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Married Magdalene? Part Three — Anna Cwikla

Posted by: on Apr 17, 2015 | No Comments

This is the third article in a four-part series exploring The Lost Gospel: Decoding the Ancient Text that Reveals Jesus’ Marriage to Mary the Magdalene. Click the links to check out part one and two.

One of the key factors associated with evaluating a book is its intended audience. For example, the criteria that one would use to judge a general introduction to Christianity would differ significantly from what one expects from a critical edition of the Gospel of Mary. Whereas the former is written for a general audience, the latter is for a specialist audience; the expectations concerning evidence and the ways in which it is presented varies accordingly. The difficulty with The Lost Gospel is that while it is written for general readership, it still wants to be taken seriously as a scholarly work. As such, while reading this book I was frustrated because of the liberties taken with historical facts as well as with the lack of explanation concerning assertions that the authors make. Even though I recognize that the book is intended for public consumption, it is impossible to overlook the many instances in which serious liberties were taken with data. In this third edition of Married Magdalene?, I highlight those that were most central to the book.

Generalizations of Early Christian Movements

Jacobovici and Wilson repeatedly draw a distinction between two types of Christianity: the Pauline Christians and the Gnostic Christians. According to them, the Pauline Christians focused on Jesus’ asceticism, suffering, death, and resurrection, while the Gnostics valued Jesus’ marriage and sex life (157–59). They also suggest that the Pauline Christians, including Paul himself “had no knowledge of the historical Jesus and based themselves on ideas that were supposedly revealed mystically to Paul after Jesus’ crucifixion, teachings that seem at odds with what the Jesus of history taught and practiced” (159). The Gnostics, on the other hand, “more or less preserved historical teachings” (159). One of the key issues that Jacobovici and Wilson do not mention, even in endnotes, has to do with the fact that the whole category of “Gnostics” or “Gnosticism” is profoundly ambiguous. In fact, scholars question the extent to which it is historically accurate to speak of any group of Christians as “Gnostic.” One of the main reasons for this is that the term “Gnostic” was almost exclusively used by early Christian heresiologists, usually Church Fathers who were primarily concerned with writing about “heretics” and their beliefs. These writers—such as Irenaeus—were not trying to give a historical account of their opponents (other Christians), but were using rhetorical strategies to delegitimize their competing beliefs and practices. At the very least, even scholars who find the designation “Gnostic” useful are careful to state how they are using the term, to which texts they are referring, and that there are opposing views.[1]

Without defining Gnosticism or Gnostics clearly, and by simply stating that they were a sect of early Christianity that fully emerged in the second century and that their writings were later banned by the church (34–36), Jacobovici and Wilson go on to make sweeping assertions such as “The Gnostics, however, thought that Jesus’ death had no significance. None at all. They focused on his life, vitality, sexuality and, most significantly, the marriage through which they believed he linked heaven and earth” (159). It is unclear to me which texts they are deriving this assertion from. As I mentioned in part two, the Gospel of Philip is the only one that comes close to suggesting Jesus was married. While there are some texts labelled as “Gnostic” that challenge the view that Jesus physically died and was resurrected, they also seem to challenge the worth of sexual intercourse, the opposite of what Jacobovici and Wilson claim. For example, the Testimony of Truth, one of the texts found in the Nag Hammadi codices, rejects the value of Jesus’ death numerous times, but at the same time seems to support the cessation of carnal desire and procreation. In one instance the text admonishes against those anticipating a physical resurrection: “Do not expect, therefore, the carnal resurrection, which is destruction; and they are not stripped of it (the flesh) who err in expecting a resurrection that is empty. They do not know the power of God, nor do they understand the interpretation of the scriptures, on account of their double-mindedness” (Test. Truth 36.27–37.9).[2] Elsewhere the Testimony of Truth praised the one who has renounced the things of the world and “has subdued desire in every way within himself” (Test. Truth 41.12–13)[3] implying a high regard for those who are able to abstain from worldly desires associated with things such as sex. So, the distinction that Jacobovici and Wilson make with Pauline Christians valuing the death, resurrection, and asceticism on the one hand, and Gnostics rejecting the value of Jesus’ death but valuing sex and marriage does not seem to hold in the case of the Testimony of Truth.

Lastly, the underlying assertion that Pauline Christianity and Gnostic Christianity were the two primary Christian groups competing in the first few centuries does not do justice to the diversity of early Christian beliefs and practices that actually existed. Depicting the picture of early Christianity as a battle between a single “orthodoxy” and any number of “heretics” is far too simplistic and misguided. As Paul Middleton brilliantly puts it: “No one at any time has thought herself to be a heretic. If one holds a position that has clearly and consciously deviated from a previously established road, then it is more likely thought to be a development than a departure, a reformation or a (re)discovery of what was always the case.”[4] Jacobovici and Wilson often speak of the “Orthodox Christianity” or “Pauline Christianity” having “won” against other heretical groups (e.g., 15, 25, 145, 283). David Brakke argues “The ‘Church’ did not reject ‘Gnosticism,’ nor did the Gnostics ‘lose’ to ‘proto-orthodoxy.’ Rather, the Gnostic school of thought, as small and limited as it was, played an important role in the process by which Christians, even today, continually reinvent themselves, their ideas, and their communities in light of their experience of Jesus Christ.”[5] Early Christians held a diversity of views concerning any number of issues including prayer, the divinity of Jesus, marriage, etc., but putting them into two camps (Pauline and Gnostic) or even two types of camps (Orthodox Church and the various heretics) grants some Christians status over the others when they all were forming their own identities in relation to each other and in relation to their own geographic and temporal circumstances. But, what Jacobovici and Wilson ultimately do is paint a misleading story that puts the favourites (Pauline Christians) over the underdogs (the Gnostics) for simplification, and to win over the reader. After all, who doesn’t like an underdog story?

If You Don’t Support the Married Jesus Idea, You’re a Theologian!

Another important issue I have with Jacobovici and Wilson’s rhetoric concerns the way in which they position their scholarship over and above that of other scholars. Numerous times they suggest that scholars have “ignored” the attestations of Jesus’ marriage in the Gospel of Philip for theological reasons: “People don’t want a married Jesus, so they reduce Gnosticism to mythology and elevated the canonical Gospels to history” (174). They even use the term “theological bullies” to refer to scholars who “treat canonical writings as if they were the original, undisputed works. That helps them describe the texts that they don’t agree with as late and, as a consequence, heretical or inaccurate” (69). Granted, texts considered to be “Gnostic” do not receive the same attention as the New Testament texts. However, this can be accounted for via a number of reasons other than theology. We have had the New Testament texts available to us for far longer than we have had, say, the Nag Hammadi codices, which were discovered only in 1945. Moreover, whereas most scholars date the origins of the texts now preserved in the Nag Hammadi codices to the second-century, texts such as the Pauline epistles are dated to the mid-first century of the Common Era.

The authors accurately predict in one of their final chapters that “As you read this, we’re sure that the theological bloggers are at their stations doing their best to delegitimize, marginalize, and ridicule our find” (298). Now, while it is certainly believable that some theologically-oriented scholarship has since found the portrait of a married Jesus unsettling, not every scholar of early Christianity is writing with a theological agenda or interest. I, in writing these articles, couldn’t care less whether or not Jesus was married, had kids or even a golden retriever. My concern, and likely those of others scholars, is not with the result of Jacobovici and Wilson’s research, but rather the process itself. I’m certain that many scholars would have been very excited had the authors found a first-century inscription in or near Nazareth commemorating the wedding of Jesus and Mary. However, what Jacobovici and Wilson have is not a first-century find, no matter how hard they try to link Syriac to Aramaic (the language which Jesus and his followers spoke) or how many times they emphasize that the 6th century manuscript is likely a copy of earlier copies which could date as early as the first century. What they have is a 6th century Syriac manuscript that can only be turned around to imply that Jesus married Mary the Magdalene when it’s first put through the “rigorous” “decoding” process that it was subjected to. Even if the author of the 6th century Syriac manuscript wanted Joseph to represent Jesus and Aseneth to represent Mary Magdalene, this does not necessarily translate into the historical Jesus and Mary being married. Nor does it rule out the possibility that they were. As one of my professors once said: “I am not interested in what is possible, but what is plausible.”


If The Lost Gospel is to be taken seriously as a scholarly contribution, its presentation and discussion of early Christians groups needs a significant overhaul. Next, even if the book only endeavors to be aimed at a general readership, it should still be held responsible for making such glaring oversimplifications about early Christianity. This is especially the case in Jacobovici and Wilson’s discussion concerning the broad juxtaposition between “Pauline Christians” and “Gnostic Christians.” Critiques offered by me and others should not be taken as proof of an undercover “theological agenda,” for as I mentioned earlier and hope that it has become clear, my contention with this book is not its ultimate conclusion, i.e., Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married, but rather the dubious ways in which the authors arrive at this conjecture. Jacobovici and Wilson’s rhetoric of “if you disagree with us, it’s because you’re theological” works to shield them from critique, even if it has nothing to do with theological beliefs. Critique on the basis of methodology is an integral part of scholarly projects; without feedback from colleagues and readers, there is no room for further discussion or improvement.


[1] Most notably argued by Michael A. Williams, Rethinking “Gnosticism” : An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996) and Karen L. King, What Is Gnosticism? (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003).

[2] Birger A. Pearson and Søren Giversen, trans., Nag Hammadi Codices IX and X (Leiden: Brill, 1981), 138–39.

[3] Pearson and Giversen, Nag Hammadi Codices IX and X, 147.

[4] Paul Middleton, Radical Martyrdom and Cosmic Conflict in Early Christianity (New York: T&T Clark, 2006), 16.

[5] David Brakke, The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), 137.


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