DOES AN ANCIENT TEXT PROVE THAT JESUS WAS MARRIED TO MARY MAGDALENE AND HAD CHILDREN? A Response to The Lost Gospel by Simcha Jacobovici and Barrie Wilson

© 2014, by John Tors.  All Rights Reserved.

 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014, saw the release of a new book called The Lost Gospel: Decoding the Ancient Text that Reveals Jesus’ Marriage to Mary Magdalene,[1] by Simcha Jacobovici (co-author of the risible The Jesus Family Tomb)[2] and Barrie Wilson (author of the less sensationalistic but equally risible How Jesus Became Christian).[3]  The Globe and Mail featured an article on The Lost Gospel the next day, entitled “Book says Jesus was married, had kids,” by Michael Posner,[4] and the Toronto Star had one the day after entitled “Jesus, Mary Magdalene married, say researchers,” by AP reporter Jill Lawless[5].

 

Is there anything to this book’s claim that an ancient text reveals that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and had children?  In a word, no.  In fact, the entire enterprise is nonsense.

 

First, the ancient document in question, specifically British Library Manuscript Number 17,202,[6] is not “lost.”  On the contrary, it has been known to scholars and studied for more than a century.  A Latin translation was published back in 1838, and an English translation in 1899.[7]

 

Second, the ancient document is not a “gospel.”  It is a Syriac translation of an excerpt from an earlier Greek book of ecclesiastical history, possibly embellished.

 

Third, the document is far too late to have any credibility regarding facts about the historical Jesus.  It dates to the late 6th century AD,[8] a good half millennium after the time of Jesus.  The no-longer-extant writing on which it is based, in turn, was written no earlier than the late 5th century AD.  (The latest events described within it date to the year AD 491).[9]

 

To be sure, the authors try to get around this problem, claiming, in what can only be considered a spectacular bluff, that

 

“even that previous document[[10]] was most likely a copy of a still earlier work. It was copied, like the New Testament documents themselves, by generations of dedicated scribes who toiled to preserve this precious tale for future readers.  The story this Syriac manuscript relates, therefore, stretches back in history – beyond the 4th and 3rd centuries – as far back as the 2nd or perhaps even the 1st century C.E.  Put differently, the story that British Library Manuscript Number 17,202 tells may go as far back as Jesus’ lifetime or shortly thereafter.  It reaches back to the time when the canonical Gospels found in the New Testament were being written.”[11]

 

This is not only disingenuous, it is stupid.  When the only actual evidence we have dates to the late 5th century, one cannot simply spin a tale of copying and assert that the story goes “back to the time when the canonical Gospels found in the New Testament were being written.”  Even if Zacharias Rhetor was passing on an earlier story, there is no way to know that it goes back to as far as the mid-1st century AD.

 

It is particularly embarrassing to see them try to convince the reader that this story is somehow on an even footing with the New Testament Gospel books, pointing out that “the earliest surviving complete copies of the Gospels date no earlier than the 4th century.  In both cases – our manuscript and the canonical Gospels – we do not know who the author was.”[12]  In fact, the overwhelming historical evidence conclusively shows that the canonical Gospel books were written, respectively, by Matthew the apostle, Mark the fellow worker of the apostle Peter, Luke the co-labourer of Paul, and John the apostle;[13] the fact that liberal scholars don’t want to admit this is neither here nor there.

 

Furthermore, while “the earliest surviving complete copies of the Gospels date no earlier than the 4th century,” we have a wealth of partial manuscripts of the Gospel books from the third and second centuries, and possibly even the late 1st century AD, and a continuous stream of quotations from them that go back even to the earliest subapostolic writer, Clement of Rome, whose epistle dates to AD 68-70.  There is no such thing for the story in Pseudo-Zacharias Rhetor; on the contrary, there is absolutely nothing prior to the one extant late 6th -century manuscript.

 

Jacobovici and Wilson later try to buttress their claim that their “ancient text” is early by appealing to several scholars who date the writing to AD 100 or earlier,[14] but here they are too clever by half; some of the scholars they cite date the work to the 1st or even 2nd centuries BC, and Jacobovici and Wilson are noticeably silent about how a coded story could have been written about Jesus a century or two before His earthly ministry began.  Either way, Cargill correctly points out that the only actual evidence we have for this story dates to the late 6th century AD, and attempts to date it earlier are nothing more than “hopeful speculation.”[15]  One cannot fail to note the shameful double standard used by liberal scholars here; even hard evidence regarding the dates and authorship of the canonical Gospel books is routinely ignored, but baseless speculation is treated as conclusive proof for any material that may be used in an attempt to undermine the historical basis of Christianity.

 

Fourth, and most important, Jacobovici and Wilson’s “ancient text” says nothing about Jesus or Mary Magdalene.  The story is a highly embellished and fictional account of Joseph, the Old Testament patriarch, and his wife, Asenath, who was the daughter of an Egyptian priest.[16]  This would seem to be no small problem if one wishes to claim that this “ancient text,” which says nothing about Jesus or Mary, “reveals Jesus’ marriage to Mary the Magdalene.”

 

But wait, say Jacobovici and Wilson, it’s in code!  You have to decode it!  Well, why should we think this is in code, instead of taking it as exactly what it is, a fictionalized story of Joseph and Asenath?[17] Jacobovici and Wilson appeal to “two remarkable cover letters that were found attached to the manuscript.  According to Mr. Jacobovici, the letters expressly state that there is a hidden meaning embedded in the narrative.”[18]

 

This, however, is worthless.  Moses of Ingila, in one of the covering letters, replying to an inquiry in the other, writes that “For I have read the story from the old Greek book you sent to me, and there is inner meaning in it.  In short, to tell the truth: our Lord, our God, the Word who, at the will of the father and by the power of the Holy Spirit of the Lord, took flesh, and <became human> and was united to the soul with its senses completely…”[19]

 

This is not of the slightest significance.  First, “inner meaning” can mean many different things, including simple moral lessons.  In no way, then, does this statement of Moses of Ingila justify substituting “Jesus” and “Mary Magdalene” for “Joseph” and “Asenath” in the account.  Second, Moses of Ingila is writing in about the year AD 550,[20] well into the Christopagan Roman Catholic era, and half a millennium after Jesus’ time.  Why should anyone think that what he says about this work is correct?  He is in no position to know, especially if the work is as early as Jacobovici and Wilson want us to believe it is.  And even if it could be shown that this Moses believed the work was an allegory about Jesus and Mary – and no such thing can be shown – why should anyone believe he is right?  And even if he were right and this writing were such an allegory, all it would mean is that the original writer of the story believed an outlandish tale, not that it was historical true.  So the “two remarkable cover letters” to which Jacobovici and Wilson appeal, are utterly useless for proving their case.

 

Jacobovici and Wilson are not quite done, though.  They claim that in this ancient text “Joseph is referred to as ‘the son of God,’…[but] Never in the first century, says Mr. Jacobovici, ‘never in the hundreds of years before or afterward, nowhere in Rabbinic literature did a Jew call another Jew the son of God.’”[21]

 

Again, however, Jacobovici and Wilson fail utterly.  We do not know who originally wrote this story of Joseph and Asenath, but it is certainly not historical and there is no reason to expect that it will be free of historical errors.  However, it should be noted that, contra Jacobovici and Wilson, no Jew does call another Jew “the son of God” in this account.  Yes, Joseph is referred to as “the son of God” twice, but both times it is by Asenath before her conversion,[22] when she is a pagan who believed that Pharaoh was a god and that humans could indeed be sons of God.  After her conversion to the One True God of the Bible,[23] she never again calls Joseph “the son of God.”[24]

 

Jacobovici and Wilson play one more card, and if they have not made complete fools of themselves by this point, they certainly do so now.  They claim that in this ancient text Joseph “makes the sign of the cross in blood…nowhere do Jews make the sign of the cross in blood.”[25]  Indeed, they don’t.  But let us look at the relevant passage:

 

“And he turned again and stretched his right hand to the honeycomb and touched it with his finger deliberately on its eastern side.  And he drew the part to him <and the path of the honey was now blood>.  And he turned again and stretched his right hand and, with his finger, he touched the western side of the comb. And where he touched it, the path of the honey was now blood.  And again he stretched his hand and, with his finger, touched the northern part of the comb.  And he drew it to himself, and again the path of the honey was now blood.  And he stretched his hand again and, with his finger, he touched it on the southern side of the honeycomb.  And again, the path of the honey was now blood.”[26]

 

Jacobovici and Wilson insist that “the heavenly man has made the sign of the cross – in blood – on the Communion honeycomb. There is clearly no parallel within either the Hebrew Bible or within Judaism for this.  This is unmistakably Christian symbolism…the cross – in blood – could not be made clearer as a Christian symbol.”[27]

 

Oh, really?

 

Now, as we have seen Jacobovici and Wilson want to insist that this “ancient text” is early, as early as the canonical Gospel books, which raises a problem for them: there was no “sign of the cross” among Christians as early as that.  In fact, the earliest record of any “sign of the cross” is in Tertullian’s De cor. Mil., iii, from the early third century AD – and then it was simply a small mark on the forehead.  When the “four-point cross,” which is what Jacobovici and Wilson see this as, came into use is unknown, but it did not become prevalent until the ninth century AD, long after this document was written.[28]  Furthermore, the sign of the cross is always done on one’s own body, not on an external object facing one, and it does not involve blood.  So what we see in this “ancient text” is not the sign of the cross.

 

So what is it?  Jacobovici and Wilson claim that “there is clearly no parallel within either the Hebrew Bible or within Judaism for this,” but they are wildly wrong.  Consider the following from God’s instructions for the Passover ritual:

 

“Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male of the first year. You may take it from the sheep or from the goats. Now you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of the same month. Then the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill it at twilight. And they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and on the lintel of the houses where they eat it….Then Moses called for all the elders of Israel and said to them, ‘Pick out and take lambs for yourselves according to your families, and kill the Passover lamb.  And you shall take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and strike the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood that is in the basin. And none of you shall go out of the door of his house until morning.  For the Lord will pass through to strike the Egyptians; and when He sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the Lord will pass over the door and not allow the destroyer to come into your houses to strike you.  And you shall observe this thing as an ordinance for you and your sons forever.’” (Exodus 12:5-7, 21-24, bolding added)

 

Now, this ritual does involve blood, and is done not on oneself but on an object in front of one.  One touches the east, west, and north, and the place touched will then feature blood (and it will drip down from the north to the south).  This is a far closer parallel to the account in the “ancient text” than any yet-to-exist sign of the cross, and it is found in the “Hebrew Bible” and “within Judaism.”  How Jacobovici and Wilson missed this is difficult to see, but what is clear is that these two authors have completely stultified themselves.

 

It is laughable, in light of this, that Wilson would have the chutzpah to ask, “Why are they so fearful of a married Jesus?  Are they trying to protect a theological agenda?  All we’re doing is adding to the fund of historical knowledge about him.”[29]  On the contrary, what they’re doing is spinning yet another liberal fairy tale on an intellectual par with “Elvis Found Living in Loch Ness!” “Space Aliens Ate My Chevrolet!” and “Simple Lifeless Chemicals Spontaneously Self-Assembled into a Living Cell!”  In conclusion, then, the claims of The Lost Gospel: Decoding the Ancient Text that Reveals Jesus’ Marriage to Mary Magdalene are a non-starter.

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[1] Jacobovici, Simcha and Barrie Wilson. The Lost Gospel: Decoding the Ancient Text That Reveals Jesus’ Marriage to Mary the Magdalene. Toronto: HarperCollinsPublishersLtd., 2014.

[2] Jacobovici, Simcha and Charles Pellegrino.  The Jesus Family Tomb: The Discovery, the Investigation, and the Evidence That Could Change History. San Francisco; Harper Collins, 2007.  Needless to say, it did not change history.  See Tors, John. “Don’t buy into the Jesus tomb myth.” Letters, National Post, Feb. 28, 2007, p.A15 and Tors, John. Letters, Toronto Star, Feb.28, 2007, p.A17 for brief but thorough demolitions of the book’s claims.

[3] Wilson, Barrie. How Jesus Became Christian.  Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2008.  This is a standard serving of liberal Protestant claims that assume that the Gospel books were not eyewitness testimony and invent alternative explanations for Jesus.

[4] Posner, Michael. “Book says Jesus was married, had kids,” The Globe and Mail, November 12, 2014, p.A15

[5] Lawless, Jill. “Jesus, Mary Magdalene married, say researchers,” Toronto Star, November 13, 2014, p.A3

[6] Jacobovici and Wilson, op.cit., pp.3-5

[7] Hamilton, F.J. and E.W. Brooks. Trans. The Syriac Chronicle, Known as That of Zachariah of Mitylene. London: Methuen & Co. 1899.  See the Introduction of this work for details about the earlier translations.  The story of Joseph and Asenath, however, is often omitted in English translations, because it was already available for translation from the original Greek (See http://robertcargill.com/tag/moses-of-ingila/  Dr. Cargill is Assistant Professor of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Iowa.)

[8] Cargill, op.cit.

[9] See the introduction in Hamilton and Brooks, op.cit.  This earlier document was written by Zacharias Rhetor.  The 6th-century AD Syriac version is commonly known as Pseudo-Zacharias Rhetor, since the name of the writer is not known, but he states that he used Zacharias Rhetor as a source (See Cargill, op.cit.)

[10] That is, Zacharias Rhetor’s Greek work

[11] Jacobovici and Wilson, op.cit., p.4

[12] ibid.

[13] See our forthcoming article on Gospel origins.  In the meantime see Wenham, John. Redating Matthew, Mark & Luke: A Fresh Assault on the Synoptic Problem. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992, and Wallace, J. Warner. Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels. Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2013.

[14] Jacobovici and Wilson, op.cit., p.33

[15] Cargill, op.cit.

[16] Joseph’s birth is recorded in Genesis 30:23-24.  His story is told in Genesis 37-50.  His marriage to Asenath “the daughter of Poti-Pherah priest of On” is recorded in Genesis 41:45.

[17] Cargill (op.cit.) points out that this was a typical sort of story told to explain why it was okay for Joseph to marry a pagan woman, when God forbids such unions in the Law of Moses; “we find these same apologetic techniques used in early Rabbinic writings as well as the Aramaic Targums, which clean up the stories of the Jewish Patriarchs by explaining away anything that might be perceived as a misdeed.”  (According to the story in question, Asenath became a believer before she married Joseph).

[18] Posner, op.cit.

[19] Jacobovici and Wilson, op.cit., p.384.  The manuscript, we are told, “is deliberately cut off here.”  By the way, translations of the ancient text for this book are done by Tony Burke.

[20] Jacobovici and Wilson, op.cit., p.xix

[21] Posner, op.cit.

[22] 6:3 and 6:4, in ibid., p.324

[23] Recounted in Chapters 11-13 of the writing, in ibid., pp.332-341

[24] In 13:9a, “Asenath” is made to say, “who said evil, empty things against my lord Joseph because I did not know he was your son” (in ibid., p.341).  However, this sort of expression does have precedents in the OT (e.g. 1 Samuel 7:14).  Also, in 23:10b “Levi” is made to say, “Our brother Joseph is like a son of God” (in ibid, p.367) but this too has OT precedent (Daniel 3:25)

[25] Posner, op.cit.

[26] 16:18-19 (in ibid., p.352).

[27] Ibid., footnote 148

[28] “On the whole it seems probable that the ultimate prevalence of the larger cross is due to an instruction of Leo IV in the middle of the ninth century.” (Sign of the cross, The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XIII, Robert Appleton Company, 1912.  From http://www.bible.ca/cath-sign-of-cross-history.htm)

[29] Posner, op.cit.

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