Jesus married Mary Magdalene and fathered two children with her, according to a new book based on an ancient manuscript.
Due to be released on Wednesday, the book, "The Lost Gospel," also claims Jesus survived an assassination attempt at age 20 and was connected to powerful political figures in the Roman Empire.
Hailed as a bombshell, the claim by Simcha Jacobovici, an Israeli-Canadian writer and film-maker, and Barrie Wilson, a religious studies professor at York University in Toronto, follows the well-beaten path of The Da Vinci Code and The Last Temptation of Christ, portraying Jesus as the husband of Mary Magdalene.
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"What the Vatican feared - and what Dan Brown only suspected - has come true," begins the book. "There is now written evidence that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and that they had children together," it states.
The evidence, according to the authors, lies in a manuscript that was "gathering dust in the British Library."
Written on treated animal skin in Syriac, a Middle Eastern literary language related to Aramaic, the text is known in its English translation as "The Ecclesiastical History of Zacharias Rhetor." It was purchased by the British Museum in 1847 from an Egyptian monastery and moved 20 years ago to the British Library.
According to Wilson and Jacobovici, the 29-chapter-long manuscript is no less than a sixth century copy of an unknown first-century gospel.
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Picking up where Matthew, Mark, Luke and John leave off, this missing fifth gospel would tell how Jesus "became engaged, got married, had sexual relations, and produced children," the authors wrote.
"Before anyone gets his/her theological back up, keep in mind that we are not attacking anyone's theology. We are reporting on text," they added.
The problem is that the text, far from being a forgotten manuscript covered in dust, does not even mention Jesus and Mary Magdalene.
"It's a well-known ancient text, often called Joseph and Aseneth. Most scholars consider it a Jewish story, although it was possibly edited or even composed by Christians," Greg Carey, a professor of the New Testament at the Lancaster Theological Seminary, told Discovery News.
He noted that several translations have long been available to scholars.
"One of my friends even recalls translating the text in an intermediate Greek course for undergraduates. In other words, I don't know whether the actual manuscript in question is new, but the contents of the text are widely known," Carey said.
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Indeed, Mark Goodacre, professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Duke University, created a Joseph and Aseneth website already in 1999.
"Joseph and Aseneth has been widely known to scholars for a long time. The British library document is a Syriac translation of the Greek text - explicitly stated to be such. And the text has absolutely nothing to do with Jesus and Mary Magdalene," Goodacre told Discovery News.
On their side, Wilson and Jacobovici interpreted the tale of the Old Testament character Joseph and his Egyptian wife Aseneth as an encoded account of Jesus' relationship to Mary Magdalene.
The key would be a newly translated passage which tells of the couple's marriage ceremony. It was celebrated by the Pharaoh of Egypt himself who said to Aseneth: "Blessed are you by the Lord God of Joseph, because he is the first-born of God, and you will be called the Daughter of God Most High and the bride of Joseph now and for ever."
The text later reveals that "Joseph had intercourse with Aseneth ... And Aseneth conceived from Joseph and gave birth to Manasseh and his brother Ephraim in Joseph's house."
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Thus, the claim goes, the manuscript provides the first evidence for Jesus being a husband and father.
"I'm glad to hear that Jesus's name was really Joseph, as I always wondered about that," Robert Eisenman, author of "James the Brother of Jesus" and "The New Testament Code," told Discovery News.
"Anyhow, Joseph and Asaneth is just what it says it is, an apocryphal book about Joseph's relation with the Egyptian priest of On's daughter Asaneth in the Old Testament. It has no hidden meaning or esoteric interpretations," he added.
It's not the first time Jacobovici has made controversial claims. Among his most debated findings are the discovery of the nails that crucified Jesus and the identification of the Tomb of Jesus and his family in the Talpiot suburb of Jerusalem.
"Jacobovici has made some pretty outlandish claims in his time, but this latest one may just be the most incredible," Goodacre said.
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The idea that Jesus may have been married has been widely proposed. Last year Harvard Professor Karen L. King unveiled the "Gospel of Jesus's Wife," a business card-sized papyrus written in Coptic and containing text that refers to Jesus being married. Carbon dating indicate the papyrus dates to approximately the eighth century.
"We have no evidence for Jesus being married or fathering children. That is not to rule out the possibility. However, the gospels provide the strong impression that Jesus was celibate and encouraged his followers to lead celibate lives as well, and we have no reason to believe otherwise," Carey said.
Eisenman goes even further.
"Before we can speak of ‘Jesus' having been or being married and having two children to boot, we first have to be convinced there ever was a ‘Jesus' or at least one like the one pictured in the Gospels which everyone is so enamored of," Eisenman said.
"The only reason these kinds of writers always fix on Mary Magdalene as his wife or consort and the mother of his children, is that she was the only other woman basically ever mentioned in the Gospels and they have no idea who she might have been and/ or what to make of her," he added.
Image: Appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalene after resurrection, Alexander Ivanov, 1835. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.