When God Had A Wife: Ashera, Magdalene & Modern Biblical Scholarship

Why is the world in such trouble?

Biblical scholars Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince present a compelling answer in their 2019 gem, When God Had A Wife: the fall and rise of the sacred feminine in the Judeo-Christian Tradition.

We’re all upset, they tell us, because our patriarchal universe is completely unbalanced. Politically it is overwhelmingly run by members of a single gender. It’s a man’s world whose arrangement excludes almost completely more than half the human race.

That’s true even spiritually. For instance, the Roman Catholic Church with more than 1.3 billion members has a hierarchy composed entirely of men. Outrageously, it holds officially that women are divinely excluded from its ruling elite. Other Christian denominations as well as the Jewish and Islamic communities are not far behind in their patriarchal orientation.

How could we expect balance and harmony in a world like that? No one can.

Of course, none of that should come as a surprise to anyone – especially to women. What is surprising and extremely important in Picknett and Prince’s exposition is their argument that our culture’s spiritual imbalance stands in sharp contradiction to earliest biblical traditions. There in both its Jewish and Christian Testaments the sacred feminine was originally honored as much as the sacred masculine.  

To demonstrate the truth of their position, Picknett and Prince reinterpret the concept of monotheism itself. They take readers on a tour of often-overlooked and downplayed middle eastern biblical sites, expose them to goddess-centered texts, and centralize the figures of Simon Magus, his lover and inspiration Helen, as well as Mary Magdalen who fulfills the same role for Jesus himself. It’s a mind-blowing trip with momentous implications for those committed to solving the world’s problems at their patriarchal and profoundly religious roots.

Monotheism and Patriarchy

Begin by considering the connection between patriarchy and monotheism itself. For the authors of When God Had A Wife, monotheism does not represent a sophisticated advance over a “primitive” polytheism. Quite the reverse. Monotheism instead embodies a drastically narrowed impoverishment of human spiritual experience. It entirely excised the divine feminine which humans across the planet have always thirsted for, recognized and honored. In fact, according to our authors, monotheism is synonymous with “the menfolk.” It is itself a patriarchal project. 

To develop that point, Picknett and Prince show readers that even the Bible is not basically monotheistic in its alleged identification of a single Old White Man in the Sky watching and judging our every decision. It’s not that other gods are merely pretenders who do not exist. It’s not even that the biblical tradition is devoid of goddesses. The latter are evidently visible for scholarly detectives like our authors who have been seeking clues for her presence in primary source manuscripts and secondary scholarship for more than 30 years. (The result has earned them world-wide recognition that even includes a cameo appearance in Hollywood’s version of “The Da Vinci Code.”)

Actually, within Judaism, monotheism (exclusive recognition of one God alone) was a late development. In a tradition that reputedly began about 1200 BCE, monotheism emerged exclusively only around 530 BCE – after the Babylonian exile. It was then that Judah’s elite represented by Ezra, Josiah, and Nehemiah reformulated the nation’s longstanding traditions. Their patriarchal work removed, downplayed, and/or reinterpreted all references acknowledging the existence and power of “foreign” gods other than Yahweh, Judah’s national deity. The reformulators took special pains to erase references to goddess worship.

Ezra’s reforms obscured, for instance, the fact that the people’s origin traditions identified an entire family of Gods as the ones responsible for the creation of the cosmos. Headed by the Great God, El, the family was called Elohim. It included 70 sons. Israel’s Yahweh was one of them – an inferior subordinate of El. His assignment was to protect the nation of Israel. (Note El’s name in the term Yisra-El itself.) Only at the beginning of the first millennium BCE was El replaced by Yahweh as Israel’s particular God.

More importantly for Picknett and Prince, El had a wife. The arrangement was only natural to the ancient mind – divine families mirrored human ones complete with father, mother, sons and daughters. It was just like the Greek and Egyptian myths familiar to all acquainted with classical literature. In fact, El’s wife sometimes had names drawn directly from cultures surrounding the Hebrew nation (Egypt’s in particular). Thus, she was variously identified as Anat, Qadesh, Isis, Sophia, and (the favorite) Asherah. As the quintessential shape shifter, the Hebrew goddess was variously a lustful, raunchy and sexually insatiable seductress, a fierce warrior, a loving wife, a beloved mother, and a wise crone.

Consider Ashera then. Despite patriarchal attempts to write her out of the Bible, and despite similar cultural obstacles obscuring the perception of most contemporary scholars, Asherah’s prominence for ancient Hebrews emerges unmistakably from:

  • The hundreds of female figurines unearthed from early iterations of pre-exilic Hebrew temples, i.e. before the end of the 6th century BCE. (That’s right: Asherah was officially worshipped in Jerusalem’s temple as well as in a Hebrew counterpart on the Nile Island called “Elephantine,” and in Samaria’s sanctuary on Mt. Gerizim.)
  • Their absence from similar sites following the 6th century reform
  • The presence of Asherah’s symbol [some version of a palm-like tree and/or mysterious (and always feminine) cherubim] inscribed on temple doors and other holy places closely associated with worship of El
  • Even more specific dedications sweetly referring to “El’s Asherah” or “Yahweh’s Asherah” on or near temple sites
  • Prohibitions by the anti-goddess prophets of outdoor worship associated with Asherah’s iconic trees
  • Indications in the oldest biblical texts that female biblical heroines like the Judge Deborah may have been priestesses of Asherah herself
  • Ashera’s reappearance as a domesticated “Sophia” in the Book of Wisdom (and elsewhere) redacted by patriarchs reluctantly responding to widespread popular demand for acknowledgement of the sacred feminine. Describing her as Sophia, even these conservative biblical texts identify the goddess as Yahweh’s first thought and co-creator with him. (More about this below. . .) 

The bottom line here is that goddess worship was central to ancient Israel’s past. Only heroic (not to say malevolent) efforts by the nation’s 6th century (BCE) reformers coupled with the cultural blindness of mainstream biblical scholarship has kept that powerful truth from penetrating the consciousness of Jews and Christians everywhere.

Jesus (& Simon Magus) as Feminist

Despite such obstacles past and present, our authors go on to explain the survival of goddess worship within the Judeo-Christian tradition. In the process, they take us on a geographical odyssey from Judah to Alexandria and then to Samaria illustrating how recognition of the sacred feminine was advanced not only by the “proto-feminist” Jesus of Nazareth, but by two unexpectedly key figures: the arch-heretic Simon Magus (i.e. Simon the Magician) and John the Baptist.

As just indicated, even the best efforts of its scribal menfolk, could not keep goddess worship out of Judah’s public consciousness. Without honoring her actual name, popular pressure evidently forced the patriarchs to somehow acknowledge Ashera’s identity and influence. That pressure was increased by the spread of Greek (Hellenistic) culture especially as it emanated from Alexandria where fully 1/3 of the population was Jewish. (Greek culture was far more woman-friendly than its Jewish counterpart.)

Accordingly, as evidenced in the Book of Wisdom (produced at the end of the 3rd century BCE), the sacred feminine resurfaced under the title Sophia, a de-sexualized, sanitized, domesticated and abstract female principle called “Wisdom” and portrayed as God’s First Thought — his co-creator of the universe.

For its part, Samaria also proved central to the preservation of goddess traditions. Contrary to the impression given in the canonical gospels, the region was not a minor, out-of-the-way location. Instead, it covered a major swath of territory in northern Israel which was always more prosperous than its southern neighbor. The opposite impression comes from the anti-Israel and pro-Judah bias of the Jewish Testament in general and from a similar prejudice against Samaria itself in Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John.

In any case, Samaria played a major role in Jesus’ public life as did its inhabitants. Scandalously, a Samaritan emerged as the hero of one of Jesus’ most famous parables. Additionally, according to John’s Gospel, Jesus made his first public declaration of his messianic identity to a Samaritan woman.

John the Baptist had Samaritan connections too. So did Simon Magus, who (as we’ll see presently) was both a disciple and rival of Jesus. And since Simon as well as Jesus were disciples of John, and since both of them ended up centralizing devotion to flesh-and-blood embodiments of Sophia, it makes sense to attribute similar focus to the Baptist.

In fact, all three – Jesus, John the Baptist and Simon the Magician had equal first century claims to the title of Christ or Messiah. (Well into the second century, John’s disciples invoked Jesus’ own praise of their master as “the greatest prophet” to argue John’s superiority to Jesus.) It’s therefore a fluke of history that today’s “Christians” are not Johannites or Simonists.  

As for Simon Magus . . . Christian polemic portrays him as a contemptuous minor figure not only in Luke’s Acts of the Apostles but throughout early Christian tradition. However, historically speaking, he himself was widely revered as the Son of God. He was a wonder worker on a par with his Nazarene rival. Both men presented themselves as prophets of Sophia. Both were besotted with women who for them embodied God’s Wisdom complete with all the sexual overtones reminiscent of goddess worship everywhere.

The latter is most evident in the case of Simon, a free thinker who, like Jesus, rejected the group consensus of his own time in favor of the Wisdom of God. Simon’s Sophia went by the name Helen whom he portrayed as God’s First Thought. She was a former prostitute whose status as such, Simon argued, incarnated the patriarchy’s degrading treatment of women in general. Accessing Helen’s wisdom involved daily sexual relations with the beloved.

Jesus’ relations with his own Sophia, Mary Magdalen, mirrored that of Simon the Magician. Clearly his favorite, Mary was Jesus’ link with his many female disciples. She was probably his sexual consort if not his wife and mother of his children. (It was simply a given, the authors argue, that any Jewish man above 20 years of age had to be married. So, at the age portrayed in the gospels, Jesus was either a widower or a divorcee.)

At the same time, Mary Magdalene was a rival of Peter the apostle who according to Magdalene’s Gospel and other recently discovered texts was an extreme misogynist and enemy of the one Jesus saw as the embodiment of the divine feminine – God’s First Thought. Jesus’ identification of Mary as “the apostle of apostles” wounded Peter to the quick.

All of this has evident implications not only for questions about the sacred feminine in general, about goddess worship and church leadership, but also for “the contemporary rise of the sacred feminine in the Judeo-Christian tradition” and for restoring balance in our increasingly troubled world.

Conclusion

Reading When God Had A Wife was like taking a short course in biblical studies. Thankfully, it recalled for me what I had learned more than half a century ago in the most important courses I took in preparation for priestly ordination in the Catholic seminary. And that recollection made me wonder why the knowledge communicated in When God Had A Wife has not yet filtered down to those who occupy the pews in churches and synagogues, and prayer mats in mosques.

It’s as if there were some conspiracy to keep everyone ignorant, naïve and childish in their approach to faith. For instance, our authors reminded me that in the seminary well more than 50 years ago, I had learned about text criticism, form criticism and redaction criticism. I wonder why all of that isn’t common knowledge.

The answer of Picknett and Prince is that there has indeed been a conspiracy by the ruling elite to keep everything secret. The goddess had to be removed from the Judeo-Christian pantheon to more firmly establish patriarchal monotheism, which, remember, has always been about “the menfolk.”

It’s that latter insight that will stick with me long after I’ve forgotten the wonderfully detailed and exquisitely documented work presented in When God Had A Wife. The interests of the menfolk explain more convincingly than anything else the reluctance of those who should know better to share with the rest of us the rich fruits of biblical scholarship.

After all, if “the faithful” knew about variant texts, literary forms and redacted interpretations, they might call into question the exclusive right claimed by priests, bishops, cardinals, popes, rabbis, and imams to explain their Old White Man up in the Sky. They might embrace instead female leadership and Yahweh’s Wife – Ashera, Anat, the Cosmic Mother, or Isis.

For that matter, they might demand ecclesial leadership modeled on the discipleship of Mary Magdalene or Simon Magus’ Helen.   

It’s because Picknett and Prince have the courage to forcefully and convincingly suggest such revisions that I cannot recommend more highly their supremely accessibly and wonderfully popularized When God Had A Wife: the fall and rise of the sacred feminine in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

2 thoughts on “When God Had A Wife: Ashera, Magdalene & Modern Biblical Scholarship”

  1. I have been reading your blog for several years now, and this is one of the most intriguing posts yet. I will be buying the book ASAP. I seem to recall an earlier book (or maybe just an essay) from as far back as the 90’s arguing that Jesus was married but can’t recall any detail. Thanks for the post.

    Like

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