THE BLOG

Another Jesus and Mary Magdalene Hoax

11/10/2014 11:06 am ET | Updated Jan 10, 2015
  • Greg Carey Professor of New Testament, Lancaster Theological Seminary
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Just this week another Jesus hoax has appeared in the media. Media producer Simcha Jacobovici has collaborated with a professor named Barrie Wilson on a book called, "The Lost Gospel: Decoding the Ancient Text That Reveals Jesus' Marriage to Mary the Magdalene." I don't wish to be rude, and I will freely admit I haven't read the book yet, but the entire premise is utter hogwash. Jesus probably didn't marry. Even if he did, we have literally no way to know it. We're basically looking at a sensationalist money-making scheme here, and there's nothing else to say about it.

One might ask why I'm taking such a firm view. Scholars are usually far more careful in rendering judgments like this. Several items give away the problem.

We might begin with the book's title. "The Lost Gospel" suggests the discovery of a new literary source, one that is either recently discovered or has been largely neglected. Instead, the "lost gospel" is actually an ancient Jewish (perhaps Christian) novel we call "Joseph and Aseneth." It's well known, and it's received quite a bit of scholarly attention. Joseph and Aseneth is included in the standard collections of ancient Jewish literature that all biblical scholars consult. This month's Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting, the most significant gathering of biblical scholars in the world, will include two papers devoted to the story. Just type "Aseneth" into your Amazon search window, and you'll find quite a few books devoted to the story, including monographs by leading scholars.

Jacobovici and Wilson describe the text as "Gathering dust in the British Library" and suggest they have "uncovered" it. Unfortunately, the media has bought into that narrative. A Washington Post story claims that scholars previously reviewed the document and considered it insignificant. Hardly. Online databases reveal over three hundred scholarly books and articles devoted to this text, not counting book reviews. Over twenty manuscripts of Joseph and Aseneth have survived. If you're curious, you can consult a modern translation online. In fact, Duke University professor Mark Goodacre created his Joseph and Aseneth home page in 1999 -- quite a bit before its recent "uncovering."

The new book's subtitle reveals a second problem: "decoding." The authors claim this ancient novel carries a secret meaning. Joseph and Aseneth makes perfect sense without decoding. It's the story of how Joseph meets his wife Aseneth, who is Egyptian and a pagan. (Aseneth plays a minor role in the book of Genesis: Pharaoh gives her to be Joseph's wife, and she becomes the mother of Joseph's sons Manasseh and Ephraim.) The novel describes Aseneth as resembling Hebrew women more than Egyptian women: tall like Sarah and lovely like Rebecca and Rachel. She's also "hard to get." But Joseph follows up a fabulous first impression by demonstrating his virtue and piety. Aseneth falls in love, becomes a convert, and marries Joseph.

For decades scholars have understood the novel as providing an inspirational example for Jews living in pagan societies. We know several ancient Jewish fictions that address what it means to live faithfully in hostile contexts. If the story is Christian, or if it includes Christian insertions, it's one of several conversion stories that we encounter outside the Bible.

Yet Jacobovici and Wilson claim to "decode" this fairly straightforward text. We can "decode" texts to mean anything. For example, the current TV series "Sleepy Hollow" plays all kinds of games in decoding the book of Revelation. We all recognize the show as entertainment. More seriously, the Bible prophecy people transform the book of Revelation into a set of political predictions for the twenty-first century. Through the centuries other Christians also decoded Revelation to "predict" their own circumstances. They were wrong, and so are today's "prophecy teachers." The Joseph and Aseneth story needs no decoding.

Wild historical speculations often resist refutation. It's simply difficult to prove that something did not occur. We could disprove the suggestion that Napoleon visited Disneyland because Disneyland did not exist during the emperor's lifetime. But we cannot disprove the notion that Abraham Lincoln was a vampire slayer. The idea is preposterous, but we have no evidence either way.

Unfortunately, the same problem attends the spectacular Jesus revelations that pop up from time to time. If someone suggests that Jesus studied Buddhism, we cannot disprove that possibility. We simply ask if there's compelling evidence to support it. So it is with the common suggestion that Jesus married Mary Magdalene. We have no reason to think so, but we can't disprove it.

Historians do wonder about Mary Magdalene's relationship with Jesus. Popular tradition turned her into a redeemed prostitute, but again we have no evidence to support that notion. Luke's gospel depicts her as a prosperous supporter of Jesus' ministry whom Jesus had delivered from demon possession (8:2-3). All four gospels feature Mary as the first to observe Jesus' empty tomb. She, perhaps with other women, provides the first testimony to the resurrection. An early Christian text, the Gospel of Mary, depicts Mary as the recipient of Jesus' secret teaching. Mary may well have been an important figure in early Christianity. We just have no reason to think she married Jesus.

It is always bad form to attack a theory by condemning its proponents, but Simcha Jacobovichi is a notorious peddler of misleading theories. He promoted an ossuary as containing the bones of Jesus' brother James, a theory that has been disconfirmed. He also developed a documentary that claimed to unveil the Jesus family tomb, also refuted by experts, and even claims to have uncovered the nails used in Jesus' crucifixion. It's a shame that the media ever pays attention to him, at least when he's talking about Jesus.