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Yuri Kuchinsky's ­
The Magdalene Gospel: A Journey Behind the New Testament

Roots Publishing, 2002

Reviewed by Robert M. Price




This fascinating volume has grown out of the author's researches and subsequent Internet debates concerning the Middle English Pepysian Gospel Harmony (MS Pepys 2498) which has slumbered away the centuries in the library of Magdalene College, Cambridge. Kuchinsky is convinced that this curious and mostly neglected text represents the hypothetical gospel harmony of Justin with much Johannine material added. Justin's harmony, our author reckons, would have been based on earlier versions of Mark and Luke plus canonical Matthew, while the Johannine source would have been a similarly intermediate version of our Fourth Gospel. Kuchinsky notes the tendency of the Pepys text to side with Old Latin and Syriac readings, which he considers often superior (as do I, just to keep things straight). He does not underestimate the length of time separating the Pepys manuscript from what he considers its vastly earlier date of composition, but he is able to connect many dots to form a hypothetical line of transmission and dissemination. It must have come from somewhere, after all.

          The Magdalene Gospel treats a number of interesting subjects in new ways. His championing of the neglected work of the great Alfred Loisy is refreshing. Not least important is Kuchinsky's case that we have erred in dating the gospels so early and in failing to detect much later materials in the Pauline epistles, errors that have blinded us to a fascinating possibility, namely, that the de-Judaizing of Christianity so vehemently debated in the New Testament is really a second-century phenomenon following upon the defeat of Bar-Kochba and Hadrian's outlawing of Jewish practice. This point by itself deserves much thought.

          I mean to treat here the central argument of the book, namely a reiteration of Boismard's judgment that the Pepys Gospel Harmony represents a second-century text or form of the text. The best way to do this will be to survey instances where the Pepys text differs from the familiar readings of our gospels. After reading through them, I confess that, contra Kuchinsky's arguments, I found no instance in which the differences did not make ample sense to me as pious glosses and redactions, together with summarizing omissions from the conventional gospels used as source materials.  

          Kuchinsky points to the remarkable fact of the entire absence from the text of the phrase "Son of Man." Instead, Jesus simply speaks of himself in the first person. This Kuchinsky takes to denote a very early date, suggesting that the phrase has been added to all four gospels only in the last stages of editing, perhaps in order to obscure the text, a seemingly odd scribal strategy. Partisans of an early date for Thomas make a similar case, contending that Thomas is pre-Christological, but I don't agree with them either: Thomas seems to me to want to do away with Christological titles as barriers to the experience of the living Jesus himself ("Tell us who you are, so we may believe in you."). In the same way, I read Thomas not as pre-apocalyptic but as eliminating futuristic eschatology as a Gnosticizing response to the delay of the Parousia. The Pepys harmony also everywhere replaces "kingdom" of God with "bliss" of God, which must be a similar result of de-eschatologizing and a sign of lateness.

          The Magi from the East become the Three Kings familiar from Christmas carols in Pepys 3:15; unlike the nativity star, this is not a particularly auspicious sign. Herod dispatches "all his men" to exterminate the Bethlehem innocents, another bit of legendary embellishment. In 7:1 we read that "When St. John had himself baptised he went into the desert till he was thirty years old." (Kuchinsky regards "St." in all such references as secondary scribal piety, not original to the text. Could be.) Is this some ancient tradition about John's self-immersion? It might be, but it might just be medieval speculation: surely John would have felt the need to be baptized, and who else would have been available to do the job? And his age is just an inference from the Lukan notes that Jesus and John were born in the same year and that Jesus was about 30 when John dipped him.

          In Pepys 7:7, John preaches "they should not put their trust in being the descendants of those who were once so pleasing to God. Because God also may make good people out of those who no one had any hope in before." This is not more primitive than Luke 3:8b but rather a gloss upon it. In 7:23, Jesus sets John's mind at ease about his own baptism: it is for the sake of "giving all others an example in every way, and especially of humility," a gloss on the vague Matthew 3:15. The text does seem to be in touch with the old tradition (Gospel of the Ebionites cited in Epiphanius Against Heresies 30:13:7-8; Justin, Dialogue with Trypho 88:3) of fire dancing on the surface of the Jordan at the baptism: "there came the brightness of heaven with the Holy Spirit, and alighted in him" (7:25). But then again, none of this is exactly pre-canonical, is it?

          Kuchinsky takes it as a mark of an earlier form of the text when Jesus is depicted as less brusque or abusive, as in Pepys 10:4, where Jesus does not rebuke his busybody mother, omitting John's "Woman, what have I to do with you?" But surely it is more natural to take all such examples as instances of "damage control" (as Crossan calls it), cleaning up Jesus. In the same story, Jesus turns water into wine to the tune of a mere three gallons, not thirty, per jar. Earlier? No, just another attempt to reign in Jesus according to the sensibilities of later piety. Likewise in Pepys 40:16, Jesus does not contradict his well-wisher as in Luke 11:28 ("Nay, rather...") but just elaborates: "Certainly, but blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it." This is a later, cosmetic improvement of the more difficult, hence more primitive, Lukan reading. Yet again, Pepys shows itself to be anything but primitive in its version of the visit of Jesus' family. Matthew and Luke had already omitted Mark's note that Jesus' kinfolk thought him paranoid. Matthew retained Jesus' third-person rebuke, while Luke softened even that. Here is the Pepysian version: "And Jesus replied to those who told him [that his family awaited] that all those who hear his words and do accordingly--he loved them as much as his mother or his relatives." And instead of "brothers," it is his "cousins" who visit! Here we have nothing but the Catholic veneration of the Holy Family.

          Pepys 11:15 specifies not just that one must be "born of water" (John 3:5), but actually "baptised in water" to enter the "heavenly glory." Another gloss, no doubt correct, but no less a gloss for all that.

          The Samaritan woman asks Jesus, in this version, "whether it is better to worship here, upon the Mount Gerizim, as our ancestors did, or in Jerusalem?" (Pepys 13:18). Kuchinsky deems this an earlier reading, since it actually names John's "this mountain" (John 4:20). But why not take it as another gloss for the medieval reader's benefit? And when the Pepysian Jesus answers "that the hour was come when the people need not regard either this or the other, but honor God and the Holy Spirit in all places" (13:19), we have not, I think, a more primitive and authentically Johannine piece of realized eschatology, but rather an assimilation to the reader's own historical situation, already implicit in John 4:21, but made pedantically explicit here. Kuchinsky thinks it important that the woman does not assume Jesus sides with Judaism instead of Samaritanism, perhaps implying an earlier, Samaritan or Samaritan-tilting, version. But I would think the (summarizing) Pepys version has simply left out the "you Jews" business because of its much later Christian standpoint which easily forgets Jesus' Jewishness. Plus, note the anti-Modalistic distinguishing between God and the Holy Ghost, correcting John's uneasy-making "God is Spirit" (John 4:24; cf. 1 Corinthians 15:45; 2 Corinthians 3:17--ouch!)

          We learn in 20:13 that "Matthew Levi" was some sort of cooper or metal-worker, but this is likely a pious attempt to exonerate him from being a tax-collector even before Jesus recruited him. In any case, "Matthew Levi" represents a Mark-Matthew harmonization and thus is scarcely early.

          Pepys 46, the rejection in Nazareth, has a very interesting reading. The list of Jesus' relatives reads exactly as I have proposed the pre-Markan list must have (see my "Eisenman's Gospel of James the Just," in Chilton and Neusner, eds., The Brother of Jesus: James the Just and His Mission, 2001, pp. 196-197): "Is this not the son of Joseph, the carpenter? Is not Mary his mother? Are not James and John and Simon and Judas his brothers?" By the time we read it in Mark 6:3, "Joseph" has dropped out of the first sentence in favor of "Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary," in the interest of the emerging miracle-birth doctrine. "Joseph" has fallen down into the second sentence as "Joses," replacing "John," who, as one of the Pillars, as per Eisenman, must have been a brother of Jesus along with James the Just and Simeon bar-Cleophas/Simon Cephas. This connection is preserved in the designation of John bar-Zebedee and John the Baptist as Jesus' "cousins." So if Kuchinsky is right, the Pepys reading would come in quite handy for me. But who knows? Since tradition early on made John bar-Zebedee the cousin of Jesus, and Pepys apparently regards Jesus' brothers as his cousins, this passage may have introduced him among the male kin of Jesus.

          Kuchinsky suggests that the beatitude found in 24:9, "Blessed are they who desire righteousness in their food and drink," represents Jewish Christianity, an endorsement of kosher laws. It sounds to me more like a rewording of the Matthean "those who hunger and thirst after righteousness/justice," though the motive may indeed be to foster Christian kashruth. It is at any rate subsequent to the Luke/Q version which had merely "who hunger." The Pepys harmony then provides but the skimpiest, indirect discourse summary of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthean version). Kuchinsky freely admits that the text habitually summarizes, paraphrasing and condensing. But he seems not to notice how this feature of the text makes it more likely in every case where something familiar from the traditional gospel texts is missing, that it has been omitted, perhaps clumsily. For instance, when the Pepys text (30:6) lacks the qualifier to the encomium on the Baptist ("... nonetheless, the merest peasant in the kingdom of heaven ranks higher than he."), this does not mean we are reading the pristine form of the saying (though I am willing to bet the qualifier is indeed an apologetical interpolation!). That is, the qualifier, clumsy in its own right, has been trimmed away as the text was smoothed out in summary.

          How interesting that in the Pepysian version, Jesus raises up not the son but the daughter of the widow of Nain! But does this mean we are reading a more primitive version? I doubt it: this version merely carries the Lukan story farther from its source, Elijah's resurrection of the Zarephath widow's son (1 Kings 17:17-24), assimilating it to the resurrection of Jairus' daughter.

          Pepys 30:5 shares with the Liege Diatessaron and Ephraem Syrus the reading that John the Baptist's audience had not gone out merely to see "a reed that stirs and bends with every wind." But this is surely a clever gloss on the seemingly pointless "reed shaken by the wind," which probably meant "you didn't just go for the scenery, did you?" That it cannot be original is evident from the fact that it imports praise for John (he sticks by his principles) into the very member of the comparison that is being rejected!

          John is called "the angel that God promised who should come and make way before Christ" (also 30:5), but this need not be taken, as Kuchinsky does, as a vestige of an early, less Christocentric Jewish Christianity (though I, too, envision such a stage in which Jesus and John were venerated equally). All it means is that somewhere along the line someone mixed up the two meanings of aggeloV: John the messenger becomes John the angel. Midrash or mistake?

          The "children in the marketplace" simile, simpler than the canonical version, seems to me to be simplified, not more primitive as Kuchinsky would have it. Even recent commentators differ over precisely who is complaining to whom and about whom or what, so it is no wonder that the Pepys harmonist took the easy way out: "they were like children who neither laughed nor wept with their friends" (30:9).

           Pepys identifies the Lukan sinner who anoints Jesus in the Pharisee's house with Mary Magdalene (31:3), a notorious post-canonical harmonization. More intriguing is the change in the parable of the two debtors. Jesus now asks which of the pair of forgiven deadbeats the creditor loves more! Interesting, to be sure, but probably the change is a piece of redaction justifying Jesus' apparent disdain for the priggish Simon in favor of the repentant woman. For all the difficulty commentators have had trying to make the parable fit Luke's secondary context, the element of the greater debtor loving the lenient creditor more is one of the few things that did fit! But not in Pepys. The forgiven woman goes on to join Jesus' female entourage (31:22)--just as she does in the late apocryphon The Book of the Resurrection of Christ by Bartholomew. (Mary of Bethany is amalgamated with Mary Magdalene, too, in 35:1, another late, legendary identification. Later on in the story the Beloved Disciple is likewise equated with John bar-Zebedee, presupposing a later piece of guesswork.)

          The Rich Fool story (42:6-14) has taken on the color of Christian eschatology ("Fool, this very night the demons will deliver your soul to hell."), losing the original Jewish wisdom tenor, where the irony is more subtle: the fool has built up a future he will just miss enjoying. In light of this, Kuchinsky's contention that the story as we read it here is more primitive because it has the fool destroy a single barn rather than several, seems gratuitous.

          Startlingly, Pepys gospel 43 merges the report of the Galileans whom Pilate massacred with Josephus' account of Pilate's butchery of the peaceful minions of the Samaritan Taheb, which got him sacked. Only Pepys has Jesus himself lead the crowd to Gerizim! Plainly someone has confused "Jesus" with "Christ," i.e., messiah generically, and grossly confused the story.

           Kuchinsky reads Pepys 48:7-9 as depicting the fusion of John's orphaned disciples with Jesus'. But this is all it says: "And then St. John's disciples came and buried his body, and afterward came to Jesus and told him how St. John was martyred. And the apostles, themselves, came, and told Jesus all that they had done and taught. And then Jesus told them all that they should follow him privately into the wilderness, and that they rest themselves for a little while--because they had labored greatly." All we have here is a compressed version of Matthew 14:12-15. There is nothing here to suggest John's disciples joined Jesus' company.

          The healing of the paralytic at the Pool of Bethsaida (47) contains the marginal gloss about the angel troubling the waters, strictly a piece of late Johannine textual tradition. Similarly, the Pepys harmony contains a glossed version of the Woman Taken in Adultery (59:26-40), and in its Johannine context, which means the harmonist used a very late version of John.

          Kuchinsky thinks it a mark of older vintage that in the Pepysian version of the exorcism of the Syro-Phoenician's daughter (52) Jesus is made to answer the disciples, not the woman, that he was sent only to Israel. In this version, they had been urging him to heal the daughter, just to shut the mother up. But, really, how is the point any different from the Matthean/Markan version where he speaks to the mother in order to placate the disciples who ask him to send her away?

          The Dishonest Steward (68:1-4) says the manager was being sacked for embezzlement, but his conduct thereafter was strictly above reproach: "And the steward acquired for himself many friends, and settled his lord's debts fair and square." More primitive than Luke's version? No, rather a sanitized version composed so as to avoid having Jesus seem to commend wicked behavior, another long-standing headache for commentators. Likewise, when the Pepys gospel (96:48) has John (the Beloved Disciple) known only to the high priest's servants, not to the priest himself as in John's gospel, we have no earlier, less problematical version but rather a later smoothing of a puzzling oddity.

          Who carried Jesus' cross? Not Simon of Cyrene, but Simon the Leper, from Matthew 26:6! This change might have been made to undercut Simonian legends equating Simon of Gitta/of the Kittim/of Cyrene with the Crucified. Or it might have seemed that a leper made a more natural scapegoat. In any case, what we have here is more apocryphal character-hybridizing.

          In the Pepys gospel, the Risen Jesus appears to Peter, supplying what is so conspicuously missing from the canonical gospels, especially Luke: "And when St. Peter heard it that they had seen Jesus, he rose and went down to the sepulchre. And right away, Jesus showed himself to St. Peter" (107:1-2). But that's just it: this harmony supplies what the original lacked; hence this version is a gloss. It is much harder to account for why Luke, who does believe Jesus appeared to Peter (24:34), does not portray it than to suppose Luke originally had it, as preserved in Pepys, and that some scribe cut it out! It is designed to plug a hole in the text.

          In sum, the Pepys harmony just does not appear to be a combination of pre-canonical versions of the gospels. Just about every divergence can be understood more easily as pious glossing from a much later standpoint. Kuchinsky's reading is not required by, nor really even easily compatible with, the text he himself has provided. I do not belong to that magisterium of mainstream scholars on whom the author expends his venom so often throughout the book. Nor is my own working paradigm of gospel origins threatened by his reconstruction. Indeed, it would come in quite handy for me at various points. Other readers may come to different conclusions. Nor is the conclusion of this review to say that one ought not to spend the time with this book. Quite the opposite: there is much to be learned here on various topics, and the work repays study.       



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