Lost Gospel? ‘Deepest bilge’ say historians

14 November 2014

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'Bilge': the manuscript which is claimed to secretly reveal Jesus married Mary Magdalene, a suggestion derided by historians

'Bilge': the manuscript which is claimed to secretly reveal Jesus married Mary Magdalene, a suggestion derided by historians

CLAIMS that the discovery of a "lost" early Gospel at the British Library would lead to a re-writing of the New Testament were dismissed this week by biblical scholars.

The book, a sixth-century translation into the ancient language of Syriac from a first-century Greek volume, is said to suggest that Jesus married St Mary Magdalene and fathered two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. He was also the target of an assassination plot by a love rival, and had close political ties with the Roman Emperor Tiberius.

But Church House described the claims as sharing "more with Dan Brown than Matthew, Mark, Luke or John", and the Revd Dr Diarmaid MacCulloch, Professor of the History of the Church in the University of Oxford, called it "the deepest bilge".

Publicists for a new book, The Lost Gospel, based on research into the find, said, however, that it was a "story comparable to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls".

Its authors are Simcha Jacobovici, an Israeli-Canadian documentary film-maker and Adjunct Professor of Religious Studies at Huntington University, Indiana, USA; and Barrie Wilson, Professor of Religious Studies at York University, Toronto, Canada.

They spent six years analysing the 29 chapters of the manuscript The Ecclesiastical History of Zacharias Rhetor of Mytilene, even calling in US forensic experts to photograph the vellum manuscript 13 different ways to "see" through alterations to the original text.

The British Museum bought the manuscript in 1847 from a dealer who said that he had obtained it from the ancient monastery of St Macarius, in Egypt. It was lodged in the British Library archives two decades ago.

The authors say that conflict between rival groups in the early years of Christianity mean that the book was written in a coded, symbolic way to protect it from alteration or destruction. Thus Jesus and Mary become Joseph and Aseneth in this version.

But in a blog this week, the Director of Communications for the Archbishops' Council, the Revd Arun Arora, said: "Ever since Dan Brown found an audience with The Da Vinci Code, an industry has built up around 'direct-to-the-public pseudoscholarship' in which a combustible combination of conspiracy theorists, satellite channel documentaries, and opportunistic publishers have identified a lucrative income stream."

He continued: "The Gospels as they stand make extraordinary claims about Jesus. They talk about his life, death and resurrection. . .

"There's no need to marvel at the claims of 'the lost Gospel'. The genuine ones do the job well enough."

The Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St Andrews, the Rt Revd Dr Tom Wright, who is a former Bishop of Durham, said: "Every six months or so there is another such 'discovery' [which does] nothing to shake the faith of those who know a little about ancient history.

"There is not a shred of early evidence for this kind of rumour. It requires, of course, a massive conspiracy theory - that the Early Church managed to hide this 'fact'. But people love conspiracy theories, especially if they show the Church up in a bad light."

The Professor of Bible, Culture and Politics at the University of Sheffield, Dr James Crossley, described the book as "yet another sensationalist claim" about Jesus's being married which "is more likely to be useful data for appreciating the market for modern sexual fantasies about Jesus and Mary Magdalene. It is not likely to be of any use for understanding the Jesus movement in the first century.

"We simply have no idea if Jesus was married with children. It may have been too banal to mention at first or it may not have been mentioned because he was unmarried. A text, not about Jesus or Mary Magdalene, but about two entirely different figures from a manuscript several centuries later is unlikely to add anything."

Dr John Court, Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Biblical Studies at the University of Kent, said that the book seemed similar "to a number of fairly notorious ones by scholars chancing their arm over decades back. My first reaction is that this is publicity to sell the book. I don't think I shall be rushing out to Smith's for a copy."

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