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Profiting from Christian Credulity

A brand-new book, entitled The Lost Gospel: Decoding the Ancient Text that Reveals Jesus’ Marriage to Mary the Magdalene, is receiving a lot of attention. How could it not? The authors of the book declare that it proves that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married, with two children. The media eats this stuff up. Amazon.com describes it as “# 1 Best Seller in Christian Bible Study Guides.”

Of course the book was bound to get headlines as “stunning” and “startling” and “a bombshell.” But I agree with Greg Carey, Professor of New Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary, that it’s basically a “sensationalist money-making scheme.” It is ridiculous.

There’s a market out there for anything having to do with Jesus. Around 77% of people in this country identify as Christian. Many (although I suspect not most) are regular readers of the New Testament. Most can quote some passages from the gospels, the Book of Acts, some of the epistles, and the Book of Revelation. But few give much thought to the history of early Christianity, assuming that the Church was founded right after Jesus’ crucifixion and supposed resurrection circa 30 CE and that it evolved in a straight line (albeit through some periods of corruption under bad popes etc.) into the Christianity of today.

In fact—as any serious historian of religion knows—there were by the early 100s (that is, within a century of the crucifixion of Jesus posited by Christian belief) multiple sects that revered Jesus (or a figure referred to as Christ or Chrestus) in Roman Judea, where Jesus—if he was indeed an historical figure, which many scholars question—had lived. He was revered by a minority faction in Jewish communities throughout the Roman Empire, and increasingly within non-Jewish, even anti-Jewish, communities.

These believers differed on many issues. It’s probably better to call them factions of a “Jesus movement” than “early Christians” since there was no effective headquarters of a united movement. (The idea that the Roman Catholic Church was founded in Rome by the Apostle Paul in the 60s is highly dubious. There is actually little evidence for the Roman Catholic tradition that St. Paul became “bishop of Rome,” establishing the Papacy. Indeed there is no hard evidence that an historical Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, ever even visited Rome.)

The adherents of sects within the Jesus movement differed on the very nature of Jesus. Some thought he was God incarnate without a material human nature, God in temporary human disguise. (In this view, he didn’t suffer on the cross at all.) Some thought he was (merely) a man sent by God with an inspiring message of salvation. Some thought he was a man whom, when baptized by John the Baptist, as the voice of God publicly pronounced “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17) suddenly became at that moment a divine being. Others developed the argument that, having been born of a human virgin, Jesus was half-man, half-God. This became the leading, standard Christian view. (For most Jews, this was of course an unthinkable, preposterous concept.)

Sometime in the second century the concept of the Trinity began to take shape. Justin Martyr (d. ca. 165) , one of the earliest Christian writers whose work survives, writes “in the name of God, the Lord of the Universe, and of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit.” But the concept of “God in three persons” comes much later. Meanwhile some sects favored a Father-Mother-Son combo or a Father-Sophia-Son trio. (In my opinion, this trinity concept is probably derivative of the earlier Hindu Trimutri or Buddhist Trikaya concepts.)

The Refutation of All Heresies by the Roman Christian theologian Hippolytus (ca. 170-235), enumerates dozens of “false” versions of Christian belief. (My favorite among these is the “heresy” of the brilliant Basilides of Alexandria, who integrated elements of Buddhism including a concept of reincarnation, and a concept of suffering—as opposed to sin—as the fundamental human problem,  into his system. And then there was  the Phibionite sect in Syria, which as described by Epiphanius,, ca. 320-403, practiced a form of Communion involving group sex and the oral consumption of semen as the body of Christ. On the other hand there were sects like the very influential Marcionites, compilers of the first version of the New Testament, who demanded lifelong sexual abstinence from their devotees.)

The point is: there was a huge market for religious ideas in the Roman Empire and adjacent areas such as Parthia in the first three centuries of the Common Era. Any kind of “Christianity” you can imagine appeared and found an audience.

When Roman Emperor Constantine legalized the worship of Christ in 313 he lifted the persecution of the various Jesus-revering sects. But concerned about the lack of uniformity within the movement, he convened the famous Council of Nicaea in 325. This was intended to lay down the law, and in fact, resulted in the Nicene Creed embraced by Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and most Protestant denominations to this day as the basic statement of the “true faith.”

This council produced Roman Catholicism as we know it, and which became the official religion of the Empire in 380. From that point the Roman state undertook in earnest the persecution of all other “Christian” sects (notably the Marcionites) and the suppression of their “heretical” texts. Countless “gospels” deemed spurious (i.e., not inspired by the “Holy Spirit”) were torched.

Christoph Marschies, chair of Ancient Christianity at Humboldt University in Berlin, estimates that 85% of the Christian texts that we know existed (due to references in the works of the writers of surviving texts) have been lost.

Some texts, however, were buried by monks to enhance their prospects of survival. Every so often these are unearthed, sometimes in large caches of material sent off to European archives for the eventual discovery of scholars who read Greek, Aramaic, Syriac, Coptic etc.

In 1945 the Gospel of Thomas was unearthed at Nag Hammadi, Egypt. Its existence had been known to scholars, since it is quoted in ancient texts which survived the book-burnings of the early Roman Catholic thought-police. Probably written before 150, and containing many parables found in the canonical gospels, it is a fascinating work that indeed adds something to our understanding of the early Jesus movement’s perception of the man. In 1886 a French archeologist discovered fragments of the Gospel of Peter, which was also composed in the second century. It is of interest in absolving Pontius Pilate of responsibility for Jesus’ death and assigning full responsibility to King Herod and “the Jews” in general.

In 1991 scholars found a text in a Berlin archive, published as The Gospel of the Savior, another second-century text in the form of a dialogue between the Savior and his disciples and emphasizing that salvation comes from knowledge. It was moderately interesting for those of us interested in the historical discussion of “faith” and “works” in Christian soteriology. And of course the Gospel of Judas was published by National Geographic in 2006 to much fanfare. This was another second or third century work, throwing Judas into a whole different light as the most enlightened of Jesus’ disciples who facilitates his departure from the corrupt world of the flesh into the abode of light.

In 2010 a newly discovered manuscript, given the title Revelation of the Magi, was published in English. Its authorship likely dates back to the fourth century. although the translated text was copied by a monk in southeastern Turkey in the eighth century. It builds on the (thin) fanciful narrative in Matthew 2:1-12 about the visit of the Magi. (These Magi or magicians have usually been viewed as Zoroastrian astrologers from Persia.) This text has the “wise men” coming from the land of Shir (a probable reference to China) rather than Persia, and it espouses the view that Jesus is only one of the various manifestations of God-on-earth over time. (It’s written three centuries after the events it purports to depict. It’s just a charming novel. But it’s a very, very interesting testament to Silk Road inter-cultural transmission and the power of the human imagination!)

The figure of Mary Magdalene figures prominently in some of the non-canonical (and “heretical”) literature generated by Christians in Roman times. There’s actually not much about her in the New Testament itself. She appears in Mark, Matthew and John as an observer of the crucifixion, and a witness to the resurrection (especially in the Gospel of John, where she’s the only person present to see him (John 20:1-18). Luke (8:2) depicts her as part of Jesus’ entourage during his ministry and as someone he’d exorcized of seven demons. Tradition associates her with the woman “caught in adultery” (perhaps a prostitute) mentioned in John 8:5-8.9 although the woman in question is not named. She was basically, in the early Jesus movement, a blank page on which one could write anything.

A text called in modern times “The Gospel of Mary” was “discovered” in a codex purchased in Cairo in 1896 and brought to Berlin where it was translated. Scholars believe it was composed in the early second century, In it, a woman named Mary (not specifically Mary of Magdala) comforts the disciples after Jesus’ death, describes a vision of an ascent into heaven, and is doubted by Peter and Andrew. But Matthew (Levi) berates his fellow-disciples. He asks: “If the savior made her worthy, who are you to reject her? Surely the savior knows her well that is why he has loved her more than us.” (Marvin Meyer trans.)

The Gospel of Philip, found with the Gospel of Thomas in Egypt in 1945, describes Mary (Magdalene, specifically) as Jesus’ “companion” (koinonos in Greek). Written before 250, it contains the unambiguous passage, as reconstructed by Meyer, “The savior loved] her more than all the disciples, and he kissed her often on her mouth.” In 2012 Harvard divinity professor Karen L. King revealed the existence of another lost gospel copied onto Egyptian papyrus, copied in the seventh or eighth century but probably composed in the second or third century. In it Jesus declares makes reference to a “wife…able to be my disciple.” (This text is thought to be a product of the school of Valentinus, a “heretical” Christian leader commonly identified as a “Gnostic,” which flourished in the second century.)

(It goes without saying that the 2003 fantasy detective novel by Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code and the film by that name in 2006 fueled popular interest in the story that Jesus married Mary Magdalene.)Obviously—at least among some sects within the as yet variegated, fractious underground Christian movement—there had developed a tradition by the second century CE that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were a couple. Mainstream Christian theologians today will say, “So what? These materials all lack the antiquity, hence authority, of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (thought to have been composed between 70 and 120, with Mark the first and John the last.) They are the products of human imagination, rejected by the fourth century Church when with Roman state backing and divine guidance it was able to definitively establish the canon.” And I agree, while disputing the historical reliability of any of this material.

I personally believe that the selection of texts for inclusion into the New Testament was a complicated political process, involving various competing early “Christian” schools. The first “New Testament” was that produced by the Marcion school sometime between 115 and 130 It included the bulk of what was to become the Gospel of Luke (without the first three chapters about Jesus’ childhood, and beginning with his public ministry), entitled the Evangelion, plus nine of Paul’s letters. (Some scholars believe that these nine letters were actually composed by Marcion himself, and that Paul never really existed.) Marcion’s text does not contain the Book of Acts, which is like the canonical gospel imputed to Luke and written in good Greek (and which purports to narrate the career of Paul), nor the letters attributed to Peter, James and John, nor the (very strange) Book of Revelation.

There was no fixed New Testament canon as of the 190s, when Clement and Origen in Alexandria (the intellectual center of the Roman Empire, where the finest Christian minds were producing prolific writings) were freely citing the Gospel of Peter and other subsequently denounced texts—giving no impression they felt them less authoritative than the Gospel of Matthew. Only after the Council of Nicaea did the incipient Church produce a rough approximation of the canon, and it still wasn’t fixed in stone; inclusion of the Book of Revelation remained particularly controversial. And (as Bart D. Ehrman has brilliantly shown in his Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Those Who Changed the Bible and Why) there was a lot of text tampering over the fourth and fifth centuries.

For example—and most notably—you know that famous passage at the end of Matthew (28:19): “Go, therefore, make disciples of all nations; baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…”? That doesn’t appear in the several most ancient surviving manuscripts of the gospel. As Ehrens notes, it is commonly acknowledged among New Testament scholars that this was a later interpolation designed to validate the doctrine of the Trinity—which was actually unknown or at least had not been developed, as of the late first century.

So now we have this stunning bombshell of a new report that Jesus and Mary Magdalene got married and had kids…  Fine! It’s an exciting addition to the Jesus-lore, for anyone into it, and it will indeed make a lot of money for the authors. (The book sells for $ 21.74.) Principal profiteers are Professor of Religious Studies at York University Barrie Wilson, and his collaborator, Simcha Jacobovichi, a Canadian-Israeli filmmaker.

The latter’s films include the widely criticized (indeed, from a scholarly point of view, totally discredited) The Exodus Decoded (2006), The Lost Tomb of Jesus (2007), and Finding Atlantis (2010). The Naked Archaeologist series (2005-2010) has been criticized for its acceptance of the historicity of various Bible stories underlying “archeological” efforts to establish their truth. As Wikipedia puts it (in this case aptly enough): “The show ultimately reviews Biblical stories, then tries to find proof for them by exploring the Holy Land looking for archaeological evidence, personal inferences, deductions, and interviews with scholars and experts.”

For example, while many if not most historians question the very existence of King David—or David as anything more than a legendary tribal leader—Jacobovichi undertakes a “search for King David’s harp.” This is like searching for Noah’s Ark on Mt. Ararat. Or searching for Pandora’s box.

The filmmaker does not ever question the idea that there was in fact ever a Hebrew community enslaved in ancient Egypt, which at some point exited the country, winding up in Canaan. But serious historians point out there is no evidence for any Hebrew presence, much less a vast slave presence, in ancient Egypt. Jacobinovichi does not question the existence of an historical Jesus in the form of the figure depicted in the gospels authored decades after his putative crucifixion. He does not question the existence of Atlantis. But he knows what will sell.

As for Professor Wilson, while an apparently reputable Bible scholar who rejects literalism, he too is quite a sensationalist. In an interview available on youtube, he remarked some years ago, “The item that should be front page news around the world—Jesus had a wife, says early gospel—nobody talks about it.”

And now Wilson and Jacobovichi are using this work—their translation of the Ecclesiastical History of Zacharias Rhetor of Mytilene—to acquire their own front-page attention. No doubt millions of Christians (and others) are thinking, “Wow, more evidence now that Jesus was married!”

I can imagine some Catholics arguing for clergy marriage are deploying this new information in debates with friends. But wait. Let’s be rational.

First of all, The Ecclesiastical History is nothing new. Composed in Greek, probably in the fifth century, then translated into Syriac, it’s been available from that time. It’s been available in German and English translation for over a century. What Wilson and Jacobovichi contribute to the discussion of this work is the novel thesis that the “Joseph” referred to in the text is actually the Jesus of the gospels, and the “Aseneth” who appears as his wife in the work is really Mary Magdalene. Nobody else had ever perceived this—what Wilson calls—the “embedded meaning.”

(Just like, if you play “Strawberry Fields Forever” backwards, you hear “I buried Paul.” Proof that the real Paul is dead!) I have to question whether this thesis is based on objective scholarship, rather than the need to pay off a mortgage.

You know, right, that historical references to Jesus Christ (including merely possible reference to him) in non-New Testament sources can be counted on one hand? They occur in the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus (ca. 37-ca. 11), and the Roman historians Tacitus (56-ca. 117), Pliny the Younger (61-ca. 113) and Suetonius (69-122). Cumulatively, these references can (maybe) be interpreted to establish that a man named Jesus (Yeshua) was executed by the Romans in Jerusalem around the year 30, and that this figure became the center of a cult that spread quickly and widely in the Roman Empire. But the connection between this figure and that depicted in the Gospel of Mark (the earliest of the four, upon which both Matthew and Luke drew much of their material) is questionable.

A lot of myth can accumulate over forty years, and historical events can help shape the evolving construction of somebody’s biography. For example: the Jewish Rebellion of 66-70, which resulted in the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. The gospels have Jesus sadly predicting this event (Mark 13:2; Matthew 24:2; Luke 21:5). It was a huge blow to the Judeans, who were evicted from the city, which became a thoroughly pagan city thereafter. One can believe that the Jesus who supposedly died ca. 30 clairvoyantly prophesized the event. Or one can speculate that the gospel writers appalled at the catastrophe read into it—-the meaning that the Jews were being punished for having failed to recognize Jesus as the Messiah.

I personally believe—and this is only an educated guess—that there was an itinerant Judean preacher who wandered around the region between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea in the late fourth century CE, who gave rise to what some call “the Jesus legend.”

He was not a rabbi in the conventional sense but more like a Cynic philosopher, wandering around, lecturing in the open, posing questions, defying authority. He promoted a personalized concept of religion, advocating (what he imagined to be) intimate psychic communication between the individual and the Father-god in the privacy of one’s room (Matthew 6:6) rather than ostentatious public displays of piety. In this he validated the individual, and there is some evidence that Jesus—if he was indeed a real historical figure—downplayed class distinctions (as the Buddha had) paving the way for Paul to famously assert that “In Christ there is no Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither is there male and female” (Galatians 3:28).

I think it likely that the historical Jesus promoted the concept of the “Kingdom of Heaven” (as an alternative to the Roman Empire). This was an implicit attack on the ultimate legitimacy of the Roman state.Jesus urged that people “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17). But he posited the existence of a heavenly empire that would win out in the end. The message profoundly resonated in the Roman Empire, especially among slaves.

But I’m just guessing. In the end, we don’t know much about what Albert Schweitzer called “the historical Jesus,” or anyone supposedly associated with him, including James, Peter, Paul, John the apostle, John the Baptist, Thomas, mother Mary, or Mary Magdalene. What we do know is that the canonical gospels had become widely circulated by the 180s when Iranaeus of Lyons declared that those four were the only valid biographies of Jesus. All the characters within them came to be the subjects of myth making; doubting Thomas, for example, becomes the apostle to India, who converts an Indian king and promotes (Buddhist-style) celibacy. Mark becomes the apostle to the Egyptians, supposedly dying in Alexandria. And of course Peter becomes bishop of Rome, the first pope, before he’s martyred under Nero. These are all latter-day tales, not a shred of historical evidence.

So whenever the mainstream press, or the Discovery Channel, or the (increasingly embarrassing, and fundamentalist religion-oriented) “History Channel,” or National Geographic or anybody else tells you there’s sensational new information about Jesus—about a burial urn, or his infantile encounter with Magi, or his marriage, or his travels in India, etc.—realize that serious scholars of Christian history are highly skeptical. The issue is not so much “what really happened” in the life of the maybe once-existent person (which is actually beyond our ken) but how an evolving Jesus-movement conceptualized and imagined things in the past.

Why am I bothering to even address this topic, when I could be writing about Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, island disputes in the East and South China Seas, fascistic government surveillance or the impending explosion in Ferguson?

It’s because of the ignorance issue! Polls continue to show that between one-third to one-half of people in this country believe in the Noah’s Ark myth (and that all horses in the world thus descend from a primordial pair that left the boat on Mt. Ararat 6000 years ago). That’s not funny. It’s a horrifying statement of educational failure, which can only be attributed to the leadership exercised by extremely stupid people.

The reason that this is so politically significant and toxic is shown in the recent poll revealing a close correspondence between the support of people in this country for U.S. aggression in Ukraine with ignorance about the very location of the country.

In some instances, stupidity is quaint, the object of humor. But sometimes (as in the case of the Boko Haram crazies in Nigeria, who insist the earth is flat and the notion of a spherical earth contrary to Islamic teaching) it’s an appropriate reason for deep concern.

It’s of concern here. The electorate (I will not blame the people, two-thirds of whom stayed home—not, I suspect, due to “apathy” but due to a rational contempt for the whole manipulated, bogus process) voted into power an array of mentally challenged religious bigots. The new head of the Senate Environment Committee will be James Inhofe— a certifiable asshole who has written a book inveighing on the “conspiracy” of scientists to promote the false theory of “global warming.” He has lectured the Senate on the need to base Israel policy on the book of Genesis. There are crazy—if duly elected, under this twisted, farcical, late-empire corporate-steered bogus electoral system—people in power.

The organized moronic attacks in this country on the teaching of evolutionary science in schools; the Bible-based insistence that a fertilized egg is a “person” whom an imaginary god insists be born no matter what the costs; the butt-headed attacks on Islam as a threat in itself, are all aspects of this Christian credibility. The Bible-based notion that God gave Israel to the Jews as an eternal “covenant” and so anything Israel does is worth applause. It’s so easy for those so inclined to take advantage of such stupidities!

The Zionist Lobby knows it. The Gun Lobby knows it. The neocons who orchestrated a war based on lies, and the exploitation of fear and ignorance, in Iraq, and another in Libya—they know it. They love the dumb-ass credibility of those who believe their Bibles literally and who, when not watching Duck Dynasty’s Sadie Robertson on “Dancing with the Stars” are checking out web for more “news” stories that comfortably reaffirm their faith while adding just a little extra titillation.

Judas wrote a gospel! The Three Magi wrote a gospel! Mary Magdalene and Jesus were married and had kids! The successful marketing of these tall tales, masquerading as scholarly breakthroughs, is just another sign of the anti-intellectualism of these times. We can send spacecraft to alight on a comet. We can quickly design a vaccine against Ebola. But we can’t (under this system) educate the people so as to protect them from religion-mongering shysters. It’s very sad.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@granite.tufts.edu