‘Detective story’ about discovery of ‘new’ Mary Magdalene account gets fresh, undeserved airing via Facebook
On Tuesday 31st October — the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation — the Independent Online celebrated by re-hashing and re-publicizing on Facebook an 18-month-old article about a discredited book by Professor Barrie Wilson and writer Simcha Jacobovici which claims to reveal a “Lost Gospel… that claims Jesus married Mary Magdalene and had children.”
“On Tuesday 31st October — the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation — the Independent Online celebrated by re-hashing and re-publicizing on Facebook an 18-month-old article about a discredited book… that claims Jesus married Mary Magdalene and had children.”
‘The Lost Gospel: Decoding the Ancient Text that Reveals Jesus’ Marriage to Mary the Magdalene’ was published by Pegasus Books in 2014.
It claims to have uncovered a ‘lost manuscript’ which reveals explosive new details of Jesus’ earthly life.
The Independent Online article, from April 2016 and written by the authors themelves, reads like a lurid trailer. It bears the headline and strap-line:
‘The Lost Gospel’: The ancient manuscript that claims Jesus married Mary Magdalene and had children
‘We now know what the original Jesus movement looked like and the unexpected role sexuality played in it’
The text that follows is an excerpt from the book, and begins:—
“What you are about to read is a detective story.
“We have uncovered an ancient writing that is encrypted with a hidden meaning. In the process of decoding it, we’ll take you on a journey into the world of this mysterious text. What the Vatican feared—and Dan Brown only suspected—has come true. There is now written evidence that Jesus was married to Mary the Magdalene, and that they had children together.
“More than this, based on the new evidence, we now know what the original Jesus movement looked like and the unexpected role sexuality played in it. We have even unraveled the politics behind the crucifixion, as well as the events and the people that took part in it.
“Gathering dust in the British Library is a document that takes us into the missing years of Jesus’ life. Scholars believe that Jesus was born around 5 BC, and that he was crucified around 30AD.”
All very enticing stuff, and indeed the excerpt in the Independent Online says very little concrete about the nature of the text under examination — it doesn’t give the text a name beyond the generic ‘Lost Gospel’ — but dangles just enough before the reader to whet the appetite to go out and buy a copy and find out what it’s all about.
“[The Independent Online article] doesn’t give the text a name beyond the generic ‘Lost Gospel’ — but dangles just enough before the reader to whet the appetite to go out and buy a copy and find out what it’s all about.”
It is interesting that this cleverly-curtailed excerpt came out eighteen months after the original publication of the book. It is not as if the Independent Online hadn’t already taken notice of it at the time — compare with this article from the time the book came out. One wonders if the 2016 article is not a crafty (and no doubt successful) attempt to whip up more sales after they started to flag.
Just in case anybody out there still isn’t tuned into the alarm bells which should ring whenever you read an article of this nature, here are a few:—
- The strap-line. ‘We now know what the original Jesus movement looked like and the unexpected role sexuality played in it.’
“Any article that claims, ‘We now know…,’ should immediately attract our suspicion.”
The early history of Christianity is actually very well documented. Thanks to theologians such an Irenaeus in the second century and Eusebius in the fourth, we already know about all kinds of movements from the first and second centuries A.D. which sought to present a different Jesus to the one we find in the New Testament.
Hence any article that claims, ‘We now know…,’ should immediately attract our suspicion.
- “Gathering dust in the British Library is a document that takes us into the missing years of Jesus’ life. Scholars believe that Jesus was born around 5 BC, and that he was crucified around 30AD.”
It is quite unlikely that anybody now is going to turn up a genuine document from the first century containing authentic details of Jesus’ earthly life, that is closer to the events than the four New Testament Gospels themselves.
“It is entirely possible that some hitherto-unknown Christian writings from the first century will yet turn up in the course of time. But if they do, such writings are likely to be little fragments — correspondence, defences of the faith against paganism, perhaps some small letters between churches.”
It is entirely possible that some hitherto-unknown Christian writings from the first century will yet turn up in the course of time. But if they do, such writings are likely to be little fragments — correspondence, defences of the faith against paganism, perhaps some small letters between churches (in short, things of the nature of the second-century Epistle to Diognetus), than anything as lurid and ‘explosive’ as a genuine Gospel.
We may even, one day, turn up the text of a known lost gospel from the late first century, such as the Gospel of the Hebrews. I say ‘known,’ because although we don’t possess the text of this gospel, we do have a good idea of its contents from Christian writers who have written about it. And even this (the Gospel of the Hebrews) would not be earlier or more authentic than the four New Testament Gospels.
As soon as we come across statements like, “a document that takes us into the missing years of Jesus’ life,” we should — again — immediately be suspicious.
- “What you are about to read is a detective story.”
Instant alarm bell!
I seem to recall Messrs. Baigent and Leigh, in their The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (1982), describing their investigative process as something like a detective story.
“‘What you are about to read is a detective story.’ — Instant alarm bell!”
It’s a very evocative description, and presents to us mental pictures of Columbo nagging and nagging at the facts until they eventually surface.
In truth, however, most serious publications of new texts — such as The Gospel of Judas by National Geographic — spend less time talking about the ‘detective process’ and a lot more talking about the actual text and its significance. I wonder why.
- The lack of a title and dates.
The excerpt in the Independent Online is noticeable for its failure to mention either a title for this ‘Lost Gospel’, or a rough date for the text under examination.
“Glaringly, [Wilson and Jacobovici] never share with us… when this text was written.”
So, in this excerpt, the writers inform us (something which many people will already know), that “scholars believe that Jesus was born around 5 BC, and that he was crucified around 30AD.” And yet glaringly, they never share with us the far more pertinent information as to when this text was written — or even the date of the manuscript they ‘found.’
(Admittedly the original, 2014 article says that the manuscript is “almost 1,500 years old,” but beyond this contains equally little actual information.)
Any reader who is used to the kind of articles which appear in the Independent Online will instantly recognize the above alarm bells. Indeed, in these four points, we have a virtual definition of ‘religious conspiracy clickbait.’
However, let us see what others have said about this ‘explosive’ new book.
“The ‘Lost Gospel’ the writers have ‘found’ ‘gathering dust in the British Library,’ is in fact a well-known text called ‘Joseph and Aseneth.’”
Firstly, the ‘Lost Gospel’ the writers have ‘found’ “gathering dust in the British Library,” is in fact a well-known text called ‘Joseph and Aseneth’, which is really a text about the Old Testament character Joseph (he of the Technicolor Dreamcoat) — not about Jesus at all!
Greg Carey in the Huffington Post calls this work “another Jesus and Mary Magdalene Hoax,” and says of the Joseph and Aseneth text,
“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.”
It’s not even been translated into English for the first time. Greg Carey continues,
“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.”
Jonathon Wright, a Ph.D. student in Oxford University’s Oriental Institute, writing in the Oxford Arts Blog, assesses the information presented in Jacobovici and Wilson’s book.
He concludes that the claims made in this book are “not at all credible,” and writes:—
“Let us consider two of the sensationalist claims made in the book. First, ‘the story is about Jesus.’ For early Christians, their Bible was the same as that of Jews. Important figures in the Old Testament came to be seen as types of Jesus. Christians saw in a popular figure like Joseph some elements of Jesus’ ministry.
“The book’s authors claim the story is about Jesus all along, but there is no evidence for this in the text, or any of the 90 or more manuscripts still existing today — indeed in the Armenian tradition it is often in the Old Testament. Joseph in the story does not do anything we associate with Jesus. The story was probably often copied because it was not controversial and because Christian beliefs about repentance and conversion were portrayed in an apparently Jewish story.
“Secondly, ‘the story was censored.’ A good conspiracy theory always helps improvable claims. In the oldest Syriac manuscript, the end of a letter from the translator and the first chapter is lost. It appears that this letter was just about to provide some interpretation about the story. The authors of this book suggest it was torn out because it said that Joseph really was Jesus.
“We can strongly doubt this! It is much more likely that the page was lost through wear. There are several other places this has happened in the manuscript. The story was copied into another Syriac manuscript in the middle ages, and this included the opening chapter, so the page still existed hundreds of years after it was written. This later manuscript has many works of the Church Fathers which would absolutely dispute that Jesus was ever married. Probably, the copyist thought the message of the work was clear enough and not controversial.”
“The book’s authors claim the story is about Jesus all along, but there is no evidence for this in the text.”
Jonathon Wright, Oxford Arts Blog, 12 November 2014
What we have here, then, is yet another piece of “sensationalist money-making.” Books like this are, I’m afraid to say, playing on the general illiteracy about early Christianity — and of course playing into the Zeitgeist which will happily give credence to almost any conspiracy theory in preference to the well-established facts.
But it seems to be not the only money-making scheme going on. Given that this book has been so discredited, one has to wonder why the Independent Online is re-publishing a year-old article of such bare-faced lies. Oh, what was that sound I just heard? Kerching!
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