Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Bride of God or the Lost Gospel of Joseph and Asyath, Richard Bauckham

On Sunday, I posted some comments on Simcha Jacobovici and Barrie Wilson's forthcoming book and documentary, Jacobovici and Wilson's "Lost Gospel".  It led to a very interesting comments thread in which the possibility came up that their "lost gospel" might in fact be a section from Pseudo-Zachariah Rhetor featuring a Syriac text of Joseph and Aseneth as well as the correspondence that prefaces it.  In response to this, Richard Bauckham has sent the following comments, which I am here promoting to a post of its own.  I have also made this available as a PDF here.

The Bride of God or the Lost Gospel of Joseph and Asyath

Richard Bauckham

I think there can be no doubt that this ‘lost Gospel’ is a section of The Chronicle of Pseudo-Zachariah Rhetor. The relevant section is Book I chs. 4-6, where chapter 6 is ‘The History of Joseph the Just and Asyath his wife,’ while chapters 4-5 are two letters that introduce it. The recent English translation of Pseudo-Zacharias (2011) does not include books I-II, mainly because these are not ecclesiastical history and consist mainly of material found also elsewhere. The editors do note that others are working on these books.

I do not read Syriac, and so, in the absence of an English translation, I have consulted the Latin translation by E. W. Brooks (CSCO 3/5, 1924). In the first of the two letters the unnamed writer says that he found in a library a work in Greek called ‘the book of Asyath.’ He says he read only its ‘historia’ (the Greek word apparently used in the Syriac text) and did not understand its ‘theōria’ (Greek again). Since the Greek language is difficult and alien for him, he asks his learned correspondent, a certain Moses ‘Ingilae,’ to translate it into Syriac for him, and to explain both its ‘historia’ as a whole and something of its ‘theōria’. Moses replies, saying that he has read the ‘historia’ of the book and, if I’m understanding the text correctly, that the ‘theōria’ contained in it is (‘to put it briefly’) the truth that our God our Lord the Word became incarnate by the will of the Father and became human and was joined to a soul with its perfect senses ….

And there the text breaks off without finishing the sentence. You can imagine what fun Jacobovici and Wilson will have with that suspiciously lost ending.

The words historia and theōria are obviously here used in the way they were in the Alexandrian tradition of biblical exegesis, where every Old Testament narrative (historia) is expected to have a corresponding Christian allegorical meaning (theōria). Since Joseph and Asenath tells a story about Old Testament characters, it was natural for Moses and his correspondent to suppose it must have an allegorical meaning, which to them would be much more interesting than the literal reading. I suspect that Moses took Asenath (or Asyath, as she is called) to represent the church, the bride of Christ, and Joseph to represent the incarnate Christ, while his heavenly alter ego, the archangel, is the pre-existent Logos. (Moreover, I think he may have been right. I strongly suspect that Joseph and Asenath is not a Jewish work, at least not in the form we have it, but a Christian work with allegorical meaning. But this is hardly relevant to the present argument.)

Jacobovici and Wilson have evidently supposed that the talk of historia and theōria in the two letters means that the story is a cover for a coded meaning, which is the true history of Jesus. They have missed the fact that Moses and his correspondent are speaking merely about the usual sort of allegorical exegesis that in the Alexandrian school was applied to any such narrative.

There seems to be nothing special about the Syriac version of Joseph and Asenath in Pseudo-Zacharias, apart from the fact that Asenath is called Asyath. But it’s not too difficult to see roughly how Jacobovoci and Wilson are interpreting it. Joseph, I guess, is a cypher for Jesus, a thoroughly human figure who nevertheless has a kind of heavenly counterpart in the chief archangel. In the story Asenath’s name is changed to ‘City of Refuge,’ within whose walls many nations are going to gather. Since ‘Magdalene’ derives from migdal, tower, this change of name refers to Jesus giving his wife Mary the new name Magdalene, to symbolize the role she is to have in the Christian movement. Note that the blurb for the book refers to ‘the towering presence of Mary Magdalene’! In the story, Joseph and Asenath have two children: Ephraim and Manasseh. That Mary Magdalene is the ‘bride of God’ reflects the last section of Asenath’s psalm (21:21). I expect the strong political dimension in the description of Jacobovici and Wilson’s book refers to some kind of reading of chapters 23-29 of Joseph and Asenath. None of this sounds to me any more far-fetched than Barbara Thiering’s so-called pesher reading of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Since Jacobovici and Wilson say that the lost gospel has 29 chapters, they must be well aware that the Syriac work in Pseudo-Zacharias is the well-known Greek Joseph and Asenath. What they find special in Pseudo-Zacharias must be the two letters with their cryptic suggestion of a hidden meaning that has something to do with the incarnation of the Logos. 


maklelan said...

For anyone interested in having a look for themselves, the Syriac translation of Joseph and Aseneth, with the attached correspondence, is in the public domain and can be accessed here:

Tony Burke said...

I'm not sure if Simcha and Barrie should be annoyed by all this attention to a book that has yet to be released or flattered. Seems unfair though to present arguments against what you THINK a book MIGHT be about. How do other scholars feel about this? Would you want the steam taken out of a project you worked on for five years? To some extent the success of what Simcha does (as a documentary film maker, not a scholar) relies on surprise--i.e., people will tune in wondering what the program has to say. To blow that surprise, and really only out of spite because his critics don't like what he does, sabotages his work. I don't agree with Simcha on many things but I don't think this means he should be attacked in this way. And I'm not saying YOU are attacking him Mark, but your blog posts attract the attention of those who, at this point, are just out to get him. And now you have provided a forum for Bauckham to, in my mind, interfere with his work. Think too of this analogy: you post on a blog some preliminary thoughts on a text but before you get a chance to formally present those thoughts in a polished paper, someone publishes a refutation of the post in a scholarly journal. Seems a bit unfair, no? (from Tony Burke, York University)

Ian Paul said...

I agree. How unfair it is to apply some careful, rigorous thinking to this. I am sure that Jacobovici and Wilson have a quite disinterested academic concern for the truth, and that the different stages of pre-release publicity in no way suggest any interest in sensationalism, or a concern to undermine well-intentioned beliefs of millions.

Tony Burke said...

Ian, as Mark (rightly) said in the comments to his previous post: "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.'" So, there has been no "pre-release publicity." Furthermore, as scholars it is not our role to worry about undermining beliefs; if we did, we'd get nowhere. (Tony Burke)

Keen Reader said...

Let's face it: everyone with an ounce of scholarship in the field knows already, ahead of time, that Jacobovichi and Wilson's book will be sensationalised rubbish, put out before Easter to make headlines.

So it doesn't matter what anyone says about it. We can already be pretty sure that the actual book when it comes out WILL BE EVEN WORSE than we predicted.

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, Tony, for your thoughts. I would doubt that Simcha or Barrie would be concerned about a bit of extra pre-publicity for this project. After all, at some point soon, they will reveal more about it. For me, it's a question of scholarly curiosity. When a new "lost gospel" is announced, of course people like us are going to prick up their ears. The same thing was true with the Gospel of Judas -- there was a lot of speculation in the blogs before the Nat Geo documentary came out, some of it right, some of it off base, as it turned out.

I love your analogy to Fostergate, and that did make me smile, but of course the difference there is that the article was published in a peer-reviewed journal and not a blog. There is something about the informality and correctability of the blog post that makes it an appropriate forum for the discussion of new theories like this. Blog posts are ephemeral in a way that formal publications are not.

And that, of course, means that the key thing will be to read Jacobovici's and Wilson's book when it comes out, and to assess its claims with a fair mind. After all, we too might be surprised!

Ian Paul said...

I agree that it is not the place of scholarship to worry about undermining the beliefs of others.

But I do think it is the place of scholarship to worry about others misusing and hijacking scholarship to do so. I think we have seen this a couple of times in publications already this summer.

I also worry about the way commercialism and the desire to make a fast buck are undermining scholarship. Sensationalist claims about artefacts are seriously undermining biblical archaeology, since any 'find' is highly likely to find its way onto the black market.

Unknown said...

As a footnote to my post: I see it has been suggested that the broken sentence at the end of Moses of Ingila's letter is referring to an allegorical interpretation of the story as a Gnostic union of the soul (represented by Aseneth) with the divine Logos/Word of God (represented by Joseph). This is certainly incorrect. At the point where the sentence is broken Moses is using standard patristic language about the nature of the incarnation, which entailed the divine Logos assuming a human nature, including a human rational soul. That the Logos in incarnation was joined not just to a human body but to a human soul was a point that orthodox statement of the incarnation always made after Apollinarius (who had denied that there was a human soul in Christ). I think that Moses' account of the allegorical meaning of the story can be only just beginning at the point where the text breaks off. He is not yet talking about the union of the incarnate Lggos (= Joseph in the story) with Asenath (= the church the bride of Christ).

Mark Goodacre said...

Re-reading these texts reminded me that it was high time I updated my Aseneth Home page. It's remarkable just how many texts and translations are now available on the web for free in toto via and google books, including Greek, Syriac and Latin texts, and three English translations!

Here's the link to the Aseneth home page:

And here is the link to the hyperlinked bibliography featuring those newly available texts and translations:

(With respect to the latter, I realize that lower down the page there are tons of dead links which will need correcting. I'll get on to that next).

Jeff said...

Maybe it’s just me but I don’t find it particularly “scholarly” to attack a book before it’s been published – maybe before it’s been written! What’s the point? Isn’t it odd for Richard Bauckham – going on a tip – trying to imagine what their argument is and then attacking it? In the meantime, Simcha goes off to Cannes, seems to have a lovely time, has a lovely wife and takes home a gold award (Jerusalem Post: and Times Of Israel: I used to believe the attacks on him but now I’m beginning to wonder....

Richie Dagger said...

I don't understand how people can think a couple of well written, non-defamatory blog posts on a topic totally relevant to the theme of the blog is considered some sort of un-scholarly attack on Simcha.

If you're super-sensitive to Prof. Goodacre's mild, good-natured, and informative blog on the NT (a field he carries expertise in) your mind will probably melt reading some of the other blogs out there in the blogosphere (like Simcha Jacobovici for instance).

Gareth Hughes said...

"I do not read Syriac" — shame!

The Latin is accurate enough for this sort of thing, but it just doesn't look good.