Truth at the Heart
of 'The Da Vinci Code'
by Elaine Pagels (source: npr.org)
Elaine Pagels, author
of The Gnostic Gospels and Beyond Belief: The
Secret Gospel of Thomas, is a professor of religion at Princeton.
Amato, a top
Vatican official, recently railed
against The Da Vinci
Code as a work "full of calumnies, offenses and
historical and theological errors.'' As a historian, I would agree that
no reputable scholar has ever found evidence of author Dan Brown's
assertion that Jesus and Mary Magdalene married and had a child, and no
scholar would take seriously Brown's conspiracy theories about the
Catholic group Opus Dei.
But what is compelling about
Brown's work of fiction, and part of what
may be worrying Catholic and evangelical leaders, is not the book's
What has kept Brown on the
bestseller list for years and inspired a
movie is, instead, what is true---that some views
Christian history were buried for centuries because leaders of the
early Catholic Church wanted to present one version of Jesus' life:
Some of the alternative views
of who Jesus was and what he taught were
discovered in 1945 when a farmer in Egypt accidentally dug up an
ancient jar containing more than 50 ancient writings. These documents
include gospels that were banned by early church leaders, who declared
It is not surprising that The
Da Vinci Code builds on the idea that
many early gospels were hidden and previously unknown. Brown has said
that part of his inspiration was one of these so-called Gnostic Gospels
as presented in a book I wrote on the subject. It took only three lines
from the Gospel of
Philip to send Brown off to write his novel:
The companion of the savior
is Mary Magdalene. And Jesus loved her more
than all the disciples, and used to kiss her often... The rest of the
disciples were jealous, and said to him, "Why do you love her more than
all of us?''
Those who have studied the Gospel of Philip
see it as a mystical text
and don't take the suggestion that Jesus had a sexual relationship with
Mary Magdalene literally.
Still, by homing in on that
passage and building a book around it,
Brown brought up subjects that the Catholic Church would like to avoid.
He raised the big what-ifs: What if the version of Jesus' life that
Christians are taught isn't the right one? And perhaps as troubling in
a still-patriarchal church: What if Mary Magdalene played a more
important role in Jesus' life than we've been led to believe, not as
his wife perhaps, but as a beloved and valued disciple?
In other words, what Brown did
with his runaway hit was popularize
awareness of the discovery of many other secret gospels, including the Gospel of Judas
that was published in April.
There have long been hints that
the New Testament wasn't the only
version of Jesus' life that existed, and that even the gospels
presented there were subject to misinterpretation. In 1969, for
instance, the Catholic Church ruled that Mary Magdalene was not a
prostitute, as many people had been taught. The church blamed the error
on Pope Gregory the Great, who in 591 A.D. gave a sermon in which he
apparently conflated several women in the Bible, including Mary
Magdalene and an unnamed sinner who washes Jesus' feet with her tears.
But even that news didn't reach
all Christians, and it is the rare
religious leader who now works hard to spread the word that the New
Testament is just one version of events crafted in the intellectual
free-for-all after Christ's death. At that time, church leaders were
competing with each other to figure out what Christ said, what he meant---and
perhaps most important, what writings would best support the
What we know now is that the
scholars who championed the "Gnostic''
gospels are among the ones who lost the battle.
In the decades after Jesus'
death, these texts and many others were
circulating widely among Christian groups from Egypt to Rome, Africa to
Spain, and from today's Turkey and Syria to France. So many Christians
throughout the world knew and revered these books that it took more
than 200 years for hardworking church leaders who denounced the texts
to successfully suppress them.
The copies discovered in 1945,
for example, were taken from the sacred
library of one of the earliest monasteries in Egypt, founded about 10
years after the conversion of Constantine, the first Roman emperor to
join the fledgling church. For the first time, Christians were no
longer treated as members of a dangerous and seditious group and could
form open communities in which many lived together. Like monks today,
they kept in their monastery libraries a very wide range of books they
read aloud for inspiration.
But these particular texts
appeared to upset Athanasius, then
archbishop of Alexandria; in the year 367 he sent out an Easter Letter
to monks all over Egypt ordering them to reject what he called
"illegitimate and secret books.'' Apparently, some monks at the
Egyptian monastery defied the archbishop's order and took more than 50
of the books out of the library, sealed them in a heavy jar and buried
them under the cliff where they were found 1,600 years later.
In ordering the books
destroyed, Athanasius was continuing the battle
against the "Gnostic'' gospels begun 200 years earlier by his revered
predecessor, Bishop Irenaeus, who was so distressed that certain
Christians in his congregations in rural Gaul (present day France)
treasured such "illegitimate and secret writing'' that he labeled them
heretics. Irenaeus insisted that of the dozens of writings revered by
various Christians, only four were genuine--- and
these, as you guessed
already, are those now in the New Testament, called by the names of
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Irenaeus said there could be
only four gospels because, according to
the science of the time, there were four principal winds and four
pillars that hold up the sky. Why these four gospels? He explained that
only they were actually written by eyewitnesses of the events they
describe---Jesus' disciples Matthew and John, or
by Luke and Mark, who
were disciples of the disciples.
Few scholars today would agree
with Irenaeus. We cannot verify who
actually wrote any of these accounts, and many scholars agree that the
disciples themselves are not likely to be their authors. Beyond that,
nearly all the gospels that Irenaeus detested are also attributed to
disciples---some, including the Gospel of Thomas,
to the original 12
apostles. Nonetheless, Athanasius and other church leaders succeeded in
suppressing the gospels they (and Irenaeus) called illegitimate, won
the emperor's favor and succeeded in dominating the church.
What, then, do these texts
and why did certain leaders find them
First, they suggest that the
to God can be found by anyone who
seeks. According to the Gospel
of Thomas, Jesus suggests that when we
come to know ourselves at the deepest level, we come to know God: "If
you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save
you.'' This message---to seek for oneself ---was
one that bishops like Irenaeus appreciated: Instead, he insisted, one
must come to God through the church, "outside of which,'' he said,
"there is no salvation.''
Second, in texts that the
bishops called "heresy,'' Jesus appears as
human, yet one through whom the light of God now shines. So, according
to the Gospel of Thomas,
"I am the light that is before
things; I am all things; all things come forth from me; all things
return to me. Split a piece of wood, and I am there; lift up a rock,
and you will find me there.''
To Irenaeus, the thought of
energy manifested through all creation, even rocks and logs, sounded
dangerously like pantheism. People might end up thinking that they
could be like Jesus themselves and, in fact, the Gospel of Philip
"Do not seek to become a
As Irenaeus read
this, it was not mystical language, but "an abyss of madness, and
blasphemy against Christ.''
Worst of all, perhaps, was that
many of these secret texts speak of God
not only in masculine images, but also in feminine images. The Secret
Book of John tells how the disciple John, grieving after
crucified, suddenly saw a vision of a brilliant light, from which he
heard Jesus' voice speaking to him:
"John, John, why do you
you recognize who I am? I am the Father; I am the Mother; and I am the
After a moment of shock, John
realizes that the divine Trinity
includes not only Father and Son but also the divine Mother, which John
sees as the Holy Spirit, the feminine manifestation of the divine.
But the Gospel of Mary Magdalene---along
with the Gospel of
the Dialogue of the
Savior, and the Gospel
show Peter, the leader of the disciples, challenging the presence of
women among the disciples. We hear Peter saying to Jesus,
"Tell Mary to
leave us, because women are not worthy of (spiritual) life.''
complains that Mary talks too much, displacing the role of the male
disciples. But Jesus tells Peter to stop, not Mary! No wonder these
texts were not admitted into the canon of a church that would be ruled
by an all-male clergy for 2,000 years.
Those possibilities opened by
the "Gnostic'' gospels---that
have a feminine side and that Jesus could be human---are
that Dan Brown explored in The
Da Vinci Code, and are no doubt part
of what made the book so alluring. But the truth is that the texts he
based his novel upon contain much deeper and more important mysteries
than the ones Tom Hanks tries to solve in the movie version that opened
The real mystery is what
Christianity and Western civilization would
look like had the "Gnostic'' gospels never been banned. Because of the
discovery by that Egyptian farmer in 1945, we now at least have the
chance to hear what the "heretics'' were saying, and imagine what might
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