MARCH 6, 2015
THE LOST GOSPEL is not the worst book ever written. I once attended a party where I was subjected to an excerpt of dinosaur erotica. It was a lovely gathering otherwise, but my ears were assaulted by pages from Taken by the T-Rex. I will say no more for fear that I will corrupt you, gentle reader. The silver lining of my turpid tale is that I now have a new barometer for beastly books. While The Lost Gospel is no match for dinosaur erotica, it is equally daring.
Here are some of the claims that Simcha Jacobovici and Barrie Wilson make: (1) a 6th-century text that never once refers to Jesus or Mary Magdalene is secretly about Jesus, Mary, and their children; (2) the character “Joseph” named in this text represents Jesus, Apollo, Helios, Mithras, and a Roman emperor simultaneously; (3) Mary Magdalene was not Jewish and was, moreover, a priestess of Artemis; (4) when Jesus refers to the Queen of Sheba (Matt 12:42), he is speaking of Mary in code; (5) Jesus — not a peasant, but a powerful figure in the world of Roman politics — was the victim of not one but two assassination attempts, both of which he survived; (6) the Roman general Germanicus was the second threat to Jesus, but a Roman prefect named Sejanus saved him, Mary, and their children; and (7) the wine of the Last Supper symbolized Mary’s menstrual blood. As you will see below, this is only a small sampling of this book’s originality.
What, you might wonder, warrants such derring-do? They take a 2nd-century fiction written about two characters from Genesis — Joseph and Aseneth (here referring to the son of Israel; compare to Genesis chs. 41, 46) — and decode this story’s “true” meaning. The story of Joseph and Aseneth, according to Jacobovici and Wilson, is really the secret history of Mary Magdalene and her husband, Jesus. To keep the secret of their marriage and family, various Gnostic authors from the 2nd to the 6th centuries wrote “Joseph” when they really meant Jesus, and “Aseneth” when they meant Mary. This allows Jacobovici and Wilson to rewrite the history of Jesus. They conclude: “Joseph and Aseneth gives us a glimpse into a story untainted by later Roman theology. We finally have a document that was slated for the fire, but is now seeing the light of the day.”
In order to arrive at such a conclusion, the authors must employ conspiracy theories and find hidden meanings behind the story’s plot, characters, and symbols. This fiction is without a doubt about the patriarch Joseph’s marriage to a foreign woman in Egypt named Aseneth. The story was of interest to later Jews (and perhaps Christians) because it was irregular — in many cases taboo — for Jewish men to take foreign wives. Joseph and Aseneth was written from this impetus. Aseneth is made to look like the perfect bride and convert. Jacobovici and Wilson are correct that the story employs symbolism. For example, Joseph’s depiction is reminiscent of the sun gods of Egypt, Greece, and Rome. But the authors stretch credulity by forcing Jesus’ divinity into this symbolism. They write: “Helios’ imagery was applied by Christians not to a Sun god, but to a ‘son’ god — to Jesus and Jesus alone.” It should be obvious to anyone that “son” and “sun” are homophones in English and that this ancient fiction was not written in English (it was first written in Greek). Jacobovici and Wilson certainly know this, but mislead their readers anyway. Indeed, they do so repeatedly, with tenuous connections, confused logic, and blatantly incorrect claims throughout the book.
For example, the authors argue that a celibate man in first-century Galilee would have been shocking, so Jesus must have been married. While overstated, we can follow their intended logic. But they also maintain throughout the book that Jesus’ marriage was so scandalous that it had to be covered up. So which was it? Was Jesus’ sexuality scandalous to his first followers or not?
Jacobovici and Wilson offer us another example of confused logic as they discuss Mary Magdalene’s “true” identity as a gentile priestess of Artemis (if this sounds outlandish, you will share this misgiving with professional historians everywhere). The authors claim that the religion of Jesus was Judaism and that his first followers were Jewish. This much is uncontroversial. But they would have us believe that Rabbi Jesus married a gentile priestess and that this fact was covered up by the Apostle Paul’s community. Oddly and awkwardly, the authors suggest that Paul (who is best known for his inclusion of non-Jews) was offended by Jesus’ marriage to a non-Jew. Moreover, Jesus — who was purely Jewish and not corrupted by Roman theology — forsook the religion of his birth to wed a foreigner. The authors are either confused or purposely attempting to confuse.
This happens so often in the book that I must conclude that its authors use confusion as a matter of strategy. The very title of the book is built upon this sort of sensationalized misinformation. The Lost Gospel is based on a text that is not a gospel and was not lost. The authors attempt to explain that the manuscript was “lost” in the British Library, labeled British Library Manuscript Number 17,202. They give the impression that this document was all but neglected by modern interpreters as it collected dust in the archives. This is false, and they know it’s false. They claim elsewhere that several copies of this story are “well preserved” in Christian monasteries, and that “Christians have read, treasured, translated, expanded, and preserved” this text. Even after admitting the fact, much of the first half of their book endeavors to promote Joseph and Aseneth as a grand conspiracy.
The second half of The Lost Gospel offers a reconstruction of first-century history that reads like fan fiction. After describing “the greatest wedding of all time,” Jacobovici and Wilson recount the plot to “kill Jesus, abduct Mary the Magdalene, and murder the kids.” The villain is Germanicus, the nephew of Tiberius (never mind that he died in 19 CE). Germanicus, it shouldn’t surprise you at this point, is not mentioned by name in the text of Joseph and Aseneth. Rather he is represented by the encoded name, “son of Pharaoh.” The plot fails, however. Helped by the heroic Sejanus, Jesus survives and the non-Jewish church of Mary Magdalene becomes Gnostic Christianity. This sect begins to venerate Mary as a goddess alongside the Son of God.
The authors give us an extremely implausible plot. They suggestively ask, “Who wanted to kill Jesus early in his mission? What did he do that merited death in their eyes? Was it simply because his wife was incredibly beautiful?” This could easily be the most extravagant of their many irresponsible suggestions: the power players of the Roman Empire might have targeted Jesus because… Mary Magdalene, his wife, was too alluring! By the end of chapter 15, I half-expected NFL heartthrob Rob Gronkowski to enter the fray. Gronk’s inclusion would have fit well with the authors’ haphazard anachronisms as they skip from Hebrew Bible legend, to 6th-century manuscript, to 3rd-century Christian debates, to 21st-century forgeries, all in service of sexualizing a first-century woman.
This brings me to my most serious concern with the entire Mary Magdalene enterprise. Mary was a follower of Jesus and an important witness to his impact upon history. Our earliest and best sources say little of her sexuality. But she continues to scandalize the Christianized West because she is unattached to a male. The West, it seems, cannot stand to leave her sexuality unexplained. We have therefore turned her into a sinner, a prostitute, a wealthy courtesan, Jesus’ girlfriend, Jesus’ wife, and (now with this book) a sexualized goddess. The Lost Gospel reflects and contributes to our need to explain significant women in sexualized terms. What Jacobovici and Wilson have demonstrated is that we will consume fan fiction disguised as history without thinking twice about our misogynistic tendencies. I don’t know if the authors have such tendencies, but they obviously intend to capitalize on ours.
The Lost Gospel by Simcha Jacobovici and Barrie Wilson is not the worst book ever written. After all, I have heard remarkable accolades for A Gronking to Remember. But The Lost Gospel is perhaps the worst book ever written about Jesus.