‘Code’ still just a novel, despite news ‘documentary’

Originally printed in the Sunday Visitor in November, 2003. With the upcoming movie starring Tom Hanks, I thought this would be an important thing to reprint.

Novel’s claim that Jesus wed Mary Magdalene and fathered a child with her not supported by sound Scripture exegesis or history

By Msgr. Owen F. Campion


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‘Code’ still just a novel, despite news ‘documentary’
by Msgr. Owen F. Campion

A new novel that suggests deceit, power struggles and the suppression of truth on the part of the Catholic Church is maintaining a steady perch atop the best-seller lists these days, and many people — Catholics included — appear to regard this novel as historically accurate.

It isn’t.

Last June, Our Sunday Visitor was the first national Catholic publication to review the novel, Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” (Doubleday, $24.95), and point out its egregious errors and the troublesome agenda that likely motivated its writing.

Earlier this month, ABC TV added a false air of credibility to the novel when it broadcast an hour-long “news documentary,” hosted by reporter Elizabeth Vargas, that entertained the possibility of some of the book’s claims. Among these claims are that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and that they had a child together. The book suggests that the Church has gone to great lengths to cover this up and to write Mary Magdalene’s elevated role out of Scripture and history.

The Nov. 3 program, “Jesus, Mary and Da Vinci,” interviewed several individuals — including media favorite Father Richard McBrien — but voices defending the Catholic perspective were scant, if not entirely absent.

In answering these claims about Jesus and Mary Magdalene, two main questions ought to be considered:

  • What do bona fide biblical scholars and historians say about the Gospels’ message in this regard? What about the tradition of 20 centuries?
  • In what context does the book, and other writings with the same conclusion, appear?

Real scholars say

No biblical scholar of any religion who is recognized by peers as an authority will point to any Gospel verse as indicating that Jesus was married to anyone. Even the most liberal of scholars will go only so far as to say that the Gospels do not explicitly say Jesus was not married.

The New Testament grew from early Christian communities that set down in writing the oral recollections believers had of Jesus and His ministry for fear of losing any detail about His life. “The Da Vinci Code” charges that these early Christians edited these recollections to suit their strong personal prejudice against sex and women. Thus, the charge goes, these first Christians would rather obscure the truth of Jesus’ marriage to Mary Magdalene than admit that the Lord was sexually active or a woman was so close to Him.

How did Scripture writers and the Church accomplish that subterfuge? Critics charge that the Church depicted Mary Magdalene not as the spouse of Christ, but as a sexually promiscuous, morally weak woman before her encounter with Jesus — by equating her with the prostitute Jesus forgives (Lk 7:36-50) and by stating she had seven demons (Lk 8:2 and Mk 16:9).

The ABC show noted that Pope Gregory the Great, who reigned from A.D. 590 to 604, called Mary Magdalene a prostitute in one of his sermons. This is hardly evidence of anything: Papal sermons are not in and of themselves infallible, and no credible Catholic biblical scholar has referred to her as a prostitute for at least 50 years.

Diabolical possession was the diagnosis in biblical days for many medical and psychiatric problems. Such a reference was not to discredit Mary; rather, the Gospel writers sought to present Mary Magdalene as someone with a troubled life who found acceptance, forgiveness and redemption in Jesus as Lord.

Historically, the Catholic Church has always celebrated Mary Magdalene for her unwavering faith in Jesus — a faith He rewarded by appearing to her after the Resurrection.

Brown’s book and the ABC special suggest she was a true apostle of Christ but that, as the Church developed into a patriarchal structure, it hid this fact rather than admit Jesus called a woman into His inner circle.

Yet, although the Gospels mention Mary Magdalene a number of times — her home, her conversion, her faith at the cross, her discovery of the empty tomb — she appears on none of the lists of the apostles as given in three of the Gospels and in Acts.

Attacking roots

Scriptural evidence of Jesus being married to Mary is simply not to be found. St. Paul, who always held up Jesus as a model, wrote passionately about marriage but never mentioned Jesus as a husband or father. Claims of this alleged relationship rest on manufactured evidence, such as Margaret Starbird’s equation of the sinful woman’s anointing of Jesus’ feet with a marriage ritual, or Brown’s assertion that the Dead Sea Scrolls refer to Mary Magdalene as Jesus’ “companion” and indicate that the two of them kissed. And the fantasy about their having a daughter and a bloodline kept under wraps by a secret society is the kind of intrigue only the wildest of conspiracy theorists could entertain.

To assume that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were wed and had parented a child gnaws at the very roots of Christian belief. It stands on the presumption that the New Testament writers were liars, putting their own opinions above the Lord and the Good News. Were this the case, Christians could not trust either the Church or the New Testament.

Above all, people need to remember the context and not get carried away by imagination.

“The Da Vinci Code” is simply a novel — not a history book, not a serious Scripture study and certainly not credible as either history or biblical interpretation. Brown is neither a historian nor a theologian; since leaving his position as an English teacher, he has written several techno-thrillers. He uses obscure historical references and conjecture and strings them together to make a fascinating story, but it remains just that — a story.

ABC’s “Jesus, Mary and Da Vinci” was an effort to win viewers and ratings by riding the wave of the controversial new novel — one that feeds several problematic agendas at once.

Who’s at the Last Supper?

Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting of the Last Supper shows no chalice, or Holy Grail, on the table. Author Dan Brown claims the Grail is there — except it’s not a chalice, but Mary Magdalene, who he says was pregnant with Jesus’ child.

The long-haired, soft-featured figure on Jesus’ right is the one Brown suspects is Mary. Traditionally, the figure is seen as the apostle John, who was a young man at the time.

Brown’s conspiracy theory goes on to suggest that da Vinci was part of a longstanding clandestine group, the Priory of Sion, that kept the secret of a supposed marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, and the existence of their progeny.

This theory has never been advanced until now. And although “The Last Supper” has been perhaps the most studied painting over the past five centuries, no art historian has ever raised the question of the missing Grail or Mary Magdalene’s presence.

— Msgr. Owen F. Campion is associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor. To read Amy Welborn’s review of “The Da Vinci Code,” visit www.osv.com.

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