Sunday, June 26, 2005

Jesus, Mary Magdalene and Dan Brown

Dan Brown, in case you don't recognize the name, is the author of The Da Vinci Code. The novel, which was published two years ago, has sold more than 25 million copies in 44 languages.

For the sake of his plot, Mr. Brown assumes that Mary Magdalene was Jesus' wife. As summarized in Friday's Ottawa Citizen:
The novel suggests that Jesus and Mary Magdalene produced descendants. According to the plot, Jesus' heirs were able to maintain their secrecy over the centuries because of an international conspiracy; clues to unravelling all these mysteries can be found in various books, architecture and artworks, including paintings by Italian Renaissance master, Leonardo Da Vinci.
The Da Vinci Code is a work of fiction. But, according to a new poll, many Canadians have trouble distinguishing fiction from non-fiction:
Almost two million Canadians who read the mega-selling book, The Da Vinci Code, ended the novel convinced that Jesus Christ fathered a line of descendants on Earth, a new survey suggests.

The coast-to-coast survey for the National Geographic Channel conducted by Decima Research found that, among 1,005 adults surveyed June 9-12, 16 per cent had read the book in the past two years.

Among those readers, 32 per cent believed the story that "a holy bloodline exists and that this secret has been protected through the ages by a dedicated society," the television channel announced yesterday.
Decima Research extrapolates from this data to conclude that 5.2 million Canadians have read The Da Vinci Code, and 1.7 million of them believe that its message is historically accurate.

WARNING WARNING WARNING:  The blogger is about to make a statement that is elitist and therefore not politically correct.
Sometimes I am driven to despair by the appalling stupidity of the masses.

The news item interests me because it touches on a subject that I take very seriously. For fifteen years I was an evangelical Christian. Toward the latter part of that period, I had a spiritual crisis. I had been studying the academic literature for several years. Slowly, reluctantly, I was persuaded that the Gospels cannot withstand critical scrutiny.

I have spent literally thousands of hours investigating the puzzle of the "historical Jesus". (As distinct from the Jesus proclaimed by the Church.) I have concluded there are very few things we can assert about Jesus with much confidence.

Many people are shocked to learn that there are other gospels, not included in the New Testament. These books are commonly referred to as the "apocryphal" gospels.

Dan Brown has apparently taken his theme from the apocryphal gospels. The most notable passage is found in the Gospel of Philip. (The ellipses, in square brackets, indicate gaps or undecipherable words in the manuscript.):
The companion of the [...] Mary Magdalene. [...] loved her more than all the disciples, and used to kiss her often on her mouth. The rest of the disciples [...]. They said to him "Why do you love her more than all of us?"
The significance of such material depends on your purpose. If you want to write a history of the early Church, the Gospel of Philip and the other apocryphal gospels are relevant. If you want to write fiction, like Dan Brown, the texts may provide grist for the mill. But if you are looking for information about the historical Jesus, you're in the wrong place. The apocryphal gospels cannot be utilized to correct the New Testament record.

People can believe what they want, of course, based on their "feelings", or what they wish to be true, or superstition, etc. — even based on a rollicking good yarn like The Da Vinci Code. But if you take the question of the historical Jesus seriously, as I do, you should consider what scholars have to say on the subject.

Allow me to illustrate my point by considering a scientific fact. Scientists tell us that the earth revolves around the sun. But this is entirely contrary to my personal observation. As far as I can tell, the earth stands still. I have no sensation of the earth hurtling through space or spinning on its axis. It seems to me that the sun moves while the earth stays put.

Nonetheless, I accept that my perceptions are inaccurate. Scientists have investigated this question, and they assure us that the earth orbits the sun. You can evaluate the data for yourself, if you wish:  scientists have published their observations and the reasoning that led them to such a counter-intuitive conclusion.

The same logic applies to any serious investigation of the historical Jesus. If you're satisfied to have any old opinion, you're entitled to it. But some opinions rest on a faulty foundation. Anyone who is seriously interested in Jesus as a pivotal historical figure should consider what New Testament scholars have to say on the subject.

It isn't necessary merely to take things on authority. New Testament scholars publish the evidence on which their conclusions are based, and explain their reasons for interpreting it as they do. Any interested person who is motivated to make the effort can scrutinize the raw data and reach an informed conclusion.

History is not one of the "hard" sciences, of course. But historians have devised various methods by which to evaluate historical accounts:  of Socrates, for example, or the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

New Testament scholars employ the same canons of criticism that are applied to other historical figures. They have concluded that the Gospels are unreliable at many points, leaving the field open for much speculation.

Mark, the earliest of the canonical Gospels, probably dates from around AD 70 — i.e., forty years had already passed since the death of Jesus. During those forty years, information had to be passed from one person to the next, to the next, etc. The more time that passes, the more remote you get from the historical events.

As for the apocryphal gospels, scholars have concluded that they were written later than the canonical Gospels. The earliest of them was not written until fifty years or more after the Gospel of Mark. has published an interview with Bart Ehrman on The Da Vinci Code. Ehrman is a liberal scholar (i.e., not an evangelical or a fundamentalist) who has published a book on Lost Christianities. The book
discusses the various forms of Christianity that didn't make it from the second and third century, including the Gnostics, for example, and various Christian groups who had gospels that didn't make it into the New Testament but that supported their points of view. My editor at Oxford thought I really should read "The Da Vinci Code" because the Lost Gospels are talked about — a lot. But the things that Dan Brown says about them are wrong.
The interview continues:
Q. What do you think of the debate about how important the Gnostic gospels are? Some people say that the Gnostics, like Thomas, should be given as much weight as the Gospel of John because it was written — they say — at the same time.

A. I think that the Gospel of Thomas was written about 20 years after John; my opinion on this is the majority opinion; almost everybody who studies Thomas thinks of it as later than John with a few notable exceptions, including Elaine Pagels. She's the main one, but most people think Thomas was written in the early second century. And Mary was written some time after that. So I think these gospels are highly important for understanding how people were portraying Jesus, but they're not as useful for establishing what Jesus was really like, as the New Testament Gospels are.

Q. So in a nutshell, what's the fallacy that "The Da Vinci Code" puts forth as it relates to these gospels?

A. There are several fallacies — but in a nutshell, the fallacy is thinking that these gospels give a more historically accurate view of Jesus than the New Testament gospels. I'm saying this not out of any religious conviction, but strictly on historical grounds — that statement is not true.
If you've read The Da Vinci Code, I hope you enjoyed it. But it's a work of fiction, folks, not a historical study. (I can't believe this needs to be said.)

What can we know about the historical Jesus? That's a much harder question, and a subject for another day.


At 11:59 PM, June 26, 2005, Blogger snaars said...

I have spent literally thousands of hours investigating the puzzle of the "historical Jesus".
Perhaps you should have studied physics as well. If the earth were round and spinning on its axis, don't you know we would all fly off??? It's common sense man, don't go believing every half-baked thing some fool scientist tells you. I just want to go on the record as saying that Dan brown is a genius, in the sense that anyone who can convince so many people must be correct; therefore, his intellect is profound.

At 9:44 AM, June 27, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

It's quite impressive that nearly a third of the people who read The Da Vinci Code believe it to be historically accurate.

Sometimes I think I'm wasting my time, appealing to people's minds by citing facts and setting forth a logical argument. If only I had Dan Brown's talent, I could bypass people's intellect and fill their heads with any bullshit that amused me. Then I could be a force for good, you bet!

More seriously, I think politics are headed down this very path. A large percentage of the population is apparently incapable of critical thought. If you seek election, never mind facts and reason — manipulate people!

That's why there's no money in philosophy, Snaars. Forget Heidegger. Better to model yourself after Rush Limbaugh or Howard Stern.

At 10:44 AM, June 27, 2005, Blogger Bill said...

Q have you read anything by Dan Brown on his motives for writing The Da Vinci Code?

I must admit that the price of the book has put me off reading it and every time I am at the library it is out. (though I have read sections of it online)

Personally, If people swallowed H.G. Well's, War of the Worlds (the radio broadcast,) their acceptance of Brown's fantasy does not surprise me.

At 11:34 AM, June 27, 2005, Blogger snaars said...

Q, I can only say Amen, and amen.

I would be tempted to look down on people who lack critical thinking skills, if it weren't for the fact that I was one of them once. And for the fact that even the best of us slip up.

I think politics are headed down this very path

I think politics has been at hard at work for many years renovating the yellow brick road into a superhighway.

Don't ask me what that means. It's just derogatory toward politics. If I keep to comments like this one, I maybe could make some money after all.

I admire and applaud your efforts to be rational, q. The world desperately needs people who value truth over and above power and wealth. The work is hard and the return is infrequent; and when it comes, it is uncertain. Nevertheless I would rather face the universe with my eyes and mind open.

That being said, it doesn't seem like truth and wealth are necessarily mutually exclusive ... I wish I knew how to pursue both at the same time. :0(

At 11:54 AM, June 27, 2005, Blogger aaron said...

I found the thriller aspect of the book rather uninteresting -- what I most enjoyed was the backstory, fully aware that almost everything about Jesus' life is speculative. Given your concurrence on this matter, I'm not sure why you're so ready to bash those who believe there's a "holy bloodline" -- why is that belief so much more absurd than the belief that there's not a holy bloodline? There's not enough evidence to verify either claim.

Of course, I don't have the religious convictions to be troubled by any difference between the assertions of the book and those of the various churches, or to even care if there is a "holy bloodline."

Regardless of the truth behind the book's take on the historical Jesus, however, there does appear to be some merit to the interpretation of The Last Supper that's put forth. Other than looking at the painting again, however, I've done no reasearch on the matter. Is there any reason why that viewpoint is untenable?

By the way, don't get me wrong -- I too have grave concerns on uncritical acceptance by the masses (e.g., 2/3 of Americans believed Saddam was tied to 9/11). Just not sure it's truly an issue here.

At 1:51 PM, June 27, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

Like you, I have refused to lay out the money for a hardcover edition of The Da Vinci Code. I thought about joining the waiting list for a library copy, but I would have been in position 2,300 or so!

I have read Brown's Angels and Demons, which has a similar theme. (The lead character is the same — "Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon"; secret Roman Catholic rituals are central; and the plot turns on hidden messages in religious sculptures.) It was a compulsively good read, so I can see why Brown is a best-selling author (though the plot is utterly incredible).

I've read a few interviews, and it's hard to know what Brown actually believes. For example, here he says:

The secret described in the novel has been chronicled for centuries, so there are thousands of sources to draw from. In addition, I was surprised how eager historians were to share their expertise with me. One academic told me her enthusiasm for THE DA VINCI CODE was based in part on her hope that "this ancient mystery would be unveiled to a wider audience."

Does Brown believe that the "ancient mystery" is true, or is this just good marketing technique? I'm not sure.

Aaron writes:
I too have grave concerns on uncritical acceptance by the masses … Just not sure it's truly an issue here.

I agree with your basic point. Sometimes it doesn't matter what people believe. I'm sure the 1.7 million Canadians who believe in the holy bloodline will not do anything, for good or evil, with that information.

On the other hand, sometimes it matters a great deal what people believe. As you know, faith often determines peoples' views: on gay marriage, abortion, gun control, capital punishment, who they vote for, etc.

As a fellow believer, I am quite prepared to support people in their faith, and in the values derived from their faith. But Jesus, and the Hebrew prophets before him, were quite critical of the religion of their day. Their example is relevant to me as I live out my faith.

I want to interact with people when it comes to their faith, as Jesus did. This means encouraging them, where encouragement is appropriate, but challenging them where a challenge is needed. It means promoting a faith that is informed, intelligent, and compassionate. And, occasionally, it means actively opposing a faith that is ignorant, uncritical, and ruthless.

there does appear to be some merit to the interpretation of The Last Supper that's put forth.

I'm prepared to believe that's true, as Dan Brown asserts it is. But I don't have an informed opinion on the subject.

Dan Brown has spent a lot of time investigating secret societies, another subject he utilizes to good effect in his books. I am prepared to believe that such secret societies existed. Perhaps Da Vinci embraced some of their ideosyncratic beliefs, and expressed them in his paintings.

On the other hand, art is a symbolic medium, and therefore susceptible to multiple interpretations.

More importantly, I do not believe in the version of early church history Brown sets forth: that the apocryphal gospels present the true Jesus; that the Roman Catholic Church suppressed those gospels to consolidate its grip on power; that the truth was preserved, for millenia, within the Church but without the Church's knowledge, by the secret societies.

This is sensational fodder for a novelist; but it does not make for an informed and intelligent faith.

I didn't mean to "bash" anybody over their beliefs. I regret it if I come across that way.

The despair I expressed is genuine. It grieves me that people are so very far from being rational actors, when it comes to matters of faith.

At 2:46 PM, June 27, 2005, Blogger Bill said...

I can't say I know much about Brown I have probably wrongfully labelled him another Farley Mowat. (Writes on History but really believes only what he finds interesting.) And since Mowat and Brown are both novelists of note, maybe this is a good quality in a novelist. Crossing the border between imagination and fact is what determines and separates the historian and the novelist. Being close to that border as a novelist might also make for more interesting writing. The problem is that it seems that there is no real concerted effort to squelch the belief that this is anything more than a novel.

At 3:28 PM, June 27, 2005, Blogger snaars said...

Please correct me if I am wrong - I have not read the book nor do I intend to - but isn't the basic premise/thesis of the book that Da Vinci embedded certain "coded" messages into his paintings? And that he believed himself descended from Jesus? These claims are plausible (if not firmly established) because they are about what Da Vinci might have believed or done. How does one make the case from what Da Vinci believed and did to what Jesus did or did not do?

I had one discussion that became very heated because the person I was speaking with was very offended by the idea that Jesus could have had a lover. I don't see what the big deal is, since in every form of Judaism I am familiar with, rabbis are expected to marry and have children. Most Christians I have met don't really think of Jesus as being Jewish. For some strange reason they think of him as being Christian.

Most Christians have this gnostic idea that the body and soul are distinct, that only the soul can be pure, that the body is evil and corrupt, so bodily pleasures are evil and corrupt the soul. They have difficulty associating sex with any pure kind of love.

I am troubled by the fact that people place their faith in certain radical ideas without testing those ideas. It seems much more sensible to withhold belief until one has sufficient evidence.

At 10:14 AM, June 28, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

Crossing the border between imagination and fact is what determines and separates the historian and the novelist … The problem is that it seems that there is no real concerted effort to squelch the belief that this is anything more than a novel.

This is very well said; I have nothing to add to it except my concurrence.

You're absolutely right about the Jewishness of Jesus. For centuries, the Church lost sight of this basic fact, because of Jesus' biting criticisms of the religious leaders of his day. Scholars now insist that the criticisms were exaggerated by the authors of the Gospels because of their bitter rivalry with the Jews in the decades after Jesus' death.

Jesus set out to reform some of the harmful doctrines of his day, but he did not repudiate the Jewish faith.

You're also right with respect to Christian squeamishness about the body and human sexuality. I don't know that I would characterize it as specifically gnostic. In fact, the boundaries of gnosticism are much contested; it is likely that there were several gnostic sects which differed widely in doctrine.

Not only the gnostics, but Greek thought in general made a sharp distinction between the immortal soul and the temporary body. This is contrary to Jewish modes of thought, which viewed the body as part of the essence of individual personality. Hence the Jewish and Christian emphasis on the resurrection of the body — not merely the survival of the soul — after death.

Having said all that, one can certainly make a case that Jesus was celibate.

Some Jews did practice celibacy. Bart Ehrman refers to the Dead Sea Scrolls community (i.e., Qumran), which was almost certainly monastic. He notes that Jesus and the Qumran community shared an apocalyptic theology, which is associated with celibacy. If history is about to come to a cataclysmic end, it's a bad time to start a family: "Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days" (Matthew 24:19).

In keeping with the above, Jesus made some shockingly anti-family statements. The statements are likely authentic, precisely because they are so shocking. (That is, the Church is unlikely to have created such statements and attributed them to Jesus.) In general, Jesus was making the point that the Kingdom of God must take precedence over all other commitments: "there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can" (Matthew 19:12).

On the other hand, there is evidence that Jesus was not an ascetic in other respects. Notably, he contrasts himself with John the Baptist (assuming the saying is authentic): "For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, 'He has a demon'; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!'" This picture of Jesus, as someone who enjoyed his food and drink, introduces an element of doubt to the analysis above.

On the whole, however, I think the evidence is pretty compelling that Jesus was, in fact, celibate.

This is a good point for me to pick up your comment on those who believe there's a holy bloodline. You ask, why is that belief so much more absurd than the belief that there's not a holy bloodline? There's not enough evidence to verify either claim.

I am firmly convinced that the canonical Gospels contain authentic historical information about Jesus, whereas the apocryphal gospels contain very little, arguably none.

The difficulty with respect to Jesus is not unique. What we know of Socrates, for example, is also problematic.

Like Jesus, Socrates does not appear to have left behind any document he authored himself; we know about him only through Plato and a few other sources. Like the Gospels, Plato's account of Socrates is blended with Plato's own philosophical notions; it is therefore difficult to distinguish Socrates from Plato.

But few scholars are so radical as to conclude that we know nothing about the historical figure, Socrates. Most assume that it is a legitimate exercise to sift the evidence. A few things we can affirm with considerable confidence; at other points, the evidence is evenly balanced; at still other points, there are grounds to doubt Plato's account of Socrates' life.

As I said in the original post, the field is open for considerable speculation about the historical Jesus. People who think they have absolutely certain knowledge of Jesus are deluding themselves. We'll never nail this down with certainly — like we can calculate, for example, the length of time it takes for the earth to orbit the sun.

On the other hand, people who think we know nothing about Jesus, and Dan Brown's view of early Church history is as good as any other —

It's an understandable mistake, but a mistake nonetheless.

At 10:21 AM, June 28, 2005, Blogger snaars said...

I woke up this morning thinking about my last post. I sincerely hope I didn't offend anyone by it. I didn't mean to suggest that Jesus had a sexual relationship with anyone. I have no special insight into his life or times. Also, I didn't mean to come off as being some sort of Christian-basher. But I think what I wrote will probably be read that way. If I did offend someone, I'm sorry.

My point, which I know I failed to present clearly, is that we often have these strong feelings toward certain ideas or subjects, without any clear concept of where these feelings come from. These feelings are deeply ingrained in us, and yet when someone questions them we may be at a loss to explain them.

In many religions (not just Christianity) the sex drive is considered "carnal," something that satisfies the body only and not the mind. The urges to eat, sleep, and perform other bodily functions are likewise sometimes considered evidence of our "sinful" nature.

All I meant by my comment was that there are other, seemingly equally legitimate, ways of thinking about our natural urges and bodily functions.

Speaking more generally, it seems like our human nature is such that we all have preconceived, unquestioned notions about how we are to live, and which sorts of things are moral and which immoral. We can be shocked when someone, such as Dan Brown (or I) calls these deeply-held moral convictions into question. In my conversations with people about the book, many were offended at the suggestion that Jesus could have fathered a child.

I am no different from anyone else, and I have as many of these preconceived notions as anyone else does.

I believe that despite the various beliefs throughout the various cultures, all human beings form their beliefs through similar processes. I think careful reasoning can help us to form better beliefs, but only if we are willing to question the beliefs we already have.

I hope I didn't come across as though I think myself morally superior to anyone else. Again, I sincerely apologize if anyone got that impression, and I'm sorry if my words made anyone uncomfortable.

At 1:00 PM, June 28, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

Obviously we were composing the above two comments simultaneously.

If you were worried about me, I thought your point was clearly communicated and reasonable, and you hadn't offended me in the slightest.

I appreciate your willingness to apologize where you think you may have offended someone.

I hope what I've written gives you a small insight into the process of sifting the evidence, and why I believe we can affirm some things about Jesus with some degree of confidence.

But I have a scholarly turn of mind. This means that I usually express myself in very cautious language. I know there is almost always an opposing case with evidence to support it.

All knowledge is less than certain; all hypotheses about Jesus, or any other subject, are provisional. It's always possible for new data to arise which will alter our perspective (as the Dead Sea Scrolls opened our eyes about first century Palestinian Judaism).

Sometimes people mistake my caution for a lack of conviction. But my convictions are quite strong; it's just that my mind is genuinely still open.

I view faith as a kind of pilgrimmage (an ancient metaphor). I try to live in a way that is true to my current knowledge. However, I don't presume to know what lies around the next curve in the path or over the next hill.

At 11:26 AM, June 29, 2005, Blogger Jack's Shack said...


Just wanted to say that I found this to be very interesting.

At 12:43 PM, June 29, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

Thanks, Jack. I'm pleasantly surprised by how much people have engaged with the topic.

Sooner or later, I will revisit the issue raised by Snaars, the Jewishness of Jesus. (For those who haven't read his blog, Jack is Jewish.) The fact that Christianity has fed antisemitism down through history is shameful, given that Jesus was a Jew throughout his life.

At 6:07 PM, July 01, 2005, Blogger Jack's Shack said...

The fact that Christianity has fed antisemitism down through history is shameful, given that Jesus was a Jew throughout his life.

I like to think of this as being very similar to politics. When one group splinters off of another they have to prove to others that the old group no longer is in touch, that their message is no longer valid.

The problem is that in trying to do that sometimes people go overboard. They operate from a place of fear and not security.

At 11:14 PM, July 01, 2005, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

Well said, Jack.

What's hard to take is that Christians are still doing it 2,000 years after the intial split. Surely Christianity can stand on its own merits, without constant reference to its supposed superiority to Judaism.

At 2:00 PM, July 05, 2005, Blogger Jack's Shack said...

Surely Christianity can stand on its own merits, without constant reference to its supposed superiority to Judaism.

That is what happens when you have people who are not secure in their faith and of limited ability to look at the world through thoughtful eyes.

At 10:30 AM, July 12, 2009, Blogger Juhani said...

Many syncretistic religions formed gnosticism. Gnosticism was rivaling against Christianity and gnosticism held itself better religion as Christianity was. Word gnosticism comes from Greek word gnosis, which means knowledge. Gnosticism had various effects, for instance, some Gnostics taught that divinity can be achieved through unity of the man and woman. This thought led some Gnostics to reach for divinity through sexual intercourse between the man and woman. There existed also some Gnostics, who abstained from sexual intercourse. When we know the fact that Gnostics held Christians as their enemies and that Gnostics held themselves better as Christians and that Gnostics wanted to show in every way that Gnosticism was better as Christianity, so Gnostics made so called gnostic gospels were they twisted, slandered and misrepresented the real gospels. Gnostics went so far in this misrepresent that they wrote "new gospels" by faking the real gospels. In these faked gospels Gnostics wrote that Jesus Christ was an ordinary man who has a sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene.


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