Both are asexual and celibate.

Notice further that Jesus prefaced this discussion with the qualification that "not all men can accept this statement". Right before this passage from Matthew, Jesus discussed marriage and did not condemn the institution. Also, we learned earlier in Matthew that the apostle Peter had a wife. Mt. 8:14. My interpretation is that celibacy, although a preferred condition of followers of Jesus, was not an absolute requirement for membership. Early Christian leader Origen of Alexandria, who was born in the 2nd century CE, castrated himself on the basis of the above-quoted words of Jesus. It should be noted that Eusebius, while praising him elsewhere, criticizes Origen for a literal reading of this passage from Matthew. Church History at Book VI, Ch. 8. However, Eusebius fails to offer an allegorical interpretation of this passage supporting his criticism of Origen because, in my view, there is none. Jesus intended the words literally as Origen took them.

Two parrallel passages in letters 1 John and 1 Peter make essentially the same point condemning lust for the flesh. "For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the father, but is from the world." 1 John 2:16. "Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul. Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles ... ." 1 Peter 2:11-12. One may not consider sexual relations between a married couple to be lust but notice how "flesh" is condemned. Paul of Tarsus makes the point more forcefully.

Paul on Celibacy
The most direct statement from Paul on the issue of celibacy comes from 1 Corinthians.
Now concerning the things about which you wrote, it is good for a man not to touch a woman. But because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband. * * * But this I say by way of concession, not of command. Yet I wish that all men were even as I myself am. However, each man has his own gift from God, one in this manner, and another in that. But I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I. But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
1 Corinthians 7:1-9, emphasis added. Paul lived an unmarried, celibate life. He is telling his followers that it is best to remain unmarried and celibate; however, if you can't control your passion for the flesh, then get married.

I rather strongly criticized Paul of Tarsus in my book Herodian Messiah, stating therein that Paul misrepresented the teaching of Jesus the Nazarene. My primary criticism relates to Paul's elevation of faith to a position which swallows up the law and negates the necessity of doing good works. More specifically, I argued that the Letter of James (without naming Paul) was in fact a detailed criticism of Paul. However, the issue of celibacy never came up in the epistle. James criticizes unnamed person(s) who favor the rich, who lie, who seek "good things", who fail to do good works, who are boastful, and who are in love with the world. Note: sexual relations are actions of "the world" (see 1 John 2:16), which stands in contradistinction to the "kingdom of heaven". Essentially, James hammers home the Nazarene ascetic ideal in his epistle. However, Paul's teaching on the issue of celibacy is, in my view, completely compatible with Nazarene ascetism found elsewhere in the New Testament.

Evidence on Nazarenes and Celibacy From Outside of the NT

Scholars such as James Tabor connect the Essenes to the Jesus movement (aka the Nazarenes). I also make this argument (although I disagree with Prof. Tabor in the conclusion that the DSS community was also Essene). Pages 153-55 of Herodian Messiah contain a comparison of the tenants of the Essene movement per Josephus and Philo of Alexandria to the teaching of Jesus. The tenants of the two correspond very tightly with the only significant exceptions being in regard to women members and the degree of adherence to Sabbath laws. The Essenes did not admit women whereas Jesus / the Nazarenes admitted females as members. Both Philo and Josephus state that the Essenes numbered no more than 4,000 so they constituted an elite sect in my view. Josephus states in Antiquities, the Essenes "addict themselves to virtue, and this in righteousness ... and [do not] marry." Antiquities. XVIII 1:2 (20). However, in a parallel discussion of the Essenes in Jewish Wars, Josephus equivocates on the issue of marriage. First, he states the Essenes "neglect wedlock, but * * * do not absolutely deny the fitness of marriage." Jewish Wars, II 8:2 (120-21). Later, Josephus tells us there is "another order of Essenes, who agree with the rest as to their way of living and customs, and laws, but differ from them in the point of marriage, as thinking that by not marrying they cut off the principal part of the human life, which is the prospect of succession; * * * if all men should be of the same opinion [i.e., celibate as the majority of Essenes], the whole race of mankind would fail." Jewish Wars, II 8:13 (160). Philo gives a long description of the Essenes stating they practice "abstinence from all covetousness of money, from ambition, from indulgence in pleasures ... ." Every Good Man Is Free, XII (84), emphasis added. It is clear from reading the entire description of the Essenes given by Philo that he speaks of a celibate group of monastic ascetics. Although Josephus equivocates a bit by mentioning a minority order of Essenes that allow marriage for the express purpose of procreation (but not the physical pleasure derived therefrom according Josephus), the picture we get of the Essenes from both Josephus and Philo, taken on the whole of their collective writings on the subject, is of a sect that values celibacy even if they do not strictly require it of members.

Philo describes another ascetic Jewish group that does admit women called the Therapeutae. See On The Contemplative Life. Eusebius, in his work Church History, writes at length about Philo's description of the Therapeutae noting their similarities to the Christians. Eusebius concludes his discussion of Philo and the Therapeutae by saying, "These statements of Philo seem to me to refer plainly and unquestionably to members of our Church." Book II, 17:23. Thus, Eusebius equates the Therapeutae to the Christians. Philo gives the following description of the female Therapeutae members.
And the women ... the greater part of whom, though old, are virgins in respect of their purity (not indeed through necessity, as some of the priestesses among the Greeks are, who have been compelled to preserve their chastity ...) but out of an admiration for and love of wisdom.
On The Contemplative Life, VIII (68), emphasis added. Eusebius quotes this same section from Philo so, clearly, Eusebius knew of the celibate members of the Therapeutae community when he concluded they were Christians.

Nazarenes and Marriage

Jesus, as described in the Gospels, does not prohibit marriage. Neither does Paul. At least one leading disciple (Peter) was married. My interpretation is that the celibate, contemplative life associated with the Essenes and Therapeutae was an ideal that Nazarenes aspired to attain. All of us were born human, even Jesus. As such we strive to grow and learn during our time on this earth. Some advance at a different spiritual pace than others. Philo, interspersed with his discussion of the Therapeutae, describes men leaving behind wives and children to embark on the spiritual path. ibid II (13) and (18). The following reference concerns a somewhat modern Jewish sect that practices the ascetic life and describes its members fathering children before seperating themselves to embark on a contemplative life.
Jewish hermits, living in a state of celibacy and devoting themselves to meditation, are still (circa 1906) found among the Falashas. They claim that Aaron the high priest was the first Nazarite who from the time of his consecration separated from his wife to live only in the shadow of the tabernacle. Accordingly they join the monastic order after they have been married and have become fathers of children ... .
Asceticism in Judaism.

I believe the early Nazarene community contained members who were previously married with wives and children. This was not a bar to admission. However, the aspirant was ultimately to become celibate as part of withdrawing from the pleasures of this world to focus on the spiritual path that leads to the kingdom of God.

Did Jesus have children?
At one time I thought Jesus could not have fathered children as that would be against his own teaching. I have since modified this opinion realizing that the actions of a young Jesus still learning to walk the path did not necessarily conform to his later enlightened teaching. For instance, the Buddha didn't start out life on earth as an enlightened being. First, he was the young noble Siddhartha who was married and fathered a son before embarking on the contemplative life that led to his enlightenment. Also, we have the early Christian example of Augustine of Hippo (born 354 CE), who fathered a child out of wedlock as a young man before taking a vow of chastity to become a priest and, later, an influential bishop in the Roman Catholic Church.

Prof. Tabor suggests the possibility that an ossuary found at the Talpiot Tomb with the inscription "Judah son of Yeshua" is the ossuary of an offspring of Jesus the Nazarene. Peter Fromm, a frequent contributor on this website, suggests a potential connection of Jesus to a figure in Acts named "Bar Jesus", "a certain magician, a Jewish false prophet". See Acts 13:6-12. This passage is interesting in that the Pharisees called Jesus a magician and false prophet in the Talmud. In any event, I am now at least open to the potential that Jesus fathered a child. Whether he did or not, who can say?


Jesus taught celibacy as an ideal for the aspirant to strive for but did not require it of his followers.


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