"The Da Vinci Code" Critique – Part 2

(I continue the critique form Part 1)

This brings us to the primary contention by Dan Brown taken from Holy Blood, Holy Grail – that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene.  According to Brown’s character Teabing, “the marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene is part of the historic record.”[i]  His proof of this is two-fold.  One, because Jesus was a Jew, the obligation was that he should be married and the Bible’s gospels should have offered some explanation for his unnatural state of bachelorhood.  Second, the earliest Christian records in the Dead Sea scrolls and Gnostic Gospels record this union.  Teabing claims, “One particularly troubling theme kept recurring in the [Gnostic] gospels.  Mary Magdalene…More specifically her marriage to Jesus Christ.”[ii]  Teabing refers specifically to the Gnostic Gospel of Phillip verse 55b, “The companion of the Savior is Mary Magdalene.  Christ loved her more than all the disciples and used to kiss her often on her mouth.  The rest of the disciples were offended by it and expressed disapproval.  They said to him, ‘Why do you love her more than all of us?’”  Teabing subsequently concludes that “any Aramaic scholar will tell you, the word companion, in those days, literally meant spouse.”[iii] 

Brown’s first reason is not compelling as an argument from silence.  The Gospels also do not tell us if Jesus had a dog, was right-handed or disliked Brussels sprouts.  Assuming in the first century Jewish context, these were norms, it does not follow that Jesus followed suit.  Obviously, Jesus was different in many distinctive ways than others.  The historic fact is that by the first century, the Jews had become more flexible toward marriage compared to an Old Testament context.  Paul Maier, professor of ancient history at Western Michigan University, explains, “Exceptions for bachelorhood were granted by the rabbis, and there were whole sub-groups in Judaism that practiced celibacy, such as a branch of the Essenes or the Egyptian Therapeutae familiar from Philo.”[iv]  From the Bible, we also have the example of John the Baptist, who remained single, as well as the Apostle Paul who encourages remaining single in I Corinthians 7:8, “Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am.”  In this same epistle, Paul also affirms the right to be married, “Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas [Peter].” (I Corinthians 9:5)  Surely, if Jesus was married, Paul would have referred to Jesus’ example, rather than Peter or other apostles.

In the second piece of logic, Brown has glaring mistakes in his claims.  First, the Dead Sea Scrolls have no early Christian history as they contain text from the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), some Old Testament apocryphal writings and sectarian scrolls (ordinances, commentaries and liturgical works).  Possibly, Brown confused the Old Testament apocryphal books with the Gnostic New Testament apocryphal books.  Second, none of the Gnostic Gospels contain any references to a marriage between Jesus and Mary, including the Gospel of Mary.  Maier explains, “[There is] not a scintilla of evidence – anywhere in historical sources.  Even where one might expect to find such claims in the bizarre, second-century, apocryphal gospels – which the Jesus Seminar and other radical voices are trying so desperately to rehabilitate – there is no reference that Jesus ever got married.”[v]  Teabing exaggerates, “I shan’t bore you with the countless references to Jesus and Magdalene’s union.”[vi]  I suspect this is shorthand for “I made it up.”  Fourth, the word “mouth” is actually missing from the extant copies that we have.  Some translations have added [mouth], but could have added [forehead] or [cheek] and still read just as well.  Lastly, the Gospel of Phillip is written in Coptic (a late form of Egyptian) not Aramaic.  Even if we grant his blunder here and assume the Gospel of Phillip was originally in Aramaic, his interpretation of companion is mistaken.  Craig Blomberg, New Testament professor at Denver Seminary, concludes that “no Aramaic or Hebrew words for ‘companion’ normally mean spouse!”[vii]

Before addressing Brown’s second attack on Christianity, it is important to address his Gnostic sources and to present a polemic for the authenticity of the documents that orthodox Christianity affirms.  The Nag Hammadi discoveries in 1947 unearthed a collection of philosophic and religious writings in a large stone jar in the dessert.  Most likely these writings were copied down by fourth century Gnostic Christians.  They have traditionally been dated to the mid to late second century, although Teabing insists that they are “the earliest Christian records.”[viii]   Prior to this find, our primary sources of information about Gnosticism came from early heresiologists (defenders of Christianity against heresy) such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, Hippolytus and Epiphanius.[ix]  These early critics of these writings claimed Gnostics used biblical texts for their own purposes and were a combination of Greek philosophy and Christianity.  This Gnostic movement persisted until the fourth century and consisted of many different beliefs, although there was no common authority.

The word “Gnosticism” has at its root “knowledge” and it is this secret “knowledge” the Gnostics claimed to have.  The way to God becomes a subjective matter and objective knowledge or an objective way to God goes by the wayside.  Brown and others would prefer that Christianity becomes a subjective experience because this allows one to create your own “truth”.  Orthodox Christianity, on the other hand, places itself within “real” history where evidence can be shown to prove or disprove it.

As one reads the Gnostic writings, you soon realize that the “truths” revealed are all over the map and conflict with each other.  Brown conveniently pulls slices of the Gnostic writings to support his arguments, but in no way attempts to explain how to reconcile the inconsistencies within them or between them.  For instance, at the end of the Gospel of Thomas, we read, “Simon Peter said to them, ‘Make Mary [Magdalene] leave us, for females are not worthy of life.’  Jesus said, ‘Look, I shall guide her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males.  For every female who makes herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.’”[x]  This verse is in opposition to divine feminine that Brown thinks the Church suppressed.  How can you accept some teachings from these sources and ignore others?  Would not this inconsistent nature factor into realizing the Gnostic sources may be fraudulent?

This brings us to consider the records we do have for early Christianity – namely the New Testament.  When attempting to determine historical facts about events in antiquity, the closer a document is to the events themselves, the better.  All the books in the New Testament were written in the first century – even the most liberal scholar would not place anything past 95AD.  The Gospel accounts themselves which chronicle Jesus’ life are typically dated by conservative scholars as the following:  Matthew (40s-60s AD), Mark (40s-60s AD), Luke (late 50s to early 60s) and John (80-95AD).  Liberal scholars push out the dates a little later:  Matthew (80s AD), Mark (late 60s AD), Luke (80s AD) and John (90s AD).[xi]  These records are the earliest Christian records, not the Gnostic gospels which are dated to the mid 100s to early 200s AD.

Brown challenges that the Christian Scriptures “evolved through countless translations, additions, and revisions.  History has never had a definite version of the book.”[xii]  This is in opposition to the wealth of evidence for the New Testament with over 5000 manuscripts.  For many of the Gnostic gospels, we have one or two copies, which does not assure us that we possess anything close to the original.  Whereas, with the Gospels, we have an unprecedented multiplicity of copies that allows one to cross check them with each other using textual criticism to determine what the original was.  In addition to the Greek copies of manuscripts, we also have the translations into other languages early on.  Bruce Metzger, Professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, explains, “even if we lost all the Greek manuscripts and the early translations, we could still reproduce the contents of the New Testament from the multiplicity of quotations in commentaries, sermons, letters and so forth of the early church fathers.”[xiii]

The number of manuscripts may not appear as impressive until you compare this against other secular works.  For instance, the Roman historian Tacitus wrote sixteen books called the Annals of Imperial Rome in approximately 116 AD.  Only one manuscript exists for the first six books dated about 850AD.  Books seven through ten are lost and books eleven through sixteen are in another manuscript dated to the eleventh century.[xiv]  For first century Jewish historian Josephus’ work The Jewish War, we have nine copies dated to the tenth, eleventh and twelfth century.  Next to the New Testament, Homer’s Iliad has the closest amount of manuscripts (fewer than 650) dated to the second and third century.  Considering this was the Greek’s equivalent of the Bible and Homer composed the document in 800 BC, this is quite a gap compared to the New Testament.  There seems to be a double standard when it comes to the orthodox canon compared to secular works in trusting its reliability.  F.F. Bruce comments, “If the New Testament were a collection of secular writings, their authenticity would generally be regarded beyond all doubt.”[xv]

Since there exists a plentitude of manuscripts of varying completeness with minor differences, there are some unqualified critiques that suggest one cannot trust the New Testament.  This is naively negligent and misses the point that the more manuscripts one has, the more likely one can construct the original using textual criticism.  There are different accidental types of errors, such as miscopying a similar looking letter, omitting a letter or word, repeating a letter or word or even deliberate changing such as correcting spelling or grammar or expansions (e.g. expanding “Christ Jesus” to “Christ Jesus Our Lord”)[xvi]  If I have a small number of copies of a document of antiquity, I have fewer assurances that I can get to the original because of copyist errors or corrupted manuscripts.  On the other hand, when I can compare many manuscripts that have been collected from different geographic locations across different time periods, it becomes much easier to recover the original text.  Most variations that we do find are minor and do not affect the text in any substantial doctrinal way.  Furthermore, any good Bible will alert the reader to any variant readings that have any consequence.  Because of these points and others, Norman Geisler and William Nix conclude, “The New Testament, then, has not only survived in more manuscripts than any other book from antiquity, but it has survived in a purer form than any other great book – a form that is 99.5% pure.”[xvii]

[i] Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code, 245.

[ii] Ibid 244.

[iii] Ibid 246.

[iv] Hank Hanegraaff and Paul L. Maier, The Da Vinci Code: Fact of Fiction? (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 2004) 17.

[v] Ibid 18.

[vi] Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code, 247.

[vii] Craig Blomberg, “The Da Vinci Code,” Denver Seminary Journal (2004), vol 7.

[viii] Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code, 245.

[ix] G.L. Borchert, “Gnosticism”, in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd edition.

[x] Gospel of Thomas 114.

[xi] Robert M. Bowman, Jr. Scripture: Outline Studies in Authority, Canon and Criticism (La Mirada, Ca: Biola Press, 2005), 101.

[xii] Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code, 231.

[xiii] Bruce Metzger quoted in Lee Strobel, Case For Christ (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan 1998) 76.

[xiv] Ibid 77.

[xv] F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1977) 15.

[xvi] Robert M. Bowman, Jr. Scripture: Outline Studies in Authority, Canon and Criticism 28.

[xvii] Norman Geisler and William Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible (Chicago, Illinois: Moody Press, 1980) 367.