History Matters: Musings on "The Da Vinci Code"

he Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci
By Bruce Fisk, Associate Professor of New Testament

Times are good for Jesus scholars. Not long ago, if I told a stranger on a plane that my doctorate 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.” 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” slipped, embarrassingly, to a lowly ninth place. Google “Da Vinci Code,” and you get almost 50 million hits. Visit Amazon.com and you’ll discover 277 items with Da Vinci Code in the title, including a Da Vinci Code curriculum kit, a day calendar, Fodor’s Guide to “The Da Vinci Code,” and my 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. 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.” 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. Brown has fared rather well as the underdog. The book has sold over 40 million copies since 2003 in 44 languages.

El Greco depiction of Mary Magdalene

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. 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, which 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.”

But I would hate to think that refuting Leigh Teabing’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 does. The great 20th century British philosopher Bertrand Russell granted Jesus “a very high degree of moral goodness.” Most of his 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? 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.” 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: 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

First, 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, I’ll say nothing here about the Priory of Sion, Opus Dei and Templar mythology. I’d rather speak from the center of what I know than from its edges. I shall consider briefly two historical claims that 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 the novel, 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)

Perugino depiction of Mary Magdalene

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 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 Magdalen, a young girl selling herself in the big city. Kris Kristoffersen sings of another Magdalene, forgiven for her many sins yet very alone. Joni Mitchell has a lament for the “Magdalene Laundries,” Irish asylums for prostitutes and other “wayward” women. Not to be left out, scholars have taken up the quest for Mary Magdalene, including Marvin Meyer of Chapman University, Karen King of Harvard and Bart Ehrman of the University of North Carolina.

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 down to the present day.


The first appearance of Mary Magdalene in the New Testament is in Luke 8. We’re told 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.

Jesus and Mary Magdalene depicted in a stained glass window

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.

The prominence of Mary Magdalene and several other women 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: 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 four anointing episodes. In Matthew 26:6-13 and Mark 14:3-9 an unnamed woman with an alabaster jar anoints Jesus’ head 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). In 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. Jesus responds with a story and a challenge to Simon and then tells the woman that her faith has saved her. In John 12:1-8, Jesus dines in Bethany at the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, and Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with costly ointment and wipes them with her hair. This draws criticism from Judas Iscariot.

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. Add to this the fact that Mark 16:1 and Luke 24:1 have Mary Magdalene bringing spices to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body and we have further incentive to confuse her with the sinful woman who anoints Jesus in Luke 7.

Smear campaign?

Alas, the Magdalene’s status as a penitent prostitute was forever fixed in the popular imagination when Pope Gregory the Great preached a sermon on Sept. 21, 591. Contrary to Brown’s novel, 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.

Brown is surely right that Mary Magdalene ranks among the most important women in the Gospels. But what prompts him to think she and Jesus were married, and to infer that this was the church’s dirty little secret that 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).

Teabing 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, 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.’” (Code, 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.” (Code, 248)
“The Gospel of Philip is always a good place to start.” (Code, 246)
“Sophie had not known a Gospel had existed in Magdalene’s words.” (Code, 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. Teabing’s sleight-of-hand is impressive. By calling the Gnostic documents scrolls and by lumping them in with the more famous Dead Sea Scrolls, his database suddenly seems much older and larger than it really is.

Gnosticism 101
,p>Most of what we knew about the Gnostic Gospels came from ancient critics who denounced them. Then in 1945 at Nag Hammadi on the Nile River, an Egyptian Bedouin named Mohammed Ali unearthed a jar with 12 leather-bound papyrus volumes that date to the second half of the fourth 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 second 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 (Saint Pachomius is three miles away) cherished these texts and wanted to preserve them.

What was the appeal of these texts for early Christians? Why does Gnosticism appeal to so many today? Let me suggest five reasons. For Gnostics, first of all, this world is evil. How else can you explain all the hunger and disease and death? Instead of the crass physicality of the material world is the serene world of the mind. Reason can be trusted; the senses only deceive.

Fra Angelico depiction of Mary Magdalene

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 emanations of the divine.

Fourth, salvation comes through knowledge — in Greek, gnosis. 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. The novel 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.

Voice from the Margins

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, 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 way to assess the Gnostic Gospels is to read them and discover how little they resemble what we know about the Judaism of the first 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.

Leigh Teabing 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, sister and Magdalene, who is called his companion. His sister and his mother and his companion were all called Mary.

In this passage Teabing explains the word companion: “As any Aramaic scholar will tell you,” he writes, “the word companion, in those days, literally meant spouse” (Code, 246). But the text of the Gospel of Philip is Coptic, not Aramaic. And behind the Coptic (two terms: tef-koinonos and tef-hotre) stands a Greek word: koinonos, which means simply companion, partner, sharer. It does not mean spouse.

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.”
The Penitent Magdalene by Georges De La Tour

Here, as in several other Gnostic texts, Mary Magdalene enjoys a lofty position above the disciples. 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.

Teabing’s other key Gnostic witness 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. Could it be that these dialogues preserve a genuine reminiscence that Jesus spoke often to Mary? Certainly. She was a well-known disciple of Jesus and had her own private encounter with the risen Jesus. But the substance of these dialogues is clearly Gnostic. Like other marginal figures in the New Testament (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. 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 second and third 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.

Bruce N. Fisk

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.

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 a historical figure whose radical Kingdom message led to his execution and whose righteous death led to his vindication. Thanks to Dan Brown, Christians are discovering what many seem to have forgotten: that history matters.

Editor’s Note: To see the complete version of this abridged story, go to: www.westmont.edu/~fisk/articles/Bruce_Fisk_on_The_Da_Vinci_Code.html.

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