It does seem to us at times that there is a misty line between reality and fantasy, and this line becomes increasingly indistinct as time goes by. The reality of the life and career of Julius Caesar sometimes cross that line, as we wonder about the fabulous man who combined a military career that crossed into the realm of genius with the love life that defies belief: lover of Cleopatra and father of her first child.
Yet Julius Caesar truly did exist, he really was assassinated in the Roman Forum, and the actual site of his cremation is still adorned with floral tributes from present-day Romans. You can see them if you can manage to get permission to view that particular site, which is normally off-limits to tourists, and if you do you will see a few bouquets that have been left in tribute to his memory.
And so in that same time period, the tales that are told about other historical figures can cross the line into legend. Such is the background of those who insist that there must be some official historical record (duly recorded by the notaries public of their day) that attest to the birth of Jesus, or a death certificate filed in a stack of scrolls somewhere in Jerusalem. If those historical records can't be found, the reasoning goes, they don't exist and therefore we can throw legitimate doubt on whether Jesus actually existed at all.
The same thing is going on right now in a hotter theological/historical debate: whether or not Jesus was married, and if his wife was the woman we call Mary Magdalene. Those who interpret Scripture to portray Jesus as a bachelor are in a quandary: Scripture neither says that Jesus was married, nor that he was not married. There are a few references to events that suggest that there was "a wedding in Cana" over which his mother Mary seemed to be in charge. Why? Whose wedding was it? Why does Scripture refer to it as "the wedding" as if everyone knew whose wedding it was? Actually, we don't know. The people who want to suggest that it was Jesus' wedding are not stretching credibility beyond its limits, but we really don't know.
The idea of Jesus as a celibate came from equally credible sources. The first is the belief (on the part of some) that during the "lost years" of his young adulthood he was a resident of the Essene community of Jewish recluses who lived in seclusion. That would explain why there is no mention of his activities between the story about him visiting Jerusalem at the age of 10 and his emergence as a follower of John the Baptist when he was about 33 years old.
It is one credible explanation. But it is not the only credible explanation; by the application of Occam's Razor, the most simple explanation is the one that is probably true. That explanation would be that Jesus was simply living in Nazareth, working as a laborer (perhaps in partnership with Joseph) and carrying on a life similar to everyone else there. However, as the archaeologists say, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Those very historical records, or something like them, may just turn up someday. No one anticipated the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, but they were discovered one day, entirely by chance, by a man who was neither Jewish nor Christian and was not looking for them.
One thing is important to mention, though: in Jesus' day, a man could not be called a rabbi unless he was married. My opinion is that it is unthinkable that the Jews of Jesus' time would refer to him as a rabbi unless he was one, and so anyone who called Jesus a rabbi meant that he was a rabbi in the full Jewish sense of the term.
And so we must consider these two questions. Did Jesus exist? Was he married? We must also consider the impact, if any, that the answers to these questions would have on our faith, or on Christianity in general. Bishop John Shelby Spong points to a very good indication that Jesus really lived and died: the emergence of a new faith out of the rock-ribbed faith of Judaism.
The last people in Late Antiquity who were likely to bring forth a new religion were the Jews, whose lifestyle was what we today would call Ultra-Orthodox. They kept kosher, they held themselves aloof from Gentiles and even St. Peter had problems when he was forced to eat with Pagan people who were ritually unclean. He was extremely reluctant to eat their food; such was the weight of custom on the Jews of his time. (As we might expect, St. Paul solved the problem for him when Paul volunteered to take his ministry to the Gentiles and leave Peter to work with the Jewish believers.) By contrast, the contemporary Pagans had no problems accepting Jesus as a new god and setting up temples for his worship; such was their attitude towards the pantheon of divinities that populated their world.
Yet it was these Jews, these people who virtually committed mass suicide in their continuous wars against the Roman Empire, who turned out to be the midwives attending the birth of the Christian faith. Suddenly the converted Jewish legal scholar, Paul, was preaching radical love and grace. I find myself in agreement with Bishop Spong: the idea that the Apostles could have pulled off a hoax that would have converted Paul is harder to believe by far than the simple fact that Jesus was born and died.
So what effect, if any, do these two speculations have on Christianity? The Neo-Platonic obsession with virginity, their hatred of flesh and matter, is far more likely to have been the source of virginity traditions for both Mary and Jesus. So does that mean that a married Jesus couldn't have preached the Sermon on the Mount? I don't think so; I find the two scholarly disputes very interesting, but they have no influence on Christianity except to bring Jesus more into the real world of Jewish men and their families in the Roman era.
You can find a number of amazingly-researched books on these subjects, and anyone who wants to learn more about them can find a good starting point in the book called Born of a Woman by Bishop Spong, in which he discusses the cultural prejudices and traditions that contributed to the early development of Christianity, especially when it was overwhelmed with Pagan converts in about the Fourth Century. The Roman influence on Christianity was extensive, and it is largely unnoticed today because of the very passage of time that tends to remove those ancient events into the realm of legend. But it can be researched and we can learn about it and decide what it means to our faith. I wish everyone who is interested in Christianity would read and learn--the effect on popular religion in the United States would be bracing.