Dan Brown, in case you don’t recognize the name, is the author of The Da Vinci Code. The novel, which was published two years ago, has sold more than 25 million copies in 44 languages.
For the sake of his plot, Mr. Brown assumes that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ wife. As summarized in Friday’s Ottawa Citizen:
The Da Vinci Code
- The novel suggests that Jesus and Mary Magdalene produced descendants. According to the plot, Jesus’ heirs were able to maintain their secrecy over the centuries because of an international conspiracy; clues to unravelling all these mysteries can be found in various books, architecture and artworks, including paintings by Italian Renaissance master, Leonardo Da Vinci.
is a work of fiction. But, according to a new poll, many Canadians have trouble distinguishing fiction from non-fiction:
- Almost two million Canadians who read the mega-selling book, The Da Vinci Code, ended the novel convinced that Jesus Christ fathered a line of descendants on Earth, a new survey suggests.
- The coast-to-coast survey for the National Geographic Channel conducted by Decima Research found that, among 1,005 adults surveyed June 9-12, 16 per cent had read the book in the past two years.
- Among those readers, 32 per cent believed the story that “a holy bloodline exists and that this secret has been protected through the ages by a dedicated society,” the television channel announced yesterday.
Decima Research extrapolates from this data to conclude that 5.2 million Canadians have read The Da Vinci Code
, and 1.7 million of them believe that its message is historically accurate.
WARNING WARNING WARNING: The blogger is about to make a statement that is elitist and therefore not politically correct.
Sometimes I am driven to despair by the appalling stupidity of the masses.
The news item interests me because it touches on a subject that I take very seriously. For fifteen years I was an evangelical Christian. Toward the latter part of that period, I had a spiritual crisis. I had been studying the academic literature for several years. Slowly, reluctantly, I was persuaded that the Gospels cannot withstand critical scrutiny.
I have spent literally thousands of hours investigating the puzzle of the “historical Jesus”. (As distinct from the Jesus proclaimed by the Church.) I have concluded there are very few things we can assert about Jesus with much confidence.
Many people are shocked to learn that there are other gospels, not included in the New Testament. These books are commonly referred to as the “apocryphal” gospels.
Dan Brown has apparently taken his theme from the apocryphal gospels. The most notable passage is found in the Gospel of Philip. (The ellipses, in square brackets, indicate gaps or undecipherable words in the manuscript.):
- The companion of the [...] Mary Magdalene. [...] loved her more than all the disciples, and used to kiss her often on her mouth. The rest of the disciples [...]. They said to him “Why do you love her more than all of us?”
The significance of such material depends on your purpose. If you want to write a history of the early Church, the Gospel of Philip and the other apocryphal gospels are relevant. If you want to write fiction, like Dan Brown, the texts may provide grist for the mill. But if you are looking for information about the historical Jesus, you’re in the wrong place. The apocryphal gospels cannot be utilized to correct the New Testament record.
People can believe what they want, of course, based on their “feelings”, or what they wish to be true, or superstition, etc. — even based on a rollicking good yarn like The Da Vinci Code. But if you take the question of the historical Jesus seriously, as I do, you should consider what scholars have to say on the subject.
Allow me to illustrate my point by considering a scientific fact. Scientists tell us that the earth revolves around the sun. But this is entirely contrary to my personal observation. As far as I can tell, the earth stands still. I have no sensation of the earth hurtling through space or spinning on its axis. It seems to me that the sun moves while the earth stays put.
Nonetheless, I accept that my perceptions are inaccurate. Scientists have investigated this question, and they assure us that the earth orbits the sun. You can evaluate the data for yourself, if you wish: scientists have published their observations and the reasoning that led them to such a counter-intuitive conclusion.
The same logic applies to any serious investigation of the historical Jesus. If you’re satisfied to have any old opinion, you’re entitled to it. But some opinions rest on a faulty foundation. Anyone who is seriously interested in Jesus as a pivotal historical figure should consider what New Testament scholars have to say on the subject.
It isn’t necessary merely to take things on authority. New Testament scholars publish the evidence on which their conclusions are based, and explain their reasons for interpreting it as they do. Any interested person who is motivated to make the effort can scrutinize the raw data and reach an informed conclusion.
History is not one of the “hard” sciences, of course. But historians have devised various methods by which to evaluate historical accounts: of Socrates, for example, or the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.
New Testament scholars employ the same canons of criticism that are applied to other historical figures. They have concluded that the Gospels are unreliable at many points, leaving the field open for much speculation.
Mark, the earliest of the canonical Gospels, probably dates from around AD 70 — i.e., forty years had already passed since the death of Jesus. During those forty years, information had to be passed from one person to the next, to the next, etc. The more time that passes, the more remote you get from the historical events.
As for the apocryphal gospels, scholars have concluded that they were written later than the canonical Gospels. The earliest of them was not written until fifty years or more after the Gospel of Mark.
Beliefnet.com has published an interview with Bart Ehrman on The Da Vinci Code. Ehrman is a liberal scholar (i.e., not an evangelical or a fundamentalist) who has published a book on Lost Christianities. The book
- discusses the various forms of Christianity that didn’t make it from the second and third century, including the Gnostics, for example, and various Christian groups who had gospels that didn’t make it into the New Testament but that supported their points of view. My editor at Oxford thought I really should read “The Da Vinci Code” because the Lost Gospels are talked about — a lot. But the things that Dan Brown says about them are wrong.
The interview continues:
- Q. What do you think of the debate about how important the Gnostic gospels are? Some people say that the Gnostics, like Thomas, should be given as much weight as the Gospel of John because it was written — they say — at the same time.
- A. I think that the Gospel of Thomas was written about 20 years after John; my opinion on this is the majority opinion; almost everybody who studies Thomas thinks of it as later than John with a few notable exceptions, including Elaine Pagels. She’s the main one, but most people think Thomas was written in the early second century. And Mary was written some time after that. So I think these gospels are highly important for understanding how people were portraying Jesus, but they’re not as useful for establishing what Jesus was really like, as the New Testament Gospels are.
- Q. So in a nutshell, what’s the fallacy that “The Da Vinci Code” puts forth as it relates to these gospels?
- A. There are several fallacies — but in a nutshell, the fallacy is thinking that these gospels give a more historically accurate view of Jesus than the New Testament gospels. I’m saying this not out of any religious conviction, but strictly on historical grounds — that statement is not true.
If you’ve read The Da Vinci Code
, I hope you enjoyed it. But it’s a work of fiction, folks, not a historical study. (I can’t believe this needs to be said.)
What can we know about the historical Jesus? That’s a much harder question, and a subject for another day.