More on “The Lost Gospel”

I just got my copy of the new book, The Lost Gospel by Simcha Jacobovici and Barrie Wilson and have spent the past hour thumbing through it carefully in anticipation of giving it a close and careful read. It definitely is a substantial work, running over 400 pages with notes, illustrations, a new annotated translation of a Syriac manuscript of the ancient work Joseph and Asenath and its accompanying letters, bibliography, and index.

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My guess is that some who have dismissed the book before obtaining a copy might have cause to reshape their critiques after a careful reading. I plan to do just that over the next week or so and then offer what I hope will be a substantial and respectful review of its main arguments and evidence. Despite the focus on the issue of whether Jesus might have been married to Mary Magdalene it is clear to me already that the book is really about a much broader and more significant agenda–the origins and nature of what comes down to us in the 2nd and 3rd centuries as so-called “Gnostic” Christianity. The authors argue that alongside of Pauline Christianity, and the sort of “Jewish-Christianity,” represented by James the brother of Jesus and the Jerusalem church, is a far more Hellenized Galilean wing of the movement that understood Jesus and his partner Mary Magdalene as representatives of a mystical male/female cosmic union such as that known to us later through the gnostic theology of a figure like Valentinius, with secret rites of initiation such as are hinted at in “Secret Mark,” including Eucharist and baptism rituals that signified the “cosmic ascent,” and thus perfection of the soul.  Beyond the text of Joseph and Asenath, the authors find the evidence for such a system of interpretation in various archaeological discoveries including artistic representations of Jesus and his consort as Helios and Artemis. My first question is whether the text of Joseph and Asenath supports such a reading or not, can any of these ideas be reliably traced back to the 1st century CE. Jacobovici and Wilson are convinced such is the case and I am interested to hear them out on their arguments. I will offer my own take on all this in a forthcoming blog post or two, once I have had time to read the book carefully.

Was Jesus Likely Married?

If you ask most New Testament scholars the mantra is a firm and dogmatic “No”–there is not a shred of historical evidence that he was ever married or had children–the very idea is  baseless speculation at the best and cheap Holy Blood, Holy Grail/Davinci Code sensationalism at the worst. The argument most cited is that if Jesus had been married we would have surely had traditions, both within the New Testament and the so-called “Church fathers” that such was the case. The silence therefore is deafening. Jesus lived a celibate non-sexual life. Most are quick to add–at least the more “liberal” minded–that they don’t care a shred if he was or wasn’t–just that they don’t think there is any evidence that he was. This of course ignores the strongly dogmatic theological reasons the church clings to this day to an Ever-Virgin Jesus, parallel to a non-sexual Virgin Mary. The Holy Divine Son of God, and surely his Virginally Pure mother, never had sex.

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In fact there is strong textual evidence that at least hints if not affirms that Jesus was married–and most likely to Mary Magdalene.

First, there is the apostle Paul–who is our earliest literary witness to any form of “Christianity,” who strongly advocates and encourages celibacy or the non-sexual life–but only mentions himself–not Jesus–as an example thereof. And this in a section of 1 Corinthians, where he mentions other apostles traveling with their wives (even though these “phantom” wives are never named in any of our texts), and quotes Jesus to support his views on forbidding divorce. If Jesus had been celibate Paul would surely have appealed to him as his main example.

Second, in our earliest record of Jesus’ burial in Mark, the mysterious Mary Magdalene shows up out of nowhere, not only listed with Jesus’ own mother and a group of Galilean women, but clearly given first place and prominence. It is Mary Magdalene–above even Jesus’ mother or sister–who takes the lead in the Jewish burial rites for the corpse of Jesus–both washing and anointing his naked dead body. This is not the position of an outsider, or even a close “insider,” in terms of disciples or followers. This is an intimate honor and a duty reserved for ones closest relatives–particularly ones wife, mother, aunt, or sister. She appears and then disappears–though in John she is clearly the lone “first witness” to Jesus’ resurrection as well. Her disappearance is as strange as her sudden appearance. But then Mary Magdalene surfaces again in some of our 2nd and 3rd century gospels, as a prominent female leader, intimate companion of Jesus, and bearer of “secret” revelations. How is this to be best explained?

What one must always bear in mind is that the documents of our New Testament are overwhelmingly written in the 2nd generation of the movement, a decade or even several decades after Jerusalem’s destruction by the Romans in 70 CE–after the original followers of Jesus are either scattered or dead–including Peter, James, Mary Jesus’ mother, presumably Mary Magdalene, and even Paul. What we get in the case of Mary Magdalene are hints of her prominence, but also a muting of her status and role. A similar phenomenon occurs with James, and the Jesus family more generally (see my book, The Jesus Dynasty)  and their dominant leadership in the movement for its first 40 years. If all we had were the N.T. gospels were would hardly know James or his mother and brothers existed after Jesus’ death, much less the prominent position the family had in Jerusalem–and even the author of Luke-Acts fails to name the brothers of Jesus (ignoring Mark 6:3 which was his source for Luke 4), and only reluctantly mentions them in Acts 1 but not by name–and finally implies James is in charge of the entire movement in Acts 15 and 21–but never makes it explicit. Something is clearly going on here in terms of Jesus and his family and its prominence in the movement prior to 70 C.E.

There is much more which I cover fully in my book, The Jesus Discovery, but you can read a summary in my four-part blog series, “There’s Something About Mary,” beginning here.

“The Lost Gospel” A New Take on Jesus and Mary Magdalene

I am not at all keen on the crazy pre-publication sensationalism surrounding the release of a new book by authors Simcha Jacobovici and Barrie Wilson, The Lost Gospel: Decoding the Ancient Text that Reveals Jesus’ Marriage to Mary the Magdalene (Pegasus) that is to be released tomorrow with a press conference at the British Library in London. If the screaming Dan Brown/DaVinci Code style headlines in the Daily Mail were not enough, the harsh personal attacks of bloggers Robert Cargill and Greg Carey, not to mention the wildly inaccurate piece in the Washington Post by Terrence McCoy, who gets almost all his “facts” wrong,[1] have created lots of heat and almost no light. Cary admits he has not even read the book but sees zero evidence that Jesus was married. Mark Goodacre repeats the same on Good Morning AmericaCargill claims he has “read the book,” apparently in one day, presumably on Google Books which of course limits access and allows only scanning of parts of books, but is fully prepared to rush out what he calls a “review,” which ends up ignoring all the major points the book makes, ignores Wilson’s impressive scholarship, and primarily attacks Jacobovici personally.

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What is missing so far is any reasoned and informed evaluation by anyone who has carefully worked through this 444 page work, complete with appendices, new translations of this Syriac version of Joseph and Asenath, and notes. I have read a pre-publication version of the book and I can say that even as a trade book it is well worth a fair academic evaluation. Barrie Wilson is a first rate scholar and Simcha Jacobovici is a skilled writer and investigative journalist. I think they are a good team both well worth hearing out. I will be delving into the book and the various issues it raises further on this blog after I have time to read the final published book after its release tomorrow. There is a lot to say and I hope a more reasoned and civil dialogue might ensue among those of us who work in the field of Christian Origins. In the meantime co-author Simcha Jacobovici offers a nice overview of the research, the resulting book, and its conclusions here.

 

  1. McCoy missed the boat entirely on the James ossuary, the Zias trial lawsuit, the two Talpiot “Jesus” tombs,  and even the 2008 Jerusalem Talpiot Tomb conference, see here, herehere, and here. []

Mt Zion 2014 Dig: A Report from the Ground Up

Here is a great article about our 2014 Mt Zion dig in the midst of the kidnappings, murders and the Gaza conflict written by one of our UNC Charlotte student participants who also served as our excavation photographer this past summer. For more on the dig itself and our results see the Bible & Interpretation report filed here.

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Click on image for larger Web site version

Information on participation in our 2015 Mt Zion excavation will be posted soon at the Biblical Archaeology Society web page “Find a Dig,” in the January/February issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, and at our university web site: http://digmountzion.uncc.edu.