How Did the Romans Crucify?–New Archaeological Evidence

The four-part series “Biblical Conspiracies” airs on the Science Channel again tonight: December 23 beginning at 7PM EST:

7:00 PM Bride of God
Gathering dust at the British Library is a 1500-year-old manuscript, written by an anonymous monk. After millennia of rumors, this seems to be the first solid written evidence that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene.

8:00 & 11:00 PM Secrets of the Crucifixion
A scientific investigation of 2,000-year-old bones may hold the key to the Crucifixion, revealing that the classical depiction of Jesus on the cross may be all wrong.

9:00 PM Secrets of the Sculpture
The new discovery of a terra cotta sculpture attributed to Michelangelo contains a secret symbol that unlocks an ancient, untold story of murder, sex and politics with Michelangelo at its center.

10:00PM Nails of the Cross
Two nails were discovered in the tomb of the High Priest Caiaphas who, according to the gospels, sent Jesus to the Romans, who then sent him to the cross. Using high tech tools, scientists try to prove that these nails were used to crucify Jesus.

Two of the programs are of particular focus in that they have reshaped the entire discussion about how the Romans crucified–in other words, how were victims in fact attached to a cross by nails? It now appears we have the archaeological evidence to answer this question and those of us who have thought for years that nails were put through the wrists not the hands were simply wrong.

Screen Shot 2014-12-23 at 5.55.00 PM

Few have heard anything about the “Abba Cave,” discovered in 1971 in the north Jerusalem suburb of Givat Hamivtar–not far from the tomb of “Yehohanan,” the famous “crucified man,” discovered in 1968–about which much has been written. The Abba cave held the remains of another “crucified man,” with three nails–not just a single one in the heel bone–that clearly pinned the hands (not the wrists, as some have argued) in hook-like fashion to a cross beam. It was assumed back in the 1970s that these bones were buried and no longer available for analysis–but it turns out this is not the case. What is even more intriguing, the victim was arguably none other than Matitiyahu Antigonus–the last of the Hashmonean kings–who was both beheaded and crucified by Marc Anthony. in 37 BCE).

Despite recent nay-saying, by those who are apparently not aware of all the facts, including the available skeletal remains and nails mentioned here, the case that the tomb held the remains of a crucified/beheaded male, as Nicu Haas first indicated, is a convincing one, given this latest analysis from Prof. Hershkovitz. Also those who have argued that crucifixion nails went through the wrist not the hands, and that these nails are too “short” to be for crucifixion, are just mistaken. Hershkovitz has definitely clarified this issue. The nails are driven into the palm, then either angled or bent into a hook, not to hold up the body but to keep the hands and arms in place–thus “tacking” or pinning the hands to the wood behind. The hypothesis that this individual was the Hasmonean royal priest/king Antigonus turns out to be a live option.

In April, 2011 filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici released a film titled “Nails of the Cross,” part of a six-part series on the History Channel titled “Secrets of Christianity.” In this film Jacobovici claimed he had located two lost crucifixion nails, both of which had been originally found in the 1990 discovery of the tomb of the High Priest Caiaphas. The implication, according to Simcha, was these these might well have been nails used to crucify Jesus that Caiaphas superstitiously had buried with him in the common belief at the time that such nails had magical powers–perhaps for healing or to guarantee good fortune in the afterlife. The reaction from biblical scholars and archaeologists was dismissive, charges of Easter-time sensationalism, and denials that there was any evidence these nails were either used in anyones crucifixion much less that they could be identified as coming from the tomb of Caiaphas. Prof. Robert Cargill offered the most expansive critique, which you can read here, and Simcha replied to him, point by point, here.

This latest version of “Nails of the Cross” presents new evidence based on scientific tests that  the nails in Professor Hershkovitz’s lab match the Caiaphas tomb’s chemical signature, they can be traced to the bone box of the High Priest himself, they were in contact with bones, and perhaps most significantly, contain pieces of ironized cedar wood still adhering to the nail.

Naming the Unnamed “Beloved Disciple” and the “Comforter” in John’s Gospel

Who was the unnamed intimate who “lay close to the breast of Jesus” at the last supper, the one to whom he passes on the care of his mother Mary, just before his death, and the “eyewitness” source that lies behind the traditions now embedded in the Gospel of John? And what about the enigmatic “Comforter” or “Helper” who is to come after Jesus departs–so they will not be left orphans?

In my book The Jesus Dynasty (Simon & Schuster, 2006) I offer my reasons for thinking that the enigmatic figure in the Gospel of John, described as “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” or more commonly, the “Beloved Disciple,” is none other than James the brother of Jesus. I am not sure who has suggested this over the years but I first encountered the idea from Robert Eisenman.[1] This is the unnamed intimate who “lay close to the breast of Jesus” at the last supper, and the one to whom he passes on the care of his mother Mary, just before his death. He appears to also be the “eyewitness” source that lies behind the traditions now embedded in the Gospel of John (21:24).

Jesus-and-his-brother-James

Jesus and his Look-Alike brother James in a Byzantine Portrayal

The traditional view that the Beloved Disciple was the fisherman apostle John, one of the sons of Zebedee can be traced back as early as Irenaeus (c. 180 CE) and was made part of the official Church History of Eusebius in the early 4th century. [2]  This identification, however “beloved” to so many, seems highly unlikely. After all, from the few stories we have about John son of Zebedee, he has a fiery and ambitious personality—Jesus had nicknamed him and his brother the “sons of Thunder.” They are the two that had tried to obtain the two chief seats on the Council of Twelve, one asking for the right hand, the other the left. On another occasion they asked Jesus for permission to call down fire from heaven to consume a village that had not accepted their preaching (Luke 9:54). On both occasions Jesus had rebuked them. The image we get of John son of Zebedee is quite opposite from the tender intimacy of the “disciple whom Jesus loved.” No matter how ingrained the image might be in Christian imagination, it makes no sense to imagine John son of Zebedee seated next to Jesus, and leaning on his breast.

Eusebius also mentions another John, “the Elder,”perhaps the author of the New Testament letters of 2nd and 3rd John, whom some have seen as a more likely candidate than John the son of Zebedee[3] This view has been recently defended by Richard Bauckham in his massive study, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. A good summary of the arguments pro and con for these two Johns as the “beloved disciple” is on-line here.

Today there are several dozens of books in print suggesting various alternative identifications. Ben Witherington and others have suggested Lazarus, brother of the sisters Mary and Martha, whom Jesus raises from the dead in the gospel of John, see here.  In the gospel the sisters send word to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill” (John 11:3). This view has received some possible support from the fragment of “Secret Mark” that Morton Smith found, see here.  Mary Magdalene has also become a suggested candidate, despite the use of the masculine pronouns, see Ramon Jusino’s paper here. Most recently it has been suggested that an unnamed “son” of Jesus, whose identity had to be hidden, was the Beloved Disciple, see here. Some scholars have viewed the “beloved disciple” as a literary construction representing the “ideal disciple,” with no specific identity. James Charlesworth surveys all the possibilities with a full history of scholarship in his landmark book The Beloved Disciple, which I recommend as the best place to begin for readers with a serious interest in this question. Charlesworth ends up arguing for the apostle Thomas, an identification that I think is unique with him, while he is apparently unaware of the possibility of James the brother of Jesus–a choice that has not been part of the mainstream discussion.

Let’s take a look at the text themselves. The Gospel of John mentions the Beloved Disciple in only four scenes, all at the end of his narrative: at the Last Supper, at the Cross, at the empty Tomb, and on the Sea of Galilee after Jesus’ resurrection. Since he is never mentioned earlier we really have very little to go on. Here are the texts in the RSV translation:

1) John 13:23-25: One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was lying close to the breast of Jesus; so Simon Peter beckoned to him and said, “Tell us who it is of whom he speakings.” So lying thus, close to the breast of Jesus, he said to him, “Lord, who is it?”

2) John 19:26-27, 34-35: When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home…But one of the soldiers pieced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water. He who saw it has borne witness — his testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth — that you also may believe.

3) John 20:2-8 So she [Mary Magdalene] ran, and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Peter then came out with the other disciple, and they went toward the tomb. They both ran, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first; and stooping to look in he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. . . Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in. . .

4) John 21:1, 7, 20-24 After this Jesus revealed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he revealed himself in this way. 2 Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples were together…That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his clothes, for he was stripped for work, and sprang into the sea…Peter turned and saw following them the disciple whom Jesus loved, who had lain close to his breast at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” The saying spread abroad among the brethren that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?” This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things; and we know that his testimony is true.

It is also possible that the Beloved Disciple is mentioned in John 18:15 though he is not given that designation: “Simon Peter followed Jesus, and so did another disciple. As this disciple was known to the high priest, he entered the court of the high priest along with Jesus, while Peter stood outside at the door. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out and spoke to the maid who kept the door, and brought Peter in.”

Based on these texts I would make the following points:

1. The Beloved Disciple is a male, not a woman, and since Mary Magdalene arrives at the tomb and then runs to tell Peter and this “other disciple” whom Jesus loved, the news of the empty tomb, “he” cannot be Mary Magdalene.

2. Anyone mentioned by name in the Gospel of John, and especially in these latter chapters, 13-21, is likely not the Beloved Disciple, on the grounds that his identity is being veiled not revealed with a name. That means we can eliminate those mentioned in John 21:1-2, as well Philip, Andrew, and Judas Iscariot of the Twelve, but also Lazarus I think.

3. If we accept the reference in John 18:15 as referring to our figure, the Beloved Disciple seems to have priestly connections in that he is able to get Peter into the courtyard of the High Priest’s house, knowing the woman at the door.

4. The Beloved Disciple takes Jesus’ mother Mary into his care, when Jesus as the oldest son of the family was formerly responsible for the family as function “head of the house.” He is officially designated as the “son” meaning that he is now to carry on the caretaker function for the household that Jesus no longer could do. Whether this scene at the cross is to be taken as historical fact or not, I think it nonetheless reflects a tradition that Jesus’ mother was passed into the care of one who became the “son” in charge of the family, including his mother. Obviously he is gone from the scene and someone has to take over in terms of leadership in the family and care for his mother.

5. The Beloved Disciple is present at the last supper, and thus, based on Mark at least, possibly one of the Twelve, though John does not specify this, i.e., that the meal was with Jesus and the Twelve alone. The description of this disciple “lying close to Jesus’ breast” at the Last Supper indicates an honored place of proximity and intimacy. Jesus loves all his disciples but this particular one has a special place.

I am convinced that these traditions in the Gospel of John refer to a real person, not a symbolic figure. He should be known to us in other texts and in early Christian tradition by name. If we eliminate characters who are named in these latter sections of the Gospel, particularly Lazarus, Simon Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, Philip, Andrew, and James and John, the two sons of Zebedee, and Judas Iscariot, who is left?

Of the Twelve apostles it is noteworthy that the only ones not named in the Gospel of John are the “other” James, the “other” Jude, the “other” Simon, and Matthew. Jesus has three brothers: James, Simon, and Jude, as well as a fourth, Joseph. I think there might be some evidence, as I point out in The Jesus Dynasty, that Matthew is another brother, possibly even the one otherwise known as Joseph. This silence seems more than incidental or accidental.

Given these factors it seems to me that James the brother of Jesus surfaces as the best candidate. He is the one who takes over leadership of the followers of Jesus. The “mother and brothers” of Jesus are mentioned in the book of Acts as if they are intact and together (Acts 1:14). Although Luke is reluctant to name either Jesus’ mother or the brothers, given his emphasis on the dominance of Peter and eventually Paul as the main apostles, that he knows the tradition of the intact Jesus family, together in Jerusalem, gathered with the other followers is surely telling. And all the more so that he later has James as the clear head of the Jerusalem community (Acts 15:12-21). To have some other individual such as Lazarus, or the fisherman John, now functioning as caretaker over the family, just makes no sense at all with James present and functioning as leader of the community. I present arguments in my book that James the brother of Jesus was one of the Twelve, and is referred to otherwise as “James the less,” or “James the young one,” who has a brother named Joses. Mark names “James and Joses” as the two older brothers of Jesus. James the brother of Jesus also is known for his priestly orientation, even though his mother is Davidic if Luke’s genealogy is her own. As I discuss in the book, that line has a strong component of priestly/Levite blood running through it, just as Aaron married Elisheva, the leading princess of Judah. Hegisippus tells us that James wore the white linen of the priest, and a mitre of some type, and was allowed to enter the inner sanctuary of the Temple–perhaps as a representative of the Nazarenes. We also have the tradition in the Gospel of the Hebrews that James was indeed present at the last supper, and that Jesus handed over to him some kind of “garment” that signified his priestly office.

It is also possible that the references in John (14:16; 26; 15:26; 16:7) to the coming of “another Helper,” following Jesus’ departure, who will not only bring them to remember what Jesus taught but also “guide them into all Truth” is not the Holy Spirit, per se, but rather an individual or person who will be filled with the “Spirit of Truth” and thus not leave the disciples “orphaned.” This fits perfectly with the quotation in the Gospel of Thomas.

I think it likely that the community that ended up shaping the Gospel of John, as indicated in chapter 21:24, had access to eyewitness materials that originated with James the brother of Jesus. Much as in the case of the Gospel of Thomas, the final product that has come down to us is considerably expanded in Gnostic/dualistic directions and a heavy theological overlay. It is noteworthy that the Gospel of Thomas also highlights James as the one to whom Jesus had passed on his authority, in a Logion that some have dated as early as the 40s CE, even though in its present form this work seems far removed from the theological perspectives of the historical James. I think the same is likely the case with the Gospel of John. I close with the key quotation from the Gospel of Thomas:

 The disciples said to Jesus, “We are aware that you will depart from us. Who will be the greatest over us?” Jesus said to him, “No matter where you come it is to James the Just that you shall go, for whose sake heaven and earth have come to exist.” (Logion 12)

It is also possible that the references in John (14:16; 26; 15:26; 16:7) to the coming of “another Helper,” (παρακλητος) following Jesus’ departure, who will not only bring them to remember what Jesus taught but also “guide them into all Truth” is not the Holy Spirit, per se, but rather an individual or person who will be filled with the “Spirit of Truth” and thus not leave the disciples “orphaned.” This would account for the way in which this figure is spoken of in such personal terms. This fits perfectly with the quotation in the Gospel of Thomas. We know that the Ebiionites understood the “Christ Spirit” to be one that “hastened through the ages,” and could pass from Jesus to his brother James in terms of inspiration, authority, and function.

In my book, The Jesus DynastyI argue that the recovery of faith by the disciples in the Galilee was largely attributed to the presence of Jesus’ brother James who well might have looked enough like Jesus to provide them with both guidance and comfort in their “orphaned” state. This would not preclude visionary “resurrection” sightings and “appearances” of Jesus, as Paul recounts in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, and indeed, many scholars see two traditions embedded here in Paul’s testimony–one based on an appearance to Peter in Jerusalem (Luke & John), and the other “to James and all the apostles,” only after they returned to Galilee (Mark, Matthew, John 21, Gospel of Peter).

 

  1. See his book James the Brother of Jesus, p.992n28/p. 120. []
  2. Church History 6. 25. []
  3. Eusebius, Church History 5. 24. []

Jacobovici Responds to Bauckham Review of “Lost Gospel”

Update: Bauckham has now posted Parts 3 his review of the book here as well as Part 4 which is a counter-response to Jacobovici’s initial response to his Parts 1 & 2, here.

Last week Richard Bauckham began a serial publication of his detailed assessment of the new book, The Lost Gospel, by Simcha Jacovovici and Barrie Wilson via Mark Goodacre’s blog. Here are the links to Part 1 and Part 2.

Jesus as the sun-god Helios/Sol Invictus Vatican grottoes under St. Peter's Basilica.

Jesus as the sun-god Helios/Sol Invictus Vatican grottoes under St. Peter’s Basilica.

Simcha has just posted a detailed response to Parts 1 and 2 at his Web site here and here. This respectful and informative exchange is most welcome.

Update: Bauckham has now posted Parts 3 his review of the book here as well as Part 4 which is a counter-response to Jacobovici’s initial response to his Parts 1 & 2, here.

Simcha also offers an overview of the thesis of his new book in a Huffington Post blog post, “Jesus’ Marriage to Mary Magdalene is Fact Not Fiction,” that is trending “most popular” on the Religion Home page this morning with 4.4K “likes”

In related news the Washington Post issued a correction and an apology for its initial story on the new book in which the writer had incorrectly asserted that Discovery TV, that produced Simcha’s 2002 documentary on the “James ossuary,” had called it “one of the top ten hoaxes of all time.” Neither Discovery nor any of its agents ever made no such statement and the source was actually Joe Zias, whom Simcha is suing for just that sort of libel. In fact Discovery aired two of Simcha’s subsequent documentaries on the Talpiot Tombs (“The Lost Tomb of Jesus” (2007) and “The Resurrection Tomb Mystery” (2010), both of which it still promotes on its web site). The companion documentary to the Lost Gospel titled the “Bride of God” that will air on Discovery Science, December 14 and 21.

Simcha has also responded to Bill O’Reilly’s charge that he is “stupid” and that Jesus never had any brothers or sisters, see here.

 

JFK and Jesus: 50 Years and Counting…

The 51st anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy was all over the media this weekend and much on our collective minds. I happened to catch some of the CNN specials on “The 60s” with many reflections of our society and its changes–good and bad. Those of us in our 60s and older have very vivid memories of that day in Dallas–Friday, November 22, 1963. It all comes back so vividly. In my case it was truly a kind of “coming of age.”  I was a young 17 year old freshman in college at what was then Abilene Christian College sitting in 1st year Bible class–a required course for all students–taught by Carl Brecheen. Around noon someone knocked on the classroom door and told us that President Kennedy had been shot. An audible gasp of shocked disbelief filled the room and Dr. Brecheen had us stand as he led a short prayer, then dismissed the class so we could get to the nearest television. The country and the world were in a state of utter shock. That weekend is a blur as we clustered in groups around televisions with little to say other than “I just can’t believe it.” For me the election of 1960 was truly a “coming of age.” I felt with many of my friends that somehow our “world” had ended that day.I My father likened the experience to the shock over the Pearl Harbor attack, when he like hundreds of thousands of others joined the service the Monday after. The only thing remotely like it in my life has been September 11th, 2001, in terms of the collective shock.

JFK2

So now 50 years have passed and I began to think this morning about the generation living in Judea and Galilee in the time of Jesus 50 years after his shocking murder by the Roman authorities in April 30 CE. What were things like 50 years later–around the year 80 CE? What about those living at that time in their 60s and older, who had either known or heard Jesus or seen or heard about his death? What would they remember?

Crucifixion Fedor_Bronnikov_002

We know that the years 66-73 CE were horrible years of death, destruction, and societal disruption as a result of the Jewish Roman Revolt chronicled in such detail by eyewitness Flavius Josephus (Joseph bar Matthias). To understand better the background and foreground of the times I tell my Christian Origins students that before they even think about reading our New Testament documents if they are interested in understanding the Jewish Roman world of Jesus they need to wear out of a copy of Josephus’s Jewish War (Bellum Judaicum) published around 75 CE.[1] Josephus served as both a Jewish commander in the Revolt but following his capture a confident and friend of the emperors Vespasian and subsequently Titus and Domitian. Along with a copy of Josephus I would also recommend The Historical Jesus in Context (eds. Levine, Allsion, Crossan) for the broader context of the “life and times” of Jesus.

I think there is no doubt that the generation of those who had heard of or known Jesus 50 years earlier would have memories both vivid and faded–just as some of our own regarding the death of President Kennedy–which undoubtedly have been refreshed tremendously by photos and film in the intervening years. But still, 50 years is just not that long a time. We all have memories of people, places, and even events and conversations that reach back that far. But as every family knows when someone recounts such things at a typical family gathering there can be drastic differences on details of chronology and setting! But still, with over 40,000 books now published on John F. Kennedy, and an abundance of sources that would take a lifetime to even access–photos, letters, documents, films, and memorabilia–biographers still can’t agree on much about Kennedy–whether in life or death.

So what about remembering Jesus in 80 CE? There is absolutely no doubt that there would have been many who had known or heard–or even heard about–Jesus who would have vivid memories of him, his teaching, and even his death. The problem we face is that other than a basic framework in Paul’s letters (which date back to the 50s CE)–i.e., references to Jesus being crucified, to Cephas, to James his brother, etc.–we have no eyewitness accounts or even contemporary secondary sources that give us anything about Jesus. There is simply no comparison in terms of historical sources and materials between what we have on JFK and what we have on Jesus.

What we have is a single source–the gospel we call Mark, which most of us date in the 70s CE. The problem with “Mark” is that the name is merely a traditional designation–it is not part of the ancient work itself–and the writer neither claims to be an eyewitness nor presents material that one might associate with eyewitness testimony.

Mark is a theological production–a highly self-conscious literary presentation of what the author represents as the “Gospel of Jesus Christ” (Mark 1:1, some manuscripts add “Son of God”). You might call it a “Drama about Jesus in three Acts” (roughly chapters 1-8a; 8b-10; 11-16). That does no mean it contains no history at all–indeed the basic narrative framework of Jesus in Galilee and Jerusalem is generally considered reliable by most critical historians. That would include Jesus growing up in Nazareth, associating with John the Baptizer, preaching an apocalyptic message of the imminence of the Kingdom of God, gathering together a group of followers, healing and casting out demons, and confronting the authorities in Jerusalem at Passover in 30 CE.

But Mark is far removed from the kind of memories one would encounter in interviewing people regarding what they remember about November 22, 1963–or even talking to those who actually knew President Kennedy in one capacity or another. There is plenty of myth, legend, and anecdote floating around–since Kennedy has become such an iconic figure–but no dearth of firsthand oral memory.

And that is what we don’t have with Jesus. Mark was subsequently overwritten by Matthew, who used him as a source, reshaped his story considerably, and expanded it with blocks of “teaching” materials or “sayings” of Jesus that are not known to Mark. Matthew clearly has his own very theological agenda–and as with Mark, the name “Matthew” is a traditional association, not one inherent to the work itself. Despite the common assumption that he is an eyewitness (one of the Twelve!), the book itself never makes such a claim, and its content is never presented in the style of eyewitness material. Matthew’s sayings material (most often called the Q source by scholars) seems to have a history that goes back earlier than Matthew’s composition, but it is anonymous and amorphous, and much of it exists in a different version in Luke.

Scholars have expended an enormous amount of effort the past 50 years trying to systematically evaluate our gospel sources in an effort to get back to the historical Jesus.  We don’t all agree on our conclusions but the issues have been significantly sharpened and in some areas there is consensus.  I would recommend first and foremost Dale Allison’s works in this area, starting with his Jesus of Nazareth: Millennarium Prophet and then his more substantial work Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History. The latter work is deals specifically with the question of what was remembered, by whom, and how was it passed on and shaped. The one central insight that many of us share, including my own take on Jesus in The Jesus Dynasty, is, to quote Dale Allison, “our choice is not between an apocalyptic Jesus and some other Jesus; it is between an apocalyptic Jesus and no Jesus at all.”

It is this radical apocalyptic outlook that most heavily effects out ability to access “memories” of Jesus during the first 50 years. Not only was the world of 1st century Jewish Judea and Galilee utterly shattered by the Great War with Rome, but the hopes and expectations of the Jesus movement had utterly failed by 80 CE. What they most expected to happen never came–namely the “Coming of the Son of Man in the Clouds of Heaven,” and what they least imagined came about–the triumph of the Roman Imperial “Beast” over all enemies and opposition. In my view the early followers of Jesus are best understood 50 years after his death as emerging through the crisis scholars have characterized as “When prophecy fails,” brought on by the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. In my view S. G. F. Brandon’s monumental work, The Fall of Jerusalem and the Christian Church is among the most important work in the field of Christian Origins. I have written extensively on this phenomenon of early Christian apocalypticism, see my blog post “Getting Up to Speed on Apocalypticism,” here for some references and links.

  1. The Penguin paperback translated by Williamson and Smallwood is easy to obtain and a good first choice []

A Married Jesus: Why I Changed My Mind (Part 4)

In early Christian tradition outside the New Testament Mary Magdalene’s profile is elaborated considerably, she is prominent among the followers of Jesus, she speaks boldly and is often in open conflict with the male disciples, she is an intimate companion of Jesus and he praises her for her superior spiritual understanding and defends her against the criticism of the other apostles who are jealous of her role and standing.

N.B. To better explore the texts quoted in this post, examining their relevance, history, and wider context, see my post on Marvin Meyer’s book, The Gospels of Mary: The Secret Tradition of Mary Magdalene the Companion of Jesus,” and particularly the movingly challenging essay conclusion by Esther A. de Boer, “‘Should We All Turn and Listen to Her?’ Mary Magdalene in the Spotlight.” I also highly recommend the recent article by Birger Pearson, one of the world’s experts on these “gnostic” materials, addressing the question “Was Mary Magdalene the Wife of Jesus?” which I posted with some comments here.

Mary Magdalene as the Apostle of the Apostles

            We have seen how Mary Magdalene, and in some case her female entourage, are portrayed as “first witness” to Jesus’ empty tomb and given the commission to tell the male disciples he is risen in our New Testament gospels. In Mark the women flee from the tomb and say nothing to anyone (Mark 16:9). In Luke they report to the Eleven remaining apostles but their testimony is considered an “idle tale” (Luke 24:11). In Matthew, as the women flee the tomb they meet Jesus, grab hold of his feet, and worship him, and he directs them to tell the male apostles he will meet them in Galilee (Matthew 28:9-10). Finally in John, Mary goes alone to the tomb and has her personal encounter and exchange with Jesus, thus becoming the singular first witness to Jesus raised from the dead and ascending to heaven (John 20:11-18).

Outside the New Testament there are a dozen or so ancient texts, most of them discovered in the last hundred years, that present an alternative “lost” portrait of Mary Magdalene and her role as Jesus’ female apostle extraordinaire—quite literally the apostle of the apostles and the successor to Jesus. Five of them were discovered in Egypt in 1945, buried in a jar in a field outside a village called Nag Hammadi.  These texts are:  The Gospel of ThomasThe Dialogue of the SaviorThe First Apocalypse of JamesThe Gospel of Philip, and The Sophia of Jesus Christ. The others, including Pistis SophiaThe Gospel of Mary, and the Acts of Philip, have turned up in various places, whether on the antiquities market, an archaeological dig, or lost or forgotten in ancient libraries. In these texts Mary Magdalene is Jesus’ intimate confidant and companion, one who possesses unparalleled spiritual insights that she received directly from him. She is praised, but also at times opposed—especially by Peter, leader of the male apostles, who is threatened by her position and status based on her special relationship with Jesus. These texts originate outside the mainstream, that is, the male dominated form of orthodox Christianity that began to take hold and triumph down to the time of Constantine, the first Christian emperor (c. 325 CE). The canonical New Testament, with its twenty-seven approved documents were increasingly seen to be the only authorized texts, inspired by God, while these other sacred texts were marginalized, declared heretical, and eventually lost and forgotten. They are witness to the diverse mix of “Christianities” that were developing in the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE before a more singular orthodoxy, backed by Christian councils and creeds, took center stage.

Professor Schaberg has constructed a working profile of Mary Magdalene from these texts, isolating the major elements. She is prominent among the followers of Jesus, she speaks boldly and is often in open conflict with the male disciples, she is an intimate companion of Jesus and he praises her for her superior spiritual understanding and defends her.[i]

Each of these texts contains an assortment of these elements but one in particular, The Gospel of Mary, has them all. This is an extraordinary text. Before there were only gospels of men but now we have a gospel of a woman—not just any woman—Mary Magdalene. A fragmentary copy of The Gospel of Mary was purchased in Cairo in 1896. It is written in Coptic but was likely translated from a Greek original. It dates to the early 2nd century.[ii] In this text Mary Magdalene is a beloved disciple of Jesus, taking center stage in leading the apostles and encouraging them. Peter is jealous of her, but admits her status as one closer to Jesus than anyone else, and more important, one who received revelations that the male disciples were not privy to:

Peter said to Mary: “Sister we know the savior loved you more than any other woman. Tell us the words of the savior that you remember, which you know but we do not, because we have not heard them.” Mary answered and said, “What is hidden from you I shall reveal to you” (Gospel of Mary 10).[iii]

As she begins to recount her visionary message both Peter and his brother Andrew express doubts about her veracity and question her authority. Peter objects:

Did he really speak with a woman in private without our knowledge? Should we all turn and listen to her? Did he prefer her to us? (Gospel of Mary 18).

Levi, who is better known as Matthew in the New Testament, defends her and rebukes Peter:

If the savior made her worthy, who are you to reject her? Surely the savior knows her well. That is why he has loved her more than us (Gospel of Mary 18).

The message Mary reveals, in this and many of these other texts, has been characterized as Gnostic, but most scholars consider the term to be less than helpful in characterizing the Christian groups reflected in these texts with their alternative versions of Christianity. It tends to lump them together as a monolithic whole.[iv] In my analysis I am not so much interested in the content as the framework of the profile of Mary Magdalene and her prominent status alongside Jesus.

The Gospel of Philip is a beautifully written “gnostic” sermon by the followers of the brilliant 2nd century early Christian mystic and teacher, Valentinus. Some have even suggested he is the author of the text. It only refers to Mary Magdalene twice, but both passages are noteworthy:

Three women walked with the master: Mary his mother, [his] sister, and Mary Magdalene, who is called his companion. For “Mary” is the name of his sister, his mother, and his companion (Gospel of Philip 59:6-10).

The companion of the [savior] is Mary Magdalene. The [savior loved] her more than [all] the disciples, [and he] kissed her often on her [mouth]. The other [disciples] said to him, Why do you love her more than all of us? (Gospel of Philip 63:32-64, 9).

The word translated “companion” means his partner or consort. There is a worm hole in the papyrus right at the point where it says Jesus used to kiss Mary often on the …? Most scholars have restored this to “mouth.”  Whether this relationship between the two involved sexual intimacy or not, scholars have debated, but given what we know of Valentinian ideas it most likely did. It was considered a “sacred union,” but it was nonetheless carried out through the vehicle of the body.[v]

Pistis Sophia contains a series of questions asked of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene has the most prominent role among the disciples. She asks thirty-nine of the forty-six questions and offers elegant teachings about the nature of life in the world.  Jesus extravagantly praises her:

Blessed Mary, you whom I shall complete with all the mysteries on high, speak openly, for you are one whose heart is set on heaven’s kingdom more than all your brothers (Pistis Sophis 18).

Peter complains about her, telling Jesus “we cannot endure this woman,” but Jesus praises her pure spiritual insights and declares her the most blessed of all women.

Scholars who work on these texts generally do not take the prominent and privileged portrait of Mary Magdalene reflected therein unmediated history. Clearly the accounts themselves have been embellished and elaborated for theological reasons. However, it is generally agreed that since she becomes the vehicle for these alternative forms of emerging Christianity her special role in the life of the historical Jesus, more muted in our New Testament gospels, was not a fictional creation lacking any basis whatsoever. Many of them come from the 2nd century CE and are accordingly not so far removed from the earlier Christian oral tradition.

Mary Magdalene and the Talpiot Tombs

 We live in an age of the rediscovery of long lost texts and ancient manuscripts that are adding immensely to our understanding of early Christianity. Along with the exposure of the archaeology of ancient Jerusalem, we truly stand on new ground as we seek to evaluate the evidence found in the Talpiot tombs, especially with regard to Mariamene Mara and her role in Jesus’ life and family.

Given the collective evidence, and particularly the unique tradition that the gospel of John adds to the core story of Mary Magdalene from Mark and Matthew, it seems entirely plausible that the enigmatic figure of Mary Magdalene as first witness to Jesus’ resurrection can be seen alongside that of “Mary of Bethany,” and the unnamed woman who anoints Jesus’ head as well as his feet and dries them with her hair. These are acts of intimacy, as is the preparation of his body for burial, seem most appropriate for a wife. The fact that her first impulse on seeing Jesus resurrected was to touch him, further suggest the intimate relationship between them.  Taken together, these texts along with the later 2nd century “gnostic” ones, provide us with a broader context in which the evidence form the Talpiot tombs can be read in a new light. Jesus may very well have been married and had a son named Judah, and to reject this tomb as that of Jesus of Nazareth on the grounds that he could not have been, is based on traditional bias and misguided criteria.

The position of Mary of Bethany in the gospel of John also offers a new interpretive possibility for the names in the Talpiot tomb. If the traditions about her and about Mary Magdalene are confused, as they seem to be in the New Testament gospels, then Mary Magdalene might well have had a sister named Martha. Some scholars have read the Mariamene Mara ossuary inscription as Mariam and Mara—referring to two women named Mary and Martha. I am convinced otherwise, namely that Mara is more likely a title of honor for Mariamene, but having these two sisters, “Mary and Martha,” buried together in a single ossuary, one the mother of Jesus’ son, the other her unmarried sister, would also fit closely with the thesis that the Talpiot Jesus tomb is the family tomb of Jesus.


[i] Schaberg, Mary Magdalene Understood, pp. 71-97.

[ii] Karen L. King, The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press, 2003) is the most thorough study of this text with a full introduction and translation. Since the discovery of the Coptic manuscript two additional fragments in Greek have turned up. King includes them as well in her analysis.

[iii] Translations of these Mary Magdalene related texts that of Marvin Meyer, The Gospels of Mary: The Secret Tradition of Mary Magdalene the Companion of Jesus (New York: Harper SanFrancisco, 2004).

[iv] See Schaberg’s observations in Mary Magdalene Understood, pp. 68-71.

[v] See April D. DeConick, The Great Mystery of Marriage: Sex and Conception in Ancient Valentinian Traditions,” Vigiliae Christianae 57 (2003): 307-342.