Last week I presented what I have been able to find about the 1886 French volume The Gospels without God by the socialist politician Louis Martin, apparently the first modern text to claim that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married with children. I have not yet obtained a copy of the book itself, but in researching it I learned that some early Mormons alleged that Jesus had multiple wives, essentially all of the women mentioned in the Gospels, as evidence for why they too should have many wives. The funny thing is that they claim this based on an ancient text that doesn’t say any such thing.
The standard form of the claim appears in Elder Jedediah M. Grant’s August 7, 1853 discourse on “Uniformity” delivered at Salt Lake City:
What does old Celsus say, who was a physician in, the first century, whose medical works are esteemed very highly at the present time. His works on theology were burned with fire by the Catholics, they were so shocked at what they called their impiety. Celsus was a heathen philosopher; and what does he say upon the subject of Christ and his Apostles, and their belief? He says, “The grand reason why the Gentiles and philosophers of his school persecuted Jesus Christ, was, because he had so many wives; there were Elizabeth, and Mary, and a host of others that followed him.” After Jesus went from the stage of action, the Apostles followed the example of their master. For instance, John the beloved disciple, writes in his second Epistle,” Unto the elect lady and her children, whom I love in the truth.” Again, he says, “Having many things to write unto you (or communicate), I would not write with paper and ink: but I trust to come unto you, and speak face to face, that our joy may be full.” Again--“The children of thy elect sister greet thee.” This ancient philosopher says they were both John’s wives. Paul says, “ Mine answer to them that do examine me is this:— . . . Have we not power to lead about a sister, a wife, as well as other apostles, and as the brethren of the Lord, and Cephas.” He, according to Celsus, had a numerous train of wives.
The Celsus in question was the pagan philosopher who wrote a condemnation of Christianity called The True Word that caught the attention of Origen. The latter wrote a treatise, the Contra Celsum, seven decades later rebutting Celsus point for point, and that is how we know anything at all about the lost work of Celsus. It seems that Grant conflated this Celsus, a Greek or Roman philosopher who lived in the second century CE, with Aulus Cornelius Celsus, a Roman writer on medicine, who lived in the first century CE.
But the text we are presented with is actually a transcript of extemporaneous remarks, and the lines are apparently meant as only an approximate quotation. The trouble is that Origen doesn’t attribute anything similar to Celsus whatsoever. Grant either made the whole thing up or grossly misremembered Origen’s discussion in 3.10 of how women threw aside propriety and followed Jesus into the desert.
Two months later, the Mormon leader Orson Pratt tried a different tack on behalf of polygamy and argued that Jesus was the figure in Psalm 45 who was getting married, and claimed that anytime Jesus referenced a bridegroom it referred literally to one of his many marriages.
Francis Michael Darter tried to save the claim that Celsus was on the Mormons’ side in his sermons on “Celestial Marriage,” but he did so at the cost of truth. He, too, misidentified Celsus as the Roman medical writer, and he alleged that the reason that the texts were unavailable is that the Catholic Church had burned them all in order to prevent Christians from learning the truth about Jesus’ polygamy! But by the time Darter made these claims, the Mormons had already renounced polygamy at U.S. government insistence, and Darter was expelled from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
The false quotation Grant gave still turns up from time to time in modern books among people who never consulted the original.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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