A few weeks ago, Stewart Felker wrote an article about what he suggests may be “the true most embarrassing verses in the Bible” — quoting a remark famously made by C.S. Lewis regarding Mark 13:30 (“This generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place”). What Felker has in mind, though, is a statement by Jesus about marriage and the afterlife found in Luke. In fact, when I first saw him mention it in an online discussion, I almost didn’t believe it was actually in the Bible.
The remark occurs in a well-known Synoptic pericope. To understand it, we should look at Mark’s version first. The context, chapter 12, is a loosely-connected series of sermons and other opportunities for Jesus to dispense wisdom. In vv. 18–27, some Sadducees, “who say there is no resurrection,” pose a trick question to Jesus, perhaps in the hopes of discrediting him and the Pharisaic belief in a resurrection.
The scenario they pose is one in which a widow ends up marrying seven brothers in succession due to the Mosaic law on levirate marriage. Since polyandry is not allowed in Judaism, these Sadducees demand to know which of the brothers would be married to her in the resurrection (afterlife).
The challenge is easily met by Jesus. His response is that marriage will not exist after the resurrection:
For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage¹, but are like angels in the heavens. (Mark 12:25)
Matthew (22:30) follows Mark’s text closely with no change in meaning. Luke’s version, however, changes Jesus’ response to something quite astonishing:
The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage; but those accounted worthy to obtain that age and the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, for they are equal to angels and are children of God, being sons of the resurrection. (Luke 20:34b-36)
So while Mark and Matthew describe a difference between the present age, when people marry, and the resurrection, when they do not, Luke describes present-day humanity as being divided between the “sons of this age” who marry, and “those accounted worthy to obtain resurrection” who do not marry. In other words, Luke’s plain meaning is that only those who are not married are worthy to be resurrected in the next age! As New Testament scholar David E. Aune (Notre Dame) puts it:
The correctness of this interpretation is assured by the fact that it is difficult to conceive of an act of “being counted worthy” as occurring at any time subsequent to physical death. This logion, then, reflects the view that humanity is currently divided into two classes, the “sons of this age.” who marry, and “those who are counted worthy to attain that age and the resurrection from the dead,” i.e., “sons of God” or “sons of the resurrection,” who do not marry. That is, celibacy is regarded as a prerequisite for resurrection. (p. 121)
The notion of being deemed worthy of the age to come due to one’s actions in this age is well-attested in other Jewish literature, as Felker notes, citing examples from Dale Allison. Luke makes a similar distinction in 16:8 between the “sons of this age” and the “sons of light” (righteous followers of God), who both exist in the present day. And yet, the majority of biblical scholars until recently have ignored or simply failed to notice Luke’s implications here.²
How does this fit into Luke’s overall theology? Did early Christians really believe that non-marriage was a condition for resurrection? Furthermore, what ramifications does — or should — the presence of such a teaching in the Bible have for modern Christian doctrine?
Other Lucan Peculiarities Regarding Marriage
Luke’s unusual views on marriage are also evident in what he does not say in another Synoptic passage: the teaching on divorce.
In Mark 10:2-12, Jesus is challenged by some Pharisees to say whether divorce is lawful, and he replies that it is not. Matthew (19:3-12) reworks the question to be not if but when divorce by a man is lawful—reflecting the debate between two rival rabbinical schools—and has Jesus argue in favour of the Shammai school, that it is lawful only when a sexual transgression is involved (see Catchpole).
In both Mark and Matthew, the condemnation of divorce is followed by the assertion that remarriage after a divorce amounts to adultery, although Mark has Jesus say this in private to his disciples, and Matthew uses it as Jesus’ concluding argument to the Pharisees.³
Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” (Mark 10:10-12)
And I say to you [Pharisees], whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery. (Matthew 19:9)
Luke, who, up to this point, has repeated the same pericopes as Mark and Matthew — and in the same order — skips this teaching altogether, going straight to the “suffer the children” pericope that both Mark and Matthew have after the divorce pericope.⁴ To be precise, the teaching that condemns divorce is completely absent from Luke, but the maxim condemning remarriage is retained and moved to another context.
Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and whoever marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery. (Luke 16:8)
A reasonable inference can therefore be made that Luke has no objection to divorce. It is only remarriage that he condemns! (See Seim, Asceticism, p. 120.)
In the Matthean and Marcan passages that enjoin the reader to “take up his cross”, (Matt 10.37-38, 19.27-30; Mark 10.28-31), Jesus’ instructions are to leave one’s father, mother, sister, and brother. The equivalent passages in Luke, however, add “wife” to the list of family members who must be abandoned (Luke 14.25-27, 18.28-30). And in the Lucan version of the Great Supper — an analogy for the kingdom of God — marriage is one of the reasons that prevents guests from attending (Luke 14:20), in contrast to the Matthean version, in which the banquet itself is a wedding banquet (Matt 22:2). (Ibid.)
Disapproval of procreation is also suggested in Luke’s ominous warning to the “daughters of Jerusalem”, a passage without parallels in the other Gospels:
A great number of the people followed him, and among them were women who were beating their breasts and wailing for him. But Jesus turned to them and said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For the days are surely coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.’ (Luke 23:27-29)
Luke’s View of the Resurrection
Luke’s presentation of the resurrection as something that begins in the present age is also important to his position on marriage:
Indeed they cannot die anymore, for they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection. (Luke 20:36)
Whereas for Mark and Matthew, those who are resurrected will be similar to the angels in that they will not marry and procreate, Luke states that those deemed worthy of resurrection are already immortal, equal to angels (Luke’s choice of vocabulary is quite clear) and sons of God in this present life. The state of resurrection is a spiritual one that begins the moment one joins the Christian community (e.g. through baptism) and commits to celibacy.
The link between angels and asexuality is fairly clear in Judaism. For example, in 1 Enoch 15:6, the Watchers were told:
But you formerly were spiritual, living an eternal, immortal life for all the generations of the world. For this reason I did not arrange wives for you because the dwelling of the spiritual ones is in heaven.
(See Fletcher-Louis, p. 78.) 2 Baruch also describes those who are resurrected as being transformed into angels.
For in the heights of that world shall they dwell,
And they shall be made like unto the angels,
And be made equal to the stars,
And they shall be changed into every form they desire,
From beauty into loveliness,
And from light into the splendor of glory. (2 Bar. 51:10)
Again, the key difference between Luke and Mark/Matthew is that for Luke, the angelic nature of the sons of God is emphasized more strongly, and is evident already in this life. Luke also describes the kingdom of God as a present reality and not just a future one in passages such as Luke 17:20-21:
Once [Jesus] was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”
Luke’s position on marriage and resurrection is by no means unusual. In fact, there were numerous early Christian movements with similar views and practices.
Marriage and Marcionism
The widespread Christian movement founded by Marcion of Sinope possessed the earliest recognizable New Testament canon — ten letters of Paul’s and an early edition of Luke. The Marcionites understood Luke 20:34-36 quite literally, believing celibate asceticism to be the ideal life of a Christian. They discouraged procreation and permitted divorce. According to Tertullian and other early heresiologists, Marcion taught that sex and procreation were for the children of this world and its creator, whereas the sons of the true God did not marry.
Furthermore, Marcionites distinguished between the carnal body and the spiritual body — the type of body the angels had. The held that believers became sons of God upon baptism (cf. Gal. 3:26-29), and that Christ then dwelt inside of them. As a result, Marcionites “emphasized the fact that the life of Christ should be revealed in and through their physical bodies both ethically and ascetically” (Aune, p. 128).
Encratism and the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles
Derived from a Greek term meaning “self-control”, encratism was an early movement that practiced celibacy, abstinence from wine, and vegetarianism. Such asceticism is a theme shared by the various apocryphal Acts of the apostles — which date to the second and third centuries — despite their theological differences. Extant translations of these documents in multiple languages despite later attempts to eradicate them attest to their early popularity.
In the Acts of Paul and Thecla, Paul is accused (accurately, it seems) of teaching that only those who remain chaste will receive the resurrection. The story revolves around Paul and a woman named Thecla who spurns her fiancé to live a life of celibacy alongside the apostle. (Thecla is today regarded as a saint by the Catholic church, and two separate locations are venerated by Christians as her grave.)
A sermon delivered by Paul in verse 5 includes the following admonitions:
Blessed are those who have kept the flesh chaste, for they shall become a temple of God; blessed are the continent, for God shall speak with them; …blessed are those who have wives as not having them, for they shall experience God; blessed are those who have fear of God, for they shall become angels of God.
In one episode in the Acts of John, a young man castrates himself so he live a chaste life in accordance with John’s teaching. Another episode features Drusiana, a woman who chooses to live a life of chastity after converting and convinces her husband to do likewise.
In the Acts of Peter, Peter repeatedly causes concubines and wives to leave their husbands, and he makes his own daughter suffer from crippling paralysis so she will not be sexually desirable to men. As part of a cruel object lesson, he actually heals her and then restores her infirmity in front of an audience!
In the Acts of Andrew, Andrew helps the newly converted Maximilla, wife of a proconsul, to remain pure from her husband’s “foul corruption” and abstain from sex so that she can be united with her “inner man”. To maintain her chastity in the face of her husband’s sexual appetite, Maximilla bribes her maidservant to take her place without her husband’s knowledge in the bed at night — an arrangement the apostle Andrew makes no objection to. Maximilla is then free to spend her nights chastely with Andrew (more on this below).
In his teaching, Andrew describes a life of marriage with intercourse as “a loathsome and unclean life”, and he teaches that “Adam died in Eve [by] consenting to her intercourse”.⁵
In the Acts of Thomas, the apostle Thomas travels to India where he similarly convinces wives to leave their husbands. On one occasion, Jesus himself appears to a couple in their bedroom on their wedding night, to explain that sex is foul and that they should never consummate their marriage.
Of all possible guests at a society wedding, an apocryphal Apostle was the worst. (Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians, p. 646)
Encratism and Other New Testament Passages
Even Matthew, despite his disapproval of divorce, explicitly endorses celibacy. At the end of the divorce pericope, he inserts a discussion with the disciples not found in Mark. It starts with them telling Jesus, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” (Matt. 19:10) Catchpole notes the incongruity here, since “nothing in verses 3-9 contains the slightest hint that avoidance of marriage is the best policy: indeed there is nothing which might give grounds even for misunderstanding.” (p. 95) This statement by the disciples, however, provides a segue for vv. 11-12, in which Jesus encourages a celibate life for anyone who can accept it — including, apparently, self-castration.
The Pauline epistles show a marked preference for celibacy and non-marriage, even if they don’t condemn marriage outright. In the famous passage in 1 Cor. 7, Paul states that widows and the unmarried should remain unmarried unless they lack the self-control to remain celibate (vv. 8-9). He wishes all Christians could be unmarried as he is (v. 7), and again advises unmarried men not to take a wife (v. 27), though the explanation given here seems to be based mainly on practical concerns (v. 28, 32-24).
More interestingly, however, is that Paul appears to approve of the encratite practice of having virgin women cohabit with chaste Christian men — even sleeping together, as Maxmilla does with the apostle Andrew — in order to live righteous lives of abstinence. In 1 Cor. 7:36, Paul advises men to marry their “virgins” if their desire toward them is too strong. But, says Paul, if they can live together without desire, they are well to do so. Modern exegetes, so separated from the context of early Christian encratism, tend to interpret Paul as talking about either fiancées or daughters, but Robin Lane Fox points out that neither of these options are satisfactory.
Paul cannot have advised fathers to marry their own daughters, nor is he obviously proposing a prolonged sexless “betrothal” between a good Christian and “his” virgin fiancée which was to last for life: “his virgin” is an odd phrase for a fiancée, and there was no reason why such a couple could not have declared a spiritual marriage, formed by their mutual consent. The older view is more likely, that the “virgins” are Christian girls whom Christian men had taken into their households. Perhaps, like Ignatius, Paul was alluding to “virgin widows,” cohabitants for the mutual care which Tertullian commended. Widows needed this care, if they were aiming to be good widows and not remarry. It is, however, possible that virgin girls were also included in his category and that Paul, looking to the end of the world, approved a relationship which subsequent councils condemned. (pp. 669-670)
Revelation also shows an interest in celibacy. According to Rev. 14, the Lamb is accompanied by 144,000 male virgins “who have not defiled themselves with women” and are the first humans to be redeemed, though the exact meaning of the passage is disputed, and some find the apparent misogyny offensive.
Luke and Syrian Asceticism
Celibacy was a major element of Syrian asceticism in the early centuries of Christianity, and Luke’s gospel was favoured for that reason (Seim, Asceticism, 115). Tatian, a second-century theologian from Syria, went so far as to forbid all marriage procreation outright, and the early Syrian church apparently required absolute abstinence as a requirement for receiving baptism (Brock, p. 7; Frend, p. 19). Baptism, of course, conferred salvation and a place in the kingdom of God.
It is no coincidence that the aforementioned Acts of Thomas were a product of the Syrian church, and that Marcionism was widespread in Syria.
The Gospel of Thomas
Another Thomasine document that appears to teach encratism is the Gospel of Thomas, an early non-canonical Gospel. It teaches the necessity of reaching a childlike state of asexuality (e.g. Thomas 37), like the state of Adam before the Fall (Thomas 85). For Thomas, the Fall corrupted the perfect human being — Adam, an androgynous being created both “male and female” (Gen. 1:27) — and split him into two sexes, an idea also found in Philo and other Jewish writers. Salvation is achieved by reversing this process. (Richardson, p. 75; Pagels, p. 480.)
On the day when you were one, you became two. (Thomas 11)
When you make the two into one…so that the male will not be male nor the female be female…then you will enter [the Father’s kingdom]. (Thomas 22)
Thomas’s understanding of salvation also has an angelomorphic element, like Luke’s. Several obscure logia seem to imply that humans have an angelic double in the heavenly realm, and one must strive to be united with that image, the “image that came into being before you” (Thomas 84). This is like the belief in an angelic double seen in Acts 12:15 — the story in which Peter escapes from jail, and the other believers assume that since he must be dead, it is “his angel” that has come knocking at the door.
In short, by linking celibacy to the resurrection and angelic immortality, Luke is promoting a widespread early Christian doctrine that influenced a wide variety of sects and religious literature.
The Bible and Modern “Biblical” Sexual Ethics
I’d like to briefly consider what effect, if any, passages like Luke 20:34-36 should have on modern Christian doctrine.
It is commonly taught from the pulpit that something called “biblical” sexual morality exists — in other words, that the Bible universally teaches a rigid code of sexual behaviour that includes a strict definition of marriage and a prohibition against all extramarital sex. Prominent evangelical theologian Wayne Grudem, in a recent tome on systematic theology, endorses the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture — meaning, for example, that “it is possible to find all the biblical passages that are directly relevant to the matters of marriage and divorce” (a specific example of Grudem’s) and thereby find out “what God requires us to think or to do in these areas” (p. 100).
One doesn’t have to read much of the Old Testament to have such illusions shattered. There are numerous stories of male heroes who have multiple wives and concubines (sometimes in the hundreds), who sleep with prostitutes, and who otherwise conduct themselves in a manner we would fine deplorable — without any condemnation from the text. Virginity is treated primarily as a property matter, and premarital sex is never prohibited by the Old Testament.⁶ In fact, the Song of Songs seems to celebrate it!⁷ Some laws, like levirate marriage and the prohibition on a widow remarrying a man she previously divorced, are simply too culturally bound for the modern Christian to even comprehend. Needless to say, no pastor has ever instructed the men in his congregation to have sexual congress with the wives of their deceased brothers because the Bible said so.
More often, church leaders quote from the New Testament to support their doctrines on marriage and divorce, but even here, they are inconsistent. Often, the same Protestant churches that close their doors to gay couples on the basis of Jesus’ appeal to Genesis 2:24 (“a man shall leave his parents and cleave to his wife”) welcome divorcees despite Jesus’ condemnation of divorce in the very same Synoptic passages.⁸ Churches with stricter views of divorce still exploit the adultery loophole in Matthew’s version of the divorce pericope, even though Mark’s blanket prohibition is certainly more original. Southern Baptist theologian Dan Heimbach, in a book on biblical sexual standards endorsed by Grudem, harmonizes Mark and Matthew in order to assert that “all evangelicals agree that God … allows some sort of exception [to the prohibition of divorce].” Yet when he tries figuring out just what Matthew’s exception of porneia can include and when divorce can be initiated, he finds himself in a morass of biblically defensible yet incompatible positions (pp. 203ff). The sufficiency of Scripture seems to have failed him.
Note the complete lack of attention given to Luke’s own distinctive view of marriage. Luke’s apparent endorsement of celibacy (not merely as an ethical ideal, but as a requirement for salvation!) surely must be addressed by any serious analysis of biblical ethics — even if just to dispute or debunk it — yet none of the examples I looked at did so. Heimbach’s book completely ignores the Lucan version of the resurrection question and Luke’s tacit approval of divorce. An even more comprehensive work on Christian sexual ethics by Köstenberger (also endorsed by Grudem) makes nary a mention of Luke’s views in its analysis, focusing instead on NT passages with positive views of marriage and what the conditions for permitting divorce according to Matthew are (pp. 227ff).⁹ Interestingly, Köstenberger does mention Luke’s lack of a divorce exception, but fails to divulge that Luke lacks the divorce prohibition entirely! (p. 236) He repeatedly implies, incorrectly, that both Mark and Luke give absolute prohibitions of divorce (pp. 242, 244) — a truly remarkable case of reading the text through one’s own theology. In the summary his chapter on divorce and remarriage, he summarizes four different views held by evangelical theologians — all based on compromises between Mark, Matthew, and the Pauline epistles, and none based on the actual views of Luke discussed above.
In online religious forums, I often see frank admission by more progressive Christians that their own views on sexuality (including gay marriage, extramarital sex, and divorce) do not accord with the Bible, while more conservative Christians with similar ethics will try reinterpreting the Bible to obtain justification for their views. I suspect that if such Christians took a closer look at the diversity of views endorsed by the Bible and practiced in early Christianity — including practices we would find difficult or distasteful — they would abandon the pretense of strict adherence to the Bible. They might even deal more graciously with those whose views differ.
¹ A note on the phrase “neither marry nor are given in marriage: “marry”, literally take a wife, describes marriage from the man’s perspective, while being “given in marriage” [i.e. by herself or by her parents] describes it from the woman’s perspective.
² A cursory check of a few commentaries shows that Stein (New American Commentary, 1992), Bock (NIV Application Commentary, 2009), Morris (Tynedale New Testament Commentary, 1988), Tannehill (Abingdon New Testament Commentary, 1996), Gundry (2011), Evans (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series, 2011), and Parsons (Paideia, 2015), among others, make no note of how Luke has reworded this passage and what its interpretational implications are. They all assume that Luke simply means to repeat what Mark and Matthew say.
³ Matthew has another version of this saying in 5:31-32 that is more difficult to interpret, and its context more closely parallels that of Luke’s version.
⁴ If Luke were being consistent in his use of Mark and Q (or Matthew, under the Farrer Hypothesis), he would have included the pericope on divorce somewhere in chapter 18 prior to verse 15. Instead, he inserts two uniquely Lucan parables at that point.
⁵ According to patristic writers, denying the salvation of Adam was commonly taught by those who also taught celibacy.
⁶ As noted in The Bible Now by Friedman and Dolansky, only the high priest of Israel was required to marry a virgin.
⁷ As David Clines wryly notes, “the lovers [in the Song of Songs] are surely not married, for otherwise she would not be living in her mother’s house and they would not be having to make excursions to the countryside for al fresco sex; on the other hand, if they are not having sex, what for goodness’ sake are they having? (“Reading the Song of Songs as a Classic”, A Critical Engagement, p. 128)
⁸ Not surprising, since divorce rates among American evangelicals are apparently as high or higher than those of the general population.
⁹ Köstenberger, who appears to have some knowledge of academic biblical studies, admits that the porneia exception might be a Matthean addition and not go back to Jesus; yet he insists that “even if this were the case, …the ‘exception clause’ would still be part of inerrant, inspired Scripture and thus authoritative for Christians today.” One wonders what view of biblical inspiration allows authors to falsely attribute teachings to Jesus, yet still holds the text to be “inerrant’.
Aune, David E., “Luke 20:34-36: A ‘Gnosticized’ Logion of Jesus?”, Jesus, Gospel Tradition and Paul in the Context of Jewish and Greco-Roman Antiquity: Collected Essays II (WUNT.1 303), 2013.
David R. Catchpole, “The Synoptic Divorce Material as a Traditio-Historical Problem”
Turid Karlsen Seim, “Children of the Resurrection: Perspectives on Angelic Asceticism in Luke-Acts”, Asceticism and the New Testament, 1999.
Crispin H. T. Fletcher-Louis, Luke-Acts: Angels, Christology and Soteriology, 1997.
Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians, 1987.
S.P. Brock, “Early Syrian asceticism”, Numen 20/1 (Apr 1973), pp 1-19.
Frend, “The Gospel of Thomas: Is Rehabilitation Possible?”, JTS n.s. 18/1 (Apr 1967).
Cyril C. Richardson, “The Gospel of Thomas: Gnostic or Encratite?”, The Heritage of the Early Church, 1973.
Elaine H. Pagels, “Exegesis of Genesis 1 in the Gospels of Thomas and John”, JBL 118/3 (Autumn 1999).
Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Bible Doctrine, Zondervan, 1994.
Dan Heimbach, True Sexual Morality: Recovering Biblical Standards for a Culture in Crisis, Crossway Books, 2004.
Andreas J. Köstenberger, God, Marriage, and Family: Rebuilding the Biblical Foundation, Crossway Books, 2004.