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Did Jesus really mean to found a Church?

The preaching of Jesus was directed in the first place to Israel, as he himself said to his followers: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 15:24). But from the beginning of his active life he invited everyone to conversion: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).

However, this call to personal conversion was not conceived in an individualistic context; rather, he was continually looking to reunite a scattered humanity into the People of God whom he had come to save.

Open to all of humanity, Jesus intended to reunite the people of the Covenant. A clear sign, in fulfilment of the promises made to his people, is the institution of the Twelve apostles, with Peter at the head.

“The names of the twelve apostles are these: first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him” (Matt 10:2-4; cf Mark 3:13-16; Luke 6:12-16). 

The number 12 is a reference to the twelve tribes of Israel. It shows the significance of this initiative to gather together the holy people of God, theekklesia Theou. They are the foundations of the new Jerusalem.

A new sign of this intention of Jesus is that during the Last Supper he entrusted to them the power to celebrate the Eucharist, which he instituted on that occasion (see the question, What went on at the last supper?). In this way he transmitted to the whole Church, in the person of those Twelve who were at her head, the responsibility of being a sign and instrument of the meeting begun by Him, which is to be offered up to the end times. 

His self-giving on the cross, anticipated sacramentally in this supper, and made present every time the Church celebrates the Eucharist, creates a community united in communion with Him, a Church called to be sign and instrument of the task begun by Him.

The Church is born, then, with the complete self-giving of Christ for our salvation, anticipated in the institution of the Eucharist and consummated on the Cross.

The Twelve apostles are the most evident sign of the will of Jesus as regards the existence and mission of his Church, the guarantee that between Christ and the Church there is no opposition.

They are inseparable, despite the sins of the people who make up the Church.

The apostles were aware that their mission had to be perpetuated, because this was what they had been told by Jesus. 

So they made it their concern to find successors. Their aim was that the mission entrusted to them should continue after their death, as witnessed in the book of the Acts of the Apostles.

Through their apostolic ministry they left behind them a structured community, under the guidance of recognised pastors, who built and sustained it in communion with Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, in which all people are called to experience the salvation offered by the Father.

In St Paul’s letters, the members of the Church are considered as “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the chief cornerstone.” (Eph 2:19-20).

It is not possible to meet Jesus without the reality which He created and in which he is communicated. 

Between Jesus and his Church there is a profound continuity, inseparable and mysterious, and through which Christ is made present today in his people.

Fracisco Varo


What was the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene?

It is clear from the Gospels that Mary Magdalene had a great love for Jesus. She had been freed by him from possession by seven devils, had followed him as a disciple, ministering to him from her means (Luke 8:2-3), and had been with Mary, the Mother of Jesus and the other women when Jesus was crucified (Mark 15:40-41). She was, according to the Gospels, the first person to whom Jesus appeared after the resurrection, after searching for him tearfully (John 20:11-18). Hence the veneration which the Church has had for her as a witness to the risen Christ. (See: “Who was Mary Magdalene?”). From these Gospel passages one cannot conclude that she was a sinner, and much less that she was the wife of Jesus.

Those who claim that she was the wife of Jesus rely on some apocryphal gospels. All of them, with the possible exception of part of the Gospel of Thomas, were written after the canonical Gospels and are not historical in character, but were written to transmit Gnostic teachings. According to these works, which are not properly speaking Gospels but rather writings that contain what are said to be secret revelations of Jesus to his disciples after the resurrection, Mariam (or Marianne or Mariham – the name Magdalene does not appear except in a few books) was the one who best understood those revelations. That is why she is Jesus’ favourite disciple and receives from him a special revelation.

The opposition which she faces from the apostles because she is a woman (according to some of these writings: The Gospel of Thomas, Dialogues of the Saviour, Pistis Sophia, The Gospel of Mary) reflects the negative attitude of some of the gnostics to the feminine and to Mary as an important disciple. Nevertheless, some people like to see this opposition as a reflection of the attitude of the official Church at the time, against the spiritual leadership of women as proposed by those groups. None of this is demonstrable. 

This opposition is more likely to have been a conflict of doctrines: Peter and the other apostles confronting the ideas that these gnostic groups were putting forward in the name of Mariam. In any case, having recourse to Mary was a way of justifying their gnostic ideas.

In other apocryphal gospels, especially the Gospel of Philip, Marian (this time she is also cited with her name of origin, Magalene) is a model of gnosticism, precisely because of her femininity. She is the spiritual symbol of discipleship of Christ and of perfect union with him. In this context they speak of a kiss between Jesus and Mary (if the text is really to be understood in that way), symbolising that union, since through that kiss, which was a kind of sacrament superior to baptism and to the eucharist, the gnostic engendered himself as a gnostic. The whole tone of these writings is quite foreign to any kind of sexual implications. 

If, according to the gospel of Judas, Jesus himself orders the apostle to betray him, it is because, by dying, the divine spirit which was in him would finally be able to liberate itself from involvement of the flesh and re-ascend to heaven. Marriage oriented to births is to be avoided; woman will be saved only if the "feminine principle" (thelus) personified by her, is transformed into the masculine principle, that is, if she ceases to be woman.

No serious scholar takes these Gnostic texts as historical evidence of a sexual relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. It is very sad that that accusation, which has no historical foundation – not even the Christians of that time found themselves having to defend themselves against it – should resurface every now and again as though it were a great novelty.

The huge misunderstanding is the fact that these writings are used to make them say exactly the opposite of what they intended. The Gnostic vision – a mixture of Platonic dualism and Eastern doctrines, cloaked in biblical ideas – holds that the material world is an illusion, the work of the God of the Old Testament, who is an evil god, or at least inferior; Christ did not die on the cross, because he never assumed, except in appearance, a human body, the latter being unworthy of God (Docetism). The strange thing is that today there are those who believe they see in these writings the exaltation of the feminine principle, of sexuality, of the full and uninhibited enjoyment of this material world!

Juan Chapa


Who was Mary Magdalene?

The Gospels do not tell us very much about Mary Magdalene. She was one of a group of women who followed Jesus and who provided for him out of their means (Luke 8:2).

She was a woman called Mary who came from Migdal Nunaya, Tariquaea in Greek, a small town on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, some 3 miles north of Tiberias.

Jesus had expelled seven demons from her (Luke 8:2; Mark 16:9), which is the same as saying “all the demons”. This could mean possession by the devil, but it could also mean a bodily or spiritual sickness.

The synoptic Gospels mention her as being the first of a group of women who observed the crucifixion of Jesus from a distance (Mark 15:40-41) and who were sitting opposite the tomb (Matt 27:61) when they were burying Jesus (Mark 15:47). They tell us that very early in the morning on the day after the sabbath Mary Magdalene and other women returned to the tomb to anoint the body with spices which they had bought (Mark 16:1-7). Then an angel informs them that Jesus has risen, and instructs them to go and tell the disciples.

Saint John gives us the same information with slight variations. Mary Magdalene is beside the Virgin Mary at the foot of the cross (John 19:25). Early on the day after the sabbath, while it was still dark, she comes to the tomb, sees that the stone has been taken away and goes to tell Peter, thinking that someone has stolen the body of Jesus (John 20:1-2). She returns to the tomb and is weeping there when she meets Jesus who tells her to announce to his disciples that he is to ascend to his Father (John 20:11-18). That is her glory.

That is why the tradition of the Church in the East has called her “isapostolos” (equal to or equivalent to an apostle), and the Church in the West “apostola apostolorum” (apostle of apostles). There is a tradition in the East that she was buried in Ephesus and that her relics were taken to Constantinople in the 9th century.

Mary Magdalene has often been identified with other women in the Gospels.

From the 6th and 7th centuries in the Latin Church they tended to identify Mary Magdalene as the sinful woman who, in the house of Simon the Pharisee, bathed the feet of Jesus with her tears (Luke 7:36-50).

Some Fathers of the Church and ecclesiastical writers, harmonising the Gospels, had already identified that sinful woman as Mary, the sister of Lazarus, who, in Bethany anoints the head of Jesus with perfume (John 12:1-11). Matthew and Mark do not mention the name of Mary, but just say that it was a woman, and that the anointing took place in the house of Simon the leper (Mt 26, 6-13).

As a result, due largely to Saint Gregory the Great, in the West the idea spread that the three women were all the same person. However, nothing in the Gospels indicates that Mary Magdalene is the same person as the Mary who anoints Jesus in Bethany, because it seems that the latter is the sister of Lazarus (John 12:2-3). Nor can one conclude that she is the sinner who according to Saint Luke bathed Jesus’ feet with her tears. In this case, however, the identification is understandable since Saint Luke, immediately after the account of Jesus forgiving this woman, says that Jesus was helped by some women, among whom was Mary Magdalene from whom he had expelled seven demons (Luke 8:2).

Furthermore, Jesus praises the love of the sinful woman: “Her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much” (Luke 7:47), and we also discern great love in the encounter which Mary has with Jesus after the resurrection (John 20:14-18). In any case, even if it were the same woman, her sinful past is not a dishonour. Peter was unfaithful to Jesus, and Paul was a persecutor of Christians. Her greatness lies not in her being impeccable, but in her love.

Because of her prominent role in the Gospel she received special attention from some fringe groups of the primitive Church. These were basically Gnostic sects whose writings gathered together secret revelations of Jesus after the resurrection and made use of the figure of Mary for transmitting his ideas. They are stories that have no historical foundation. 

Fathers of the Church, ecclesiastical writers and other works highlight the role of Mary as a disciple of the Lord and proclaimer of the Gospel. From the 10th century onwards some fictitious stories appeared which exalted her and which spread mainly in France. It is there that the legend grew up, which has no historical foundation, that Mary Magdalene, Lazarus and some others, when the persecution of the Christians began, went from Jerusalem to Marseille and evangelised Provence. According to this legend Mary died in Aix-en-Provence or Saint Maximin and her relics were taken to Vezelay.

Juan Chapa


What are the canonical and the apocryphal gospels? How many are there?

The canonical gospels are the ones which the Church has recognised as divinely inspired and which faithfully hand on the apostolic tradition. There are four, and only four: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. 

At the end of the second century we find this stated explicitly by St Irenaeus of Lyon (“Against the Heresies”, 3, 11, 8-9). The Church has always maintained this, eventually proposing it as a dogma of faith when defining the canon of Holy Scripture at the Council of Trent (1545-1563).

The composition of these gospels is rooted in what the apostles saw and heard in Jesus’ company and in his appearances to them after his resurrection. 

In fulfilment of the Lord’s command, the apostles immediately began to preach the good news (or gospel) about him and the salvation he brought mankind. Small Christian communities began to spring up in Palestine and in other places (Antioch, the cities of Asia Minor, Rome, etc.)

In these communities the tradition took the form of accounts or teachings about Jesus, always under the guidance of the apostles who had witnessed them. At a third stage these traditions were written down and put together to form a sort of biography of Jesus, giving rise to the gospels for the use of the communities for whom they were intended. 

The first gospel seems to have been that of Mark, or perhaps a Hebrew or Aramaic version of Matthew somewhat shorter than the one we actually have; the other three imitated its general style. In doing this, each evangelist chose some things from among the many which were handed on, synthesised others, and tailored it all for the benefit of his immediate readers.

That the four were regarded as apostolic is seen by the fact that they were received and handed on as written by the apostles themselves or their immediate disciples – Mark being the disciple of St Peter, and Luke of St Paul.

The apocryphal gospels are those which the Church did not accept as part of the genuine apostolic tradition, even though they themselves claim to have been written by one of the apostles.

They began to circulate quite early on – they are already referred to in the second half of the second century. They did not have the apostolic guarantee of the four recognised gospels; and moreover many of them contain ideas which are at variance with the apostolic tradition.

“Apocryphal” originally meant “secret”, in the sense that they were written for a special group of initiates who circulated them among themselves. Later it came to mean spurious and even heretical.

With the passage of time the number of apocryphal writings grew, mainly to fill in details of Jesus’ life which were not provided by the canonical gospels (for example, the apocryphal infancy gospels), and also to place under the name of an apostle teachings which were at variance with common Church tradition (for example, the gospel of Thomas).

Based on information gleaned from the Fathers of the Church, on extant apocrypha themselves, or manuscript references, the number of apocryphal gospels is known to be in excess of fifty. Origen of Alexandria (+ 245) wrote: “The Church has four gospels, the heretics many”.

Gonzalo Aranda


How were the first gospels written?

The Church unhesitatingly asserts that the four canonical gospels “faithfully hand on what Jesus Christ, while living among men, really did and taught” (Vatican Council II, Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum, 19).

These four gospels “are of apostolic origin. For what the Apostles preached in fulfilment of the commission of Christ, afterwards they themselves and apostolic men, under the inspiration of the divine Spirit, handed on to us in writing: the foundation of faith” (ibid, 18).

Ancient Christian writers explained how the evangelists did this work. St Irenaeus, for example, says: “Matthew published among the Hebrews, in their own tongue, a written form of the gospel, while Peter and Paul preached the gospel in Rome and founded the Church. It was after his departure that Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, also transmitted in writing what Peter preached. Luke, Paul’s companion, also wrote in a book what Paul preached. Then John, our Lord’s disciple, the same one who laid his face on his breast (John 13:23), also published the gospel while living in Ephesus” (Against heresies III, 1,1).

Similar commentaries can be found in Papias of Hierapolis or Clement of Alexandria (cf Eusebius of Caesarea, Ecclesiastical History, 3, 39,15:6, 14, 5-7): the gospels were written by the apostles (Matthew and John) or by disciples of the apostles (Mark and Luke), but always having collected the preaching of the gospel from the apostles.

Modern exegesis, with the help of a detailed study of the gospel texts, has explained in a minor way, this process.

Our Lord Jesus Christ sent us his disciples not to write but to preach the gospel.

The Apostles and the apostolic communities did so, and, to facilitate the work of evangelisation, they put in writing part of this teaching.

Finally, in the moment when the apostles and others in their generation started to disappear, “The sacred authors wrote the four Gospels, selecting some things from the many which had been handed on by word of mouth or in writing, reducing some of them to a synthesis, explaining some things in view of the situation of their churches” (Dei Verbum, 19).

Therefore, it can be said that the four gospels are faithful to the Apostles’ preaching about Jesus and also that their preaching is faithful to what Jesus said and did. This is the way we can say that the gospels are faithful to Jesus.

The names that the ancient Christian writings give to these texts – “Recollections of the Apostles”, “Commentaries, Words about Our Lord” (cf St Justine, Apology, 1,66; Dialogue with Trifon, 100) – lean towards this meaning.

With these gospel writings we have access to what the Apostles preached about Jesus Christ.

Vicente Balaguer


Was Jesus single, married or widower?

The facts preserved in the Gospels tell us that Jesus carried out his artisan job in Nazareth (Mark 6.3). When He was some thirty years old, He began his public ministry (Luke 3:23). During this time of ministry, there were some women who followed Him (Luke 8:2-3) and others with whom He was acquainted (Luke 10:38-42). Although at no time are we told that he lived a celibate life or was married or became a widower, the Gospels refer to his family, to his mother, to his brothers and sisters, but never to His “wife”. This silence is eloquent. 

Jesus was known as the “son of Joseph” (Luke 23:4.22, John 2:45; 6.42) and, when the people in Nazareth are surprised by his teaching they exclaim: “Is this not the carpenter Mary’s son, and brother of James and Joseph and of Judas and Simon? And his sisters, do they not live here among us?” (Luke 6.3). 

In no place is reference made to Jesus having or having had a wife. Tradition has never spoken of Jesus’ possible marriage. And it has not done so simply because it considered the reality of marriage insulting for someone like Jesus (who, incidentally, restored marriage to its original dignity, Matt 19:1-12) or because it is incompatible with the faith in Christ’s divinity. 

Instead, tradition simply abided by historical reality. If there was a desire to silence aspects that could be compromising for the faith of the Church, why did it transmit the baptism of Jesus at the hands of John the Baptist who administered a baptism for the remission of sins? If the primitive Church had wanted to silence Jesus’ marriage, why didn’t it silence the presence of certain women among the people who were working with Him?

In spite of all of this, views maintaining that Jesus was married have continued to exist. This has been so, because of the practice and doctrine common among rabbis of the 1st Century A.D. (See "What was the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalen?" for information about Jesus’ supposed marriage to her).

As Jesus was a rabbi and celibacy was inconceivable among rabbis at the time, it is assumed that He had to be married. (There were exceptions, like Rabbi Simon ben Azzai, who when accused of remaining single, said: “My soul is in love of the Torah. Others can take care of the world”, Talmud of Babylon. B Yeb. 63d). 

It is because of this that some affirm that Jesus, like any pious Jew, would have been married when he was twenty and then would have abandoned His wife and children in order to carry out His mission. 

The answer to this objection is twofold:

1. There is evidence that among the Jews of the 1st Century celibacy was practised.

  – Flavius Josephus, Filon, and Phynius the Old, tell us that there were Essenes who practised celibacy, and we know that some from Qumran were celibate.

  – Filon points out that the “therapists”, a group of ascetics from Egypt, led celibate lives.

  – Also, in the tradition of Israel, some famous people such as Jeremiah, were celibate. Similarly, Moses, according to the rabbinical tradition, lived sexual abstinence in order to maintain a close relationship with God.

  – John the Baptist never married.

  – Though celibacy was not very common, it was not something unheard of.

2. Even if nobody lived celibacy in Israel, we would not have to assume therefore that Jesus was married.

  – The evidence shows that He wanted to remain celibate and there are many reasons that make this option commendable and fitting, precisely because being celibate underlines Jesus’ uniqueness in relation to the Judaism of his time.

  – Also it is more in accord with his mission. It is obvious that without devaluing marriage, or demanding celibacy from his followers, the cause of the Kingdom of God (Matt 19:12), the love for God that he embodies, are above everything else. Jesus wanted to be celibate in order to convey better that very love.

Juan Chapa


Did St. Joseph marry a second time?

According to St Matthew, when Mary virginally conceived Jesus, she was betrothed to St Joseph, and they were yet living together (Matt 1:18). This happened during the time within the betrothal period which, among the Jews, involved such a strong and true commitment that the engaged couple were referred to as spouses. So strong a commitment indeed, that it could only be annulled by rejection.

From St Matthew’s Gospel, it is clear that the angel appeared to Joseph to explain that Mary has conceived a child by the Holy Spirit (Matt 1:20); and only then did Mary and Joseph marry and live together. The next few passages of this Gospel confirm this: Mary and Joseph share the escape into Egypt, settle later in Nazareth, and afterwards, they find Jesus among the doctors of the Law, in the Temple of Jerusalem (Luke 2:41-45).

Furthermore, when St Luke describes the annunciation, he refers to Mary as “a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the House of David”. According to the Gospels, then, St Joseph was indeed married to the Most Holy Virgin Mary. That is certainly the only conclusion truly reflected in the historical tradition documented in the Gospels.

Nevertheless, whether this was St Joseph’s first or second marriage, or whether St Joseph was just an old widower who only took care of Mary, can only be part of speculative legends with no historical guarantee of authenticity.

The first mention in these legends is found in the “Proto-gospel according to James”, from the 2nd century. This text tells us that Mary stayed in the Temple since she was three; and when she turned twelve, the priests searched for someone who could take care of her. The priests convened the widowers of the town, and when an extraordinary sign happened to Joseph’s staff – a dove appeared from it – they handed custody of Our Lady to Joseph. According to this legend, Joseph didn’t take Mary as his spouse: when the angel appeared in Joseph’s dreams, he does not say, as he did in Matthew’s gospel, “Do not fear to take Mary  your wife”. Instead, the angel only says, “Be not afraid for this maiden” (XIV, 2).

Other later apocrypha, known as the “pseudo-Matthew”, perhaps from the 6th century, elaborates this story accepting that the priests said to Joseph: “to no other can she be joined in marriage” (VIII, 4), although it only refers to St Joseph as Mary’s custodian.

 The fact that Mary was indeed betrothed to Joseph is, on the other hand, accepted in various other texts: in the “Book of Mary’s Nativity” – a summary of the “pseudo-Matthew” apocrypha and also in the “Story of Joseph, the carpenter” (IV, 4-5).

This diversity and lack of consensus confirm that there is not enough evidence to say that St Joseph was married before knowing Mary.

It seems more logical to believe that Joseph was a young man when he betrothed to the Most Holy Virgin Mary, and that it was that his only marriage.

Juan Chapa

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