In Lucem Gentium: Anecdotal Reflections on Growing Up and Out of the Jewish Ghetto, Part VIII

Jesus: Consort of Prostitutes, Spouse of Mary Magdalene…

Dan Brown and the Rabbis…

We have seen that the Talmud portrays the Virgin as an adulteress who conceived, not through the afflatus of the Holy Spirit (a face-saving fiction), but with her secret lover, a lowly and detestable Roman soldier. Sexual misconduct is the leitmotif of the rabbinic polemic. To the Rabbis, Jesus proves the maxim, like mother, like son.

The following dialogue in the Bavli (Sanhedrin 103a) appears to be an uncomplicated passage of exegesis on a verse from Psalms:

Rav Hisda said in the name of Rabbi Yimeya bar Abba: What is meant by the verse: No evil will befall you, no plague will approach your tent [Ps. 91:10]?

No evil will befall you: that the evil inclination shall have no power over you!

No plague will approach your tent: that you will not find your wife a doubtful Niddah [in an “unclean” state; menstruating] when you return from a journey.

Another interpretation: No evil will befall you: that bad dreams and bad thoughts will not frighten you.

No plague will approach your tent: that you will not have a son or a disciple who publicly spoils his dish like Jesus the Nazarene.

Rav Hisda, of course, is the interlocutor in a dialogue (Shab 104b) we have already quoted. There he identifies “Pandera” as the Roman soldier who was the lover of Mary and father of Jesus. Here he purports to furnish an exposition of Psalms in response to a question about its meaning, which he places in the mouth of Rabbi Yimeya b. Abba, a Babylonian amora of the mid-third century A.D.

Rav Hisda offers two different interpretations of each of the two clauses of which the verse is comprised. Together they constitute a “symmetrically structured exposition” (Jesus in the Talmud, p. 26): that is, the second of the two clauses, and the second interpretation, are meant to be read as thematically consistent elaborations upon the first.

In his first interpretation, Rav Hisda posits that the “evil” of Psalm 91:10 refers to an overriding “evil inclination”, and the “plague” that might threaten one’s tent, to the calamity in which a husband returns home to discover that his wife may be menstruating and therefore unfit for intercourse. His second interpretation identifies the “evil” of the Psalm with “bad thoughts” or “dreams”, and the “plague” with a son or disciple who “publicly spoils his dish like Jesus the Nazarene”. This is evidently the climax of the exposition, toward which the three antecedent clausal glosses incrementally build.

In the first interpretation, the sexual character of the “evil inclination” is implicit in Rav Hisda’s definition of the word “plague”, in the second clause of the verse, as referring to the state of menstrual impurity that makes it legally forbidden for a husband to have intercourse with his wife. We have already seen that in Talmudic law this interdiction can apply in situations other than a wife’s regular menstruation. In the admonitory anecdote previously cited from Gittin, Rabbi Meir refers to Pappos ben Yehudi (identified as the husband of Mary in the dialogue between Rav Hisda and R. Eliezer in Shab) as the proverbial cuckold who locks his wife up inside the house and even then dares not risk congress with her for fear that she has been unfaithful. R. Meir goes on to describe ben Yehudi’s wife as one who shamelessly parades in public with her hair untied (cf. Miriam of the long hair in Shab), and comments that he should not only sexually quarantine her but immediately file for divorce.

Accordingly, in the passage at hand, the “plague” upon one’s tent of having a wife who is unfit for intercourse may thus be caused by her infidelity rather than her menstrual condition. Indeed, the fact that the single-minded Rav Hisda is the common link between the texts that mention ben Yehudi and the present one strongly suggests that that is precisely what he wishes to imply.

Whatever the reason for the husband’s abstention from intercourse with his wife, the sexual colouring of Rav Hisda’s exegesis of the “plague” clause of the verse from Psalms is clear. Within the parallel structure of the entire exposition, then, the “evil inclination” of the first clause must similarly refer to some sexual impropriety. This in turn indicates what sorts of “bad thoughts/dreams” Rav Hisda has in mind in his second interpretation. In ancient Hebrew dream theory, sexual dreams are usually sent by the Adversary, and the dreaded sort that causes a nocturnal emission is classed as a nightmare.


Of all such sexual calamities as might descend upon a man’s house, the worst is apparently having a son or disciple like Jesus the Nazarene, who in some sense embodies and personifies all of them by “spoiling his dish”. The literal meaning of this curious expression is to make a dish inedible by over-spicing it; as Schafer argues, however, this “can hardly be the misdeed of which the son/disciple is accused”. Rather, the symmetrical structure of Rav Hisda’s exposition once again “requires that ‘burning the dish’ has something to do with the son’s/disciple’s sexual relationship to his wife, in other words, that some kind of sexual misconduct is at stake here”. (Jesus, p. 27)

Schafer cites a number of parallels that demonstrate that “over-spicing one’s dish” is obviously another of those euphemistic innuendoes at which the Rabbis are so practised. Throughout the Talmud, the expression “to sip or eat one’s dish” is slang for a man’s enjoyment of coitus (cf. b Ber 62a; b Hag 5b). If a woman “spoils his dish”, therefore, she is guilty of some misdeed that prohibits him from duly satisfying his sexual hunger. In a discussion of the question of when a man may divorce his wife (m Git 9:10), the house of Shammai answers, “when he has found her guilty of some unseemly conduct [‘erwat davar, literally, ‘indecency’ or ‘lewdness’].” According to the rival house of Hillel, on the other hand, a husband has grounds for divorce when his wife “has spoilt his food”. Given the context, once more, “it does not seem very likely that the wife’s spoiling her husband’s food simply refers to preparing some oversalted or overspiced dishes” (Jesus, p. 27); it means, clearly enough, that she has committed some indecent act that has made her taboo, preventing her husband from partaking of the conjugal pleasure that is owed to him, and making it advisable for him to divorce her. (I note in passing how transcendently more refined, humane, tender, even egalitarian, is the Pauline Christian conception of marriage and the marriage debt, than the crudely carnal and patriarchal doctrine of the Rabbis.)

In our passage, in the case of the son or disciple who follows the example of Jesus the Nazarene, it is the man who spoils his dish, having committed some sexual misdemeanour that has prohibited his wife from sharing his bed, and sullied both his and her reputation. What’s worse is that he has transgressed in public.

Understood in this wider context, Rav Hisda’s exposition of the verse from Psalms seems arranged to arrive at the polemical conclusion that the most catastrophic “plague” that could visit a man’s tent is to have a son or disciple who like Jesus leads the life of a public lothario, whereby he besmirches the honour of himself and his wife. As Schafer observes,

It is hardly by coincidence that this interpretation comes from the same Rav Hisda who told us that Jesus’ mother had a husband as well as a lover and that Jesus was the son of her lover. Now we learn: this Jesus isn’t any better than his mother—it’s in his blood. He is so spoiled that he has become the proverbial son or disciple who is unfaithful to his wife and a disgrace to his parents or his teachers. (Jesus, p. 28)

As Rav Hisda’s confabulations in Shab were meant to vitiate the Gospel doctrine of the Virgin Birth, so here the purpose of his exegesis of Psalm 91:10 is to undercut the Gospels’ pretensions about Jesus’ lifelong chastity.


Schafer postulates that, in fact, Rav Hisda has a more specific New Testament locus in mind: the incomparable story in Luke (7:36-50) of the “woman who was a sinner” (identified in later Christian tradition with Mary Magdalene) who, finding Jesus dining at the house of a Pharisee, washes his feet with her tears, wipes them with her hair, kisses them, and anoints them with myrrh. The Pharisees who are present know her as a prostitute, and conclude from the fact that Jesus allows her to touch him that he must be unaware of who she is, and therefore “no prophet”. But, recognizing in her the inner sanctity and repentance of which the Pharisees’ outward piety of gesture is a travesty, Jesus publicly forgives her, giving further scandal to his hosts.

The indictment of Jesus for lewdness in our passage may thus be an attempt to invert the New Testament narrative, insinuating that Jesus did indeed recognize Mary Magdalene as a prostitute when she came to honour him, and forgave her not because her repentance was genuine or in order to unmask the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, but because he had been one of her clients. Rav Hisda and the Rabbis may have hatched this allegation out of their own Pharisaically puritanical but nonetheless sexually-obsessed imaginations; or–like certain contemporary anti-Christian polemicists (see below)–they may have taken their inspiration from a misreading of a related tradition in the Gnostic Gospels.

In the second-century Gospel of Mary in the Nag Hammadi Library, a jealous Peter doubts whether the risen Saviour would have “[spoken] privately to a woman [Mary Magdalene] and not openly to us [the disciples]”. His anger is rebuked by Levi, who explains, “the Saviour made her worthy”, wherefore “he loved her more than us” (17-18). The Gospel of Philip (late-third century) dilates upon this theme:

And the companion of the Saviour is Mary Magdalene. But Christ loved her more than all the disciples and used to kiss her often on her mouth. The rest of the disciples were offended by it and expressed disapproval. They said to him, “Why do you love her more than all of us?” (63-4)

The salacious implications of this text may have proven irresistible to the Rabbis, as they have proven irresistible to the popularly acclaimed authors of such contemporary anti-Christian polemics as Holy Blood, Holy Grail, and The Da Vinci Code. Posing as the tireless, scholarly discoverers of an archaeological treasure-trove of historical “realities” and “truths” that the Church has conspired for two millennia to suppress, Beigent, Leigh, Lincoln, and Dan Brown, as everyone knows, have confabulated Jesus’ secret love affair with, and marriage to, that woman of dubious character, Mary Magdalene. But, as with most of their claims to piercing originality, Brown et al. are here merely plagiarists with a penchant for stealing from obscure sources, and misunderstanding them at that.

As anyone with the slightest knowledge of the Gnostic religion would know, these texts hardly point to an ordinary sexual relationship (let alone marriage) between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. The central doctrine of Gnosticism is the inherent evil of the material world and the flesh; its extreme asceticism is one of the imperatives that the early Christians condemned as heretical. It is the height of absurdity to imagine a Gnostic Redeemer who so enjoyed the pleasures of coitus that he married a prostitute in order to spend the rest of his life in transports of sybaritic bliss.

As Schafer summarizes the consensus of serious Gnostic scholarship on the passage from the Gospel of Philip:

Within the context of the gnostic writings it isn’t very likely…that a plain conjugal relationship is at stake here. Rather, it seems that the “companion” (koinonos, a Greek loanwrd in the Coptic text) refers not to “spouse” in the technical sense of the word but to “sister” in the spiritual sense of the gnostic fellowship, just as the “kiss” does not refer to a sexual relationship but to the kiss of fellowship. Yet one can easily see how this reading of the New Testament narrative could be turned—not only in modern fiction but already in the source used by the Talmud—into a tradition about Jesus being married to Mary Magdalene. (Jesus, p. 29)

In misreading, or deliberately perverting, their Gnostic sources along with the Rabbis, Dan Brown et al. are in interesting company.

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