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.

Christianity is the Enemy of Humankind (Reflections on the Historical Jesus)

To the least

Last night I concluded a Lenten series of classes on the historical Jesus. As always, the course had its ups and downs. But it was faithfully attended by about 25 soul mates who, like me, remain fascinated by and somehow in love with Jesus of Nazareth.

At last evening’s final meeting, one of the participants – a fierce unflinching seeker of truth, asked the question in the back of everyone’s mind. “So what?” she asked. “If, as we have learned here, Jesus has been distorted beyond recognition by the early church (and especially by Paul and Constantine) why should we believe any of it?”

What a good question! It has forced me to pull together (for myself!) what I have learned from this latest round of studies of the historical Jesus. Let me express them in as clear an unvarnished a way as possible both positively and critically.

First of all, my positive learnings . . . . The study forced me to face the fact that the historical Jesus, un-obscured by later developments is the touchstone for authentic Christian faith. That is, the Jesus of history (vs. the Jesus of later doctrines) trumps all other conceptualizations in terms of being normative for Christian faith. The teachings of the historical Jesus were extremely simple: God is love. God is bread. Salvation consists in sharing food – bread and wine. A world with room for everyone (the Kingdom of God) is entirely possible. Empire is the anti-thesis of love and sharing. It uses religion to enslave. It finds Jesus message of liberation abhorrent. Empire is the enemy.

Second of all, my critical learnings . . . . If anything the Christian Testament makes it extremely difficult to locate the normative historical Jesus. In fact, the canonical gospels often contradict the basic revelations of Jesus. When this happens, those contradictions have to be faced, learned from, and set aside as merely illustrative of the way history and religion are routinely distorted by the rich and powerful. It is evidence of what people either used to believe before Jesus’ revelation, or what they came to believe when the faith of Jesus subsequently interacted with and was domesticated by other cultures and times.

More particularly, examination of the gospels makes it abundantly clear that following the destruction of Jerusalem in the Jewish-Roman War (66-73), the Jesus of history increasingly receded from Christian perception. In his place a Jesus of faith came to prominence. The two are at odds with each other. The Jesus of history strove to liberate the poor. The Jesus of faith became the servant of empire and the rich who run it.

The Jesus of history was a mystic, prophet, teacher, healer, and movement founder. He was intent on reforming Judaism whose leaders had sold Judaism’s soul to the Roman Empire transforming it into a religion of laws, rituals and obedience to the powerful. This Jesus called himself the “Son of Man,” not the “Son of God.” He was perceived by the poor as a “messiah” who would deliver his people from Roman domination. He proclaimed a new social order which he referred to as the “Kingdom of God.” There Rome’s domination model of social organization would be replaced by a sharing model. In God’s kingdom everything would be reversed: the rich would be poor; the poor would be rich; the first would be last; the last would be first; prostitutes and “the unclean” would enter the new order before priests, the rich and the famous.

And although he shied away from accepting the conventional messianic identity associated with “The War” (against the Romans), Jesus’ program of “Good News for the poor” along with his healings and exorcisms confirmed that identification in the eyes of the marginalized and oppressed. It did the same for the Romans and their collaborators to such an extent that they ended up executing him as an insurgent.

The memory of this Jesus of history was preserved and celebrated by the Jerusalem community called “The Way” before its eradication in the horrendous Roman-Jewish War of 66 to 73CE. In obedience to Jesus, they adopted a communal life where food, drink, and material possessions were shared and held in common. Following Jesus’ death, some were even hoping for his “second coming” in their own lifetimes to complete the task of empire-destruction his execution had prevented him from fulfilling.

This prophetic Jesus was replaced by the Jesus of faith who emerged in the post-war world after the Jerusalem church and its leadership had been slaughtered by Rome. At this point, “The Way” (Jesus’ version of reformed Judaism) was replaced by “Christianity.” This religious movement was non-Jewish. It derived from the teaching of Paul of Tarsus (in Turkey) who never met the historical Jesus, and who thought of him in terms of God’s unique and only Son. Paul was a thoroughly Romanized Jewish rabbi intent on acquainting non-Jews with the Jesus he experienced in the visionary psychic experience recorded as his conversion on the Damascus Road.

By ignoring the Jesus of history, Paul’s experience and subsequent preaching laid the foundation for an understanding that centralized a Jesus understood as God’s only Son – a divine being who would have been (and was!) completely unacceptable to the fiercely monotheistic Jews. At the same time, this domesticated Jesus was not threatening to Rome. In fact, he was completely familiar to Romans resembling the “dying and rising gods” of Roman-Greco culture who offered “eternal life” beyond the grave rather than an anti-imperial Kingdom of God in the here and now. In other words, the Jesus of history was co-opted beyond recognition by the Roman Empire.

So what’s the take-away from the study of the historical Jesus? I think the following extremely important lessons:

1. History is unreliable. It has been distorted and manipulated by the powerful to suit their own needs. (If taken seriously, this in itself is an invaluable lesson.)

2. Hard work is required to find historical truth – not just about Jesus but about what happened yesterday!

3. Empire is the enemy. It is a system of robbery whereby the rich and powerful steal resources from the poor they oppress. It is entirely contrary to the will of God (the Principle of Life). It represents a “preferential option” for the rich and powerful. It is absolutely ruthless in its eternal war against the world’s poor and in falsifying history for its own benefit.

4. Those who resist empire can expect to be tortured and assassinated. Nonetheless, from time to time courageous and insightful prophets arise from the non-rich and non-powerful with Good News for the poor. Their very simple message: fullness of life is to be found not in empire, but among the poor and simple of the world (God’s people). Salvation, these prophets teach, consists in sharing the simple realities of bread and wine. In effect: God is Bread.

5. Among the west’s best known prophets of Jesus’ God are Moses, Jesus himself, Gandhi, Bartolommeo de las Casas, Karl Marx, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Dorothy Day, and the nameless martyrs (so many of them women!) inspired over the last fifty years by liberation theology.

6. Most people are in denial about these simple facts. They are powerfully assisted in their denial by politicians, scholars, priests, and the media who make the teachings of the prophets extremely complicated. They have transformed the prophets’ message about sharing bread and fullness of life in the here and now into “religion” and a promise of life after death. As such, religion is the enemy of humankind. Christianity is the enemy!

7. Those who accept these learnings should leave institutionalized “religion,” band together, internalize the teachings of the historical Jesus and change the world!

Summary and Conclusions about the Historical Jesus (Part Two)

(This is the fourteenth in a series of “mini-classes” on the historical Jesus. Together the pieces are intended to assist those who wish to “dig deeper” into the scholarly foundations of postmodern faith and to understand the methodology behind the postings on the blog site. Today’s post is the last of a two-part conclusion of the series.)

In searching for the historical Jesus, it helps to remember that we know much more about the object of our quest than ever before. Mid-twentieth century discoveries at the Palestinian locations Qum Ran and Nag Hamadi have yielded manuscripts that have acquainted scholars with previously unknown sources about Jesus. Just as importantly, developments in the fields of history, linguistics, and archeology have made us more knowledgeable about Jesus’ historical context than any previous generation. Acquaintance with such context constitutes actual knowledge about Jesus and the people with whom he interacted.

Similarly, the disciplines like sociology, economics, psychology, and political science have developed principles that describe how individuals within given networks typically act in particular circumstances. One such standard might be termed the “principle of analogy. It holds that: We should ordinarily expect to have happened in the past what routinely happens in the present as described by the social sciences.  For instance, we know that Jesus grew up under Roman oppression. About the time of his birth, the recently unearthed capital of Galilee (Sepphoris – just six miles from Nazareth) was destroyed by Roman soldiers trying to wipe out insurgent patriots. Sociologists tell us (and imperial armies act upon this knowledge) that such wars of resistance end up involving virtually the entire local population. This means that Jesus and his family were likely involved as well. All such extra-biblical information helps us better understand the historical Jesus.

Such determinations also coincide with two interpretative guidelines that have emerged from third world scholarship over the last forty years or so. One standard is called the “preferential option for the poor.” The other is “the hermeneutical privilege of the poor.” Both signal a source of knowledge of the historical Jesus that is often neglected and even denigrated by mainstream biblical scholarship.

The option for the poor highlights the biblical fact that the God of the Bible in general and of the Christian Testament in particular takes sides with the poor in their ongoing struggle with the rich. In the Jewish Testament this taking sides is evident in two of what Jesus scholar, Marcus Borg, terms the tradition’s three “macro-stories.” These are the Bible’s primary stories that fired the imaginations of Jewish people and early Christians. They are the tales that gave coherence to their interpretations of life, their relationships with God, and of sacred scripture itself. The first two of these macro-stories tell of the Exodus and the Exile. The third is what Borg refers to as the Priestly Story.

Both the Exodus and Exile stories reveal God’s preference for the poor – 13 century slaves in Egypt and 6th century exiles in Babylon. They show God’s preference for slaves over their slave-masters and for prisoners of war over their captors. For its part, the priestly story prioritizes temple worship and the priesthood. It is a narrative of sin, guilt and forgiveness mediated by an ordained priesthood. The priestly story was the object of criticism by the prophets of the Jewish Tradition including Jesus of Nazareth.

Above all, the New Testament’s Jesus story is one of God’s preferential option for the poor. In that story God is understood as literally siding with the under-classes. First and foremost, it is no accident that the Divine chooses as its site of revelation a poor person rather than a figure of royalty or priesthood. Theologically and sociologically speaking, this point of incarnation represents God’s fundamental disclosure about divine commitment. Such commitment is underlined by the words and practice of Jesus as described in all the sources of the Christian Testament. In the gospel traditions, Jesus’ program consists in bringing Good News to the poor (Lk. 4: 16-21). The Kingdom of God, he insists, belongs to the poor and persecuted (Mt. 5: 3& 10). Moreover, the beneficiaries of Jesus’ acts of healing and exorcism are overwhelmingly the poor and outcast (Mk. 1: 41; 6:34; 8:2; Mt. 9:36; 14:14 15:21-28; 15:32; 17:14-29; 20:29-34; Lk. 7: 13-14, 17: 11-19 . . .). The Final Judgment will be based on one’s attitude and actions to relieve the sufferings of the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, and imprisoned (Mt. 25: 31-46).

All of this means that God’s Chosen People are the poor. (Hebrew slaves in Egypt are merely the paradigmatic example of such divine preference.) What we know more than anything about the historical Jesus is his embodiment of God’s choice. Jesus is the symbol par excellence of the divine one’s preferential option for the poor.  For our purposes here, this divine fundamental option provides an interpretative principle for locating the authentic words and deeds of the historical Jesus.  Words and deeds attributed to Jesus’ favoring the poor over the rich are probably authentically his. Words and deeds placing the rich or privileged classes favorably must be interpreted in the light of their impact on the poor who are the primary beneficiaries of Jesus proclamation and practice.

God’s preferential option for the poor leads us to the second important tool of discernment. It is helpful not so much for locating the authentic words and deeds of Jesus but for interpreting them in his spirit – for getting at the underlying ideas and values of his words and actions. This is the principle of the hermeneutical privilege of the poor. This principle recognizes that the poor (i.e. our contemporaries closest in sociological position to the primary intended recipients of Jesus’ Good News) find themselves in a better position to interpret the words and deeds of Jesus than do the non-poor.

For example, when the well-to-do read Jesus’ words, “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God” (Lk. 6:20), they are likely to unconsciously substitute Matthew’s less radical version (and therefore less likely to have come from the historical Jesus), “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:3). As a result, the well-off are prone to spiritualize even the surprising Lucan text. For them Jesus’ words become a promise of an after-life heaven for those who though rich are not attached to their wealth.  However, when the poor read Luke’s words, they take it as a divine pledge that God is on their side in their struggles with the rich.  Luke’s Jesus assures them that the future belongs to them precisely because they are poor, and that God’s kingdom will bring happiness to them and their children on this side of the grave.