This is the first article in a four-part series exploring The Lost Gospel: Decoding the Ancient Text that Reveals Jesus’ Marriage to Mary the Magdalene.
If you have just emerged from living under a rock for the past month or so, one of the first questions that you might ask is, “are there any new books about Jesus being married?” Lucky for you the answer is yes! Simcha Jacobovici, author, and TV personality perhaps best known for his series The Naked Archaeologist, along with Prof. Barrie Wilson of York University, released a book entitled The Lost Gospel: Decoding the Ancient Text that Reveals Jesus’ Marriage to Mary the Magdalene on November 12, 2014. Since its release, the book has already reached the #1 spot in history books on Amazon.com.
Even prior to its official release, however, scholars of ancient Christianity were quick to criticize and denounce the book. Why? Among other reasons, the text that Jacobovici and Wilson recovered from the British Museum is a 6th century Syriac text that records the apocryphal tale entitled Joseph and Aseneth. You might recognize these two names from the book of Genesis in the Bible, but this particular text is an expansion of the few verses where these two are mentioned. Robert Cargill explains the common scholarly consensus regarding this non-canonical text:
“The story of Joseph and Aseneth was composed to solve the later theological problem of Joseph, a Hebrew patriarch, marrying a non-Israelite woman (Aseneth), in direct violation of biblical commands (albeit later commands) that prohibit Hebrews/Jews/Israelites from intermarrying with other peoples, for instance, those found in Deut. 7:3; Josh. 23:12; Ezra 9; and Neh. 13:25. As prohibiting intermarriage became a bigger and bigger deal in the Second Temple period, many Jews began to see the problem with Joseph’s marriage to Aseneth, as Joseph was said to have not only married an Egyptian, but the daughter of an Egyptian priest!”
Put differently, this so-called “Lost Gospel” has already been found in other manuscript evidence and so was not really “lost.” Jacobovici and Wilson argue, however, that “Although the text is now virtually unknown, numerous manuscripts of Joseph and Aseneth have come down to us from antiquity. These are all later than the Syriac one” (28). Moreover, they also state “While several English translations of Joseph and Aseneth are available, all of these are based on later Greek manuscripts. Until now, except for the Latin version, there has been no translation based on the Syriac text” (29). In other words, by claiming that this newly translated 6th century manuscript is the earliest attested manuscript of Joseph and Aseneth and that no English translations of the Syriac manuscript exist, until now, they claim to be offering up something (somewhat) new for readers.
I begin part 1 of this blog series with a relatively detailed summary of the framework of the argument that sets up their book. Why include such a slavish summary? Most of the blog posts or news articles that have condemned the Lost Gospel do not provide many citations from the book itself, and some even readily admit they have not read it at all! (One major exception to this is biblical scholar Richard Bauckham who provided a seven-part response to the book, available on Mark Goodacre’s NT blog website, and to which Simcha Jacobovici has since responded).
In order to give a book a fair shake, one needs to read it. To be sure, Simcha Jacobovici himself said:
“Before the book has even come out, some have gone on the offensive. For example, one Oxford University professor has already decided that it’s nonsense. It took us six years to write this book. It’s taken him only a few seconds to dismiss it – without so much as seeing the cover.”
So, lest I seem unfounded in my forthcoming critiques or questions about this book, I have provided this introduction so that my subsequent posts are framed within the arguments that their book is trying to make. In the coming weeks, I endeavour to examine and challenge the claims that the Lost Gospel makes. My concern is not to undermine the claim that Jesus and Mary were married and had children: this has little if no bearing on my own scholarly interests. Rather, from my preliminary reading of this book, I am concerned about the ways in which the authors have used historical evidence, and in some cases even seem to have misrepresented secondary scholarly writings to advance their arguments. I will ensure that my critiques of the book are more nuanced and fair than those of Bill O’Reilly.
So, by now you are wondering “where do Jesus and Mary Magdalene show up in this version of Joseph and Aseneth?” The short answer: they don’t. Instead, Joseph and Aseneth are read as “surrogates” for Jesus and Mary. That is, the characters of Joseph and Aseneth are allegories for Jesus and Mary Magdalene. How do Jacobovici and Wilson reach this conclusion? The argument of the Lost Gospel, if I have followed it correctly goes like this:
1) The text that Jacobovici and Wilson are discussing is written in Syriac, which they on numerous occasions remind the reader is linguistically related to Aramaic, “the language spoken by Jesus and many of his contemporaries” (pg. 3; cf. 27, 30, etc.)
2) Joseph and Aseneth was not originally written in Syriac, but translated from an unknown original, meaning it (or at least the story’s “nucleus”) could date as early as the first century, and therefore be written around the same time as the historical Jesus (pgs. 32–35)
3) If the original story dates to the time of Jesus, it is possible that through manuscript tradition the present Syriac text has a hidden/allegorical meaning of events that actually transpired during Jesus’ lifetime
4) According to the authors, “decoding” or reading the story as allegory has precedent and is a legitimate approach because the story does not refer to events described in the Genesis stories that talk about Joseph and Aseneth. Jacobovici and Wilson also claim that the manuscript is Christian, not Jewish in part because “It’s clear that Christians wouldn’t have had any interest in preserving a story that had to do with purely Jewish matters. Christians would certainly not have been interested in the story of an obscure Jewish temple in Egypt, or conversion to Judaism, or the problems of Jewish/non-Jewish intermarriage” (44). So if it is not Jewish, it is Christian, and if it is not a retelling of the Genesis account, then it must be trying to convey another message, especially because the 6th century manuscript was also found with a letter that eludes to the fact that the text had a “hidden meaning” which leads Jacobovici and Wilson to argue that “A secret meaning indicates that the superficial reading cannot be the real reading” (45-46). Another way they legitimate their reading of Jesus into Joseph in this manuscript is that typology, or reading Christian characters/narratives onto the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) narratives, is found even in the letters of Paul and the canonical gospels (49–54) which means this form of interpretation/reading was already attested almost two millennia ago. Furthermore, Eastern Christianity, in this case the Syriac speaking church, frequently used typological readings as evidenced in the works of Syriac writers Ephrem and Aphrahat, from which the authors draw much of their information.
5) Joseph is an allegory for Jesus on the basis that Ephrem and Aphrahat both draw parallels between the two. For example, “Joseph was his father’s favourite; so, too, was Jesus the dearly beloved and only begotten son of the Father”; “Joseph was persecuted by his brothers; Jesus was also persecuted by his brothers—his fellow Jews”; “Joseph married Aseneth, the daughter of a non-Jewish “unclean” priest; Jesus “married” the church composed of non-Jewish, ‘unclean pagans’” (59–60).
6) Aseneth is an allegory for Mary Magdalene on the basis that in Joseph and Aseneth, Aseneth’s family home has a tower and she “occupies the upper story of ten rooms. Aseneth is literally the woman in the tower—she’s the ‘Tower Lady,’ if you will” (65). Mary Magdalene is also a “Tower Lady” because in Hebrew the term migdal (magdala in Aramaic) means “tower.” She is referred to by these terms in the New Testament gospels (66). Mary Magdalene is the bride of Jesus if in the Gospel of John, the wedding at Cana is the wedding of Jesus to Mary: “That’s the incident where, at his mother’s insistence, Jesus turns water into wine. But if he’s not the bridegroom, why does his mother expect him to supply the wine?” (67–68). Also, the scene where Mary Magdalene goes to Jesus’ tomb to anoint his body indicates she could be his wife because “a mere follower of Jesus—a marginal follower as some would have it—would not be allowed to ‘anoint’ the naked body of the deceased religious leader and get it ready for burial especially if the follower is a woman! In Judaism, this was a task that was reserved only for the very closest relatives—certainly not a disciple, and not some marginal female from an extended entourage” (68). The authors also use other non-canonical texts, such as the Gospel of Philip, which appear to suggest that Mary Magdalene and Jesus had an intimate relationship (69). In Syriac literature, the Jacobovici and Wilson claim that Aseneth and Mary Magdalene are equated allegorically in Ephrem’s writings “The Church, moreover, is the Tower, The Tower which the many built, He came down and built on earth, The Tower that leads up to heaven.” This reading is based on another hymn of Ephrem where he states that Aseneth “the daughter of a pagan priest; She is the symbol of the church of the Gentiles” (70; italics original). In the same hymn, Ephrem states “Let us call the Church itself ‘Mary.’ For it befits her to have two names. For to Simon, the Foundation, Mary was first to run, And like the Church brought him the good news And told him what she had seen That our Lord was risen and was raised up” (70). Subsequently, the Jacobovici and Wilson posit the Mary Magdalene could have been a pagan priestess (i.e., “the symbol of the church of the Gentiles”) on the basis that a “Mary” is referred to by her Greek name “Mariamne” not the Hebrew or Aramaic name in the writing of Celsus and that in the Gospel of Mary, the disciples ask Mary “How can we go to the Gentiles and preach the good news?” which leads Jacobovici and Wilson to assume that Mary has some knowledge of the Gentile church (75). What Jacobovici and Wilson call “The Clincher” is another excerpt from Hymn 21 by Ephrem: “You [Ephraim] are the son of Aseneth, the daughter of a pagan priest; She [Aseneth] is the symbol of the Church of the Gentiles. She [Aseneth] loved Joseph, and Joseph’s son… in truth, the Holy Church loved. She had many children by the Crucified, And everyone of them is marked with the cross” (81; interpolations and ellipsis original).
After reading through the summary of the book’s argument, you might have your eyebrow raised with suspicion, be scratching your head, or even possibly convinced. In subsequent posts in this series, I will unpack these arguments further, examine the sources used to back up these arguments, and suggest other primary sources or texts that the authors could have used to expand the scope of their study.