For almost 1,700 years, Christian theology has been dominated by Pauline orthodoxy – a faith based on the New Testament gospels of the apostles, Mark, Luke, Matthew and John. Concurrently, smaller numbers of Christian adherents have also been drawn to a minor, second strain: a Torah-observant faith originally centered in Jerusalem, led by Jesus’ brother, James the Just.
But in recent years, a growing number of scholars have made claims for a third, more esoteric branch of the Jesus movement — Gnosticism — that flourished in the first centuries after his death.
In the long battle for supremacy among Christians, the Gnostics were ultimately the losers. In 325 CE, the Roman emperor Constantine declared the winner — the Pauline church — and thereafter destroyed or suppressed any gospel that strayed from the mainstream view of Christ.
Our fragmentary knowledge of Gnostic theology derives largely from a series of documents discovered in 1947, hidden in jars in Nag Hammadi, Egypt. These writings, comprising among others the gospels of Thomas, Peter, Mark, Judas and Mary, depict a Christianity connected with a more human Jesus, perhaps more like the historical Nazarene rabbi of the first century.
Now, a controversial new book (and accompanying documentary film) is attempting to add another gospel candidate, to the collection — and to significantly advance the Gnostic case. Since its November release, “The Lost Gospel: Decoding the Ancient Text That Reveals Jesus Marriage to Mary the Magdalene” (Pegasus), has soared to the top of best-seller lists.
Written by Canadian-Israeli journalist and documentary filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici and Canadian religious scholar Barrie Wilson, the book makes a series of provocative claims. Among them is not only that that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were husband and wife, but that she gave birth to two sons by him; that more than a decade before his Crucifixion by the Romans, Jesus was deeply embroiled in political activism, and had, with his family, become the target of assassination attempts; and that, after his death, Mary Magdalene — a Canaanite priestess — became the revered center of a Church of the Gentiles movement based on his teachings.
At the core of that controversial message lay a belief in the importance and sanctity of sex – the very antithesis of the desexualized version of Christ promulgated by the celibate Pauline Church.
In the orthodox Christian school adopted by the Romans in the fourth century, salvation was gained not in life, but in death. Gnosticism turned that idea precisely on its head, insisting that what mattered most was not suffering and salvation in the after-life, but life itself, symbolized by the marriage bed.
Mary Madalene’s Church of the Gentiles is the link that connects Jesus’ earliest followers with the emergence of Gnosticism in second-century Egypt
Indeed, Jacobovici and Wilson believe that Mary Madalene’s Church of the Gentiles is the link that connects Jesus’ earliest followers with the emergence of Gnosticism in second-century Egypt.
The thesis of The Lost Gospel is based on an ancient vellum manuscript called The Chronicle of Pseudo-Zacharias Rhetor, archived in the rare books section of the British Library in London. The library acquired it from the British Museum, which bought it in 1847 from a trader who claimed it came from the St. Macarius Monastery in Egypt. Other scholars that have studied the manuscript have considered it marginal.
At least 1,450 years old, the chronicle is written in Syriac, a later form of Aramaic, the language that Jesus spoke. The so-called lost gospel is a chapter from that book, called the Story of Joseph and Aseneth.
Wilson and Jacobovici retained York University scholar Tony Burke to provide the first ever translation of the chronicle’s text into English. But the sixth century Syriac account is itself a translation of a much older, Greek version that the authors think may date from the time of Jesus himself.
On the surface, the Story of Joseph and Aseneth appears to chronicle the union of the Biblical Joseph and Aseneth, daughter of the Egyptian priest of On (Heliopolis). But Jacobovici and Wilson argue that, properly deciphered, Joseph and Aseneth are encrypted stand-ins for characters Gnostic Christians would have understood to be Jesus and Mary Magdalene.
This form of typology— in which Old Testament personages are said to represent or foreshadow the emergence of New Testament figures — was commonly adopted by Gnostic writers trying to evade the long, censorial arm of mainstream Christianity, which, as of the fourth century, outlawed all non-canonical texts. Only by speaking and reading in a kind of code could Gnostic adherents avoid repression or worse.
Thus, Aseneth and Joseph are described in language more appropriate to Jesus and Mary, and engage in rituals that have nothing to do with biblical Judaism and far more to do with Christianity.
Joseph, for example, is called the son of God, while Aseneth is dubbed “the Bride of God.” At one point in the narrative, after an angel-like figure marks a piece of honeycomb in blood with the sign of the cross, Aseneth eats a section of honeycomb, and is told: “Now you have eaten the bread of life and drunk the cup of life.”
“None of this is remotely Jewish,” Jacobovici tells The Times of Israel. “But it is deeply resonant of Christianity, specifically, the Communion ritual.”
‘Never once does Paul argue that Christians should be celibate, because Jesus was celibate’
Aseneth, the manuscript also says, lives in a tower. The Hebrew for “tower” is “Migdal,” the town Mary Magdalene hails from. Hence, Mary the Magdalene is Mary the Tower Lady.
The notion that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married, he maintains, is almost the historical equivalent of a slam dunk. Jesus was a rabbi and, then as now in Judaism, rabbis were traditionally married. Moreover, none of the four traditional Gospels makes reference to his celibacy. Jesus as Celibate was the invention of the apostle Paul.
“Had Jesus been celibate, Paul would certainly have invoked him as an example when arguing for celibacy,” Jacobovici argues. “But he doesn’t. Never once does Paul argue that Christians should be celibate, because Jesus was celibate.”
Finally, the Gospels record that Mary Magdalene prepared Jesus’ body for burial. But in the first century, no woman would touch the naked body of a dead rabbi, unless she was family.
“Jesus was whipped, beat and crucified,” Jacobovici, an observant Jew, says. “No woman would wash the blood and sweat off his private parts unless she was his wife.
If the allegory of Aseneth equals Mary Magdalene, and Joseph equal Jesus is correct, then the sexual nature of Jesus’ marriage is not in doubt. After a seven-day wedding feast, the text reads, “Joseph had intercourse with Aseneth… And Aseneth conceived from Joseph and gave birth to Manasseh and his brother Ephraim in Joseph’s house.”
The suggestion that there might indeed be a hidden layer of meaning in the Joseph and Aseneth story is supported by two letters
The suggestion that there might indeed be a hidden layer of meaning in the Joseph and Aseneth story is supported by two letters, written to Moses of Ingila, the monk charged with translating the work from Greek to Syriac. These were found attached to the manuscript. One of the letters explicitly says the document contains an “inner meaning” about “our Lord, our God, the Word.” But just as the letter is about to reveal what that meaning is, the letter is literally excised — according to the Lost Gospel authors, a blatant act of censorship. Elsewhere, the unknown author of the letters uses the ancient equivalents of “loose lips sink ships,” writing to Moses of Ingila, “The babbling mouth draws ruin near,” and “he who guards his mouth will preserve his life.”
Early reaction to the “Lost Gospel,” now being translated into French, Russian, Hungarian and Portuguese, has varied widely, from reflexively dismissive to cautiously positive. In the former category is University of Iowa professor of religion Robert Cargill, Jacobovici’s long-time intellectual adversary.
In a blog posting, Cargill contends that the lost gospel is neither lost (because it has long been known to scholars) nor a true gospel. It was written, Cargill contends, “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.”
‘We’re pattern-making animals, so we love a conspiracy’
Diarmaid MacCulloch, professor of the History of the Church at the University of Oxford, was equally dismissive. “We’re pattern-making animals, so we love a conspiracy,” he told the Daily Beast. “The Bible has never said enough about the lives of its characters to satisfy piety, so pious folk make things up.”
In the supportive camp stand Hartford University professor Richard Freund (“The book is sure to revolutionize future scholarship and excavations in the history of ancient Christianity and Judaism.”), and James Tabor, Professor of Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity at the University of North Carolina (“The public will find it fascinating, clerics will denounce it, and some academics will likely dismiss it as sensational—but it is well worth a careful read.”).
The most reasoned analysis so far has come from University of St. Andrews scholar Richard Bauckham, who has web-posted a detailed seven-part critique. Bauckham agrees that Joseph and Aseneth is a Christian manuscript, but sees no evidence for associating Aseneth with Mary Magdalene, or of reading the text as coded. He even finds echoes of Pauline ideas embedded in the story.
Nor is the theological linkage of the Aseneth-Joseph tale with Mary Magdalene and Jesus of Nazareth the end of Jacobovici and Wilson’s story. “The Lost Gospel” deconstructs the last portion of the ancient text to proffer more details of Jesus’ history.
In the Aseneth tale, the son of the pharaoh tries to kill Joseph and is himself later murdered. Jacobovici and Wilson find the first century CE parallel in Germanicus, adopted son of the Roman emperor, Tiberius, who was living in the region. He may have orchestrated unsuccessful plots on the lives of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and their sons, and was later killed.
Wilson, a professor of religious studies at York University in Toronto, acknowledges the book’s many detractors, but tells The Times of Israel, these are “typically people with a vested theological interest who either dismiss the book out of hand because of its findings, or who argue that the divine Jesus couldn’t have been married. While Christianity affirms that Jesus was both divine and human, many Christians… think of him as divine and therefore exempt from sexuality, marriage and family life.”
Other critics, he adds, have commented negatively without having read the book, “the publishing equivalent of a restaurant critic attacking an establishment he never even bothered to visit.”
Jacobovici, who made aliyah to Israel several years ago, is an Emmy-award winning filmmaker who has lately specialized in Biblical archaeology. His recent films have claimed to have found tombs belonging to Jesus’ family and his followers and the actual nails used at his crucifixion — attracting a loud chorus of criticism.
But Jacobovici thinks the reception accorded the new book has been significantly different in tone.
“Having Barrie Wilson gives the whole endeavour more credibility, “ he says. “And we are starting to see serious scholars assessing the work, not just knee-jerk dismissals from underwear bloggers. And at a minimum, we are getting credit for doing a service, providing the first English translation of the work.”