Did Jesus say Christians will not marry?

I was startled this evening by a Bible passage quoted by ElShaddai Edwards, even though it is taken from my current favourite Bible translation:

Jesus replied, “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. 35 But those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, 36 and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection. …”

Luke 20:34-36 (TNIV)

I was startled by what this appears to be saying. The contrast is between “The people of this age” (more literally “the sons of this age” but intended to be gender generic) and “those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead” (RSV “those who are accounted worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead”). This sounds at first like a contrast between worldly, sinful people and faithful Christians. After all in Luke 16:8 the same phrase in Greek, literally “the sons of this age”, seems to refer to dishonest people. So this passage would appear to be Jesus teaching that good Christians will not marry. Could that be what Jesus, or Luke, was really saying? Could this be the same teaching, but in stronger form, as Paul’s in 1 Corinthians 7:25-35?

The question cannot be resolved from the parallel passages as they omit this contrast and give much simpler readings:

At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.

Matthew 22:30 (TNIV)

When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.

Mark 12:25 (TNIV)

But it seems to me that there is a clear but subtle indication that Jesus’ meaning is not what I have suggested. It can be found only in the original Greek, not in English translations. I have checked all the versions of these verses at Bible Gateway and not one of them makes this point clear. The Greek word rendered in TNIV as “considered worthy” is an aorist or past participle, indicating an event preceding what follows. So an accurate rendering of the first part of verse 35 would be “But those who have been considered worthy of taking part”, or more pedantically “But those who will have been considered worthy of taking part”. The Greek clearly means that first they have been considered worthy and only then they do not marry. And the phrase “considered worthy of taking part” cannot be divided up temporally; if they have been considered worthy of taking part, that means that they have already attained this and are taking part in it. Luke uses a similar phrase in Acts 5:41, with the same main Greek verb, which implies that the apostles had suffered disgrace, not that they might do in future.

So, despite the possible misunderstanding in almost any English translation, Jesus’ words as recorded for us in Greek seem unambiguous. The ones who do not marry are not Christians who are looking forward to “taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead”, but those who are already taking part in them, in other words those who have been raised from the dead. Thus Luke teaches the same as Matthew and Mark.

As for “The people of this age”, the ones who do marry, the implication is that this phrase refers to everyone alive in this world, Christian or not. That may have implications for the understanding of the enigmatic passage in which Luke 16:8 appears – although we then have to ask, who are “the people of the light” in this verse?

0 thoughts on “Did Jesus say Christians will not marry?

  1. καταξιωθέντες

    “But those who have been considered worthy of taking part”, or more pedantically “But those who will have been considered worthy of taking part”.

    I see the first but not the second.

  2. Sue, my point is for pedants in English grammar, not Greek. In turning the Greek participle into an English relative clause, a finite verb must be supplied. And as the main verb is future, by the rules of English grammar the subordinate clause verb should also be future, or in this case future perfect.

  3. It can be found only in the original Greek, not in English translations. I have checked all the versions of these verses at Bible Gateway and not one of them makes this point clear. . . So, despite the possible misunderstanding in almost any English translation, Jesus’ words as recorded for us in Greek seem unambiguous

    Thanks for this wonderful post, Peter!

    Here’s Richmond Lattimore and then Willis Barnstone whose English translations do back up your analysis of Luke’s Greek. Respectively:

    but those who have been called worthy to attain that other life, and the resurrection from the dead,

    but those who are thought worthy
    in this age to attain life in the resurrection
    from the dead

    And note the ambiguity that the Barnstone recognizes in Luke (i.e., the latter translator here implies but those who have already been thought worthy in this age but so does, I think, οἱ δὲ καταξιωθέντες τοῦ αἰῶνος ἐκείνου).

  4. Kurk, thanks for the additional versions.

    Lattimore may be a bit more literal, but “called worthy” sounds more like people here on earth giving a good account of them than them actually obtaining anything. In other words, Lattimore could be understood as something like “Only people who don’t marry will be generally expected to attain the resurrection”, which is of course quite wrong.

    As for Barnstone, since when did ἐκείνου mean “this”? There must be a contrast between “this” in v.34 and “that” in v.35, but Barnstone seems to make them synonymous.

    Sue, one clarification of my previous comment: the main verb is future only in English; the Greek main verb is present, which is probably correctly rendered future in English.

  5. Peter,
    You’re right about the Lattimore’s “called worthy” (which makes me wonder what Luke or Jesus would have had to say if using active voice and naming the clausal subject). If more literal, I do like “this life … that other life” as opposed to “age.”

    In the Barnstone, the contrast is simply rendered between “The sons” and “but those [sons] who are thought worthy.” This is another point where the Greek is ambiguous: “οἱ υἱοὶ” and “οἱ [υἱοὶ] δὲ καταξιωθέντες … ἐκείνου.”

  6. Okay, what am I missing here? Jesus has been challenged by the Sadducees with a question about marriage after the resurrection, which they didn’t believe in, and he replies that people who are resurrected from the dead won’t marry in the age to come.

    Eliminate the worthy clause and the quote becomes, “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. But those in the age to come will neither marry nor be given in marriage.”

    The context of the question was post-eschatological, not whether getting married or not makes you worthy of the resurrection. I’m failing to see the ambiguity, even in the English.

  7. Actually, ElShaddai, it is not that simple. There is no “to come” and the main verb in the second clause is present, as in the first one. Your cut down version should be “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. But those of that age neither marry nor are given in marriage.” But I agree that the context of the question does suggest that “those of that age” are those who have been resurrected.

    If I were a source critic I might suggest that Luke has merged two sayings of Jesus which originally had different meanings, one the same as the Matthew and Mark parallels here and the other teaching that the people now living in the new age don’t marry. But my view of biblical inspiration does not allow me to take this position; nor does my general understanding of Jesus’ teaching.

  8. Thank you, Peter, for the clarification. I wasn’t connecting on the “to come” issue. Interesting that this is a change in the TNIV from the NIV, which matched most other translations I’m looking at with “…of taking part in that age“.

    Also interesting in that Jesus had explicitly said (according to Luke) “the age to come” just two chapters earlier in Luke 18:30 (also Mark 10:30).

  9. Jesus had explicitly said (according to Luke) “the age to come” just two chapters earlier in Luke 18:30 then Luke 20:34-35;

    Here’s a literal translation to highlight the contrasts (and the word play in the earlier passage). I’ve rendered the first (singular) noun as plural in English in order to bring across the prepositional parallels from the Greek. Otherwise it would be “at this time / in . . .” And I’ve make the third (singular) noun plural also to focus the pun, but could’ve put it as “life without age” or “ageless life.”

    ἐν τῷ καιρῷ τούτῳ / ἐν τῷ αἰῶνι τῷ ἐρχομένῳ (ζωὴν αἰώνιον)

    in these times / in the coming age (life of ages)

    τοῦ αἰῶνος τούτου / τοῦ αἰῶνος ἐκείνου

    of this age / of that age

    Questions:

    In 18:30, why didn’t Luke write the following:

    ἐν τῷ αἰῶνι τούτῳ / ἐν τῷ αἰῶνι τῷ ἐρχομένῳ (ζωὴν αἰώνιον)

    in this age / in the coming age (life of ages)

    And, in 20:34-35, why didn’t he write this:

    τοῦ καιρος τούτου / τοῦ αἰῶνος ἐκείνου

    of this time / of that age

    ? ?

    of this age / of that age

    Question: In 18:30, why didn’t Luke write the following?

    ἐν τῷ αἰῶνι τούτῳ / ἐν τῷ αἰῶνι τῷ ἐρχομένῳ (ζωὴν αἰώνιον)

    in this age / in the coming age (life of ages)

  10. Kurk, thanks. But the answer to your question is simple: in 18:30 Luke was copying Mark word for word, but in 20:34-35 he had a different source, compare 1:2.

  11. Peter, It’s simply plausible that “in 18:30 Luke was copying Mark word for word,” from Mark 10:30.

    What’s more complicated is why “in 20:34-35 he had a different source,” that made him depart from Mark 12:25. Any ideas?

  12. Well, we don’t know what Luke’s other source was. Possibly the mysterious “Q”. But for some reason at this point he chose to insert into what he took from Mark a fragment from another source. You will have to ask the source critics for more on this.

  13. Is it worth keeping in mind that Luke’s other source could have been Paul, as we possibly saw in the Acts “predestination” passage?

    It would be interesting to compare the verses specific to Luke with Pauline writings or thoughts. A conspiracy theorist might speculate that Paul was *clarifying* the work of John Mark, whom he was not fond of after their split, to Luke.

  14. That is possible, ElShaddai, but highly speculative. Could Paul have witnessed Jesus’ public teaching during his last few days in Jerusalem, among the Pharisees keeping watch on him? It is possible, even likely in some ways as he was probably a student there at the time, but in that case strange that Paul nowhere mentions it, and nowhere quotes Jesus’ words, except for 1 Corinthians 11:23-25 which he certainly did not hear first hand. So your idea, while interesting, can only be speculation.

  15. Agreed that it’s speculative, but Paul does mention that he received the gospel message after his initial vision of Christ and alludes to his more detailed visit to the third heaven, so perhaps he had something to add to John Mark’s account. But ultimately you’re correct in that there’s no proof and Luke has his own style and sources of info, e.g. did he interview Mary about Jesus’ birth and youth in the weeks while Paul was in prison in Caesarea?

  16. Curious… Notwithstanding the subtleties or ambiguities of the English translation from the Greek and the sources Luke used… could a lay person not still be left with the inference that those who attain resurrection will not in fact be married?

    The truth for me in this whole passage is Luke was conveying Jesus’ three part refutation of the sadducees assertion that there is no resurrection

    a) Look marriage bit is a red herring so don’t wortry about that,
    b) God is of the living and this includes Jacob-Abraham-Isaac who by your reckoning are dead but by this reasonining are obviously still in fact kicking around in Heaven and
    c) by the way, riddle this one then “how come the messiah is both the messiah and son of David” –

    This last one I really like as he’s also then talking about himself… this finally shuts up the sadducees and we then see he passes a side comment to his disciples “phew these chaps are kind of tricky… better watch yourself with this lot in robes and who love the respect they get in the market place.”

    But… here’s the curiosity bit… There’s a bit of challenge though as a Christian reading this and realizing we’re dealing with subtleties in translation, context of what is being said and sources of the writing itself…

    And that is … regular people will misinterpret what is going on.

    I’m a reasonably smart bloke… and still I found it a challenge…

    Someone with a) less faith or predisposition to faith or b) less smarts may end up rationalizing this as a reason not to beleive… or may think if you are married you aint going to get to the resurrection.

    Neither of which is the objective of this passage or indeed the gospels (which I find the biggest sales feature of the Bible as a whole… cf Act’s well pretty good, Letters/Paul’s opinions well hmmm, Revelation’s well frankly scarey stuff needing a whole PILE of rationalization to keep most people on board).

    That anyone’s faith is lost through the translated gospels ambiguities, subtleties or need for analysis beyond their capacity … or who misinterprets/does the wrong thing as a result… well that’s a bit of a shame now isn’t it.

    For me… well this loss of followers or potential for misinterpretation ends up being one of the challenges to my own faith.

    (I do like the intellectual challenge though… but I guess that’s not really important)

  17. Rick, thank you for reminding me of this post, which I had almost forgotten. I wrote it before I got married last year, indeed before I was even contemplating marriage in more than general terms.

    You are surely right that Jesus is saying that marriage is a red herring here. But if readers are being confused by the passage in English translation when the original Greek was clear, as I think it was, that means that there is a problem with the translation. And that was really my point.

  18. Hi Peter,

    Absolutely… and your point is well made… I think the reason for my entry on the blog was expressing the frustration at the translation which is an issue in a few versions of the Bible… and obviously also not just in this one spot…

    The results of Babel tale flourish today… confusion…

    Indeed as a non-practicng member of a long line of quite accomplished linguists I “get” the problem . However, it still pains me that notwithstanding the plethora of contextual issues associated translation and the need for reverent scholarly theological review and debate before release of any new version of the Bible… we still have a bible which in translation simply states things incorrectly… and in this case and on matters that most folk would view as directly relevant to their daily lives.

    Perhaps am being crass, but Joe picks up a Bible in his Hotel bedside cabinet as a bit of bed time reading… flips to these sentences… reads ’em and concludes… “naah, this God stuff’s not for me… I’m already married”.

    The continued use of the term “Son of Man” in modern translations, while historically accurate and perhaps literal in translation is an obstacle to those who read the book and lack an understanding of the Aramaic and cultural nuances… the word “I” would in fact suffice (and might save a it of ink;-)

    Ultimately, I guess I was Joe last night in a Vancouver hotel reading for a bit of solace after a very challenging day, flipping back through Luke (whose writing I enjoy most of all) and was challenged by the 10 minas slayings (yep… I get that one too including the historical parallel at the time it was said) and this exchange with sadducees… so googled and connected with you.

    The upside of my “translational frustrational” … I found this blog… a “dang good read” as thet say hereabouts.

    Cheers,

    R

  19. PS… ermm.. yeah… well I also read a front to back an English translation of the Koran… this has the same issues… and the results of what some state as misinterpretation, have been used to excuse some “rather foul behaviour” in recent years.

    While this is an obvious cause for concern, we are not immune under the brand of Christianity.

    There are some scarey literalist fundamentalist “Christians’ just south of where I’m stationed… and they are armed and run around in Cammo… I kid you not.

    Translation indeed… darned important.

  20. Thanks, Rick, and welcome to Gentle Wisdom.

    “Son of Man” is a very tricky one, but certainly in some places it means a bit more than “I”. I guess it meant more like “the one”, which can be just a pronoun but in the Matrix films for example has a very strong and clear meaning.

  21. Sorry everyone! The English and the Greek here are quite lucid (I read both). You are grasping at proverbial straws! None who are born again can get married! How can one marry another when one is engaged or married to Christ? If you were honest with yourselves you would be monks or libertines. It is quite amusing to read your rhetorical convolutions! Christians cannot marry. Sorry!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*
To prove you're a person (not a spam script), type the security word shown in the picture. Click on the picture to hear an audio file of the word.
Anti-spam image