In the Jewish society of Jesus’ day, it was almost unthinkable that a man would remain unmarried beyond the age of 20 or so. After all, the very first commandment of the Torah is to ‘go and multiply’). Few indeed are the recorded instances of unmarried men. There was a studious rabbi by the name of Simeon ben Azzi. And even he probably had been married, but had become a widower.
Girls were usually married by the age of twelve, and men by the age of twenty.
For Jesus to still be single at the age of thirty would therefore have therefore been regarded as scandalous, and no doubt linked in people’s minds with rumours about the illegitimacy of his birth. A person who had been born illegitimately was called a mamzer, and could only marry another mamzer. Mamzers were forbidden to enter the Temple.
To be identified as a mamzer there had to be at least two witnesses to the intercourse, and no witnesses (save possibly for angelic ones!) were present at Jesus’ conception. Also, Mary and Joseph were at least married by the time of Jesus’ birth. But if Jesus was not an official mamzer, then he was certainly an unofficial one. He could not be forbidden from entering the Temple, but no self-respecting father would allow his daughter to marry him.
So Jesus shared in the stigma of being single. This is yet another aspect of his identification with and suffering for the neglected and stigmatised of this world. Jesus also showed compassion for other single people. He affirmed, for example, that some people might choose to remain single for the sake of the kingdom of God (Mt 19:12).
In the case of Paul, we know that he was unmarried at the time he wrote 1 Cor 11:1. But, as a faithful disciple of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3; Gamaliel was himself married, with children), it is quite probable that Paul had married earlier in his life, but had been widowed. An alternative scenario is that he was still young when converted, and decided to remain unmarried for the sake of the kingdom (cf. Mt 19:12 again).
So it is clear that the teaching of the New Testament transcends the stigma of singleness. True, marriage and procreation are great blessings. But not all are called to such lives. And the single life opens up are avenues of joyful and fulfilled service that are closed to those with family ties.
The Christian church today must take care not to so glorify marriage and family as to perpetuate the stigma of singleness.
Based on David Instone-Brewer, The Jesus Scandals, pp 7-10.