It’s getting near Christmas, and you know what that means. That’s right! It’s time for another book to be released telling us the sensationalistic “truth” about Christianity.
This time we have The Lost Gospel: Decoding the Ancient Text that Reveals Jesus' Marriage to Mary the Magdalene by Simcha Jacobovici and Barrie Wilson.
You may remember Jacobovici from his involvement in previous biblical-archeological shenanigans like the discredited “Jesus family tomb” claims of a few years ago—in which Jacobovici similarly claimed that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene.
So what do he and sensationalist co-author Barrie Wilson have in store for us this time?
The key text used in their new book is preserved in a set of writings attributed to Zecharias Rhetor (i.e., Zecharias the Rhetorician), also known as Zecharias Scholasticus (i.e., Zecharias the Scholar), also known as Zecharias of Mytilene.
He was a native of Gaza who lived in the late A.D. 400s and early 500s and who became the bishop of Mytilene.
He wrote a number of works in Greek, including a work on Church history that was later translated into Syriac (a dialect of Aramaic), with various editorial changes.
It is this Syriac text, brought to the British Museum in 1847, that Jacobovici and Wilson are using in their new book.
What They’re Claiming
Among other things, Jacobovici and Wilson claim that they have discovered a lost gospel that is written in code and, when properly decoded, states that Jesus was married, likely to Mary Magdalene, and that they had two sons.
None of this is true.
First, the text in question is not “lost.” It is not some newly discovered work that scholars were previously unaware of.
The particular manuscript that Jacobovici and Wilson rely on was brought to the British Museum for more than a century and a half ago, and the same text has been known through other sources for centuries.
The scholarly community has been well aware of it, and translations of it in English and other languages are common.
To give you an idea of how not-lost this work is, it’s been in print for centuries, I have it in my own library, and here’s a version you can read online from a book printed in 1918.
Not a Gospel.
The work is also not a Gospel. Although some scholars use the term “Gospel” in surprising and misleading ways, a Gospel (in the literary sense) is a book about the life and/or teachings of Jesus.
That is not what this text is. This text is not about Jesus. The story it tells is not even set in the first century, when Jesus lived.
It’s set more than a thousand years before the time of Christ.
Not a Code About Jesus.
The work is also not a coded version of the story of Jesus. Instead, it’s a work of historical fiction about two figures we already know from the Old Testament: Joseph and Asenath.
Who were Joseph and Asenath?
Joseph was one of the sons of Jacob. He angered his brothers, who sold him into slavery.
Eventually, he ended up in Egypt, where he rose to prominence and married an Egyptian woman named Asenath, who was the daughter of an Egyptian priest.
She and Joseph later had two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, who became the patriarchs of two of the tribes of Israel.
You can read the biblical account of Joseph in Genesis 37-50, and we read about his marriage to Asenath in Genesis 41:45, 50, and 46:20.
Why are these two figures discussed in Zecharias’s writings?
If you go into a Christian bookstore today—be it Protestant or Catholic—you are likely to find novelizations of the lives of various biblical and historical figures.
These may be fictionalized lives of Old Testament saints, like Abraham and Moses, New Testament saints, like Peter or Paul, or saints from later Church history, like Augustine or Francis of Assisi.
Out of the same impulse, a desire to know and imagine more about what famous religious figures’ lives were like, Jews and Christians in the ancient world sometimes wrote fictionalized lives of their forebears, and that’s what the ancient work known as Joseph and Asenath is: It’s a fictionalized account of the lives of the Old Testament patriarch Joseph and his wife.
What happens in the story?
A bunch of things, but basically it falls into two parts. The first part is devoted to Asenath’s conversion to the Hebrew faith.
As the daughter of an Egyptian priest, she was raised a polytheist and an idolater, and in later ages, Jewish men were forbidden from marrying foreign women because of their idolatry and how they would tempt their husbands to worship other gods.
This raised a question: How could the patriarch Joseph have married a foreign woman—an Egyptian, even!
The first part of the novel answers this by proposing that Asenath repented of her idolatry and embraced the worship of the true God, making her a fitting bride for Joseph.
The second part of the novel deals with an adventure in which the son of Pharoah tries to get Asenath for himself, but Asenath prays to God, who intervenes to save the situation. Pharoah and his wicked son die, and Joseph becomes the regent of Egypt until a different son of Pharoah is old enough to reign.
So this isn’t a coded story about Jesus?
No. It’s a straightforward historical novel about two familiar Old Testament figures.
It addresses questions that an ancient Jewish audience would have, like how a pagan priest’s daughter could marry a biblical patriarch.
Its mention of Joseph’s and Asenath’s two sons—Ephraim and Manasseh—is not to tell us about sons of Jesus and Mary Magdalen. They are mentioned because they were the patriarchs of two of the later tribes (or “half-tribes”) that everyone in ancient Israel knew about.
And it contains a thrilling tale of how God answers prayer and will protect those who turn to him from the machinations of others—just like multiple accounts in the Old Testament.
Are there unanswered questions about the work?
Sure. Like a lot of ancient literature, we aren’t sure who wrote it or when. There is even debate about whether Joseph and Asenath was a Jewish or a Christian work, or possibly a Jewish work with Christian edits.
There are also some strange things in it—like material involving bees and a honeycomb—that some have suggested is meant to teach some kind of spiritual lesson, though it is hard to figure out.
However, the idea that Joseph and Asenath is a coded life story of Jesus is without foundation.
Are there particular reasons to think that Jesus was not married?
Yes. Among other things that could be said, Jesus points to celibacy as a spiritual ideal, saying that this gift is not given to everyone but should be accepted by those to whom it is given (Matt. 19:11-12). Since Jesus was considered the paragon of spirituality for Christians, it would be strange for him to propose this spiritual ideal if he himself did not meet it.
Further, Jesus depicts himself as a bridegroom (Matt. 9:15, 25:1-10, cf. John 3:27-30), but the marriage he has is a mystical one, not a literal one, for the New Testament portrays the bride of Christ as his Church, not as an individual woman (2 Cor. 11:2, Eph. 5:22-33, Rev. 19:7, 21:2, 9).
It is difficult to see how this understanding of the Church as the bride of Christ could have arisen if there were a literal “Mrs. Jesus.”
By virtue of her marriage to Jesus, she would have instantly become a prominent figure in early Christianity, and her status as the literal bride of Christ would have prevented the understanding of the Church as the mystical bride of Christ from developing.
Where can I read more?
Here’s the Asenath home page, maintained by New Testament scholar Mark Goodacre.
Here are some comments by New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham from when the pair first announced their “lost Gospel” book.
Here are some comments by classicist Bob Cargill that go directly to Jacobovici and Wilson’s claims (brief bad language warning).