For as long as I’ve been a believer I’ve always thought Jesus was single by choice. It’s not a studied conclusion, it was always just an assumption I held. In David Instone-Brewer’s book The Jesus Scandals he suggests that Jesus was an ineligible bachelor. What made Jesus ineligible? Quite simply it was the circumstances surrounding his birth. Instone-Brewer writes that
“Girls were mostly married by the age of twelve, and if a man wasn’t married by the age of twenty the gossips started comparing notes and looking for a reason. Girls were married early because when they reached the age of twelve and a half they became entitled to refuse the husband their parents had arranged for them. Men had a little longer to make up their minds about who they would marry, but people soon grew suspicious. . . . So why was Jesus still single at the age of thirty? It was clear to all who knew him. No one would let his daughter marry someone of questionable parentage since, if there was any irregularity in their birth, it could cast doubt on the legitimacy of their children for ten generations. And Jesus’ birth, as everyone knew, was very irregular.” (23)
He notes that in “the ancient Jewish literature of the time we can read about hundreds of individuals, but there is only one instance of an unmarried man–a studious rabbi named Simon ben Azzi.” (22) The common practice was for Jewish men to marry. There can be no doubt that Jesus’ birth was probably a much-rumored affair. Earlier in the book Instone-Brewer observes the common practice during the time of Christ was for Jews to take on the name of their father as their surname (e.g., “James son of Zebedee” and “James son of Alphaeus” see Matthew 10:2-4). All through the New Testament, however, Jesus is known as the son of Mary. “Significantly, there are no other instances in ancient literature of a Jew who was named, like Jesus, after his mother.” (16-17) Combine these two observations and it would appear that Jesus was an ineligible bachelor.
The case is not air tight because there is no evidence of Joseph and Mary seeking a wife for Jesus. But why would they? They certainly knew what they would be up against so why bother going through the numerous rejections they would certainly encounter. Instone-Brewer notes that Jesus said that there were eunuchs who chose that lifestyle for the sake of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:12). In this way Jesus implied there was “nothing impious or second-rate about being single.” (25) Instone-Brewer concludes the chapter with some astute observations:
“Jesus’ introduction of a third group of eunuchs–those who volunteered to remain single–showed that the law to ‘go and multiply’ didn’t apply to everyone because singleness could be just as beneficial for the Kingdom. Today single people play important roles in churches and Christian organizations, but in first-century Judaism, singleness was potentially scandalous and a bar from any leadership. Paradoxically, some churches today still tend to stigmatize singleness by focusing on marriage and children.
“Living in a world where ‘virgin’ is an abusive or comic label can be a heavy burden for many single Christians. For most of them, of course, the stigma is far less of an issue than the desire for the love and intimacy of a marriage. Jesus suffered alongside them as a single person every day. Admired by many for his teaching and miracles, he also faced the whispers which kept spreading the scandal of his irregular birth. It was a stigma he embraced in order to suffer with us and bring all of humanity back to God.” (25-26)