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Married Magdalene? Part Two — Anna Cwikla

Posted by: on Mar 10, 2015 | 2 Comments

This is the second article in a four-part series exploring The Lost Gospel: Decoding the Ancient Text that Reveals Jesus’ Marriage to Mary the Magdalene. Missed part one? Read it here.

In this installment of Married Magdalene? I focus on Jacobovici and Wilson’s interpretation of Screen Shot 2015-01-13 at 7.45.51 PMMary Magdalene in The Lost Gospel: Decoding the Ancient Text that Reveals Jesus’ Marriage to the Mary the Magdalene. If you are just tuning in and don’t feel like clicking on the link to part one of this series, or if you just need a quick refresher, here are the basics:

The Lost Gospel attempts to “decode” a 6th century Syriac manuscript of the story Joseph and Aseneth. Joseph and Aseneth is an apocryphal tale about the marriage of Joseph, the Hebrew patriarch, and Aseneth (a pagan woman). Although these characters are only briefly mentioned in the book of Genesis, the expanded apocryphal story has been known to scholars for quite some time based on later manuscripts written in other languages such as Greek (11-12th century) and Latin (12th century). The Syriac manuscript that Jacobovici and Wilson use had already been translated into Latin in the late 19th century. The Lost Gospel purports to be the first English translation of the 6th century CE Syriac manuscript. English translations of the other manuscripts have been readily available for over a century. Jesus and Mary Magdalene are never mentioned in Joseph and Aseneth. Instead, Jacobovici and Wilson suggest that this version, written in Syriac, requires “typological analysis” since typology was a method frequently employed by Syriac writers. With this reading, they suggest that Joseph is a stand-in for Jesus and Aseneth is a stand-in for Mary Magdalene and thus the whole narrative encodes the secret marriage of Jesus to Mary Magdalene.

Joseph and Aseneth: A Christian Text?

How do Jacobovici and Wilson determine that Aseneth is a surrogate for Mary Magdalene in this story? How strong are their arguments? First, the authors argue that Joseph and Aseneth is a Christian text and therefore should be read as one. Recent scholarship is in agreement. For example, see Rivkah Nir’s recent book, Joseph and Aseneth: A Christian Book (2012). This argument is relatively uncontroversial. Though the text features Joseph and Aseneth (characters found in the Hebrew Bible), this does not mean that the text is intended for a strictly Jewish audience. Christians used characters and stories from the Hebrew Bible frequently. For example, on numerous occasions the book of Acts utilizes popular characters from the Hebrew Bible such as Joel, David, and Abraham (e.g., Acts 2:14–36; 3:12–36; 13:16–41). It is important to recall that the earliest followers of Jesus and Jesus himself were Jewish and thus the boundaries between what is or was considered to be “Jewish” or “Christian” were always blurred. For Jacobovici and Wilson, labelling Joseph and Aseneth as a Christian texts grants them license to begin fishing for more parallels that can be used to read Aseneth as Mary Magdalene.

Aseneth = Mary Magdalene?

Jacobovici and Wilson use the eighth chapter of their book to explain their logic of associating Aseneth with Mary Magdalene. They argue that Aseneth is the Tower lady, and therefore the Church. Mary Magdalene is also the Tower lady, and so she is also the Church. Thus, Aseneth is Mary Magdalene. How do they get to this?

Aseneth is associated with a Tower because in the story of Joseph and Aseneth, her family home is attached to a tower and Aseneth “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.” Traditionally, the “Magdalene” has been thought to refer to the name of the town from which Mary hails. But Jacobovici and Wilson point out that the Greek Μαρία ἡ Μαγδαληνὴ literally translates to “Mary the Magdalene” and not “Mary from the Town of Magdala” (66–67). Instead, they suggest that magdala, meaning tower, was a nickname for Mary just as Simon was called Peter (Rock) (Matt 4:18, 10:2; Acts 10:5, 10:18) or the Sons of Zebedee were nicknamed “The Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17) (67). Given the lack of references to support the existence of a town named “Magdala” in ancient sources contemporary with Jesus, more scholars are supporting the Magdalene as a nickname thesis.[1] The linking of Mary with a Tower, then, seems reasonable. But I wonder if calling Aseneth “the Tower Lady” is a bit of a stretch. Granted, she does live in a tower in the story, but putting Aseneth in a tower seems to be required for her purity, a significant component of the storyline. It functions as Aseneth’s hideaway from men. So, while the tower does function as a large component of Aseneth’s story, this feature is arguably required only to uphold her status as a pure virgin, away from the gaze of men.

There is one major difference between Mary and Aseneth’s stories. Unlike Mary, Aseneth is never explicitly called a “Tower.” This does not stop the authors from forcing this symbolism. At one point, Aseneth is called “City of Refuge” (15:5) and Jacobovici and Wilson note that towers were places of refuge: “Here we have a reference that can be understood as an allusion to Mary Magdalene’s name” (346 n. 121). But is there a more basic symbolic interpretation than a reference to a Tower and Mary Magdalene? Note that Aseneth is called a “City of Refuge.” Refuge refers to the type of city that Aseneth is. Rivka Nir, who also interprets Joseph and Aseneth as a Christian text, states that calling Aseneth a “City of Refuge” is meant to refer to the “heavenly Jerusalem.”[2] This fits in with the elaborated description “for with you all the nations will take refuge and many people will be sheltered under your wing, and in your wall will be kept safe the ones attached to God through repentance” (15:5). It would make sense for a large number of people to be sheltered within the walls of the city. Imagine trying to cram all “the ones attached to God through repentance” in a tower! Even if towers were places of refuge, it is more likely that the metaphor here is meant to depict Aseneth as a sheltered city, not a refuge tower.

Mary Magdalene and Jesus in the New Testament

The attempts to link Mary Magdalene and Jesus as husband and wife in the rest of Chapter 8 become progressively weaker. Jacobovici and Wilson turn to the New Testament gospels for evidence of a relationship between Jesus and Mary the Magdalene. They use the wedding at Cana in the Gospel of John, where Jesus turns water into wine, to suggest that Jesus was the bridegroom of this wedding. The authors say that “some have identified with the wedding of Jesus to Mary the Magdalene” (67). As someone who has studied Mary Magdalene for a number of years, this was the first time I had encountered such a reading of the wedding of Cana so I was curious to see who had suggested this interpretation. The only citation that Jacobovici and Wilson offer in support of this is page 55 of Margaret Starbird’s The Woman with the Alabaster Jar (1993). However, upon reading this page, it seems that Starbird is, at most, only mentioning this possibility in passing: “Remembering that the Gospel stories were spread by word of mouth for several decades before they were first committed to parchment, it is possible that the marriage of Cana was in fact the ‘marriage of Zealots.’ The consonants of the two words are similar enough to cause confusion in the oral tradition. Perhaps this marriage of Cana was one of national importance to the Jews—namely, that of Jesus to Mary Magdalene.” Starbird does not mention the wedding at Cana after this. But Jacobovici and Wilson run with it: “But if [Jesus] is not the bridegroom, why does his mother expect him to supply the wine?” (68). Then they suggest that because later in the Gospel of John the fact that Mary Magdalene anoints Jesus’ body after his death reaffirms that she was his wife because “in Judaism, this was a task that was reserved only for the closest relatives—certainly not a disciple, and not some marginal female from an extended entourage. Simply put, this important and overlooked detail strongly suggests that Mary the Magdalene was Jesus’ wife. Otherwise, she had no business being there at all, much less touching Jesus’ naked corpse. It’s that simple” (68). Once again, this is the first time I have encountered a text that suggests that Mary Magdalene is Jesus’ wife because of the “fact” that in Judaism anointing the body of a “deceased religious leader,” as the authors put it, is reserved only for close relatives. This section in The Lost Gospel is completely void of citations or support. It seems that this tradition concerning Jewish burial practices should be taken as common knowledge. It also takes for granted that “Judaism” in antiquity was a monolithic group with universal practices which is by no means the case. Without any primary or secondary sources to support this argument, I am left unconvinced that the Gospel of John hints at a marriage between Mary Magdalene and Jesus.

In addition to the above example of a misrepresentation or embellishment of secondary sources, Richard Bauckham has noted a few instances where the authors misrepresent some hymns of the Syriac author Ephrem, whose poems are used to support the notion the Aseneth = Mary Magdalene thesis. And, although Jacobovici is aware of Bauckham’s critiques, he does not address the issues of misrepresentation in his response. The sloppy scholarship in Chapter 8 alone raises concerns for how citations are employed in the rest of the book.

Mary Magdalene and Jesus in the “Gnostic Gospels”

Jacobovici and Wilson then turn to the “Gnostic Gospels.” They mistakenly refer to the Gospel of Mary as the “Gospel of Mary Magdalene.” The Mary in this particular document is never explicitly identified as Mary Magdalene: she is simply referred to as “Mary.” The Gospel of Mary does portray the Mary character as having received special teaching from Jesus and a leadership role amongst the other disciples who ask her for guidance. Jacobovici and Wilson draw attention to a particular passage, which they also use later for associating Mary Magdalene with Aseneth: “after the crucifixion, the disciples are disheartened and come to Mary the Magdalene [sic], asking her: ‘How can we go to the Gentiles and preach the good news of the kingdom of the child of humanity? If they did not spare him, how will we be spared?” (70). The authors assume that because the disciples ask Mary about preaching to the Gentiles that “she has expertise concerning the Gentiles” (70). Later in the chapter, the authors argue that Mary Magdalene was a pagan priestess so that they can relate her to Aseneth before her conversion in Joseph and Aseneth where she spends time worshipping Egyptian gods. But does the disciples’ question in the Gospel of Mary actually imply that Mary has expertise with Gentiles or is it just expressing anxiety over a difficult task, that is, preaching to a group who did not spare Jesus? Instead of responding with “Don’t worry, I used to be a Gentile and I still have some connections,” Mary tells the disciples not to grieve because Jesus’ grace will be with them and will protect them, and she reminds them that he has prepared them to be “true Human Beings.” Mary’s response suggests that the disciples asked her for guidance not because she has expertise with the Gentiles but because she is the leader of the group and has received special teachings from Jesus. Moreover, the word that gets translated as “Gentiles,” ἔθνη, may be translated more generally as “nations” or “people.” Although ἔθνη is translated as “Gentiles” in many place in the New Testament, in the case of the Gospel of Mary, Christopher Tuckett notes that “[t]he reference to the ‘Gentiles’ does not correspond to anything else in the extant text: there is no other reference to the Jew–Gentile distinction. It could simply be an echo, almost unconsciously, of the resurrection scene in Matthew’s gospel where, in the commissioning charge, all the disciples are told to make disciples of ‘all the nations’ (πάντα τα ἔθνη).”[3] Therefore, surmising that Mary has some sort of experience with the Gentiles based on this passage in the Gospel of Mary is not as clear as Jacobovici and Wilson make it out to be.

The best use of evidence for Jacobovici and Wilson comes from the Gospel of Philip where Jesus is described as loving Mary Magdalene more than the other disciples and kissing her often on the…. It is at this point where there is a hole in the manuscript. But given the context and the size of the hole it can be reasonably reconstructed as “mouth.” Mary Magdalene is also described as Jesus’ κοινωνός, which is usually translated as “companion” or “partner.” Jacobovici and Wilson’s suggestion that “it can just as accurately be translated as ‘lover’” (69) might be going a bit too far. This move is representative of a tendency to go with the most seemingly scandalous translation or interpretation throughout the book. So, does the Gospel of Philip provide evidence of a marriage between Mary Magdalene and Jesus? The answer to this rests on how one interprets κοινωνός and the kissing of Mary and Jesus, and also the disciples’ question to Jesus “Why do you love her more than all of us?” To which Jesus responds “Why do I not love you like her? If a blind person and one who can see are both in darkness, they are the same. When the light comes, one who can see will see the light, and the blind person will stay in darkness.”[4] The Gospel of Philip does not seem to be interested in providing a clear answer to the question of Jesus’ marriage. Jesus could have responded “Why do I not love you like her? She is my wife after all!” In any case, the Gospel of Philip provides the most tantalizing bit of suggestion that Jesus and Mary Magdalene could have been more than just teacher and disciple, at least from the perspective of this fourth century Coptic text. That is to say, even if the Gospel of Philip does portray a literal marriage or relationship with Mary Magdalene and Jesus, this does not necessarily reflect the reality of the Jesus and Mary who lived in the first century CE. Jacobovici and Wilson anticipate this critique:

“If you think that citing a Gnostic non-canonical text is weak history, consider this: the earliest manuscripts of the canonical Gospels date to no earlier—even in fragmentary form— than the earliest Gnostic texts (i.e., 2nd to 4th centuries). It’s a scholarly guess that the canonical Gospels were initially composed in the late first century, but the manuscript trail ends well before then. Nonetheless, theological bullies treat the canonical writings as if they were the original, undisputed works. That helps them describe texts that they don’t agree with as late and, as a consequence, heretical or inaccurate.” (69)

Here, Jacobovici and Wilson are correct in the facts regarding canonical manuscripts. And although most scholars suggest the canonical gospels (with the exception of the Gospel of John) date to the first century, it is not always for theological reasons, as the authors make it seem. Moreover, the first-century dating may not be attested in manuscript evidence, but scholars use internal evidence and external evidence to suggest the dates that they do. So, the assertion that the dating of the canonical gospels is a “scholarly guess” does not do justice to the work that scholars have done to posit dates. Attributing the first-century dating to “theological bullies” is a misguided polemical statement that only serves to advance Jacobovici and Wilson’s own argument.

Conclusion and Suggestions

Chapter 8 of The Lost Gospel attempts to provide the rationale for associating Aseneth with Mary Magdalene in the story of Joseph and Aseneth. Suggesting that the text is “Christian” is not really controversial, but in their view it is necessary to be able to suggest that Aseneth is not referring to the Aseneth of the Hebrew Bible but to Mary Magdalene. The most compelling portion of chapter 8 was the authors’ discussion concerning “magdala” functioning as a nickname for Mary, just as Rock (Peter) was Simon’s nickname. Even if Mary is to be associated with the nickname “Tower,” their argument for calling Aseneth the “Tower Lady” is not as convincing. Their argument could be strengthened if they did a philological analysis comparing the other versions of Joseph and Aseneth to see if perhaps the term “Tower” is used more frequently in this 6th century Syriac version as compared to the others. If this is the case, then maybe this version is indeed, as they claim, trying to emphasize Aseneth’s character with tower imagery. The suggestion that the Gospel of John alludes to a marriage between Mary Magdalene and Jesus, especially in light of their lack of supporting evidence in the form of other primary sources or secondary scholarship is weak. The misreading of the hymns of Ephrem, as pointed out by Richard Bauckham, casts doubt on the ways in which Jacobovici and Wilson handle other primary sources. The passage from the Gospel of Mary that supposedly reveals a Gentile background for Mary Magdalene is by no means conclusive. Finally, though we eventually see some potential action between Jesus and Mary Magdalene in the form of kissing, this text also comes short of confirming that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married. Much more could be said about chapter 8’s speculative attempts to link Aseneth with Mary Magdalene, but the above examples should be sufficient to demonstrate that Jacobovici and Wilson’s argumentation is far from flawless.


[1] Mary Ann Beavis, “Reconsidering Mary of Bethany,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 74 (2012): 286–287 see especially 287 n. 25.

[2] Rivḳah Nir, Joseph and Aseneth : A Christian Book ([Sheffield]: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2012), 70–73.

[3] Christopher M. Tuckett, The Gospel of Mary (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 162.

[4] Marvin W. Meyer, trans., “The Gospel of Philip,” in The Gospels Of Mary: The Secret Tradition of Mary Magdalene, the Companion of Jesus (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), 49.


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    • Anna
      March 13, 2015

      Thanks, Jeff!
      When I first started reading this book in November, there were no published book reviews I could find, so thanks for sharing!


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