Tuesday, November 11, 2014

A new Syriac Gospel in which Jesus married Mary Magdalene? I don't think so.

SHORT ANSWER, NO: Is this proof Jesus married and had two sons? Ancient manuscript said to be 'lost gospel' with a sensational twist (Harry Mount, The Daily Mail).

Barrie Wilson and Simcha Jacobovici have published a book about the well-known Syriac version of the Old Testament pseudepigraphon Joseph and Aseneth, in which they claim that the story is really a secretly-coded one about Jesus marrying Mary Magdalene. That's right: Jesus and Mary are not mentioned at all in this "Gospel," it is a story about two Old Testament characters and one has to impose an allegory of Jesus and Mary onto it, based on an imagined marriage.

The Syriac version of Joseph and Aseneth happens to be our earliest copy of the text, but we know (from the comments in the larger work in which it now imbedded) that the Syriac is a translation of a Greek text. We have many copies of this Greek text in more than one version. The origin of the Greek work is debated by scholars. Some think it is a Second-Temple-era Jewish text and others that it is a late-antique Christian one. The translator of the Syriac and the person who commissioned the translation seem to think that the book is an allegory. An allegory of what is not entirely clear, due to an unfortunate manuscript break, but something to do with "our Lord the Word." Presumably Joseph represents Jesus. I would guess that Aseneth correspondingly represents the gentile Church.

So, if Joseph and Aseneth is a Christian work (and I am not yet persuaded otherwise) and if the Syriac writers are correct in reading it as an allegory involving Jesus (and it's possible that they are), it still does not follow that the allegorical marriage of Joseph and Aseneth has anything at all to do with a literal marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. The allegorical marriage of Jesus and the Church goes back to the New Testament (e.g., Ephesians 5:21-33 and Revelation 19:6-8; 21:2). The idea of a marriage of Jesus to Mary Magdalene is not explicitly attested in antiquity (the almost certainly forged Gospel of Jesus' Wife notwithstanding). It would take a lot of evidence to persuade me that Joseph and Aseneth is about Jesus and Mary.

Even if it were demonstrable that Joseph and Aseneth was about a marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, this would merely be evidence for a creative apocryphal notion thought up sometime in late antiquity (and there were many, many such notions). It would remain to prove that this text told us anything about the historical Jesus and Mary and that would be very difficult indeed to establish.

Although I always like to see the Old Testament pseudepigrapha getting some media attention, it is too bad that the fascinating and entertaining text Joseph and Aseneth is being tied in the public mind to this ingenious but highly implausible connection with a literal marriage of Jesus.

It's always possible that there is some stunning argumentation in the book that will make me change my mind, but I'm not holding my breath. I'm not going to get around to reading the book anytime soon, or more likely ever. But I will keep an eye on reviews and other scholarly commentary to see if anything interesting does arise from it.

Did Jesus actually marry Mary Magdalene? I have commented here. I put up a post on the Wilson-Jacobovici notion about Joseph and Aseneth back when it was first hinted at about a year ago, linking to very helpful comments by Mark Goodacre and Richard Bauckham.

Some responses from New Testament specialists in various media:

ABC News: Alleged 'Lost Gospel' Claims Jesus Had Wife, 2 Children: Authors of a new book say they have evidence to back up claims the savior was married to Mary Magdalene. Mark Goodacre is interviewed briefly. [Bad link now corrected.]

James McGrath: Married with Children? Recent Headlines About Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

Greg Carey: Another Jesus and Mary Magdalene Hoax.

Robert Cargill (who has already read the book): Review of “The Lost Gospel” by Jacobovici and Wilson. Key excerpt:
By that same allegorical logic, you could swap out the names of Samson and Delilah and claim that Mary Magdalene cut Jesus’ hair. Or swap out Adam and Eve and conclude that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were the primordial couple. Or read David and Bathsheba allegorically and end up with Jesus having a son named Solomon, who is guarded by the Priory of Sion, and…well, you get the picture.
UPDATE: Also Simcha Jacobovici has some pre-publication comments about the book in The Times of Israel, noting that the Syriac text was translated by Professor Tony Burke (of York University and the blog Apocryphicity): It begins!

And so it does.