Simcha Jacobovici and Barrie Wilson’s book The Lost Gospel: Decoding the Lost Text that Reveals Jesus’ Marriage to Mary Magdalene released last month, the latest in an often-sensationalized genre that continues to make historical claims that go against an orthodox understanding of who Jesus was and how he lived.
According to their interpretation of the ancient Syriac manuscript, Joseph and Aseneth, Jesus married Mary Magdalene and fathered two sons. Sound familiar? A similar claim was made in the plot of Dan Brown’s popular 2003 novel The Da Vinci Code.
Like Brown’s mystery, The Lost Gospel emphasizes Jesus’ humanity while deifying Mary. Because Jesus was chaste, it is assumed that discovering evidence of Jesus being married and having sex somehow mitigates Jesus’ divinity. And in turn, Mary—Dan Brown’s Holy Grail— becomes deified as Jesus’ consort and the womb of his divine children.
This reoccurring divine family motif of a less-than-God Jesus and a more-than-human Mary can frustrate Christians who know that it’s false. Still, when these kinds of theories come up—often around Christmas and Easter—they get people who don’t normally engage in conversations about Jesus talking about him, what the Scriptures say, and what history reveals. In the wake of sensationalized books, Christians have an opportunity to take advantage of the interest in Jesus.
Ideally, these conversations will take place in ecumenical and interfaith settings. For example, the Center for Ancient Judaism and Christian Origins and Nyack College hosted a conference in New York last month on various Mary Magdalene traditions and the archeological site of Magdala. Not surprisingly, of all the scholars who presented at the conference—including members of Jewish, Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholic traditions—not one suggested Mary Magdalene married Jesus or bore his children.
And, we also get the opportunity to look at our own understanding of Jesus, his life, his humanity, and his relationships on earth. Obviously, these areas won’t be enhanced through reading The Lost Gospel, but the mainstream fascination with these claims and our own reactions to them may reveal something to us.
We don’t need Jesus to be married to know that he was fully human—our orthodox conception of Christ as the God-Man already demonstrates that. We don’t need a female deity to affirm the value of women—the One who created both sexes in the image of God does that already.
One writer states Jacobovici and Wilson believe scholarly criticism of the book is due to the “desire to maintain the traditional depiction of …Christ, rather than a man whose flesh and blood appears far more human.” Rhetorically, this is a manipulative strategy, implying any believer, no matter how skilled a scholar, who disagrees, is simply biased. They are correct in noting that Christians will want to defend our traditional view of Jesus, particularly since many of these family-man Jesus theories highlight his humanity to the point of obscuring, or outright denying, his divinity.
But perhaps the authors get something right with their characterization of Christian responses. We Christians agree on the theanthropic nature of Jesus, that he is both fully God and fully human, but we can be more inclined to defend him as God than to embrace him as man. Many Christians remain uncomfortable with how human Jesus is.
Every semester when my husband teaches courses on the New Testament he receives significant pushback from Christian college students whenever he focuses on a gospel text that highlights Jesus’ human nature. For example, in Luke 2:48, Jesus’ mother Mary says, “Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.” This idea, that Mary affirms Jesus’ earthly father (or step-father), sometimes unsettles students. The suggestion that most likely Jesus referred to Joseph as Abba in the same way many students call their stepfathers Dad is too much for them. It is too real, too normal. It is not abstract and holy enough.
Even when my husband tells students, “Yes. Of course, Jesus is the Son of God. Yes, we affirm Jesus’ deity. Now let’s take a look at how this gospel text communicates Jesus’ humanity,” they still feel the need to defend Jesus’ divinity. And sometimes, we find ourselves in that same place—wanting the holy Jesus more than the human one.
Poor Mary. Throughout history she has been characterized as everything from a prostitute to a goddess. The real flesh and blood woman, Mary Magdalene, appears in the New Testament gospels as a faithful follower of Jesus. Jacobovici does not think that is good enough. Famous for his hyped-up theories, he claims Mary is, “not just Mrs. Jesus. She’s a co-deity.”
Likewise, Dan Brown’s compelling narrative elevates the divine feminine and characterizes the Catholic Church as being hell bent on keeping any evidence of feminine divinity from the public’s knowledge. Many books and sermons were crafted to counteract the inaccurate theological influences of Brown’s novel.
As Christians we affirm that both males and females are created in God’s image, and we also affirm that God is neither male nor female but transcends both. Perhaps the concern to protect believers from unorthodox errors—like the notion of a female co-deity—has kept us from more fully engaging orthodox biblical material that reflects God’s image in females or feminine attributes of God.
When women and girls ask about the exclusive masculine language and imagery used to speak of God, they often receive responses that diminish or ignore their concerns.
Some churches see the desire to explore God’s feminine attributes as solely due to the influence of secular feminism upon Christianity. But that is not the only option. This desire could also be evoked by the lack of engagement with the numerous female biblical characters, feminine imagery, and female experiences recorded within Scripture, by the desire for a fuller picture of God and his Word.
If not a deliberate focus, it can be easy for pastors to unintentionally avoid preaching on women; in the Old Testament, named men outnumber women by about 10 to 1, and women are also far outnumbered in the New Testament. It’s rare for a female character to appear in sermons as models of healthy engagement and interaction with God for both males and females.
Obviously, to suggest Jesus is some ordinary fellow, or Mary Magdalene is a goddess, is not biblical. Still, even false claims can push us to look closer about what we do believe to be true about our God and how we live, talk, pray, and act in response.
While others focus on the sensationalized pseudo-scholarship of The Lost Gospel, or on pushing back against the claims within it, what ways can we pursue and manifest God’s heart and character as revealed to us in all Scripture, including the parts we overlook or are uncomfortable with?
Maureen Farrell Garcia loves biblical narratives, books, and tea. She's a mother of three valiant daughters, wife of a New Testament scholar, and a writer who teaches at a Christian college. She would love for you to connect with her on Twitter @mfarrellgarcia.