Sunday, October 13, 2013

Jacobovici and Wilson's "Lost Gospel"

While I was noodling around on the internet to remind myself of the exact titles of Marcus Borg's and Burton Mack's Lost Gospel books last night (see Q, Doctor Who and the difference between "lost" and "hypothetical"), I came across something that may be of interest to students of Simcha Jacobovici's work.  Regular readers will know that I have often reflected critically, but I hope fairly, on the claims the filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici has made about Christian origins, which include having discovered the tomb of Jesus, his wife Mary Magdalene, and their son Judas.

Although the details are fairly scant at the moment, it seems that Jacobovici has something truly sensational lined up.  This book, The Lost Gospel, has been announced by Pegasus Press and is set to appear on 15 April 2014.  Although this will be just in time for the Easter market, it is probably worth pointing out that there is many a slip between cup and lip and it may be that the book does not make that deadline.  After spotting the book on Amazon, I did a bit more googling and found further references to it with different publishing dates.  It was projected for 3 March 2011 (Overlook press) and 30 March 2010 (Harper Collins Canada).

I must admit that any book that announces a "lost gospel" is bound to gain my interest.  So what do we know about it so far?

The book's subtitle is Jesus' Marriage to Mary Magdalene, Bride of God. and the book blurb tells us a little more (emphasis original):
In a startling follow-up to the New York Times bestseller The Jesus Family Tomb, a historical detective story that unravels a newly translated document filled with startling revelations and fascinating detail about the life and times of Jesus. 
Gathering dust at the British Museum is an ancient manuscript of the early Church, written by an anonymous monk. The manuscript is at least 1,600 years old, possibly dating to the first century. This revelatory book provides the first ever translation from Syriac into English of a profound document—some twenty-nine chapters in length —that tells us the inside story of Jesus’ social, family, and political life. 
The Lost Gospel takes the reader on an exciting historical adventure through this highly informative ancient manuscript.  The authors were easily able to decode the basic symbolism, but what the authors eventually discovered is as surprising as it ground-breaking: the confirmation of Jesus' marriage to Mary Magdalene; the names of their two children; the towering presence of Mary Magdalene (who was a Gentile priestess), a serious plot on Jesus’ life in 19 C.E. prior to the crucifixion; an assassination plot against their children; Jesus’ connection to political figures at the highest level of the Roman Empire—Emperor Tiberius and his protégé Sejanus;  and a religious movement that antedates that of Paul—the Church of Mary Magdalene.    
None of these discoveries are the authors’ claims: they are what this ancient manuscript reveals now that it has been decoded. Part historical detective story, part travelogue about a journey into the heart of an ancient world, The Lost Gospel reveals a secret that's been hiding in plain sight for centuries.
This is really intriguing.  The blurb to some extent retains the sense of mystery and sensation, but there are a few clues about the identity of the manuscript.  It was found in "the British museum", it is anonymous, it is Syriac and it is dated to the fifth century.  My guess is that the line "possibly dating to the first century" refers to the theorized date of the work to which the fifth century Syriac manuscript witnesses, but that is not clear.

The content does not correspond to any early Christian work I am aware of, so it is definitely one that lots of us will be watching with interest.

I must admit that after reading the book's blurb, I was so intrigued that I googled for more.  It is co-authored with Barrie Wilson of York University, Toronto, who has the following on his website:
Watch for
Book and documentary - Spring 2014
An exploration of a mysterious document prized by early Christians that takes us into the political ambitions and connections of Jesus along with his human and family side.
Who would become "King of the Jews" - Herod Antipas who so coveted the title? Jesus who was crucified for this claim? Herod Agrippa?
Who was Pontius Pilate and what were his connections to Rome?
How were Jesus and those closest to him imaged by his early followers on the world stage, outside the confines of Middle Eastern politics?
And just who were Jesus' closest companions?
This document takes us well beyond the canonical gospels shaped by Paul’s theology and answers questions they fail to address.
So the Spring 2014 date is here confirmed -- and there is the additional news that a documentary is planned to accompany the book.  It may well be, then, that a big media event is planned to publicize "the lost gospel", with TV documentary, book and website.

Wilson's blurb is tantalizing.  It is mainly composed of questions, but if the "mysterious document" indeed features Herod Antipas, Herod Agrippa, Pontius Pilate and "Jesus' closest companions", it will be well worth studying.

There is not much about it yet on the Associated Producers' website, though there is the following statement, which confirms news of the documentary associated with the book:
Upcoming is “The Bride of God” co-written with Professor Barrie Wilson. Harper Collins is the publisher, Discovery Science and Vision Canada will air the companion film.
I also noticed, while googling, that there were quotations on the internet (including in this blog, which I had forgotten about!) from older versions of Wilson's website, so I took a closer look and found the following details:
. . . . . Lurking in the British Museum is an ancient Syriac manuscript dating from the 6th century but translated from much earlier Greek writing. Scholars have known about it for almost 200 years but have not known what to make of it. No translation exists based on the Syriac text. We provide a first-ever translation from the Syriac.
More importantly we use decoding techniques employed by early Christians themselves as they sought to understand biblical writings. They saw scripture differently than we do. An ancient Syriac introduction to manuscript – never before translated – tells us that the writing we examine contains an embedded meaning.
As we let this ancient writing speak for itself, it opens up a fascinating, hitherto unknown world. The results are startling:
  • The full humanity of Jesus and what it means for understanding his family life and sexuality.
  • Roman politics and why Jesus had to fear for his life, constantly on the move to avoid Herod Antipas who successfully caught and executed John the Baptist.
  • Pontius Pilate and his connections to the Roman Emperor Tiberius and to the real power behind the imperial throne, Sejanus.
  • A different theology of redemption than the more familiar one promoted by Paul (as a sacrificial atonement for sin).
  • A new early Christian movement alongside the ones led by Paul, by James and by the Gnostics.
  • Strange archeological depictions of Sun Gods and Zodiacs that have hitherto defied analysis.
More than any other writing, this manuscript places Jesus on the world stage, as a major player within the Roman Empire. 
The site went on to say "This book will be tied into an episode on a 7-part History Channel documentary series, "Secrets of Christianity," to air likely early 2011," but it looks like they decided not to include it in that series (which has six parts) and to save it for next year.

Since Wilson's website speaks about the document having been known for almost 200 years, there must be some who are more familiar with this document than I am.  In the mean time, and since I am ever the optimist, I look forward to hearing more in due course.

Nevertheless, if there are some grounds for caution, one might see them in the idea that this work will provide "the confirmation of Jesus' marriage to Mary Magdalene".  Since there are no ancient sources that speak of Jesus' marriage to Mary Magdalene, it is not clear at this stage how a newly discovered work could provide "confirmation" of this.  The note that she is a "Gentile priestess" is curious and, one would have thought, makes it unlikely that the work goes back to the first century, so too the idea that they had two named children.

Some might find grounds for caution also in the idea that the authors had to "decode the basic symbolism" in the manuscript.  The "discoveries" in the manuscript are revealed "now that it has been decoded".  The idea that ancient manuscripts require "decoding" is a favourite element in popular historical fiction like The Da Vinci Code, and the metaphor is regularly used in Jacobovici's own work (see, for example, the Da Vinci Code and the Talpiot Tomb).  However, it is worth noting that there is some reported substance to the claim here in that the manuscript features an introduction stating that the document has "an embedded meaning".

All in all, though, I am looking forward to hearing more about this exciting find and -- as always -- I will approach the claims made with an open mind.


Jens Knudsen (Sili) said...

"I will approach the claims made with an open mind."

You're a better man than I, Charlie Brown.

I hate science by press release.

Whatever happened to that 'conclusive' 1st century fragment of GMark that some apologist tried to bamboozle Bart Ehrman with last year?

junia said...

As the evenings darken and the Brits hole up for thew Winter, this will be more exciting than Downton Abbey!Your new nickname around these parts is Tenacious G !!

Keen Reader said...

Often we hear concerned, environmentally aware American citizens say that they don't want pipelines constructed to bring nasty, noxious substances into their country from Canada.

So just say no to Jacobovici and Wilson's financially lucrative conduit of unadulterated sh*te!

Keen Reader said...

If the book is as badly written as the blurb, it will truly be a sight to behold.

Unknown said...

The term "decode" is a giveaway for Thiering's "pesher" style of documentary analysis.

I seem to remember looking this up a few years ago, and finding a passage from the supposed lost gospel, which said nothing like what the writers claimed it did, until it is "decoded".

Unknown said...

Yes, there it is in my email files from 2012. The text they decoded is Zacharias Rhetor's Ecclesiastical History. The line "Additionally, Simcha Jacobovici & Barrie Wilson have an upcoming partial translation of Historia Miscellanea in their forthcoming book, The Lost Gospel, which they claim is a coded text relating to the marriage of Jesus of Nazareth" used to be on wikipedia's page about Zacharias - it no longer is, but the Jacobovici-Wilson's book is still listed in the bibliography.

Robert Cargill said...


This is the page to which the above commenter referred:

(This is from the edit history of Zacharias Rhetor.

Todd Brewer said...

I'm intrigued, but suspicious, of the language that purports to "decode the basic symbolism" of a text. Perhaps it will be compelling, but it seems to suggest something of an allegorical interpretation.

Dan King said...

The Syriac ms in question is BL Add 17202 which, as another contributor has pointed out, contains the ecclesiastical history of Zecharias Rhetor. That's not quite accurate - in fact it contains a Syriac translation/epitome of that history written in 569 by a monk. The compilation which the monk produced also included various rather random material in the first two books which were not from Zechariah himself. One of these was a Syriac translation of the History of Joseph and Asenath, which is a reasonably well known Greek apocryphon. This is (I assume) the text which they have 'decoded' to refer to Jesus and Mary. The Syriac translation itself was made by a known individual from the middle of the 6th century and has no sigificance for the reconstruction of the original Greek which is well enough known (and edited) from Greek mss.
What perhaps made it look 'mysterious' to these authors was the fact that whenever the History has been translated (and there are 2 English versions of it) this material has been omitted, simply because the editors saw little point in reprinting something that was easily available elsewhere and really had nothing to do with the rest of the church history with which they were interested.
I suppose the hypothesis they will attempt to justify is that some people (?Syrians ?Greeks) read the J&A story as an allegory of Jesus and Mary and meant it to be understood that way. I expect it will be a difficult hypothesis to demonstrate to anyone other than Discovery Channel viewers...

Richard Bauckham said...

This is blogging at its best: exposing the nonsense even before it appears.

Ian Paul said...

I am just trying to imagine the expression on your face as you write 'I will approach this with an open mind.'

Mark Goodacre said...

Many thanks for these interesting comments. To be fair to them, Jens, it's not press release so much as book blurbs & Barrie Wilson's website that I am drawing attention to here. So at this point, they are being guarded about their discovery / theory. My guess is that in fullness of time, they will reveal more. I happened to stumble upon it because of my interest in and googling of "lost gospels".

I have to admit that I would be a bit disappointed if this turns out simply to be a kind of allegorical reading of the Syriac text of Joseph and Aseneth found in Zacharias Rhetor (as anon. and Dan suggest above). Joseph and Aseneth is one of my favourite texts and as some will know, I have had a website up on it since 1999, and I've spent lots of time with it over the years. Although I would approach any new claims with an open mind, as I mentioned above, I think it would be extraordinarily difficult to justify a reading according to which it was composed as an allegory of Jesus' marriage to Mary Magdalene. I've read the Moses of Ingila correspondence too and although it describes the text as allegory (θεωρία), it certainly does not suggest an allegory of Jesus and Mary.

But could they really be referring to this text? Since it's neither "lost" nor a "gospel", I think the description would be seriously off base. And I am not sure where they would get the material about Tiberius and Sejanus, let alone Jesus' two children, so it may be that they have a different text in mind.

However, I must admit that there are indeed uncanny resemblances between Joseph and Aseneth and the hints they provide about their text -- it is 29 chapters long, the manuscript of Zacharias Rhetor is found in the British Museum (now the British library), it is in Syriac and it dates from the sixth century (well, they appear to claim the fifth). It is certainly not first century, but it may be that the blurb there confuses the date of the work (Joseph and Aseneth may well be first century) with the date of this Syriac textual witness. Further, the "Gentile priestess" comment could make sense if they are planning to associate Aseneth with Mary Magdalene.

Perhaps the most obvious link between the book's pre-publicity and Joseph and Aseneth, though, is the note about "bride of God", since this is the way that Aseneth is described in IV.2.

I hope, however, that this identification is incorrect and that these links are purely coincidental, since Joseph and Aseneth is not in any sense a "lost gospel", and the Syriac text is explicitly secondary to the Greek text, which is primary (as confirmed by Moses of Ingila).

Mark Goodacre said...

Richard Bauckham has sent a very helpful comment on this post, which is too long to post in this comments thread and deserves a separate post of its own, so I will promote it and post it above.