The Dan Brown phenomenon The Da Vinci Code: The Jesus dimension
What is the difference between the historical versus the mythical Jesus? What was the role that Mary Magdalene and John the Baptist played in the early Christian community?
by Philip Coppens
Write a non-fiction book that has 50 footnotes on every page and which claims Jesus shagged every married and unmarried woman east of Alexandria, and with a bit of luck, you’ll get two reviews. Write the same argument in a novel, and you’re bound to get protest marches in the streets of at least two major capitals.
You may think that it doesn’t matter whether it is Jesus, Mohammed or Moses… but if it is Jesus, the “what happened next” somehow always seems to be more bizarre than anything else. Muslims and Jews ask that you treat their inspirations with a bit of respect. Not too much to ask. But you are never asked to believe that Mohammed never looked at a woman in a certain way, that he was the Son of God in the most literal sense of the expression, that his mother was a Virgin, and the sole woman to ever be born herself without the “original sin” (apart from Eve)…. and a few dozen utterly unbelievable storylines that any screen editor in Hollywood would cut from his screenplay, knowing he would not sell it to the viewer. The story of Superman is classified as science fiction, but we all know that superheroes have at least one weakness. Jesus Christ Superstar had none, we are led to believe.
Still, generations have fallen for a story that doesn’t suspend disbelief. That is both its appeal and its major fault: for some, it works to believe there is a superhero out there with no faults; for others, it is simply impossible. That stand-off has stood at the heart of the western world and whereas “Christ” has both united this, in many ways, details about our superhero have equally divided it – and led to internal bloodshed and rivalry. So Jesus is controversial. Anything that touches upon his superhero status will create controversy. So let there be no doubt at all that anyone who has written about Jesus making any allegations, whether they are Dan Brown, Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln, or Picknett & Prince, does not realise it will create controversy.
Dan Brown went to The Templar Revelation in search of the hidden code of Leonardo. That book comes in two parts: part one is “all” about Leonardo; part two is John the Baptist v. Jesus, with John the Baptist identified as the missed Messiah and Jesus the usurper if not plotter to remove John from his leadership position. Brown did not include that aspect of the book in his novel. Brown’s Messianic spotlight remains firmly on Jesus and Mary Magdalene, and uses the Holy Blood, Holy Grail proposal, that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had “a thing” – not only in the most common meaning of the word, but also in the meaning of a – if not more than one – child.
Brown must have remembered what controversy The Last Temptation of Christ created – the temptation of “Our Lord” by Mary Magdalene. For it seems that though Jesus the superhero came with no a single flaw, “we” still seem willing to believe she was the only one able to bring out a human trait – flaw – in our superhero; she was his Achilles’ heel. Brown went one step further than The Last Temptation of Christ: the casual glance of Christ with the Magdalene is fast-forwarded from their first date, to several years of marriage, and children running about the house, themselves having born generations of children, until we arrive in our present time, with Sophie Neveu.
In his witness deposition for the Baigent & Leigh v. RandomHouse court case, Brown stated that “Somewhere […] I learned that Mary Magdalene was not in fact a prostitute (as I had been taught in Sunday school) – this is alluded to in Templar Revelation and The Woman with the Alabaster Jar. This stunned me. I was amazed that this piece of mis-information had survived so long. I was curious about what other mis-information remained part of official church doctrine once again, I was motivated to dig deeper.” From Knight and Lomas, he learned that the Knights Templar perhaps had secret gospels that spoke of a secret dimension of the Christ figure. What was this dimension? Reading about the Knights Templar, he read an introduction, by David Hatcher Childress, for the reprint of Charles Addison’s book on the Knights Templar, in which Childress argued: “Different versions of the legend exist with the two most prominent stating that the Holy Grail is the cup or chalice used by Christ at the Last Supper or, alternatively, the genetic blood-lineage of Jesus.” The “bloodline theory” is what Hatcher Childress describes as “the genetic blood-lineage of Jesus’. […] Initially, I was reluctant to include the bloodline theory at all, finding it too incredible and inaccessible to readers – I thought it was a step too far. However […] I eventually became convinced that I could introduce the idea successfully.” And that he did. Brown used the legends that the Magdalene, after teh Crucifixion, sought refuge in France. The story that Mary Magdalene arrived in St Marie de la Mer, in Southern France, in a small boat, is factual: such a story exists. But all evidence suggests that this was a clever ploy by the local population to continue pagan worship. Sites in Southern France linked with Mary Magdalene, such as La Baume, have been identified as originally part of the pagan cult of Venus. Venus needed to be given a Christian veneer, and in Southern France, this was provided by the legend of Mary Magdalene. Though in some legends she carries “something” with her – in some depictions, it is a mummy, which some have interpreted as the mummy of the Virgin Mary, others as the mummy of Jesus – the concept that she carried her “daughter Sara” with her is an addition to the original legend; an interpretation made by authors. Locally, in St Marie de la Mer, no-one equally believes she had a daughter. Even though the gypsies do worship a Saint Sara, they do not believe she was the daughter of Jesus or Mary Magdalene; she was in their opinion an Egyptian woman, a servant, who arrived – in legend – on the same boat as Mary Magdalene. Brown is one in a long line of recent authors who have used Mary Magdalene to underline the strife of women for equal opportunities, showing – correctly – that the early Christian Church wrote her and her role amongst the apostles out of the Bible. But there is an inherent danger that we push her role too far – just like we have pushed the importance of Leonardo out of all proportions. Yes, she was an important person around Jesus. But was she his wife?
She is now often depicted as being involved in a stand-off with Peter, as both seemed to vie for being recognised as the “first disciple”, with some authors implying it was not Peter, but actually Mary Magdalene who was nominated by Jesus for that position, not Peter, as most of us now automatically assume. As a side note: most biblical experts actually agree that several of the apostles were vying for that “number one” spot. However: if there was a standoff, and if she was his wife, it would not leave Peter so confused. Peter is antagonistic towards her, suggesting they are “role wise”, on an equal footing: both followers. But if Mary Magdalene was his wife, then Peter would surely not question her role as being “the closest” to Jesus? Instead, Peter can’t imagine why she would be deemed more important than him… though many have stated Peter didn’t seem to be the brightest spark on the block, he cannot have been that dim!
For sure, Jesus and Mary Magdalene could have had a child together – it is equally possible they did not. Several commentators have used the fact that various accounts have been altered and we do not know the original story to inject the notion that there was a child, but there is no evidence whatsoever that this suggestion has any anchoring in reality. Like proclaiming Jesus to be a literal Son of God, giving him offspring is a matter of faith. Brown also noted that the book was a co-operative effort between Blythe and himself – husband and wife. The works consulted, such as The Templar Revelation, but mainly Margaret Starbird’s books, which seemed to influence Blythe tremendously, have a specific “female message”. A key message of The Da Vinci Code is therefore the role of the “sacred feminine”, which Brown hopes to introduce as the missing dimension of the Bible; something we need to reclaim.
This, in my opinion, is nonsense. His critics have since shown that Jesus on a number of occasions was quite scathing towards women in general. This may merely have been “male banter”, something which often occurs in typically male environments, which his group of followers predominantly was, there is, once again, nothing either in the gospel accounts or the “suppressed gospels” that shows Jesus’ doctrine involved the promotion of the sacred feminine. The presence of some women in his group of followers does not mean this group were worshippers of the sacred feminine. I do totally agree with Dan Brown that we should commence to look at the gospels as a whole – rather than just the four “authorised gospels”. In my opinion, this is one of the major challenges facing the Church today. Still, in the wake of The Da Vinci Code controversy, Dr. Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, stated in his Easter sermon that “the Gospel is human words backed by divine energy. Conspiracy theories or the discovery of ancient texts will not weaken the Gospel.”
Most biblical experts agree that the Gospels are our best evidence – but they also totally disagree with the interpretation two millennia of believers have made of them.
Those searching for the “historical Jesus” argue that “Jesus Christ Superstar” is not a creation of the four gospels, but largely of the Acts of the Apostles, or “the self promotion by Paul” as to how he sees a vision of Jesus Christ, who informs Paul to tell the world what he has revealed to Paul. That is where Jesus will eventually get his superhero status from. The definition of a hero is literally that of a mere mortal who was raised by the gods in their company. But Jesus is seen as a mission of God into the world, he is taken to God at the end of his lifetime, and thus more than “just” a normal hero as was known in ancient traditions. For people like Paul, this was an important addition to make to his story, for the Greco-Roman world was very familiar with such heroes – and for Paul to convert these people, he realised he had to make Jesus a bigger hero than any of the Greco-Roman heroes. Hence, Jesus, the literal Son of God.
It is in stark contrast with the gospels, even in their edited version. Biblical research such as the construction of the Gospel Q, the discovery that Marc’s gospel was the first to be written, and which was successively adapted by two other gospel writers, have been the work of decades of studious work. Such analysis shows that Jesus in the “original versions of the gospels” never claims to be a superhero, nor is considered to be one. The original version of the gospel of Mark actually ends when Jesus is buried. There is no missing body, no resurrection, nothing of that kind. When we add the apocrypha and rediscovered gospels into the equation, we get the same message: Jesus is not portrayed as a superhero. Instead, these books focus on his doctrine. The Gospel of Thomas, sometimes labelled “the fifth gospel” is important solely because it gives the doctrine – the sayings – of Jesus, and nothing more. This opens an entirely different dimension: Jesus, in the original versions of the gospels, without editing and rewriting and two millennia of navel gazing, as well as in the apocrypha, is seen as a new important preacher, who is known for his doctrine – and who is never seen as a superhero. Biblical experts straightforwardly argue that Paul just lifted his superhero status from Greco-Roman-Egyptian legends, the audience he tried to convert to his sole version of Christianity. As such, it is obvious that Jesus and Osiris and Dionysos share many characteristics – for Paul added these layers to the story. Some of the key ingredients, it has to be said, were present in the biblical story, if only because Jesus himself worked within a Jewish, religious framework in which some of these key religious symbols and rituals were also present. So: the “historical Jesus” is not a superhero, but a prophet – a teacher, with a message – which overlaps with the manner in which Islam sees Jesus: a powerful teacher – but not the literal Son of God. The important realisation with which the Christian world has to come to terms with – though many seem happy to deny the very debate – is that the figure of Jesus needs to be redefined; from superhero, to preacher. Personally, I am not a Christian: I do not believe in Jesus the superhero. But I will be the first to underline that I find his sayings and his doctrine, as much as we can gather from all available gospels, intriguing and definitely worth to be incorporated in any moral and religious education. So I am not a Christian, but do like Jesus… the historical one. The flaw with Brown and the “popular, alternative books” is that they start with identifying key faults and flaws in the “Jesus superhero” story. But rather than try to move towards the “historical Jesus”, they merely redefine Jesus’ superhero status. This is easily done, and to prove my point, I will create one such theory – which I do not believe for more than ten seconds.
The authors take a key ingredient of the superhero, such as his Virgin Birth. Was he really the Son of God? The historical version argues that Jesus may have been born out of wedlock, either by Joseph before he was married to Mary, or by an unidentified father. So here is my new theory: Celsus wrote that Mary earned money as a spinner. In the Greco-Roman world, there were “temple virgins”, some of whom spun the ritual dresses for the statues of the deities in the temple. Some cults also involved sexual activity. Was Mary such a temple virgin, a position often taken on by young girls – and Mary could have been as young as 15 when she became pregnant by Jesus. Was she involved in some of this sacred sexual activity and became pregnant as a result? Was this why Jesus was seen as of “virgin birth”? Some of you may be convinced, but let me stop you in your tracks and state I threw this theory together in five minutes, and can come up with several others, each of which would argue against its predecessor. All of this merely to show that we should be careful, in the search for the “historical Jesus”, not to fall for the same problem that we often blame biblical scholars for. As such, in The Da Vinci Code, Brown has not broken too much new ground in offering a new interpretation of Christianity. He instead opted for safe ground, and this not even in an innovative way. The film Stigmata is a far more clever in its usage of a lost gospel and finishes with a dramatic quote that has propelled a good few people to look into the Gospel of Thomas. You wonder how many people have bought or read The Gospel of Mary Magdalene as a result of The Da Vinci Code – and whether those who have, still side with Brown. This gospel, by the way, should really, if Brown et al. are right, begin something like this: “This is the gospel of Mary Magdalene, and the words of Jesus, the Son of God, my husband and father to my children….”
Still, Jesus as “Son of God” with a married wife – whoever she is – should not really upset any logical doctrine about his status as a literal Son of God. Would it not make sense that the Son of God incarnated and would make sure that a “god gene” remained on Earth, which would aid Mankind in its final salvation? That it does create such controversy is largely because of Jesus’ superhero status. Furthermore, the existence of such a bloodline would create great distress for the Church, for somewhere, there would be true descendents of Christ. Should they not be the legitimate rulers over the Church, rather than a pope? Whoever came up with the bloodline theory could therefore be considered as someone trying to trick up the Vatican.
It is also clear Brown wanted to whip up such anti-Church sentiments – and though The Da Vinci Code leaves you undecided, read his other works, specifically Angels & Demons. In The Da Vinci Code, he states that the Gothic architecture was “masterminded” by the Knights Templar, but they had nothing or virtually nothing to do with the construction of Gothic cathedrals. But by claiming these beautiful churches are not the work of the Church, but instead of a group which he labels their opponents, he makes the Church look weak and cheap.
The Church is guilty of many crimes, the Cathar Crusade probably one of the cruellest actions ever undertaken – though we should understand the Church’s position, who organised this crusade not out of cruelty, but merely because it realised its very survival was at stake. Brown states the Church burnt 5 million witches during the Middle Ages. In truth, a potential 30,000 to 50,000 people were killed, though that is still more than enough! Perhaps Brown merely quoted these statements from his sources, only to later find out they were wrong. But why include them in the first place? In short, Dan Brown has tapped into a desire to alter the image of Jesus, this because of a renewed discovery of such items as the Gospel of Judas. This redefinition of Jesus is, in my opinion, a desperate plea by many, many who are not “au fait” with the current doctrine of the Church. It’s up to the Church to take it or leave it – but I’d take it…
In recent years, archaeologists have also come ever closer to the historical Jesus, into which the discovery of the Gospel of Judas does not fall. Biblical analysis is one, but archaeologists in recent decades have uncovered tombs and caves that seem linked with Jesus’ mission. There is Shimon Gibson and the so-called Suba cave, thought to be the site where John the Baptist – and Jesus – may have baptised. There is the Tapiot tomb, about which newspapers around Easter 1996 reported “Jesus Family Tomb Discovered”. The discovery was noted as many of the ossuaries (bone boxes) in the tomb contained names that were identified as linked with Jesus and his family (the historical Jesus had four brothers (James, Joses, Judas and Simon) and at least two sisters (Mary and Salome). Though many of these names are very popular, to find them in one location together was enough to generate controversy and speculation. Though experts and believers agree that the gospels remain our best evidence for Jesus, we are missing any historical record of the first thirty years of his life. Whereas what we know about him can and is used as a puzzle which can be composed in any which way you desire, his “prehistory” – largely up to being baptised by John – is a blank canvas. Some suggest he went to India, others to Japan, Great-Britain, etc. Jewish stories speak a lot about a young Jesus’ travels in Egypt to study magic. That is something that has intrigued some authors, such as Ahmed Osman, who has however given it a totally unique interpretation. A more “mainstream” idea is that proposed in Templar Revelation, the part Brown did not use.
In short (and again, perhaps too short), Picknett & Prince argue that John the Baptist was introducing an Egyptian cult into Galilee. Jesus became a follower of this movement and then usurped the leadership of this group, by removing John – who would be beheaded by Herod Antipas. At present, this theory has received little airing in the mainstream media, as Brown’s Magdalene dimension has drawn most focus.
One person who seems aware of the potential future of this theory is Professor James Tabor, in The Jesus Dynasty, which tackles the “historical Jesus”.
On at least four occasions, Tabor is very specific that there was no such antagonism between John and Jesus. He even states that “there is no reason to assume some type of rivalry”, to add to what he wrote before: “There is some evidence that they [John and Jesus] began to formulate a plan together – a dramatic and bold strategy that they believed would bring the downfall of Roman rule in Palestine and lead to the worldwide inauguration of the Kingdom of God.”
It therefore seems that once the storm of the Magdalene dimension into the story of Jesus has died down, John the Baptist may become a pivotal playern defining the Jesus dimension.