Review of The Lost Gospel by Simcha Jacobovici and Barrie Wilson

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With less hype than his previous book, The Jesus Family Tomb (2007), Simcha Jacobovici’s  latest attack on Christianity hit bookstores on November 12, 2014. His earlier book sought to capitalize on the conspiracy theory popularized in the wildly successful Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown: Jesus was really married to Mary Magdalene, but a male-dominated church envied her and sought to silence any memory of her.

The Lost Gospel is yet another attempt to show Jesus as the husband of Mary Magdalene, and this time Jacobovici claims to have proof. He boldly asserted, “What the Vatican feared—and Dan Brown only suspected—has come true” (ix). The authors state that they “have discovered a text that claims that [Jesus] was married and fathered children” (x).

Did Jacobovici and Wilson discover an ancient text that makes such a proclamation? If so, what is it and why hasn’t the world heard about this before? Could Christians, including the eyewitnesses of Jesus in the Gospel accounts, truly have been so wrong about Him for the past two millennia?

The Story Behind The Lost Gospel

The ancient text at the heart of this latest assault on biblical Christianity is a story known as Joseph and Aseneth. According to Jacobovici, this document was actually written as a coded document. So rather than being about Joseph and his Egyptian wife, this work was really written as a secret message to inform people that Mary Magdalene was the wife of Jesus and the mother of His two children.

Of course, this conclusion can only be reached by those who deconstruct the original account. That is, modern interpreters must read beyond and between the words of the text to discover a hidden meaning about one person or group being oppressed by another. In this case, the authors propose that the real Christians followed the real Jesus who was married to Mary Magdalene, but they had to keep these views under wraps because the power-hungry “Christians” who followed Paul would persecute and kill them.1 For Jacobovici, it was the Gnostics who were the genuine Christians, and Pauline Christians were bent on changing Jesus’s true message and wiping out any who stood in their way.

This concept may sound shocking to Christians today, but it is standard fare among many liberal theologians and conspiracy theorists. These individuals will reinterpret ancient texts to support whatever agenda they favor. After providing a revisionist explanation of the Council of Nicaea (spelled as Nicea in the book), Jacobovici stated the following:

Henceforth, being a Christian meant subscribing to the statement of faith that Constantine created. Clearly, this was a defining moment for the Christian Church. It also defined who got to preserve their texts and their beliefs. This meant that one form of Christianity now had the muscle of the Roman emperor behind it. The others could choose to go the Stephen way and become martyrs, or take the path of Nicodemus and go underground. (23)

The Council of Nicaea (AD 325) seems to be the root of all evil for the Jesus conspiracy theorists. But Constantine did not write a statement of faith, and he cast no votes at the Council. He simply presided over it to maintain the peace as the bishops debated contentious issues, particularly the heresy of Arianism. The Nicene Creed was drafted by the bishops present at the council, and not by the emperor. Furthermore, the council did not make any decisions regarding the biblical canon. It wasn’t even part of the agenda. Finally, Constantine did not outlaw any competing belief systems; Christianity was not made the state religion until 55 years later by the Edict of Thessalonica during the reign of Theodosius.

Jacobovici’s backstory concerning the perils faced by Gnostics and other non-Pauline Christians is sheer revisionist history. This should surprise no one familiar with his work, since his claims about the Jesus family tomb were widely panned for similar reasons by biblical scholars and archaeologists of all stripes. As will be seen, Jacobovici’s treatment of Joseph and Aseneth is no better. Because there are so many false claims and outright lies about Jesus, the Apostles, and church history, it will be impossible to point out all the errors in the book in this review. So we will highlight a handful of them.

Joseph and Aseneth

The story of Joseph and Aseneth is an ancient writing that focuses primarily on Aseneth, the daughter of Poti-Phera priest of On, who was given to Joseph to be his wife by Pharaoh (Genesis 41:46–50). Scholars generally agree that it was originally written in Greek, but a Syriac copy of the text is at the heart of the claims made in The Lost Gospel. Most scholars agree that it was penned by a Hellenistic Jew in either the first century BC or first century AD.2

Aseneth is said to have been the most beautiful young maiden in the land of Egypt. She lived in a tower in Heliopolis and worshiped many false gods. Eventually, she falls in love with Joseph, but before she can become his wife she must be purified from her pagan ways. After a week of mourning and fasting, an angel visits her in her tower and tells her that she will be Joseph’s wife. After they marry and have two kids, Pharaoh’s son plots to murder his father and Joseph so that he can take the throne and have Aseneth as wife. Although he enlisted the assistance of four of Joseph’s brothers, his plot is thwarted and he eventually succumbs to an injury he received during the battle.

In no way can this work be said to be a “lost gospel.” It was not lost. In fact, it was a fairly popular tale among Christians until the time of the Protestant Reformation and has enjoyed continued approval in the Eastern Orthodox Church.3 And it most certainly is not a gospel. Revisionist Jesus conspiracy theorists, like Jacobovici, love to identify all ancient pseudo-Christian texts as “gospels” because they long to find an authoritative text that fits their agenda. And since the publication of The da Vinci Code, the idea that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married is a hot topic for liberal theologians and other non-Christians. For a detailed rebuttal of some of these claims, please see my article titled “Was Jesus Married?

What about the Tower Lady?

Jacobovici and Wilson base the entire premise of their book on the idea that Joseph and Aseneth was never intended to be read in a straightforward manner. For them, it is obvious that the book was written to be decoded. They wrote, “If this story is really referring to the Biblical Joseph and Aseneth, right away we see problems with this text. In this account, Aseneth quickly moves to center stage, whereas the Bible makes Joseph the primary figure” (8).

As we’ll see in a later section, the reason the writer focused on Aseneth is because it is a story about her. Many of the books written during the centuries around the time of Christ were penned to provide a fictional backstory to characters named in Scripture. Much was already known about Joseph thanks to the biblical account, and readers were treated to an expansion of his story in a popular work known as the Testament of Joseph. Naturally, those who enjoyed learning about Joseph wanted to know more about his wife. Thus Joseph and Aseneth was written.

The fact that Aseneth lived in a tower in no way indicates that the writer was truly referring to Mary Magdalene. Yet Jacobovici and Wilson write as if this proposition is an open-and-shut case. The story has Aseneth raised in a tower, and Mary Magdalene was likely from Magdala, a town whose name was probably derived from the Hebrew word for tower, migdal.

Building on this notion, the authors state, “Mary the Magdalene is the only figure in Christian tradition identified with a tower . . . Aseneth of the Tower in our manuscript is clearly Mary the Magdalene or ‘Mary the Tower’ of the Gospels” (66). Indeed it is strange that the authors would make the claim that Mary is the only figure in Christian tradition identified with a tower since later in the same chapter they describe three other women who lived in towers: St. Barbara, St. Irene, and St. Christina (79). The stories of these women could very well have been drawn from Aseneth, but that would not mean that she is a code name for Mary Magdalene.

Scholarly Ignorance?

Jacobovici and Wilson vehemently reject the majority view among scholars that Joseph and Aseneth was written by a Hellenistic Jew. Throughout their book, they go to great lengths to remind the reader that it is a Christian work. While scholars can certainly be wrong, dissenting views need to be backed by stronger evidence than the conspiratorial ramblings of a proven huckster.  

Rather than submitting their theories to the peer review of biblical scholars and historians, the authors simply accuse the scholarly world of being ignorant of the “truth” that they are peddling. Here are two quotations from the book that highlight one of the major claims of The Lost Gospel.

What drives all these theories is the assumption that the author of Joseph and Aseneth must be Jewish, just because the lead character in the story is one of the Jewish patriarchs. Clearly, that assumption has taken scholars on a lengthy wild-goose chase and they have ended up with speculations that are demonstrably off the mark. (43)

We can now state without hesitation that the majority of scholars who examined Joseph and Aseneth overlooked the context in which the manuscript was preserved—namely, Eastern Christianity and its fondness for typological analysis. By trying to force Joseph and Aseneth into a Jewish world, scholars completely ignored the cultural environment in which the text was translated and transmitted. (54)

Notice, according to the authors, scholars have been on a “wild-goose chase” reaching wrong conclusions because of their assumption that the work is Jewish, an idea that resulted from ignoring the cultural setting of the text’s transmission.

If the text’s original author truly were Jewish it would completely dismantle all of the deconstructionism engaged in by Jacobovici and Wilson. Maybe there are good reasons for believing the text is of Jewish origin. Let’s look at these reasons and examine the arguments made in The Lost Gospel for a Christian origin of Joseph and Aseneth.

Jewish or Christian?

For Jacobovici and Wilson, their entire conspiracy story rests on an assertion rejected by most scholars—that Joseph and Aseneth was written by a Christian. Pierre Batiffol, the man responsible for creating the first critical text of the book, originally identified it as a Christian work. The Lost Gospel makes much of this assertion, yet Batiffol later backed off his position, stating that the idea of it being a Jewish work from the time of Jesus was “very attractive.”4  

The evidence for a Jewish origin may not be conclusive, but it is strong enough that the most influential treatment of the book stated, “Every competent scholar has since [Batiffol] affirmed that Joseph and Aseneth is Jewish, with perhaps some Christian interpolations; none has put the book much after A.D. 200, and some have placed it as early as the second century B.C.”5

The authors of The Lost Gospel promote a revisionist history to claim that Gnosticism is the real Christianity. Therefore these mystical elements common in Gnosticism prove that this is a Christian writing.  But reasons abound for identifying Joseph and Aseneth as a Jewish writing.

First, despite Jacobovici’s insistence to the contrary, the story does not contain distinctly Christian teachings. There is nothing about the atoning death, burial, and Resurrection of Jesus. However, it does have mystical elements that led one scholar to link it with a fringe Jewish sect called Merkavah.6

Second, The author of Joseph and Aseneth was quite familiar with the Old Testament, as seen in the following details:
  • Aseneth is described as being “as tall as Sarah, and as beautiful as Rebecca, and as fair as Rachel.” (Aseneth 1:8)
  • The story is set during the seven years of plenty enjoyed by Egypt in Joseph’s time. (Aseneth 1:1)
  • Joseph’s brothers are major characters in the second half of the book, and minor details are given about them that only someone with a good Old Testament background would know.
    • Simeon and Levi are described as fierce warriors, which clearly is drawn from their slaughter of Shechem. (Aseneth 23:3)
    • The four siblings that join the conspiracy to murder Joseph are his four half-brothers from his father’s concubines. (Aseneth 24:2)
    • Benjamin delivered the mortal blow to Pharaoh’s son and fifty of his soldiers by throwing rocks at them. He never missed (Aseneth 27:3–5). This is almost certainly drawn from Judges 20:15–16, a passage that describes 700 Benjamites who “could sling a stone at a hair’s breadth and not miss.”
    • Joseph would not eat at the same table as the Egyptians because it was abominable to him (Aseneth 7:1), a twist on Genesis 43:32 where the Egyptians would not eat with Hebrews.

Many other details could be cited as well, but these are sufficient to contradict the authors of The Lost Gospel who, ironically since they claim Joseph and Aseneth was a Christian writing, stated that “early Christians did not value the Hebrew Bible as a historical document” (52). And to support this absurd statement, the authors quote from the heretic Marcion and badly rip a passage from Paul out of its context.

In Galatians 4:21–31, Paul used Hagar and Sarah in a figurative sense to represent bondage to the Law and the freedom from it that is found in Christ. The Lost Gospel uses this example to claim that this is how early Christians considered the Old Testament: as symbolic, not historical. Yet he fails to mention that Paul came right out and said that he was speaking allegorically in this passage (Galatians 4:24 NASB). The truth is that Paul and other early Christians viewed the Old Testament as inspired by God (2 Timothy 3:16) and frequently cited it as real history (Galatians 3:6; Romans 4:9–12).     

According to the vast majority of scholars, Joseph and Aseneth belongs to the genre of “hellenistic Jewish literature”7 and it includes “many clichés which are typical, if not exclusive, marks of the Hellenistic romance.”8 Many people are unaware that the intertestamental period witnessed a vast array of books written by Jews to provide more background about Old Testament characters. Joseph and Aseneth fits this mold very well. Humphrey stated, “Like other parabiblical ‘novels’, Joseph and Aseneth (or Aseneth, as we shall call it) answers to the perennial desire of the wayward reader to ‘fill in the blanks’ or write ‘between the lines’ of the biblical narrative.”9

Yet, The Lost Gospel states that the ancient story “is without a doubt Christian” (41). To prove their case, Jacobovici and Wilson repeatedly argue that Joseph and Aseneth could not have been a Jewish work because Aseneth’s conversion includes no mention of a commitment to Judaism and the Torah. It seems that the authors believe this argument is watertight, but there is a major problem with it, as will be seen. Following are two of the many quotations that make this flawed claim.

Although there are, indeed, indications of Torah-observance in the manuscript—for example, Joseph follows Jewish dietary laws; he seems to avoid meeting Aseneth on the Sabbath; and he’s a monotheist rejecting pagan deities—the text as a whole does not reflect strict Jewish observance . . . And yet, other than her embrace of monotheism, there is nothing in Aseneth’s behavior to suggest that she becomes Jewish. She does not convert. She simply embraces monotheism, throwing away her statues and votive offerings. We hear nothing about her taking on the obligations of the Torah or going through any ritual of conversion to Judaism. (42)

Yet she is not in any way a formal convert to Judaism. There is no sense in the text that she is no committed to the 613 Commandments of the Torah. (64)

It is true that the book doesn’t say that Aseneth is committed to the Torah, but there is a shockingly easy reason to explain why this is the case. The reason Aseneth never commits to the Torah is because it is about a woman who lived centuries before the Law (Torah) was ever given to Moses. It would be anachronistic for a writer to impose the Mosaic Law on individuals who lived at a time when the Law had not yet been given. In other words, the reason Aseneth never follows the Torah is because the Torah was not there for her to follow.10

Conclusion

The Lost Gospel is truly nothing more than a trumped up conspiracy theory masquerading as legitimate scholarship. It is based on revisionist history, deconstructionism, distortions of biblical texts, and outright lies about early Christian beliefs. Simcha Jacobovici and Barrie Wilson clearly have an ax to grind against Christianity, as was demonstrated in Jacobovici’s book and film about the so-called Jesus family tomb, which was grounded in the same shoddy methodologies. This review has only scratched the surface of the numerous falsehoods promoted in the book.

Joseph and Aseneth is an interesting piece of “historical fiction” written around the time of Jesus to give readers more backstory to an Old Testament figure. It was never lost, and it certainly is not a gospel. The four canonical Gospels are the ones that were inspired by the Holy Spirit, and they tell us the truth about Jesus Christ in a straightforward manner based on details told by those who walked with Him.

We do not need any “lost gospels” to tell us more about the Lord Jesus, but we do need to pray for and share the gospel of Jesus Christ with those who are lost, including the authors of The Lost Gospel.

Answers in Depth

2015 Volume 10

Footnotes

  1. The early Christians did not persecute Gnostics, or anyone else for that matter. The truth is that the early church was often persecuted by Rome and by Jewish authorities. This fact is often ignored by revisionists like Jacobovici.
  2. Edith M. Humphrey, Joseph and Aseneth (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), 14–15.
  3. Christoph Burchard, “Joseph and Aseneth: A New Translation and Introduction” in James H. Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Volume 2 (New York: Doubleday, 1985), 195–199.
  4. Pierre Batiffol, Revue Biblique Internationale, Volume 7, p. 303.
  5. Burchard, 187. Since Burchard wrote this statement, New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham has voiced support for Joseph and Aseneth being a Christian writing, at least in its present form. See http://ntweblog.blogspot.com/2013/10/the-bride-of-god-or-lost-gospel-of.html.
  6. While his view is not shared by most scholars, Howard Clark Kee made this comparison in “The Socio-Cultural Setting of Joseph and Aseneth,” New Testament Studies 29, no. 3 (1983): 404–406.
  7. Burchard, 181.
  8. Ibid., 185.
  9. Humphrey, 13. She added that due to “its parabiblical and mystic style” it has been interpreted in many ways.
  10. This is the same reason why we are never told that Aseneth converted to Judaism. The Jewish faith was not referred to as Judaism until the 2nd century BC. It was named for the region known as Judea, which was derived from the Southern Kingdom of Judah, which in turn was named after Jacob’s son, Judah. So Aseneth lived at the same time as the man from whom the Hebrew faith would eventually be named.

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