Was Jesus married?
This question is resurfacing as a result of the media hype over The Lost Gospel, a book by Simcha Jacobovici and Barrie Wilson. The vaunted discovery of a “lost gospel” that this work is loudly proclaiming just in time for the Christmas profiteering season is highly questionable, and folks can read my views in earlier posts.
First, let us deal with the controversy over the Jacobovici and Wilson tome.
This book claims a Jewish inspirational entertainment fiction is about Jesus. My study of the Syriac original leads me to conclude that it dates from before the life of Jesus. Put that aside.
The authors claim that it is a manuscript ignored by scholars that has been gathering dust until they brought it to the attention of the world. The fact is that it has been translated several times since the late nineteenth century, and I have myself consulted two critical editions currently in print. It is well studied and well known by the scholars. Here is a link to a superb bibliography of critical editions put together by the excellent Prof. Mark Goodacre — http://www.markgoodacre.org/aseneth/biblio.htm Put the “lost” allegation aside.
The authors further claim that it is an encoded gospel about Jesus. The story, however, is a fanciful expansion of Genesis 41:50. It does not mention Jesus. The authors claim that Joseph is encoded Jesus because he is called a “son of G-d”. If the authors were more familiar with the Jewish faith and the Tanakh, they’d know that every king and prophet and Temple priest was also traditionally considered a “son of G-d”. The authors claim that Aseneth is encoded Mary Magdalene because she lives in a tower and “Magdalene” may refer to the town of Magdala, which apparently got its name from a prominent watchtower therein. But by this reasoning, the Lady of Shalott and Rapunzel are Mary Magdalene, too. In my Gospel of John restored original version I do an exhaustive analysis of the cognomen “Magdalene” and conclude that it has nothing to do with towers. Even if it does, it’s still a cosmic leap to put Mary in Aseneth’s tower. Put that too aside.
The authors claim that the story is an encoded telling of the life of Jesus and Mary. Despite the fact that there are no miracles, no revelations of G-d’s will, no crucifixion, and no resurrection. What this Jewish text does is explain and defend Joseph’s marriage to a foreign (Egyptian) woman. Moses too married an Egyptian woman. I don’t know of anyone who claims Mary Magdalene was an Egyptian, though I do find her family has some connections with Cyrene and she may have been involved with the Leontopolis Temple, though this is coincidental to the Aseneth tale. Put that aside as well.
The authors claim that the story is encoded when no gospel about Jesus was encoded. One must ask why encode a “gospel” when other gospel writers saw no need to do so? One must also ask how this is a gospel when it in absolutely no way proclaims the “good news” of Jesus. So put that aside too.
By now we’ve put aside everything that this work wants to tell us. There’s nothing left. It saddens me that this book is jumping off the bookshop shelves. It saddens me that it will scare legitimate scholars away from taking seriously the thesis that Jesus was married and had children (which I hold). It saddens me that people like Karen King, Elaine Pagels, William E. Phipps, and if I may be so bold myself as well spend years in meticulous study of ancient fragmentary texts in their original languages, and are ignored or sometimes even excoriated (Karen King) in the public media, and yet this book is given a big boost.
The timing, just before Christmas, is highly suspect. It’s heavily promoted in the media. But it’s not been peer reviewed, and the legitimate scholars are overwhelmingly panning it as worthless. Sadly, it’s still selling like hotcakes. Jacobovici says to the critics, buy it and read it before you criticize. He doesn’t care as long as he gets his money, apparently. My criticisms are without wasting money on his worthless tripe; the title itself contains two lies (that it’s a gospel and that it was lost). That’s enough to tell me plenty.
Also suspect is that an amateur scholar has come up with similarly cockeyed ideas before Jacobovici and Wilson, and one cannot help but wonder if the latter were aware of it and, er, um, borrowed its ideas without bothering to give credit. See for yourself at — http://www.themirroredbridalchamber.com/Commentaries/joseph-and-asenath-ca-56-ce.html
Of course the book should be given a chance. It deserves a fair reading as much as any book. However the authors themselves make the claims I cite above, and I find none of them bears up under serious scrutiny. I am in no hurry to give this book a chance. Yes, I will read it eventually, just as I read The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail eventually. But by what the authors themselves say about The Lost Gospel, about a text which is neither a gospel nor lost, does not encourage me to do so any time soon, or to be prepared for even a speck of enlightenment.
Meanwhile, serious scholars like April D. Deconick, James D. Tabor, Elaine Pagels, and Karen L. King, and (if I may be so bold) I too get ignored or reviled in the media. Even when some of us reach the SAME CONCLUSIONS as Jacobovici and Wilson — mainly that there are texts supporting the conclusion that Jesus was indeed married to Mary Magdalene.
Despite Jacobovici and Wilson, the question of Jesus’s marital status remains a legitimate one to ask. Respected scholars like Karen L. King and Greg Carey say we know next to nothing about Jesus’s personal life. Other respected scholars like James D. Tabor (http://jamestabor.com/) beg to differ, bravo to them!
Here is my own view.
In my view, the canonical New Testament tells us quite a bit about Jesus’s life, but non-Jewish scholars sometimes have trouble picking up the clues, just as a non-Westerner might not recognize the ring on my left hand as signifying my own married status. For instance…. a Jewish woman would only unbind her hair in front of the closest family members and her husband; Mary unbinds her hair to lave Jesus’s feet. A Jewish woman sitting shivah could only be called forth from the house of mourning by her father if unmarried or her husband if married; Martha comes out unbidden to meet Jesus because Martha is not sitting shivah, but Mary comes forth to meet Jesus at his bidding. And Mary comes to the tomb to anoint Jesus’s dead body, which (as I discuss at length in my Gospel of John) was the province of the wife. And so on; these are just three examples.
If we go further, into noncanonical literature, there’s lots more. The Gospel of Philip speaks of Jesus and Mary as κοινωνος to each other – a word that is deeper than “spouse”, more like they are so united that they are in effect one being; this gospel also says Jesus often kissed Mary on the mouth in front of the other disciples. The fragmentary “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” (there’s some controversy over it, but my study of the original Coptic concludes that it is almost certainly genuine) specifically calls Mary Jesus’s wife. The Gospel of Mary puts her at the leadership position of the apostles after Jesus’s resurrection – a point well established by Jane Schaberg in a recent book. I could go on and on and bore y’all to tears, but you get the idea.
Without a time machine parked in the garage, we cannot get prima facie evidence of Jesus’s married status. But I disagree with Carey and others who assert that we know nothing. It is clear that many early followers of Jesus, including some who knew him personally, such as John the Presbyter, believed he was married. Since all of my friends and neighbors believe I am married, it’s a safe assumption that I actually am. The same is a reasonable conclusion as regards Jesus as well.
In my Gospel of John, Volume II, published two years before The Lost Gospel, I even concluded that John the Presbyter was aware of “Joseph and Aseneth”. To quote myself:
Another curious parallel may be the early Jewish novel Joseph and Aseneth, which expands Genesis 41:50, telling of Joseph’s marriage to Aseneth, the daughter of Potiphera, priest of On. On (אן in Hebrew) comes from the Egyptian word meaning “Pillar(s)”. This is the same city known in the first century as Heliopolis and Leontopolis, where Mary, daughter of Simon the Leper, a priest and Pharisee, apparently served as priestess in the Jewish-Samaritan Temple, loosely paralleling Potiphera. The novel was likely published before John began writing this gospel;even if this was not the case, it shows what kind of story was popular around the Presbyter’s time. In one scene Aseneth is brought a pitcher of water from a “spring of living water” in the courtyard, in which she sees that her face is “like the sun and her eyes like the morning star arising.” Immediately after that, Joseph comes and marries her. The pitcher and the spring of living water recur in this gospel’s meeting in Samaria and the morning imagery recurs at the resurrection.
The analogies to Zipporah and Aseneth support the conclusion that Mary had familial roots (see page 208) and personal ties (see pages 447-48) to Egypt.
Frequently in the past few days I have expressed the hope that legitimate scholars will not back away from serious consideration of this thesis about Jesus’s married status. I am grateful to people like Tabor for maintaining his views in the wake of “The Lost Gospel”. I hope King and Carey and others will do likewise. I certainly shall.