A Brief Response to Some Claims of The Da Vinci CodeRICHARD BERNIER
This short review is based on a longer talk given at the Newman Centre of McGill University (Montreal).
At the time of this writing, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code has been on the New York Times bestseller list for almost three years, for much of that time in first place, with no signs of abating anytime soon. The novel has spawned a cottage industry of companion books, responses, museum tours, and numerous other, often lucrative projects. Surfing the Web one can catch glimpses of desperate folks determined to believe that the novel has revealed some great truth to them.
The most problematical claims of the novel are concentrated in and around Chapter 55. It is there that we find the substance of the conspiracy theory in its details. The novel, drawing on a variety of dubious sources, would have us believe that:
This review will address these claims under the following questions:
1) What is the origin of the Catholic view of Jesus?
This view may be summarised briefly as the belief that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah promised to the Jews, God’s Chosen People. Jesus was born to a virgin named Mary probably around the year 4BC2, in Bethlehem, and grew up in Nazareth. His words and deeds, including his founding of a church to carry on his teachings and do his work in the world, are reliably reported by the four “canonical” (i.e., officially recognized) gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. From these sources and the testimony of the Church he founded, we have come to realize that Jesus was truly a man and also truly God; he is divine in the same way that God the Father is divine. This set of beliefs, which I call for convenience the “Catholic” view, is also held by Orthodox, by Evangelicals, and by Anglicans and members of other mainstream Christian churches who are faithful to their church’s tradition.
If the claims of the Catholic Church about Jesus and the Gospels are correct, we would expect to find evidence that the four canonical gospels are relatively close to the time of Jesus, that they are basically reliable historical sources, and that rival accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings are proportionately late and unreliable.
We would also expect to find evidence from an early date of the outlines at least of belief in Jesus’ dual nature (divine and human).
In fact, it is widely acknowledged by scholars (not necessarily men and women of faith) that the four canonical gospels are close to the time of Jesus, and certainly closer than any other sources. Matthew is generally dated to about AD70 (in Greek; an Aramaic version may be earlier); Mark to about AD60 or 70; Luke to about AD80 and John to about AD90 or 100. These datings are relatively uncontroversial. (Some scholars, usually personally sympathetic to Christianity but employing objective arguments, have proposed even earlier dates).
It is possible to arrive at a fairly certain version of the original texts of these Gospels by means of the thousands of early manuscripts and manuscript fragments, in multiple translations, of these Gospels. A fragment of John’s Gospel exists that has been uncontroversially dated to AD125, which is extremely close3. These resources mean that we have far greater certainty about the authentic text of the Gospels than about any other ancient human document4.
The content of these Gospels has what has been called the “ring of truth”. Consider some of their striking features: They include occasional outright claims to be eyewitness reports. They are sober, relating the terrible events of Jesus’ passion and death without the smallest editorial comment or reflection, and passing over the nearly thirty years of Jesus’ life prior to his ministry, without comment They basically corroborate each other; such discrepancies as do exist are minor, and because they are minor they actually confirm the authenticity of the texts and the multitude of sources — after all, it would have been so easy for the Church to tidy up these discrepancies over the centuries, but instead she has reverently conserved even the perplexing and troublesome bits. They relate historical and geographical details that can be corroborated from archaeological and textual evidence outside the New Testament. They are honest, reporting Jesus’ obscure sayings and deeds and describing with painful candour how silly and dull-witted the Apostles sometimes were. A historian writing strictly as a historian may not see every detail of the gospels as historical (which is understandable, since a historian writing today, even if a believer, cannot as a historian discuss miracles and God’s intervention and so on). Nonetheless, even writing strictly for the historian as a historian, there is a great deal in the four canonical gospels worthy of his or her acceptance.
Our present-day “canon” or list of New Testament documents was basically settled fairly early on. The documents themselves (27 of them) were in existence by the end of the first century; they were in wide circulation and collated as a canon (with one or two minor exceptions, e.g. II Peter) by the end of the second century.
Compare with this the dating and content of the two dozen or so other texts outside the New Testament that purport to be about Jesus. They are late in date (the one that is probably the earliest of these non-canonical ‘gospels’, the Gospel of Thomas, is likely from about AD140; it isn’t a continuous narrative but a collection of 114 sayings). They tend to avoid historical and geographical detail and include often fabulous stories and sayings that bear no resemblance to the Jesus we meet in the canonical gospels.
What happened in AD325? The Christian Church, previously outlawed, had finally become legal a few years earlier. It was wracked in the early fourth century by a dispute between three factions. Some Christians of Alexandria (led by a priest named Arius) taught that Jesus was divine but still a created being; they said he was of ‘similar’ substance to the Father. Against them were the Catholics (led by Athanasius but including the Bishop of Rome and other luminaries), who taught that Jesus was divine and of the same uncreated substance as the Father. A third faction sided doctrinally with the Catholics but didn’t like the non-biblical terms they were using. The Emperor Constantine convoked a Council at Nicaea (modern-day Turkey) in AD325 to settle the dispute, though he did not intervene in the debate. The bishops in council finally agreed on the Catholic position; the final vote was about 230 to 2. Though the language of their decision used some new expressions (we use the same words in translation every time we pray the Nicene Creed), evidence of this belief in Jesus’ divinity can be found consistently back through the pre-Nicene Christian writers (or “Antenicene Fathers” as they are known) right into the very pages of the New Testament. Here are a few references to places where the Ante-Nicene Fathers affirm the literal divinity of Christ5. (These are simply a selection of a few; many more could be given. See, for instance, the work by Jurgens in the Bibliography).
St Ignatius of Antioch (ca. 110 AD), Letter to the Ephesians (several places)
Epistle to Diognetus (ca. 125 AD) , Diognetus 7:2,4
Melito of Sardis (d. ca. 190) On the Pasch (Peri Pascha).
Translation in Lucien Deiss, ed., Springtime of the Liturgy (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1979), 97-110.
St Justin Martyr ( c. 155 AD) I Apology 6, 10, and 63
St Irenaeus (ca. 185) Adversus Haereses III, 19, 2; IV, 6, 7.
Tertullian (ca. 200) Adv. Praxean 27; Apology 21; On the Flesh of Christ 5
Clement of Alexandria on Christ's Divinity (ca. 210 AD) Exhortation to the Heathen, 1
2) Who were the gnostics?
Gnosticism is not a religion or a coherent set of beliefs but rather an attitude. It predates Christianity, developed new forms upon contact with Christianity and has continued shifting and changing since that contact. Gnosticism sees salvation in the attaining of certain hidden truths that are inaccessible to people in general. These truths are reached not through rational enquiry or trustworthy authority but through a kind of interior illumination of the spiritually advanced.
As a result, Gnosticism shuns any kind of definite statement of belief or institutional structure that would define, correct or fetter the enlightenment of the individual soul. The gnostic writings concerning Jesus reflect this preoccupation; they make no claim to be historical accounts of what actually happened. Indeed, the gnostic tends to scorn historical detail as irrelevant and crude when compared with interior spiritual experience.
Gnosticism accommodates a variety of modes of thought and insights, from the most mysterious and profound to the most magical and bizarre. It cannot be compressed into a neat or simple definition. Gnosis is ‘insight’ into reality that is beyond the reach of normal intellectual understanding.6
The Church encountered gnosticism almost immediately upon being called together by Jesus Christ. In the second century, the Fathers of the Church (especially St Irenaeus of Lyons) were already concerned with gnostic beliefs that were at odds with orthodoxy.
Among the gnostic writings were five that were called ‘gospels’. The earliest of these was Thomas, from about AD140. The others are of later date, including Philip (ca. AD200-AD300). Only Philip provides any grounds for a claim of a romantic link between Jesus and Mary Magdalene (it calls her Jesus’ ‘companion’, an ambiguous word that equally means ‘colleague’ or even ‘business associate’); as a gnostic writing — uninterested in history — written at least 150 to 250 years after Jesus, without any foundation in earlier and reliable sources, Philip is nothing more than a strange fantasy cloaked in familiar names.
It is essential to note that the gnostics were not concerned with the historical details of what Jesus actually said and did.
The gnostic authors were only marginally concerned with the historical details of the life of Jesus.7
Gnosticism made the news again in the early spring of 2006 when — just in time for Holy Week — the National Geographic Society claimed to have authenticated a fragment of the long-lost Gospel of Judas. While there were predictable attempts to make the admittedly interesting discovery out to be an earth-shaking revelation, in reality it was just one more Gnostic writing; uninterested in historical fact and using Jesus as a spokesman for doctrines strange indeed in his mouth. He speaks to the apostles about “their god”, in terms provocative enough for them to start “getting angry and infuriated” and “blaspheming;” he pulls Judas aside to reveal to him the information that “I have explained to you the mysteries of the kingdom and I have taught you about the error of the stars; and …send it…on the twelve aeons.”8
3) Who was Mary Magdalene?
Part of the challenge of sorting out biographical details about the Magdalene is that there are seven ‘Marys’ named in the New Testament9. This wide array explains some of the mistakes of identification that have been made over time.
What we know about Mary Magdalene is that she was a devoted friend and disciple of Jesus. She was unmarried, for she is identified by her hometown (Magdala), whereas a married woman would be identified by connection with a husband or son. Jesus freed her from ‘seven demons’ (it is not certain what this refers to). She stood faithfully by His cross along with Mary His Mother, and was among those faithful women who went to anoint His dead body with myrrh. She was the first person mentioned to be a witness of the Risen Lord.
The Christian tradition has always revered her as a great saint and disciple. The Eastern Christian tradition calls her “Holy Myrrh-Bearer and Equal to the Apostles”. Sometimes in the West she has been mistakenly identified with an otherwise unidentified sinner who bathed our Lord’s feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair; since the fifth century, Western Christians have sometimes erroneously made the leap from this to the conclusion that she was a repentant woman of the streets. Even then, it was never intended as a slander.
The gnostic writings have nothing of interest to add to this portrait; their writings are late, non-historical and tendentious. The only Mary Magdalene known to the second-century anti-Christian polemicist Celsus seems to have been the Mary of the canonical Gospels, for he dismisses her witness simply as the ravings of a “half-frantic woman”10. He knows Mary, the friend and witness to Jesus; not the supposed Gnostic guru.
Brown’s claim that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a daughter whose name was Sarah is not even traceable to any ancient source; it is a fictional detail created by a present-day writer:
My own story of Mary Magdalene and little Sarah, published as a prologue in "The Woman with the Alabaster Jar," is fiction. […]I have no hard evidence about the existence of "Sarah" — only a strong intuition[…].11
The elements of gnostic literature that are alleged to support Da Vinci Code’s ‘alternative’ view of Jesus and the Magdalene are not very impressive. The most relevant passages are the following:
There were three who always walked with the Lord: Mary, his mother, and her sister, and Magdalene, the one who was called his companion. His sister and his mother and his companion were each a Mary.12
The word translated as “companion”, as mentioned above, is a general word that can mean partner, colleague, business associate, friend, etc. In the New Testament it is used sometimes to designate partners in evangelization. (There is a very distinct word in Greek that means “spouse”; so any attempt to find grounds in this passage for the claim of a marriage between Jesus and the Magdalene is unfounded). The next relevant quote also comes from Gospel of Philip, which as we saw above on the most optimistic dating is no earlier than AD200 (ie 100-150 years later than the canonical gospels) although it is often dated to as late as AD300. The italicized material in square brackets is conjectural as the manuscript is damaged and the exact wording is not certain:
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 [...]. They said to him "Why do you love her more than all of us?" The Savior answered and said to them,"Why do I not love you like her? When a blind man and one who sees are both together in darkness, they are no different from one another. When the light comes, then he who sees will see the light, and he who is blind will remain in darkness."13
In Philip, a “kiss” symbolizes the sharing of spiritual grace; it does not have a romantic significance.
The next relevant passage concerning the Magdalene is from the Gospel of Thomas (ca. AD140?):
Simon Peter said to them, "Make Mary leave us, for females don't deserve life." Jesus said, "Look, I will guide her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of Heaven.“14
Finally, a passage from the fragmentary Gospel of Mary, for which no date can be assigned with any certainty:
Peter said to Mary, Sister we know that the Savior loved you more than the rest of woman.
Tell us the words of the Savior which you remember which you know, but we do not, nor have we heard them.15
Note that in this gospel it is not obvious that the Mary in question is Mary Magdalene.
In all likelihood, gnostic pretentions of Mary Magdalene’s exalted role were simply a late literary device to try to support the gnostic preference for individual, interior enlightenment over Church authority.
The classic Catholic understanding of the Lord Jesus and of St Mary Magdalene has nothing to fear from historical research and from the fascinating discoveries at Qumran and Nag Hammadi. It will continue to stand firm and will easily outlive the tendentious silliness promoted by Da Vinci Code.
Baigent, Michael et al. Holy Blood, Holy Grail (New York: Dell, 1983). This work has no scholarly foundations but provides a major part of the framework for the conspiracy sketched by Brown in his novel. Baigent and his co-author Richard Leigh recently (April 2006) unsuccessfully sued Brown in the UK for plagiarism. Baigent has recently rehashed his conspiracy theory in The Jesus Papers (2006).
Barber, Michael et al. (eds.) The Templars: Selected sources translated and annotated (Manchester University Press, 2002).
Bruce, F F The New Testament Documents: Are they Reliable? A classic work on the question, still relevant today.
Harris, John Glyndwr Gnosticism. An accessible general introduction to the gnostics by a scholar sympathetic to them.
Harris, Murray J Jesus as God (Baker Books: Grand Rapids MI, 1992). A study of the New Testament’s explicit affirmations of Christ’s divinity.
Hurtado, Larry Lord Jesus Christ (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids MI, 2003). A magnificent study of devotion to Jesus in earliest Christianity.
Irenaeus of Lyons Against Heresies A hugely important second-century work by a Father of Church. Many of his chapters are dedicated answering gnostic claims.
Johnson, Luke Timothy The Real Jesus A passionate and articulate reply to some contemporary approaches to “the historical Jesus”. Dr Johnson is a leading New Testament scholar.
Jurgens, William (ed.) The Faith of the Early Fathers (Collegeville: Liturgical Press) A superb three-volume collection of writings from the Church Fathers. Making it even more valuable are its indices, which allow the reader to verify at a glance patristic affirmations or denials of various doctrinal points.
Olson, Carl and Sandra Miesel The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius Press, 2004). A good overview of the major issues raised by the novel. It has a particularly nice section on the novel’s claims about art history and a good, helpful bibliography.
Pagels, Elaine The Gnostic Gospels (Random House, 1979). This very popular work is actually much less about the Gnostics and their writings than about the author’s version of early Christian history, most of it highly speculative. There is very little to support Pagels’ biggest claims though she is sometimes fair to early orthodox Christians.
Partner, Peter Murdered Magicians (Oxford University Press, 1981). A concise history of the Templars, with a fair, honest appraisal of the controversies.
Robinson, James (editor), The Nag Hammadi Library. English translations of all the gnostic texts found at Nag Hammadi in 1945. Whenever someone begins speaking about the deep and hidden wisdom possessed by the gnostics, I invite them enthusiastically actually to read the Nag Hammadi writings. This effectively cools their ardour.
Robinson, J A T Redating the New Testament. The author, an Anglican bishop and theologian, proposes earlier dates for the composition of the four gospels than are generally accepted by scholars. Though controversial, his argument seems to me worthy of serious consideration.
Sanders, E P The Historical Figure of Jesus. Currently being used as a textbook in a McGill course introducing ‘historical Jesus research’, Dr Sanders strives to be moderate and rigorously historical in his claims. Even with this constraint, he finds much of historical worth in the gospels.
Stanton, Graham Gospel Truth?. A fine introduction to issues surrounding the dating and authenticity of the Gospels. Dr Stanton addresses particularly Dr Thiede’s controversial claims (see below) but in the process deals with many interesting questions.
Thiede, Carsten Peter Eyewitness to Jesus. Dr Thiede suggests a very early date for three small fragments of a copy of Matthew’s Gospel, in the mid- to late-first century. His conclusions are disputed by most scholars. Dr Thiede also wrote an earlier work claiming that a small fragment found at Qumran (see next entry) is actually from Mark’s gospel. The value of this work isn’t so much these more controversial claims as the general information it provides about the Gospels,
Wise, Michael et al. (editors), The Dead Sea Scrolls. English translation of the scrolls found at Qumran in 1947-1948. They consist of the writings of a Jewish sect known as the Essenes. They contain no affirmations about Jesus.
Witherington, Ben The New Testament Story (Eerdmans, 2004). A good popular introduction to the history of the formation of the New Testament.
Richard Bernier. "A Brief Response to Some Claims of The Da Vinci Code." from a talk given at the Newman Centre of McGill University (February 9, 2005).
This article reprinted with permission from the author, Richard Bernier. Revised by the author May 3rd, 2006
Richard Bernier is associate director and assistant to the chaplain at the Newman Centre of McGill University. He completed an MA in Theology from Concordia University in Montreal and is working on an MA in Philosophy at the same university. Richard Bernier may be contacted here.
Copyright © 2005 Richard Bernier
Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.