Never Mind Jesus—Did God Have a Wife?

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The recently revealed "evidence" that Jesus had a wife deserves those quotation marks. As various people have argued, a fragment of text written centuries after the crucifixion doesn't carry much weight as a biographical source. However, when it comes to the question of whether Jesus's father had a wife, the evidence is stronger. And I'm not talking about Joseph, but, rather, about Jesus's heavenly father--God.

I discussed this a few years ago in my book The Evolution of God. I argued (as had a number of scholars) that Israelite religion was for a long time polytheistic, and that full-fledged monotheism didn't arrive until the Babylonian exile in the sixth century BCE. And, of course, in many polytheistic religions, gods have mates. So might Yahweh have had one for a time?

There's reason to think so. Yahweh seems to have early on absorbed qualities of the Canaanite god El--perhaps via a kind of "merger" of two previously distinct gods that was not uncommon in the ancient world. (This could explain why the Hebrew word El means "god" and in fact is used that way in the Hebrew Bible.) And El, like any self-respecting head of a pantheon, had a mate. I wrote in my book:

It seems puzzling: If Yahweh eventually merged with El, and El had a sex life, why didn't the postmerger Yahweh have one? Why, more specifically, didn't Yahweh inherit El's consort, the goddess Athirat?

Maybe he did. There are references in the Bible to a goddess named Asherah, and scholars have long believed that Asherah is just the Hebrew version of Athirat. Of course, the biblical writers don't depict Asherah as God's wife--this isn't the sort of theological theme they generally championed--but rather heap disdain on her, and on the Israelites who worshipped her. However, in the late twentieth century, archaeologists discovered intriguing inscriptions, dating to around 800 BCE, at two different Middle Eastern sites. The inscriptions were blessings in the name not just of Yahweh but of "his Asherah." The word "his" puts an intriguing spin on a passage in 2nd Kings reporting that, near the end of the seventh century, Asherah was spending time in Yahweh's temple. A priest who didn't favor polytheism "brought out the image of Asherah from the house of the Lord, outside Jerusalem, to the Wadi Kidron, burned it at the Wadi Kidron, beat it to dust and threw the dust of it upon the graves of the common people." In the next chapter we'll see what a crucial moment in the evolution of monotheism this was.

Of course, by the time Jesus came along, this was all, as they say, ancient history. Any relationship between God and Asherah seems to have ended at least a half-millenium earlier. So, regardless of whether the heavenly father ever had a wife, I guess it wouldn't be accurate to say that Jesus had a heavenly mother.

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Robert Wright is the author of, most recently, the New York Times bestseller The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic. More

Wright is also a fellow at the New America Foundation and editor in chief of Bloggingheads.tv. His other books include Nonzero, which was named a New York Times Book Review Notable Book in 2000 and included on Fortune magazine's list of the top 75 business books of all-time. Wright's best-selling book The Moral Animal was selected as one of the ten best books of 1994 by The New York Times Book Review.Wright has contributed to The Atlantic for more than 20 years. He has also contributed to a number of the country's other leading magazines and newspapers, including: The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, Time, and Slate, and the op-ed pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Financial Times. He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award for Essay and Criticism and his books have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

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