Leonardo Da Vinci's
"Last Supper" (1498)
Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan

Further Readings

Responses to Dan Brown

Bart Ehrman, Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code: A Historian Reveals What We Really Know about Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Constantine (Oxford, 2004).

Ben Witherington, III, The Gospel Code: Novel Claims About Jesus, Mary Magdalene and Da Vinci (Intervarsity, 2004).

Carl Olson & Sandra Miesel, The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code (Ignatius, 2004).

Darrell Bock, Breaking The Da Vinci Code: Answers to the Questions Everybody's Asking (Nelson, 2004).

The Da Vinci Dialogue (sponsored by HollywoodJesus)

The Da Vinci Code News (a blog by Greg Wright)

HOLLYWOOD HERESY: Marketing “The Da Vinci Code” to Christians. New Yorker essay by PETER J. BOYER

Links to Primary Sources

The Gospel of Thomas (Lambdin's translation)

The Gospel of Thomas ("Scholars' Translation")

The Gospel of Judas (National Geographic site)

The Dead Sea Scrolls (Orion Center, Hebrew University)

The Works of Josephus (Whiston's translation)

The Five Gospels (parallel columns comparing Matt, Mark, Luke, John and Thomas)

Jesus of Nazareth in Early Christian Gospels (A. Bernhard's collection of texts pertinent to life of Jesus from 1st & 2nd centuries)

The Search for Jesus (Belief.net site with links to essays by scholars)

Caravaggio, Supper at Emmaus (1601)

Bruce N. Fisk

Fisk's Home Page

The Da Vinci Code: Dan Brown is right. It's all about history.

A Dialogue with Dan Brown about Jesus, Mary Magdalene and early Christianity

Times are good for Jesus scholars. Not long ago, if I told a stranger on a plane that my Ph.D. is in Religion and that I teach New Testament and early Christianity, the conversation would pretty much end right there. Today, everyone wants to talk about Jesus. Was there a woman in his life? Whose idea was it that Jesus was divine? Why only four Gospels in the New Testament? Is the church hiding something?

Dan Brown is not the first to charge the church with “the greatest cover-up in human history.”[1] He’s just the most successful. And thanks to his success, people actually want to hear what lowly Religion professors have to say.

The global popularity of The Da Vinci Code is hard to overstate. After more than 162 weeks as a New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller, The Da Vinci Code has slipped, embarrassingly, to a lowly 9th place on the list. But this shameful decline is only because of the release of the paperback in which category it sits proudly at #1.[2] Google “Da Vinci Code” you get almost 50 million hits. Visit Amazon.com and you’ll discover some 277 items with Da Vinci Code in the title, including an “illustrated addition,” a Da Vinci Code “curriculum kit,” a Da Vinci Code day calendar, Da Vinci Code computer games for PS2, X-Box and PC, Fodor's Guide to The Da Vinci Code, and my new personal favorite: “The Diet Code: Revolutionary Weight-Loss Secrets From Da Vinci and The Golden Ratio.”

 Such outrageous popularity calls for explanation. Truth be told, it has nothing to do with the book’s literary merits. Even fans of the book don’t find themselves caring about its characters or even smiling at a delightful turn of phrase. Brown never met a cliché he didn’t like and would never develop a well-rounded character when a flat, two-dimensional one would do.[3] Dan Brown is to artful prose what Howard Stern is to family values.

What the book lacks in literary merit, however, it makes up with its secrecy, “symbology” and tangled conspiracy, all of which threaten to “overturn nearly 2,000 years of accepted dogma.”[4] There’s something for everyone: religious zealots, bloodied corpses, secret societies, self-flagellating albino monks, secret lovers and, best of all, sex. All in the service of a full frontal assault on a powerful religious institution. It’s Brown against the Vatican. David against Goliath.[5] Brown has fared rather well as the underdog. The little guy’s book has sold over 40 million copies since 2003, in 44 languages.

In my view, the commercial success of The Da Vinci Code owes much to the way it smuggles serious claims about history across the border into the territory of literary fiction. Readers unacquainted with the ancient sources and ill-equipped to assess the historical argument can hardly be blamed for wondering, with Sophie, if perhaps parts of it—say, the bits about Mary—are true. Nowhere is this fact—fiction confusion more evident than when the novel’s protagonists arrive, late at night, at a French estate where Langdon and Teabing introduce Sophie to the True Grail Story.[6] Exit Brown the novelist; enter Brown the preacher whose Gospel is a lively blend of enlightened feminism, recovered Gnosticism, and virulent anti-Catholicism.

As it turns out, it is rather easy to debunk the book’s historical claims—claims that are almost as plausible as the idea that there’s a treasure map on the back of the U.S. Constitution, as proposed in the 2004 film National Treasure (starring Nicholas Cage). But I would hate to think that refuting Brown’s historical arguments would justify our ignoring the social and spiritual discontent driving them. What Christians should not do, in other words, is roll over and go back to sleep, relieved that another cultural crisis has passed, smugly content with their orthodox theology but oblivious to the church’s creeping irrelevance to much of society.

Jesus Good, Church Bad?

Notice what Dan Brown does not do. He does not attack Jesus himself. Hardly anyone ever does. Not even Monty Python. Well, o.k., Bertrand Russell did. The great 20th century British philosopher attacked Jesus for believing in hell and for cursing a fig tree. But even Russell had to grant Jesus “a very high degree of moral goodness.” “There are a good many points,” Russell said, “upon which I agree with Christ a great deal more than the professing Christians do.[7] Most of Russell’s famous essay, Why I am not a Christian, condemns not Jesus but religion, and hypocrisy in the church.

We all know people, like Russell, who despise the church, perhaps for its sprawling bureaucracy or its inscrutable rituals. Some say the church is old-fashioned, inflexible, locked in the past. Some point to the hypocrisy of its members. But who despises Jesus? Many are the harsh critics of the Vatican or of Westminster Abbey or the Southern Baptist Convention, but who would cast the first stone at the Man from Galilee?

Certainly not Dan Brown. For Brown Jesus is a noble hero—a victim of early Catholic distortion and identity theft. Brown’s beef is not with Jesus but with the church. And not just the church ancient; Brown’s principal target is the church modern. He is on a campaign against what Brian McLaren calls “status-quo, male-dominated, power-oriented, cover-up-prone organized Christian religion.”[8]  So if we want to decode Brown the way Brown decodes Da Vinci, we’ll need to hear in the book’s cynical outbursts echoes of a widespread sentiment in the modern west—a sentiment we might summarize as Jesus good, Church bad.

When the world looks at Jesus it sees the best of what we are: a holy man, a sage, a heroic figure. He is Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Theresa. But the same world notices immediately when Jesus’ followers maneuver for power, or silence the voice of women, or betray the trust of children, or neglect the poor, or resort to violence or lend their support when commercial interests pollute and despoil our planet. Even if many of Dan Brown’s shots miss their mark, and even if countless Christians are quietly following Christ’s example, it might be wise to see the public’s embrace of The Da Vinci Code as an invitation to Christians to set our ecclesiastical house in order.

No offense, Leonardo

Before considering the book’s specific claims about Jesus, Mary and early Christianity, allow me a few words about a famous painting.

I know of no art historian, except perhaps Dan Brown’s wife, who seriously argues that Leonardo’s Last Supper features at the right hand of Jesus, not John the Beloved but Mary Magdalene as the Holy Grail, the chalice that held Christ’s blood. Or bloodline.

Three quick points regarding Leonardo’s masterpiece:

1.  The scene depicts the moment after Jesus has announced that someone will betray him. We see the disciples in various stages of shock and denial.

2.  The disciple to Jesus’ right is clearly John, not Mary Magdalene, shown youthful and somewhat effeminate to reflect the tradition that he was young enough to outlive the other disciples. A simple comparison with another of Leonardo’s paintings—of John the Baptist—shows how much Brown has imposed his own standards of gender on Leonardo’s work.

3.  Peter is not “leaning menacingly” toward Mary (who is actually John), and he is not “slicing his blade-like hand across her neck” (Code, p.248). Peter and John, as close confidants, lean together in full trust. The short sword in Peter’s right hand signifies what happens a few hours later in the Garden when he cuts off a slave’s ear.

At the risk of disappointing the Holy Grail aficionados among us, I’ll say nothing here about the Priory of Sion, Opus Dei and Templar mythology. This is not because Brown’s assertions don’t merit a response but  because I’d rather speak from the center of what I know than from its edges. I’d like to consider briefly two historical claims I take it lie at the heart of The Da Vinci Code: one, about Mary Magdalene and the other, about the Gospels. 

Mary Magdalene: wife of Jesus, chief apostle, Holy Grail?

First, about Mary. Was there a woman in Jesus’ life? Was Jesus married to Mary Magdalene? According to Dan Brown, Yes.

"The marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene is part of the historical record. . . Moreover, Jesus as a married man makes infinitely more sense than our standard biblical view of Jesus as a bachelor. . . If Jesus were not married, at least one of the Bible’s gospels would have mentioned it and offered some explanation for His unnatural state of bachelorhood." (The Da Vinci Code, 245; cf. 244)

“Behold the greatest cover-up in human history. . . Not only was Jesus Christ married, but He was a father. My dear, Mary Magdalene was the Holy Vessel. She was the chalice that bore the royal bloodline of Jesus Christ” (Code, 249)

“Jesus was the original feminist. He intended for the future of His Church to be in the hands of Mary Magdalene.” (Code, 248)

“The Church, in order to defend itself against the Magdalene’s power, perpetuated her image as a whore and buried evidence of Christ’s marriage to her, thereby defusing any potential claims that Christ had a surviving bloodline and was a mortal prophet.” (Code, 254)

 The figure of Mary Magdalene captured the Christian imagination long before Brown’s bestseller hit the stands. And Brown is right: she’s usually remembered as a penitent whore, as we see here in Georges De La Tour’s The Penitent Magdalene. Even the rock-opera Jesus Christ Superstar casts her as a reformed sinner who confesses, in an unforgettable song, that she’s “had so many men before.” She actually marries Jesus in Kazantzakis’ novel, The Last Temptation of Christ (p.450) and in the Martin Scorsese film by the same name.

Songs about the Magdalene are always bleak and pensive. Lenny Kravitz sings of a young girl selling herself in the big city, and calls her Magdalen. Kris Kristoffersen sings of another Magdalene—a woman forgiven for her many sins yet very alone.[9] Joni Mitchell sings a lament for the “Magdalene Laundries,” asylums in 19th and 20th century Ireland to which prostitutes and other “wayward” women were committed.[10] The list goes on.[11]

Not to be left out, scholars have taken up the quest for Mary Magdalene, including Marvin Meyer of Chapman University,[12] Karen King of Harvard[13] and, just this month, Bart Ehrman of the University of North Carolina.[14]

Surfing this Magdalene wave with abandon, Dan Brown contends that Mary was the woman in Jesus’ life, and that together they had a child whose blood line may have survived, if only barely, down to the present day.[15]

Mary-flation

The first appearance of Mary Magdalene in the New Testament Gospels is in Luke chapter 8. We’re told that she hailed from the town of Magdala on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, that “seven demons had gone out” of her—though we’re not told who cast them out—and further that she had joined Jesus’ entourage, traveling with him and providing financial support. Evidently she was wealthy enough to maintain her own home and still contribute to the welfare of Jesus and his other disciples.[16]

Perhaps surprisingly, the only other appearances of Mary Magdalene in the Gospels are in the Passion narratives where she shows herself a rock solid disciple who is loyal to the end. She is there at the crucifixion (Matt 27:55-56; Mark 15:40-41; John 19:25) when most of Jesus’ male disciples have fled (Matt 26:56). She is witness, along with another Mary, to the location of Jesus’ burial (Mark 15:47). And she is among the first to discover the resurrection (Matt 28:1-10; [Mark 16:9-11]; John 20:1-2, 11-18), at which point an angel commissions her to spread the news to Jesus’ “disciples,” which she promptly does, announcing the empty tomb to Peter and John. If Christianity was born of a belief in the resurrection, we might think of Mary Magdalene as the first Christian, and the apostle to the Apostles.[17]

The prominence of Mary Magdalene and several other women[18] at the crucifixion, burial and resurrection of Jesus is not something the early Christians would invent. Theirs was a man’s world (whether Jewish or Roman) in which feminine credibility was minimal at best. Such stories would make male disciples look bad. So when women show up at critical points in the narrative it can only mean they were really there in history.

Evidently Mary’s pivotal role at the end of the Gospels led early interpreters to assume she must have been prominent all along. But in their zeal to find her, they conflated Mary with several other Gospel women:[19] Mary of Bethany, a woman caught in adultery (John 8) and a sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet (Luke 7:36-50).

Unfortunately, Luke tells the story of that sinful woman immediately before he introduces Mary Magdalene. It didn’t take much for the two women to fuse into one whose moral failure (Luke 7) was caused by her demonic possession (Luke 8). Makes sense, doesn’t it? Well, no it doesn’t. We’re not told what, if anything, Mary’s demons made her do. Moreover, when Luke introduces Mary Magdalene, it’s as if we’re meeting her for the first time.

Anointings, anointings

Another reason interpreters might want to conflate several women in the Gospels is the similarity between 4 anointing episodes:

Matt 26:6-13 & Mark 14:3-9: an unnamed woman with an alabaster jar anoints Jesus’ head with ointment as he sat at table in Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper. This act draws criticism from “some” (Mark) or from Jesus’ “disciples” (Matthew).

Luke 7:36-50: an unnamed, sinful woman with an alabaster jar finds Jesus dining in the home of Simon the Pharisee, anoints his feet with her tears (wiping them with her hair) and with ointment. This draws criticism from Simon who condemns Jesus’ unguarded association with a sinner. Jesus responds with a story and a challenge to Simon, and then tells the woman that her faith has saved her.

John 12:1-8: as Jesus dines in Bethany, in the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with costly ointment and wipes them with her hair. This draws criticism from Judas Iscariot, who (we are told) used to dip into the money box. (On this important family, see also Luke 10:38-42 and John 11:1-46).

 

Dinner host

Description

Location

Woman

Matt 26

Simon

leper

Bethany (Judea)

not named

Mark 14   

Simon

leper

Bethany (Judea)

not named

Luke 7

Simon

Pharisee

not stated (Galilee)

not named

John 12

Lazarus/Mary/Martha

close friends

Bethany (Judea)

Mary

Do these four episodes point back to a single event? Was Mary of Bethany (a town in Judea) known also as Magdalene (a town in Galilee)? Unlikely, but it's easy to see why readers might conflate all figures into one.

The anointing theme itself is another good reason for confusion. Mary Magdalene is prominent in the Passion account. All four Gospels list her among those who first go to the tomb. And Mark 16:1 and Luke 24:1 say she (with others) brought spices to anoint Jesus’ body. This Easter trip to anoint Jesus’ dead body is sure to recall the earlier anointing (Matt 26:12; Mark 14:8; John 12:7) which Jesus described as a preview of his burial. So this provides further incentive to identify (probably wrongly) the earlier woman as Mary Magdalene. 

Smear campaign?

Alas, the Magdalene’s status as a penitent prostitute was forever fixed in the popular imagination when Pope Gregory the Great (c. 540 – 604) preached a sermon on Sept 21, 591. Contrary to Dan Brown, however, Pope Gregory was not conducting a smear campaign to suppress the truth about Mary Magdalene. As it happens, he was summoning his people to repentance in the face of famine and war. In doing so, he held up Mary, this conflated demoniac-sinner-disciple, as the ideal penitent.

Titian painted a Penitent Magdalene seeking forgiveness for her many sins. More modestly attired is El Greco’s Mary. And, of course, De La Tour’s The Penitent Magdalene which, as Dan Brown points out, was among the treasures collected by the Little Mermaid in the Disney cartoon. Speaking of which, have you noticed that the Starbucks logo is a two-tailed mermaid whose crown forms the letters M-M? Makes you go hmmm. Maybe Brown is onto something.

Brown is surely right that Mary Magdalene ranks among the most important women in the Gospels. But what prompts Brown to think she and Jesus were married, and to infer that this was the church’s dirty little secret—a secret some would kill to protect? Is there evidence to support any of this? The answer to that question is: No. Quoting Bart Ehrman:

Not a single one of our ancient sources indicates that Jesus was married, let alone married to Mary Magdalene. All such claims are part of modern fictional reconstructions of Jesus’ life, not rooted in the surviving accounts themselves. (Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code, 144-145)

Brown would disagree, of course, and he says he has evidence to back it up. Which means we must turn to a second major claim of The Da Vinci Code about the Gnostic Gospels.

The Gnostic Gospels: The Earliest, Unaltered Christian Records?

Let’s hear again from The Code.

“Fortunately for historians,” Teabing said, “some of the Gospels Constantine attempted to eradicate managed to survive. The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in the 1950s hidden in a cave near Qumran in the Judean desert. And, of course, the Coptic Scrolls in 1945 at Nag Hammadi. In addition to telling the true Grail story, these documents speak of Christ’s ministry in very human terms.” (Code, p. 234)

"Teabing located a huge book and pulled it toward him across the table. The leather-bound edition was poster-sized, like a huge atlas. The cover read: The Gnostic Gospels. . . . ‘These are photocopies of the Nag Hammadi and Dead Sea scrolls, which I mentioned earlier’, Teabing said. ‘The earliest Christian records. Troublingly, they do not match up with the gospels in the Bible’.” (p. 245)

“According to these unaltered gospels, it was not Peter to whom Christ gave directions with which to establish the Christian church. It was Mary Magdalene.” (p. 248)

 “The Gospel of Philip is always a good place to start.” (p. 246)

 “Sophie had not known a Gospel had existed in Magdalene’s words.” (p. 247)

I feel compelled to note several historical howlers in this set of quotations:

  • The first Dead Sea Scrolls were found in 1948, not the 1950s.
  • The Nag Hammadi manuscripts were not “scrolls” (rolled leather) but codexes (early books). 
  • Most importantly, there is nothing remotely Christian about the Dead Sea Scrolls. They are pre-Christian, Jewish texts. Their value for Jesus scholars lies in the way they illuminate the Judaism of Jesus’ day.

Brown’s sleight-of-hand is impressive. By calling the Gnostic documents scrolls and by lumping them in with the more famous Dead Sea Scrolls, Brown’s database suddenly seems much older and larger than it really is.

Gnosticism 101

Given the surging popularity of the Gnostic Gospels, a little background is in order.[20] Before WWII, most of what we knew about the Gnostic Gospels came from ancient critics who denounced them.[21] Then, in 1945, at Nag Hammadi on the Nile River, an Egyptian Bedouin named Mohammed Ali unearthed a jar. The jar contained 12 leather-bound papyrus volumes that date to the (2nd half of the) 4th century. These volumes preserved 46 documents including a handful of “Gospels” like the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Philip. They were written in Coptic, probably from Greek originals composed in the 2nd century.

Why were they buried? We don’t know. But it makes good sense to connect them to a circular letter sent in the year 367 by Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, in which he distinguishes the 27 books of the New Testament from books he thought were heretical. My guess is that monks from a nearby monastery—the monastery of Saint Pachomius is only 3 miles away—cherished these particular texts and wanted to preserve them.

What was the appeal of these texts for Christians of the 2nd, 3rd and 4th centuries? And what is it about Gnosticism that appeals to so many today? Allow me to offer a quick 5-point intro to Gnostic thought.

For Gnostics, first of all, this world is evil. How else can you explain all the hunger and disease and death out there? Instead of the crass physicality of the material world is the serene world of the mind. Reason can be trusted; the senses only deceive. Evidently pop star Madonna, the “material girl,” would not make a good Gnostic.

As it turns out, lofty reason is represented by the male sex whereas physical sensation corresponds to the female. This bit of sexism is one of many problems with Brown’s thesis. Gnostic Christianity was not pro-women. The New Testament in your Bible is more feminist than the Gnostics were. In the New Testament Gospels Jesus has women disciples, he speaks to women, teaches women, heals women, affirms women. It is the Gnostic Gospels that teach women’s inferiority. At the end of the Gospel of Thomas (saying #114), for example, we learn that for women to be saved, they need to become men.

Second, Gnostics thought the world was created by an inferior being. The God of the Old Testament, the creator and redeemer of Israel, is a lowly, contaminated emanation of the transcendent, good god of the Gnostics. In this respect, Christian Gnosticism was fundamentally anti-Jewish.

So, unbeknownst to Dan Brown, the heroes of his novel are both misogynist and anti-Semitic.

Who are we, according to the Gnostics? We are, thirdly, divine sparks trapped within the fallen, material world. The human dilemma is not sin, or bondage to evil impulses, or spiritual death, or alienation from God. Our problem is ignorance, We don’t know who we are—that we are divine emanations; we’ve forgotten that a spark of the divine lies trapped within us.

Fourth, salvation comes through knowledge—in Greek, gnōsis. Knowledge lets us escape to the true God. Historic, orthodox Christianity, then, says God yearns to redeem and restore this world; Gnosticism offers help to escape it.

To gain this knowledge, finally, we need a savior—a heavenly figure who descends to earth to enlighten us and remind us of our true nature.  For Christian Gnostics, this savior is Jesus. But here’s yet another problem for Dan Brown. In Gnostic literature, Jesus appears even more divine, more other-worldly, than he does in the New Testament Gospels. Brown says the Gnostic Gospels show Jesus’ true humanity while the corrupted Gospels we have in our Bibles show us only a divine Jesus. If anything, the opposite is true.

The best way I’ve found to explain Gnosticism to students is to have them consult the wisdom of one of the great Gnostic masters, Morpheus. If you’ve seen The Matrix, you’ll remember that Morpheus is the one who imparts to Neo the knowledge he needs to be saved.

Morpheus : I can see it in your eyes. You have the look of a man who accepts what he sees, because he is expecting to wake up. Ironically, this is not far from the truth....

Morpheus sits down in the armchair opposite from Neo

Morpheus : Do you believe in fate, Neo?
Neo : No.
Morpheus : Why?
Neo : Because I don't like the idea that I'm not in control of my own life.
Morpheus : I know...exactly what you mean. Let me tell you why you're here. You're here because you know something. What you know, you can't explain. But you feel it. You've felt it your entire life. That there's something wrong with the world. You don't know what it is, but it's there...like a splinter in you're mind, driving you mad. It is this feeling that has brought you to me. Do you know what I'm talking about?
Neo : The Matrix?
Morpheus : Do you want to know....what it is....?

Neo nods.

Morpheus : The Matrix is everywhere. It's all around us, even in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work, when you pay your taxes. The Matrix is the world that has been pulled over your eyes, to blind you from the truth.
Neo : What truth?
Morpheus : That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else, you were born into bondage, born into a prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch. A prison...for your mind....Unfortunately, no one can be...told what the Matrix is...you have to see it for yourself.

Morpheus opens a container which holds two pills : a blue one, and a red one. He puts one in each hand, and holds them out to Neo.

Morpheus : This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back.....You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up and believe...whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill.....you stay in wonderland...and I show you just how deep the rabbit hole goes.

Neo pauses for an instant, then reaches for the red pill. He swallows it down with a glass of water, and looks at Morpheus.

Morpheus : Remember...all I'm offering you is the truth: nothing more.

In The Matrix, the Savior—the one who enters the false world of our perceptions—is Neo. Keanu Reeves is The One. And, in good Gnostic fashion, Neo’s Gospel is not about redeeming this world but about sharing the secret we need to escape it.

Voice from the margins

But what about Jesus and Mary Magdalene? What do the Gnostic texts teach us about her? It is certainly true that Mary figures prominently in several (though not all) of the Gnostic Gospels. Dan Brown’s best evidence comes in a book called the Gospel of Philip,[22] a Gnostic text that contains teachings of Jesus allegedly recorded by the apostle Philip. Like most other Gnostic texts, the Gospel of Philip has no narrative. No plot. Just teachings. What it teaches, among other things, is that the human dilemma is sexual differentiation between male and female.

The best thing one can do to assess the Gnostic Gospels, by the way, is to read them. If you do, you’ll discover how little they resemble what we know about the Judaism of the 1st century, the world of Jesus. The idea that the Gnostic Gospels provide a clear window on the historical Jesus soon begins to look rather silly.

Dan Brown points us to two key passages in the Gospel of Philip to make his case.

32 There were three (women) who kept company with the Lord at all times: Mary, his mother, <his> sister and Magdalene, who is called his companion. His sister and his mother and his companion were all called Mary.

In this passage Brown explains for us the word companion: “As any Aramaic scholar will tell you,” he writes, “the word companion, in those days, literally meant spouse” (Code, 246). But here’s where Brown runs into several problems:

1. The text of the Gospel of Philip is Coptic.[23] Not Aramaic.

2. Behind the Coptic (two terms: tef-koinōnos and tef-hotre) stands a Greek word: koinōnos, which means simply companion, partner, sharer. It does not mean spouse.[24]

A second excerpt is unfortunately damaged.

55b . . . And the companion [or Savior?] of the [. . .] Mary Magdalene. [. . .] her than all the disciples, and used to kiss her often on her [ . . . ]. The rest of the disciples 64 [. . .]. 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."

Here, as in several other Gnostic texts, Mary Magdalene enjoys a lofty position above the disciples.[25] Her role is substantial, but there is no evidence that Jesus’ kiss is romantic, let alone sexual. Not only is the text badly damaged so we don’t know where Jesus kisses Mary, but the physical contact between them probably symbolizes the transfer of spiritual insight from Jesus to Mary. Mary is prized by Jesus not sexually but intellectually, for her wisdom, in contrast to the often dull male disciples.

Dan Brown’s other key Gnostic witness, after the Gospel of Philip, is the Gospel of Mary, a fascinating dialogue between the risen Christ and his disciples that pits Mary Magdalene against official orthodoxy, as represented by the apostles Peter and Andrew.[26] Two excerpts might be thought to lend support to Brown’s case.

5:1 But they were grieved. They wept greatly, saying, How shall we go to the Gentiles and preach the gospel of the Kingdom of the Son of Man? If they did not spare Him, how will they spare us? 2 Then Mary stood up, greeted them all, and said to her brethren, Do not weep and do not grieve nor be irresolute, for His grace will be entirely with you and will protect you. 3 But rather, let us praise His greatness, for He has prepared us and made us into Men. 4 When Mary said this, she turned their hearts to the Good, and they began to discuss the words of the Savior. 5 Peter said to Mary, Sister we know that the Savior loved you more than the rest of woman. 6 Tell us the words of the Savior which you remember which you know, but we do not, nor have we heard them. 7 Mary answered and said, What is hidden from you I will proclaim to you. 8 And she began to speak to them these words: I, she said, I saw the Lord in a vision and I said to Him, Lord I saw you today in a vision. He answered and said to me, 9 Blessed are you that you did not waver at the sight of Me. For where the mind is there is the treasure. 10 I said to Him, Lord, how does he who sees the vision see it, through the soul or through the spirit? 11 The Savior answered and said, He does not see through the soul nor through the spirit, but the mind that is between the two that is what sees the vision and it is [...]

9:1 When Mary had said this, she fell silent, since it was to this point that the Savior had spoken with her. 2 But Andrew answered and said to the brethren, Say what you wish to say about what she has said. I at least do not believe that the Savior said this. For certainly these teachings are strange ideas. 3 Peter answered and spoke concerning these same things. 4 He questioned them about the Savior: Did He really speak privately with a woman and not openly to us? Are we to turn about and all listen to her? Did He prefer her to us? 5 Then Mary wept and said to Peter, My brother Peter, what do you think? Do you think that I have thought this up myself in my heart, or that I am lying about the Savior? 6 Levi answered and said to Peter, Peter you have always been hot tempered. 7 Now I see you contending against the woman like the adversaries. 8 But if the Savior made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her? Surely the Savior knows her very well. 9 That is why He loved her more than us. Rather let us be ashamed and put on the perfect Man, and separate as He commanded us and preach the gospel, not laying down any other rule or other law beyond what the Savior said. 10 And when they heard this they began to go forth to proclaim and to preach.

Could it be that these dialogues preserve a genuine reminiscence that Jesus spoke often to Mary? Certainly. After all, she was a well-known disciple of Jesus and, according to John 20, she had her own private encounter with the risen Jesus with no one else around. But the substance of the dialogues in the Gospel of Mary is clearly Gnostic. Like other marginal figures in the New Testament—figures like Thomas the Doubter and Judas the Betrayer—Mary the Woman was an obvious choice for Gnostics needing someone to speak with authority from the margins of Christianity. Jesus must have told her things, they whisper. Secrets. Hidden truths. Forget those Jewish Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—with their stories of physical healing and bloody crucifixion. Listen, instead, to our alternative Gospel, our extra revelations, our special knowledge.[27] And be saved.

I share Dan Brown’s desire to retrieve a remarkable woman from the historical shadows and restore her good name. But that doesn’t mean we should claim, based on a handful of opaque texts from the 2nd and 3rd centuries, that Mary enjoyed the status of chief apostle or bride of Christ, or goddess. Brown is right: the church of every generation should listen for the woman’s voice. But listening quietly for a woman’s voice does not mean putting words in her mouth. The great irony of Dan Brown’s project is that he charges the church with silencing Mary Magdalene while he himself forces her to speak on his behalf.

The Gnostic Gospels confirm that the 2nd and 3rd Christian centuries were indeed exciting, diverse, even raucous. But so was the 1st century, as any reader of the New Testament can attest. From the very beginning the church had to struggle to sort out what it believed, what texts it trusted and which voices it would listen to. And from the very beginning Gnosticism didn’t stand a chance, not because it knew too much, nor because it had the nerve to challenge an oppressive, all-male church hierarchy back in Rome. Gnosticism was doomed because it rejected the goodness of creation, the sovereignty of Israel’s God, the authority of the Jewish scriptures, the full humanity of Jesus and the centrality of the cross.

Dan Brown is right. It's about history.

In the end, then, Brown gets history wrong at almost every turn. But he is right about one thing—perhaps the most important thing: Christianity is a fundamentally historical religion. Unlike Gnosticism which traffics in ideas, historic Christianity makes claims about what happened in the past. About how God raised someone from the dead, and exalted him to a place of highest honor, so that now, when we talk about God we must somehow also talk about Jesus. If Jesus did not rise from the dead, the Christian Gospel truly is “the greatest story ever sold.” We might all wish to echo what a local high school girl said recently: “The Da Vinci Code. That’s my new religion.”

On the other hand, what if Jesus did rise from the dead? If that did happen we might have to reconsider everything we thought we knew about the world. Perhaps death is not the final word. Perhaps the risen Jesus does deserve our supreme loyalty.

Three parting shots:

First, if Jesus was not the talking head of 2nd century Gnosticism, who was he? Can we trust the New Testament Gospels to paint for us an accurate portrait of Jesus? And am I, like Dan Brown, guilty of distorting that portrait to suit my agenda? Before we cast stones at Brown for creating Jesus in his image, we might want to ask if we’ve created Jesus in ours

Second, would it make a difference if more Christians considered their faith to be not merely personal and internal but also public and open for debate? Would The Da Vinci Code have upset and confused as many Christians if they’d grown up exploring the historical alongside the existential aspects of the faith?

Third, what can we learn from the broad, public appeal of the Gospel according to Brown?  Why do so many modern minds, like the Gnostics of old, feel drawn to salvation by enlightenment rather than to salvation by repentance and sacrifice? Why do some prefer a gospel that calls us all gods to one that drops us to our knees before the only One who is God?



[1] To quote the intellectual giant, Sir Leigh Teabing, The Da Vinci Code, p. 249. A few pages later, Teabing declares that “the greatest story ever told is, in fact, the greatest story ever sold” (p.267).

[2] This was true on May 6, 2006.

[3] I agree with Salman Rushdie: the book “makes bad books look good.”

[4] To quote the Sony Pictures web site for the film: www.sonypictures.com/movies/thedavincicode/. In a witty sequel to The Screwtape Letters of C. S. Lewis, Eric Metaxas (http://churchofthemasses.blogspot.com/, accessed May 18, 2006) has Screwtape describe for Wormwood the way Brown’s conspiracy works:

there is the manner in which the book seduces its reader with naked flattery, holding out the carrot – or should I say apple – of “inside knowledge.” Make note of this, Wormwood; it worked wonders for us in Eden and works for us still. The author trots out the ageless fiddle-faddle about a parallel “reality” beside the “official” one everyone’s been sold. You know, the moth-eaten, bedraggled idea that all of history is a grand “conspiracy” conducted by some hidden elites! But wait, the lucky reader is to be let in on it all, and for the mere price of purchasing this book! He’ll learn the “real” story behind the “official” story that all the other saps have been buying for lo! these many centuries. Heady stuff, eh, Wormwood? Transparent as it might seem to us, this temptation has always been too great for the humans to bear. They ache to be part of that “inside” group that knows what’s “really” going on, and they fall for it every time. It’s not so different from their craving for gossip or “dirt”; only better, since there isn’t the pesky nuisance of guilt to deal with. They cannot help themselves; they simply swallow it without a thought. That’s the key, Wormwood, for if actual thinking can be prevented, the humans are under our control.

[5] The idea that the church—especially the Roman Catholic Church—is guilty of conspiring to cover up dangerous truths about Jesus and his teachings is popular these days. Two earlier films come to mind: Stigmata (1999) and Jesus of Montreal (1990). Stigmata tells the story of a newly discovered document that contains the actual writings of Jesus himself, in which he promises his presence everywhere, even in nature, which we’re told means he is no more present in the institutional church than anywhere else. The church violently opposes the release of this gospel. The allegedly dangerous, authentic saying of Jesus is worded several ways in the film: "The Kingdom of God is inside/within you (and all about you), not in buildings/mansions of wood and stone. (When I am gone) Split a piece of wood and I am there, lift the/a stone and you will find me." These are variations of a saying in the most famous of the Gnostic Gospels: Gospel of Thomas 77b. In Jesus of Montreal, recent scholarship has discovered the truth about Mary’s illicit union with a Roman soldier and Jesus’ illegitimate birth. The Catholic Church, shot through with hypocrisy and double standards, cannot allow this truth to get out. Of the two films, the latter is far better (and much less bloody). It is harshly critical of (especially French Canadian) Catholicism and sloppy with Biblical scholarship, but it weaves a wonderful tale of Christo-morphic discipleship. Two thumbs up.

[6] Brown’s 36-page crash course in Grail-ology spans pp.230-239, 242-250, 253-69.

[7] From Bertrand Russell, “Why I am not a Christian,” a lecture delivered March 6, 1927 to the National Secular Society, South London Branch, at Battersea Town Hall.

[8] This from a Sojourners Newsletter www.sojo.net dated 5-9-06.

[9] Here’s the first verse of his song “Magdalene” (To the Bone, 1995):

Magdalene, are you thinking of the gentle man who turned your life around?
Magdalene. did he leave you any reason to go on?
Magdalene, does it make it any better that you know he really loved you?
Magdalene, all your sins have been forgiven, and he’s gone.

[10] See first Turbulent Indigo (1994) and now The Beginning of Survival (2004).

[11] To offer one example: CPR (Crosby, Pevar & Raymond) sing of Mary in Jerusalem (Just Like Gravity, 2001):

I ran into Magdalena. She said she's staying for the Y2 Cana
But I see the sadness in her eyes. We all lost the one we loved.
He's up there livin' high above us. Fire and love gonna rain on down, down, down.

[12] The Gospel of Mary: The Secret Tradition of Mary Magdalene, the Companion of Jesus (Harper SanFrancisco, 2004).

[13] The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle (Polebridge, 2003).

[14] Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene: The Followers of Jesus in History and Legend (Oxford, 2006). See also Jane Schaberg, The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene (Continuum, 2002). Mary Magdalene has also become the focus of a number of “alternative” historians. Peter Gandy & Timothy Freke, Jesus and the Lost Goddess: The Secret Teachings of the Original Christians (Three Rivers, 2002); Lynn Picknett, Mary Magdalene: Christianity’s Hidden Goddess (Carroll & Graf, 2003); Lynn Picknett & Clive Prince, The Templar Revelation: Secret Guardians of the True Identity of Christ (Touchstone, 1998); Margaret Starbird, The Woman with the Alabaster Jar: Mary Magdalen and the Holy Grail (Inner Traditions, 2002); ibid., The Goddess in the Gospels: Reclaiming the Sacred Feminine (Bear & Co., 1998); Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh & Henry Lincoln, Holy Blood, Holy Grail (Dell, 1983); Susan Haskins, Mary Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor (Riverhead Books, 1993). 

[15] The relevant section in Code is on pages 236-271, where we encounter the following claims:

  • MM was of royal descent, of the tribe of Benjamin. (248)
  • Jesus married MM with whom he had at least one child. (This unites the royal blood from 2 tribes, Benjamin and Judah.) (249)
  • Jesus preferred Mary to the other disciples, and instructed her as to how to establish the church. (248)
  • Mary was pregnant at Jesus’ death and fled for safety to France where her daughter, Sarah, was born. (255)
  • The church launched a smear campaign, depicting Mary as a prostitute, to undermine her authority as chief apostle, and to suppress the truth that Jesus left behind a merely mortal bloodline.
  • Jesus’ bloodline survived and mingled with French royal blood, producing the Merovingians (a term appearing most recently in The Matrix).
  • Mary Magdalen is the Holy Grail of ancient legend. (236-239, 243-246, 249)

[16] See also Mark 15:40-41 and, on women traveling with Jesus, see Gospel of Thomas 114.

[17] I believe Bernard of Clairvaux, a 12th century monk (as in, Roman Catholic, Dan), first coined this lovely phrase.

[18] Unfortunately for Dan Brown’s wife-of-Jesus theory, in all but one passage (John 20), Mary appears along with other women. (She appears first among the women in Matthew and Mark; last in John.)

[19] E.g., Mary of Bethany (sister of Martha; John 11:1-46; 12:1-3). This confusion is not surprising since there are six or seven Marys in the Gospels: mother of Jesus, mother of James and Joses, mother of John Mark, mother of Rufus, Mary of Clopas, Mary Magdalene.

[20] Do these texts provide independent witnesses to Jesus, or are they dependent for anything authentic, upon the NT Gospels? Only one of these Gospels, the Gospel of Thomas, appears to have preserved substantial traditions going back to Jesus, though even here there is debate about whether even this text simply borrows from the NT Gospels. Christopher M. Tuckett, Nag Hammadi and the Gospel Tradition (1986) argues that the NHC are dependent upon the Synoptics, especially Matthew, though he grants GThomas as a possible exception. Stephen Paterson, The Gospel of Thomas and Jesus (1992) argues that GThomas, like John, stands independent of the Synoptics.

[21] E.g., Irenaeus, c. 180, Tertullian, c. 200. Before the Nag Hammadi discovery, a copy of the Gospel of Mary had surfaced in 1898 and one of Pistis Sophia in 1773.

[22] “A good place to start.” Code, p.246. A single Coptic manuscript of the Gospel of Philip survives, discovered in 1945. The document was probably manufactured in 1st half of 4th c. The original composition dates from between late 2nd c. (Schneemelcher I, 183) and 2nd half of 3rd century (Isenberg). The manuscript consists of a collection of excerpts from the teaching of Jesus, allegedly recorded by Philip, but betraying the influence of a 2nd century Gnostic named Valentinus (in Rome c. 138-158 C.E.).  This “gospel” is certainly about Jesus, but the differences with the 4 Gospels are clear: 1. No narrative framework; any coherence is largely coincidental. 2. It depicts the human dilemma as sexual differentiation between male and female. 3. It contends that Christ came to reunite Adam and Eve. 4. Union with Christ takes place in a sacramental bridal chamber.

[23] It looks like Brown gets the “spouse” idea from Picknett and Prince, The Templar Revelation (1998), p.65 who claim “the original Greek” meant spouse or sexual partner. Picknett, in her recent book, Mary Magdalene (2003), points in turn to Susan Haskins, Mary Magdalene (1993), who herself depends upon R. McL. Wilson, The Gospel of Philip (1962). Wilson, the first bonafide scholar in the chain, identifies the Greek original koinōnos behind the Coptic term. [On this chain of influence, see the helpful detective work of R. V. Huggins [http://www.irr.org/da-vinci-code.html, accessed April 12, 2004.]

[24] Koinōnos occurs 10x in the NT: Matt 23:30; Luke 5:10; 1 Cor 10:18, 20; 2 Cor 1:7; 8:23; Phm 17; Heb 10:33, 1 Pet 5:1; 2 Pet 1:4. It refers to a variety of partnerships and alliances (in mission, business, friendship), but not once to marriage or sex. Nor do we find such an entry in the standard Greek lexical.

TDNT notes one passage in Malachi (LXX) that uses this term with reference to a marriage partnership. Other sorts of companionship/partnership are far more common and predictable. The text is depicting three Marys in three primary relationships to Jesus—mother, sister, companion—probably as an allegory of the Spirit or of Wisdom. (See R. Bauckham, Gospel Women, 228-229; R. McL. Wilson.)

[25] See also Pistis Sophia (e.g., 19, 54, 97, 132), Gospel of Mary 10:2-3; 18:14-15).

[26] The Gospels of Mary survives in two fragmentary papyrus manuscripts: one Greek early 3rd c.; one Coptic early 5th c. It was acquired in Cairo, Egypt in 1896 and probable dates to the 2nd century. Its contents include a dialogue between the risen Christ and his disciples, in which Jesus answers questions and teaches about matter and sin. Mary evidently represents prophetic / Gnostic views opposed to official orthodoxy, here represented by Peter and Andrew. Mary not only heard extra teachings of Jesus but sometimes Jesus even hid them from the others.

[27] Raymond Brown thinks the story of M-M seeing and touching Jesus in John 20 would have been enough to prompt early Gnostics to promote her to chief Gnostic and rival of Peter. This 2nd – 3rd – 4th century elevation of Mary Magdalene parallels the elevation of a number of other NT figures (Thomas, Philip, Judas), part of a larger effort to fill in the gaps in the story, to answer their burning questions, and to lend credibility to a range of ideas not found in the canonical Gospels.

Also by Fisk on The Da Vinci Code: Cracks in the Code: Musings on Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code.
These are the notes for an address I delivered at Westmont College on April 14, 2004. (pdf file).