and fiction in THE DA VINCI CODE: A Historian Reveals What We Really
We all know Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. It is selling in millions all over the world. It is an excellent thriller. But we are not going to discuss this book as a piece of literature, following in that Bart D. Ehrman. We are not even going to discuss this book at all. The two themes it contains are looming high in books and on the wide screen at the moment: the Holy Grail seen as Mary Magdalene, the spouse of Jesus, and their blood line still alive, on one hand, and, on the other, the Templars and their treasure captured in the founding layers of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem during the Crusades. Walt Disney is also interested in that gold mine and their recent National Treasure deals with the second theme and ignores the first. We will follow Bart D. Ehrman here and we will only take into account the topics the book deals with, i.e. the Christian elements in the novel, but through a discussion of Ehrman’s own book, hence discuss Ehrman’s historical method and not the religious topics as such. The truth does not interest us here but the method we can use to analyze the documents at stake in these religious topics and what we can draw from them about the history of Christianity or even the history of humanity and their cultures and world representations at the time of the birth of Christianity.
Ehrman presents us with a book that is going to be essential in the debate, if not even controversy, that is raging around Dan Brown’s book. Dan Brown had been clear in the book itself and had announced that all those who are for a rather conservative approach of the Christian faith, particularly the catholic church, will get up in arms to fight against the ideas and hypotheses contained in his book. As a matter of fact, Dan Brown had chosen to make his heroes keep the secret and the “treasure” in its hiding place, which is by the way under the Louvre pyramid, not to disturb the course of history, not to create a real mess in the minds of millions of people, which implies that Dan Brown does not know where this hypothetical treasure is and hence would not be able to retrieve it and publish it. But, even if Dan Brown does not bring up the content of this treasure, the book contains enough controversial elements for a real battle to start raging around them. Bart D. Ehrman is one of the battlefield knights but on the side of orthodoxy and continuity. Yet that is not the main interest of his book. His book is a textbook about what he calls “critical history” and a demonstration how it works. And it is this level of this book I would like to discuss here.
The work of a “critical historian” in the field of the history of early Christianity and of the study of early Christian documents is very clearly explained in his sixth chapter, in a subchapter entitled “Our Methods for Reconstructing the Life of the Historical Jesus” [122-26]. He states that critical historians follow four principles in that perspective that all deal with which documents are supposed to be considered as valid, how to look at these documents and what conclusion to draw out of them. We are going to discuss these four principles, not in general but in the light of the study of Christian documents at the time of the birth and building of the early Christian church.
This criterion brings up a serious problem. Ehrman is able to trace in Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels what is borrowed from Mark’s, what is borrowed from an hypothetical Q manuscript that would have been a collection of quotations from Christ’s preaching, and some other sources, L for what is original to Luke only and M for what is original to Matthew only. This is quite standard in the field, but provided we ignore the Secret Gospel of Mark.
This first and extensive version of Mark’s Gospel was brought into existence through the discovery in 1958 by Professor Morton Smith at the Mar Saba monastery, southeast of Jerusalem, of a letter attributed to the bishop Clement of Alexandria who quotes it and rejects a version used by the Carpocratians, the Christian followers of Carpocrates (fl. c.130-c. 150, according to the Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition, 2001, that historically position the preaching period of that “Alexandrian philosopher”) from Alexandria and his son Epiphanes. The interest of this letter by Clement is that it reveals one particularly striking episode (in two successive incidents with the same people) in Jesus’s life. It is asserted as true by Clement. It is asserted that there are many other elements in the Secret Gospel of Mark used by the Carpocratians that are true, but they are not specified, and also many other elements that are falsified without any specification, which brings to mind the idea that these elements may be true and already the sign of a “rewriting” of ancient sources to fit a canonical vision of Jesus emerging at the time. The very existence of this Secret Gospel of Mark proves that older documents did exist before and were circulated in writ. It also proves, if we look at the quotations from this Secret Gospel of Mark in Clement’s letter, that Jesus and his followers practiced a quite different type of conversion “rite” or procedure from the one we are used to consider. Let me quote these two passages:
This passage is situated in the Gospel (that we understand as being the official one) of Mark by Clement in these words: “For example, after ‘And they were in the road going up to Jerusalem’ and what follows, until ‘After three days he shall arise,’ the Secret Gospel brings the following material word for word.”
Clement refutes the Carpocratian addiction: “naked men with naked men.” But Clement adds then a second quotation from the Secret Gospel of Mark:
Without entering the debate about the sexual practices one can imagine from such quotations, even with Clement’s correction that shows a desire to lead to a non-sexual interpretation rather than the sexual one, we have here a document that is essential to assess the validity of all later writings. Note before starting that these excerpts from the Secret Gospel of Mark bring into our mental picture a strange verse in Jesus’s Passion in Mark’s Gospel at the moment of Jesus’s arrest, a verse that no one has ever been able to interpret, and what's more a verse that is kept entirely by Bach In his Mark’s Passion: “A young man who followed him had nothing on but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the cloth in their hands and ran away naked” [14:52]. We could see a link there and hence start seeing a possible meaning that remains to be elaborated.
First, Mark is definitely someone who wrote early, as Clement specifies: “As for Mark, then, during Peter’s stay in Rome he wrote an account of the Lord’s doings, not, however, declaring all of them, nor yet hinting at the secret ones, but selecting what he thought most useful for increasing the faith of those who were being instructed.” We can note that there are even facts and recollections that are kept secret out of this Secret Gospel of Mark by Mark himself but that are known of the inner circle of the nascent church and hence transmitted orally.
Second, Mark wrote himself this Secret Gospel and we even know when. This goes against a remark that Ehrman often reiterates that most of the followers of Jesus and even his apostles were illiterate. Mark was not, as proved here. Matthew by profession was not, as a tax collector. Luke by profession was not, as a doctor, and also as an artist if we believe the Christian Orthodox tradition that says Luke was the first to paint an icon, and that this icon represented the Holy Virgin Mary. And the Book of Revelation [1:9] was written by John himself when in prison in Patmos, even if we can follow the Jerusalem Bible when it says it was probably made up of several different apocalypses and maybe other texts from different authors, but all from the Johannine circle.
Third, these early documents circulated with addenda or not. In those days books had to be copied. The copier could change many things. But the preaching was oral of course and the spreading of the “good news” was mainly oral too—it is clearly said in the Book of Revelation, [1:3]. Ehrman takes this into account but without understanding or mentioning that in an oral society like that of Jesus, memory was an extremely well developed quality both among some people who had memory as a profession, but also among all people. And that memory was literally photographic, absolutely faithful and perfect. In Africa for instance we can know the older state of an African oral language by studying what the griots have committed to their memory, be it laws, rules, commercial agreements or tales (the first three elements require perfect fidelity to what was decided, agreed upon or said). Ehrman does not use this element enough and in fact underestimates it. The writings may be from a later period but oral transmission in this society had to be extensive and faithful. Which means distortions were voluntary and motivated, hence meaningful, and they have to be studied in detail, though it is difficult to know what is what in two different versions of one event: who is the one who distorted and who is the one who did not distort? But there are no reasons to reject Gospels that were transmitted orally and transcribed later on in any language. By the way that is Clement’s attitude, but Clement of course had or knew the original versions of the texts at the time, even the secret elements that were not written but only transmitted orally among those who were in a closed and inner circle in the church. Some French Catholic researchers (Francis Lapierre and Dominique Labbé) presented at the University of Western Brittany in Brest in November 2004 a study of Mark’s Gospel showing how the doublets or parallel verses can be analyzed as reflecting a Semitic source for one verse and a Greek source for the other, which is the proof that the Gospel existed in Aramaic first and was transferred into Greek later on. The necessity of the parallel verses comes from great differences between the two languages, hence for example the opposition between “rabbi” on the Semitic side and “lord” on the Greek side. It is quite obvious that “rabbi” does not have an equivalent in Greek and that the use of “lord” enables to approach the meaning. This also proves that these canonical texts were “written” in successive layers according to the linguistic need of the preaching and missionary work as the Christian faith spread beyond its Semitic original area.
Fourth, most of the texts were probably written collectively within Christian circles. Ehrman says so and it is quite clear when we study the texture itself of the text linguistically, which had been true too of the canonical books of the Old Testament: we all know the two successive versions of the creation of the world and man in Genesis that are linguistically different, along with some differences in content. Ehrman names some groups, though he remains general with the Gnostics instead of taking particular groups (the Gnostics around and after Philip in the Coptic church have little to do with the Carpocratians), but here again he neglects the Johannines who played an important role by being behind both John’s Gospel (which may have been written or even composed by someone else or some other people than John, even Mary Magdalene if we want to follow Ramon K. Jusino, M.A., 1998) and the Book of Revelation, according to the Jerusalem Bible.
But some elements can only be found, and repetitively at times, in the texts that emanate from Mary, Thomas or Philip and their followers or continuators, and other apocryphal or pseudepigraphal texts. The question here is why have these texts that can only represent long oral traditions, been excluded by the church at a certain time, even if it took three centuries to do so, but also by “critical historians” today, and this in spite of the “piling up” of testimonies in these documents? As a historian we do not have to assess this or that assertion as conceivable or not, for instance the miracles, scientifically. We have to assess the picture these documents want the audience to have of Jesus.
Ehrman is going to say that he wants to really build an objective and real knowledge of the material real man called Jesus. Right. But then he should have mentioned the meaning of Christ, the anointed one, and then moved to the word “chrism” that is only used in apocryphal writings, though Jesus is called the anointed one quite often everywhere. For instance in the Gospel of Bartholomew:
The text shows that the truth of God is Latin and not the original language Greek, or the other derived language Slavonic, not to speak of the original oral language in which this Gospel was spread out of Palestine and its Semitic Aramaic or other dialects and languages. This ointment, this chrism is a real mystery about Jesus and his practices, this oil of life, corrected in a way into the truth of God. The question here is, accepting the anointing Jesus practiced undeniably with some ointment, the chrism, to know the nature of this chrism, this ointment.
Many discussions are going on and around about this secret ointment the rabbis used in their secret meditation and preparation. Jesus here seems to say that he has the mission to reveal this secret to everyone and use it for everyone. That goes along with the Secret Gospel of Mark: why in the nude if not for any sexual contact? To be anointed with this oil of life? That is no magic (a concept that will develop quite later) but maybe and probably a simple medicine of these days, and anointing people with special oils was common practice and will remain common practice for many centuries, before being turned into witchcraft in the late Middle Ages. Those oils were composed of many elements and we know that some had bacteria-killing qualities, or led to visions if not hallucinations. This was a common practice among the Jews from the Exodus to the Kaballah:
What is this “scented cane?” In Hebrew it is “kaneh-bosm” (note a plural due to the “-m” ending, hence leading to the understanding of it as the floral endings of some plant. Some even see in this word the designation of “cannabis.” In a word, if we use Ehrman’s second principles with all the documents that have been rejected out of the canon, and he accepts this rejection, we come to some disquieting questions we probably cannot be answered.
These surviving documents that are in no way canonical but are instructions, orders, recommendations from the important bishops or thinkers of the church, are obviously political and ideological, produced to build and defend an institution, what’s more a nascent institution. It is quite clear that those opposed to this orientation either did not have the means or the authority to produce similar documents, or they were declared heretics and their production was destroyed. Actually Ehrman gives a perfect example of what happened before and after the council of Nicea with the debate between Arius and Athanasius, both from Alexandria in the fourth century. Since Athanasius won in Nicea, Arius disappeared from the picture and we can think Athanasius is the cause of the burying of the Gnostic books that will become the Nag Hammadi Library recovered from the desert only in 1945.
But this third principle should lead Ehrman to at least include some of the elements found in the apocrypha and pseudepigrapha because they obviously go against the grain, particularly the Gnostic elements, or the elements we can find in the Gnostic corpus of documents, because we know the church fought very hard against these facts, these documents and even the people who were inspired by them.
And there we would get to completely different conclusions. First a long period must be taken into account and not a short period. Second the full, complete and whole production of this period must be taken into account without any exception.
Third, since we are dealing with language and mental activities, we have to take into account a systematic and extremely rich linguistic approach: oral language versus written language, original language versus successive transcriptions and translations, etc. On the linguistic level Ehrman is extremely poor.
But let me give a couple of examples. I will examine the Beatitudes that Ehrman quotes [134-36]. I will keep his English version of the verses, when they are given. Let’s take the case of the first verse of Matthew’s version: “Blessed be the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” [5:3]. Then the equivalent in Thomas’s Gospel: “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.” [54 for Ehrman, 59 in my version]. Finally in Luke’s Gospel: “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” [6:20, in a revised standard version of the Bible, since Ehrman does not quote this one]. The order is in disorder if we consider the apocryphal Thomas between the two canonical Matthew and Luke. But they are in perfect order if we consider the three verses in view of their discursive intentions.
The one that speaks most directly to a direct audience, right in front of the speaker is Luke with both clauses being addressed to the hearer (you, yours). Thomas is addressing a direct audience in front of him only in the second clause (yours) but he is abstract in the first (the). Matthew is completely detached from a direct listening audience, hence from the position of a speaker with both clauses being abstract from such a context (the, theirs). What’s more Matthew adds an element that makes the verse even more abstract and less concrete for a simple audience (in spirit), even if this element is deeply religious if we take the term “spirit” with its Christian, or even Jewish meaning. But Matthew in that case is particularly difficult to understand: Jesus would say that those who have the least amount of “spirit” in them, hence divine inspiration, hence good, will be first in heaven. This meaning is difficult to swallow. So, either the translation is bad, or the meaning is too intellectual for a simple listening audience. In fact the Jerusalem Bible has the same phrase. Note in that line that Luke uses “the kingdom of God” instead of “heaven.” This is easy to understand or visualize for a Jewish audience. God, a single God, is meaningful for them in direct language. They don’t need to imagine him. They know him. Whereas for “pagan people” God as a unique being is difficult to understand. Heaven, on the other hand, is more abstract, but yet a Jewish audience also knows what it is, though a “pagan audience” will have some difficulty understanding it. But God in the Jewish context is definitely ambiguous, the God of punishment or the God of forgiveness and redemption, the Old Testament God or the new Christian God, this question showing a shift from the Old Testament and what is going to become the New Testament, from a Jewish understanding of God to a Christian understanding of God, though the Christian understanding is also present in the Old Testament, even if marginally (continuity and difference)? Heaven on the other hand is only positive: a promise of a happy future.
So what we can say here, from a discursive point of view that takes the audience into account in oral communication, is that the three are not at all equivalent: they do not address the same people, the same situation, the same context. But Ehrman does not use that.
But these Beatitudes lead me to another remark. He quotes Matthew but only gives the first, then the third, then the second, then the fourth (comparing with the order given by the Jerusalem Bible which should be our standard in such a discussion), but he does not give the four subsequent verses and Beatitudes, not to speak of the two verse extension of the eighth one (and eight is meaningful in Christian numerical symbolism). Then he asserts that they are in the future tense. This is at least slightly light. First because the first one and the eighth one that embrace the others (who are in the future in our language but is there a future tense in Semitic languages, in the Semitic language that Jesus preached in?) are not. From the Jerusalem Bible:
So what can we do with the fact that the embracing couple is in the present tense (reinforced by the fact that the second lines of each verse are identical) whereas the six embraced one are in the future tense (once again in a language that has a future tense)? I will not go further here. Ehrman seems to be wrong when he states:
There might be some truth in that, abstractly speaking, but the verb tenses do not say that. This is already true for “the poor in spirit” and “those who are persecuted in the cause of right.” The parallel emphasizes the Christian value of “spirit” and also deepens the mysterious meaning of that term. But the future between these two Beatitudes completely goes against the narrow apocalyptical interpretation of Jesus. It has to be set in line with the necessary preparation of men on this earth to get ready for Doomsday. Doomsday might be near at hand, but Christians have to be prepared, ready. We understand the last Beatitude very easily: the martyrs are ready of course since they suffer for their faith, hence have already accepted the new faith, but who are those “poor in spirit” who are ready too? The meaning is probably contained in the following verses:
The future comes back here for those in the last Beatitude that was in the present, but also the connection with the Old Testament, the old prophets, who were persecuted by the Jews at large, within the people of Israel, emphasizing there that Jesus considers his followers are being persecuted by the Jews, within the people of Israel. We also note the tone has changed: Matthew abandons the abstract third person discourse for a direct concrete second person discourse. Jesus now addresses a concrete audience of Jews that he already considers converted to his ideas and ready to fight and suffer for them. In fact this reveals that the verses 3 to 10, that are in verse, are a literary rewriting of Jesus’s discourse, whereas verses 11 and 12, that are in prose, are a direct report of what Jesus may have really said to a real audience. This is ignored by Ehrman who quotes this passage partially, dropping most of these Beatitudes to fit his own discourse, and what’s more drawing a conclusion that is not correct as for the simple facts he is dealing with. He who wants to prove too much too fast may prove nothing.
He does use the apocalyptical context of Jewish preachers and believers at the time of Jesus, with John the Baptist and the Essenes who produced the Dead Sea Scrolls. But he does not go beyond that. That is enough for him to assert that Jesus is an apocalypticist, without wondering if there is an evolution in Jesus from the beginning to the end of his ministry. He probably started as an apocalypticist. But all his discourse on love, forgiveness, and the necessity to fight against the division of fundamental couples and to reunite the antagons of these couples that can go as far as loving his enemies and forgiving the Roman soldiers who are crucifying him and the Jewish high priests who are having him crucified. The canonical Gospels or texts, as well as the apocryphal documents abound in such declarations. And that leads me to the “bridal chamber” of Philip that Ehrman declares ununderstandable (“Especially intriguing is the sacrament of the bridal chamber” ). In fact Ehrman should have quoted Philip, which he does not do in a very scholastic approach, and the intriguing element would have been a lot less intriguing:
We must remember that this Gospel is in Coptic, hence for the farmers in Egypt, up the valley of the Nile. We can feel the context that will in many ways produce a certain vision of woman in Islam later on. The woman here is literally cut away from the world as a woman, though not completely. She is practically, with one exception in the friend of the bridegroom, the prisoner of her family. The context is essential to understand that. Note that the ointment is brought back into this picture and definitely has a sexual meaning though entirely contained in matrimony. But at the same time, we know that in the Book of Revelation, the bridegroom is the Lamb, that is to say Christ, and the bride is the Jerusalem of the future. The union of the bride and the bridegroom is the promise beyond the apocalypse and judgement, the promise of eternal salvation, which shows that John never understood Jesus as advocating abstinence. Jesus will marry the Jerusalem that crucified him and regenerate it at the same time into the Jerusalem of the future. The union of the two antagons will produce the new union of two non-antagons, and yet two different elements. The Lamb is a male and Jerusalem is a female. The sexual union of the two ex-antagons will produce the perfect and eternal union that will salvage and redeem the world.
That is in such elements that Ehrman should have looked for the context. Jesus is not an apocalypticist who can see the future, the solution of the contradiction between good and evil in the destruction of one of the two antagons, but far more an Aristotelian who advocates the future of the world, the salvation and redemption of the world in the union of the two antagons into a new synthesis that does not destroy any one of the two antagons but redeems both of them. In fact the Jerusalem of Palestine crucified its antagon Jesus, but in the future Jesus will marry this Jerusalem and redeem it into the future heavenly Jerusalem. Love your enemy and you will save yourself and save that enemy.
Note at the same time that Jesus cannot be seen as a Marxist because of that: there is no war between the antagons, between the downtrodden and the powerful who crush the downtrodden down. The only solution can come from the downtrodden, as Marx will say, but these downtrodden have to love and forgive their enemies, the powerful, because the downtrodden do not consider them as enemies but as erring people, and this love will open the road to the future Jerusalem, the marriage of the antagons into a new union in which both will remain different but will become equal. When Ehrman sees the negation of sexuality in Jesus as an apocalypticist who considers sex as useless and sex as having to be abolished in the future Jerusalem, the taking into account of all the documents and of the whole context leads to the different conclusion that Jesus advocated the going beyond differences not to negate them but to produce a new unity of these differences redeemed of their antagonism. That is why Ehrman does not understand and misinterprets the quotation of Thomas he gives on page 181 [verse 114 for him, 118 in my version]. He only retains in his discussion the two following elements as meaningful: “I myself shall lead her in order to make her male” and “every woman who will make herself male” and he forgets that between those two there is a third element that explains everything: “so that she too may become a living spirit resembling [in my version like] you males.” “Like” is more abstract and less visual, resembling is definitely visual and emphasizes the desexualisation of Mary, because we are speaking of Mary Magdalene who has been asked to leave by Peter: “Let Mariam go out from us, for women are not worthy of The Life (in Ehrman’s version ‘of life’ without an article and without a capital letter).” Jesus is rebuking Simon Peter and Ehrman is erasing The Life that must allude again to the oil of life, the abstract knowledge one only has when he is in contact with God and his spirit. The element that Ehrman neglects is very clear. Mariam will be a male, or rather “like” a male, if she becomes a “living spirit,” if her life is filled with the spirit, not like any man, but like the apostles who are around Jesus, because this spirit Mary Magdalene can find it in her contact with Jesus, and from Jesus, and this spirit will give her “The Life.”
So where is Jesus in that? He is the one who brought a discourse that could articulate the contradictions of the time into some kind of a new synthesis of the antagons. And here, though Ehrman negates it in a way and yet accepts it too, Constantine was crucial. Without Constantine that new synthesis would not have been possible or would have taken a lot more time to get into power, hence that new equilibrium which was indispensable because the Empire was confronted to the Germanic tribes who were not knocking at the door for entry but starting to knock the doors down. The Christian religion was the only easy way for Constantine to unify the Empire, after he had conquered power of course, under his rule and get it ready for the coming fights and battles.
Even in his most apocalyptical approach, Jesus or his followers, particularly John, was seeing beyond this apocalypse. Men and women were supposed to be ready for the coming of this Doomsday and he understood that things had to be done straight away and in the society the way it was, though that meant changing it, changing the rules, no longer cleaning your hands, as if being clean in your body was enough to be clean for God, but cleaning your heart because real cleanliness is in the heart and not in the body, and by heart Jesus always meant the spirit that is in any man and any woman and can receive God and his message. So there is no point discussing Jesus’s marriage to Mary Magdalene, etc., because that was not the point for Jesus and his followers: the point was to move the world forward for it to be ready for doomsday, though I think we have quite enough elements in the canonical Gospels and texts and in the apocrypha and pseudepigrapha to assert that Jesus did not have a desexualized vision of or ideal for the world, present and future. And we have to take the whole corpus of early Christian documents (over three centuries) in an anthropological approach to understand anything and reconstruct the mystery (common meaning not Christian meaning) that is called Jesus.
I think this book is essential if we want to get some perspective about Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, but it is not enough and Dan Brown’s book does not deserve researchers in religious history to analyze and criticize it. It is not a piece of research in that field. It is a novel and nothing else, not even science fiction. So read Ehrman’s book and try to neglect the constant hammering it contains against Dan Brown’s book. Read it for the research and method on historical questions it contains. You may even see better why Blake was Blake, why the radical dissenters of the seventeenth century were so divided, and you may understand that when a social contradiction is engrossed with a religious contradiction, the solution will have to come from within that religious contradiction, if we do not want to get into radical solutions that some other people in the twentieth century also called final solutions.
Bart D. Ehrman should have worked six more months on that book to get away from Dan Brown and up into a wider and more constructive approach. One thing is sure, Dan Brown, if that was his intention as exposed in the book by a couple of characters, has definitely stirred the boat of the tradition in religion and millions of people are probably somewhere wondering about some crucial religious questions, even if most of them know that a book is a virtual being that more or less loses all reality when we close the back cover down.