Jesus, Mary and DaVinci

Tuesday, November 04, 2003



Last night, ABC aired a Prime Time Special entitled "Jesus, Mary, and DaVinci" based on the proposal of a recent historical novel called The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown. Elizabeth Vargus anchored the program.

The novel by Dan Brown is a fictional murder mystery that unfolds a sub-plot of a secret society that the author suggests existed from the time of Christ. The author holds to the theory that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, and that she fled to France to bear Jesus' child. A secret society was formed to protect the heirs of Christ, and the search for the legendary holy grail was a symbolic code for the search for Jesus' descendants.

Normally, such stuff would not be taken seriously, but the author insists that he bases his literary device on actual historical evidence. As evidence, the author and some other scholars try to build the case that the resurrection accounts in the canonical Gospels and the Gnostic Gospels contain early evidence Jesus was married.

Based on the evidence available today, this theory is nonsense.

Lest I be accused of hiding information in order to defend the Church, let me post a link to early Christian writings that include the Gnostic writings.

In the television program, Karen King of Havard University quoted a line from John's Gospel as evidence that Jesus was married:
Jesus said to her, "Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and tell them, 'I am going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'"(John 20:17)
Those who believe that Jesus was married see evidence for their theory in the fact that Mary would seek to hug Jesus, which would be an intimate gesture that would be forbidden in Jewish society between a man and woman who are not married.

This argument is unconvincing for three reasons.

First, we cannot take the resurrection accounts as literal history in our modern understanding. These narratives are proclamations of faith, though there is certainly history behind the text. The author may be placing the words, "Do not cling to me" in Jesus mouth, less as actual words spoken by the savior to Mary, and more as words of Christ to the early Church after the ascension. The text is referring more to a psychological clinging that the disciples felt after the crucifixion. In a way, the text is saying to all of us, "Do not cling to my physical body, for I will be with you in other ways when I ascend to my Father."

Second, Jesus broke many barriers with woman. Indeed, in John 4:27, the Twelve seem surprised by Jesus' intimate discussion with a woman in a public place. Even if Mary did try to hug Jesus, it does not conclusively prove by itself that they were married, because Jesus was a very affectionate person who often challenged social taboos. We see this as well when he asks the disciples to let children come to him (see Matt 19:13-14).

Third, there is abundant evidence in the canonical New Testament that Jesus was celibate. I will demonstrate this below with some key passages. Before doing this, let's take a look at the argument made from the Gnostic Gospels regarding Mary Magdalene as the wife of Jesus.

In the Gospel of Mary discovered at Nag Hammadi, and dated to the second century sometime between 120 and 180 AD, it is very clear that Mary Magdalene was seen by some people as the preeminent Apostle of the Church, with authority even over Peter. What fragments remain of the text can be easily read in less than 10 minutes.

In this text, Peter says the following to Mary:
Peter said to Mary, Sister we know that the Savior loved you more than the rest of woman.(ch. and v: 5:5)
Yet, Peter is disturbed that Mary claims special knowledge that was not revealed to the Twelve:
He questioned them about the Savior: Did He really speak privately with a woman and not openly to us? Are we to turn about and all listen to her? Did He prefer her to us?(ch. and v. 9:4)
To which Levi responds:
But if the Savior made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her? Surely the Savior knows her very well. That is why He loved her more than us. Rather let us be ashamed and put on the perfect Man, and separate as He commanded us and preach the gospel, not laying down any other rule or other law beyond what the Savior said. (ch. and v. 9:8-9)
Mary also plays a prominent role as a disciple equal to the Twelve in The Dialogue of the Savior found at Nag Hammadi and dated to about the same period.

While both of these texts provide evidence that the early Church may have given Mary Magdalene a very prominent role as an Apostle, neither indicates that she was married to Jesus. Indeed, Peter's hesistancy to believe Christ had private convsersations with Mary would be impossible if he thought they were married!

The television program quoted a scholar who said there are texts that refer to Jesus kissing Mary on the mouth more than others. I did not quite catch the reference for this. With a little research, I believe the reference is to The Gosepl of Phillip written in the late second or early third century.

The TV program quoted one scholar who emphasized that their was a hole in the parchment, so that the text actually says "He kissed her on the .....more than others." One could substitute head as easily as mouth. Furthermore, the earlier canonical Gospels record that Jesus and Judas kissed, and nobody is arguing they were married!

If this were the Gospel of Phillip, the passage could be translated as follows:
As for the Wisdom who is called "the barren," she is the mother of the angels. And 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 Savior answered and said to them,"Why do I not love you like her? When a blind man and one who sees are both together in darkness, they are no different from one another. When the light comes, then he who sees will see the light, and he who is blind will remain in darkness."
In this translation from the link above, it is probable, but not absolutely clear that it is Jesus who loves Mary more than others, or Jesus who kisses her more than others. Nor is it even absolutely clear that Mary is the one being kissed. The subject is missing, and the object is refered to by a feminine pronoun. Even if we assume the subject is Jesus, and the object is Mary, the final sentences of the passage clarify that this a religious love, and there is no clear connotation of sexual love.

Finally, if Jesus kissed Mary more than others, the implication is that he was kissing many people, and we still have no evidence that Jesus was married to Mary unless we want to argue he was polygamous.

Against the conservatives, a case can be made from both the canonical and Gnostic Gospels that Jesus was a compassionate and tender, "touchy-feely, warm and fuzzy" kind of guy. Yet, against the other extreme, the evidence that Jesus was married is weak to non-existent.

For those who think I am merely defending Catholic bias, consider that Elaine Pagels, an expert on the Gnostics who is about as far from being a defender of orthodoxy as one can possibly get, was quoted on the program as saying: "The weight of evidence that we have suggests to me the contrary, that in fact he was a celibate." Indeed, most of the Gnostic Gospels place an undue emphasis on celibacy and have a distorted view of human sexuality, which is why many of these ancient texts were originally rejected by the orthodox churches.

What evidence is there that Jesus was celibate?

Father Richard McBrien and other scholars on the program pointed to 1 Corinthians as evidence that Jesus was celibate. McBrien indicated that Paul is sort of "whining" about his celibacy. I did not catch the exact verse that McBrien was referring to, but I believe he may have been referencing 1 Cor 9:5-6, though I don't personally see this passage as a whine:
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. Or is it only myself and Barnabas who do not have the right not to work?
The passage proves that our first Pope, Peter, or Cephas, was a married man who did not give up his wife when he went on mission. It also demonstrates in the context of the entire letter that Paul was celibate. See also 1 Cor 7:7, where in the context of celibacy, paul says:
Indeed, I wish everyone to be as I am, but each has a particular gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.
McBrien's aurgument is that Paul would have modeled his celibate commitment on example of Jesus.

In Matthew 19:10-12, after having told the disciples that married people should not divorce, the following discourse is related:
His disciples said to him, "If that is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry." He answered, "Not all can accept this word, but only those to whom that is granted. Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so; some, because they were made so by others; some, because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it."
If Jesus actually said these words, why did the Gospel writer select these words from all that Jesus taught in his ministry? If Jesus did not say these words, why did the author add them through his own redaction? I argue that the author places these words in Jesus mouth as early apologetic.

Matthew's Gospel is aimed at a Jewish Christian audience, unlike Luke, who writes more for Gentile Christians. For a first century Jew, celibacy would have been a strange thing, and Jews who rejected Christ likely made accusations about his sexuality. Thus, the author is either quoting Jesus, or creating a narrative that explains why Jesus chose to remain unmarried. It is also interesting to note that in Mark 3:32, 6:3 and Matt 13:55, where the family of Jesus comes looking for him, there is never mention of a wife. Furthermore, passages such Luke 14:26 and Matt 10:37 make sense in the context of a movement initiated by a celibate.

The program went on to quote various people who believe that an ancient French legend dating back to the Merovingian era that Mary Magdalene and Lazarus landed on the southern shore, and that her children became the royal line. The search for the legendary holy grail is said to be a search for the descendants of Jesus, where Mary is the holy grail as the vessel of his blood line. The Merovingians reigned in France between about the fifth century to the eighth century.

Leonardo DaVinci is portrayed as a believer in these legends, and an examination of his painting of the last supper indicates some interesting things. There is no chalice in the painting, and the portrayal of one of the aposltes (customarily thought to be John) is so effimate that some people argue DaVinci was placing Mary in the painting.

I believe the antiquity of the legend, but I see no reason to believe there is any history behind the legend. This type of legend seems to be the stuff of justifying such notions as the divine right of kings. I believe there is no solid evidence that the legend existed prior to the fifth century or later. I doubt Leonardo was painting a woman, because there are only twelve people surrounding Jesus in the painting. Again, there is no good evidence Jesus was married, while there does exist good evidence he was celibate.

At the same time, I do think the canonical Gospels provide evidence that there were other people than the Twelve present at the Last Supper. For evidence of other people than the Twelve at the Last Supper, consider the following:

- In Mark 14: 20, Jesus advises someone at the Last Supper that "one of the Twelve" will be his betrayer. To whom was he speaking when he said "one of the Twelve"?

- In Mark 14: 47-52, an unnamed bystander runs from the garden of Gethsemane naked. Tradition holds that this was Mark, himself, who was not a member of the Twelve. If he were present in the garden, was he not also present at the supper? This is suggestive that others than the Twelve were present at the Last Supper.

- The number of soldiers that come arrest Christ in John's gospel is estimated at 600 soldiers which is too large for a small band of twelve men. This is also suggestive that a larger group than twelve was present at the Last Supper. (see Jn 18:3 footnote 3 of the NAB)

Yet, none of this proves that Mary Magdalene is the spouse of Christ or that she bore his children. Nor does it even definitively tell us what DaVinci thought. Furthermore, DaVinci is about 40 generations after Christ, so even if he believed this ancient legend, what does it prove?

On this issue, I think it is important to note that an atheist, Umberto Eco, places the theory that there is history behind the legend in the category of flat earth theory!

The program quoted Father Richard McBrien saying that he would see no contradiction between orthodox Trinitarian doctrine and a married Christ. McBrien said he believes that the weight of evidence is toward a celibate Christ, but he would not lose faith if Jesus were married. He stated that the idea that God incarnate could not have married sex could only come from those who see all sex as corrupt and sinful.

Ultimately, I agree with McBrien that I would not lose faith in the divinity of Christ if it were conclusively demonstrated that he was married. However, I have to admit that I prefer the symbol of a celibate Christ. We can each imagine that a celibate Christ loves each of us as a spouse, or even more than a spouse.

A married Jesus presents a man who loved one person in a manner the rest of us will never share. Yet, the Gospel's speak of Jesus going through human growth (see Lk 2:40), and there is no doctrinal reason that Christ, in his humanity, may not have passed through a stage of experiencing the wonder and joy of human married love.

Nevertheless, all the evidence points to a celibate Christ, and I see no reason at this point in history to try to theologize seriously about what a married Jesus means to us.

What distresses me about a program like this is not that people ask questions. Questions help us grow. What is exasperating is that people like Karen King and Dan Brown make assertions with such scanty evidence, ignoring strong counter evidence, and appealing to their academic credentials to gain a hearing. And in doing so, they distract us all from the more important questions we should be asking from what we can learn in the ancient witness of some of the non-canonical texts.

The important question is not whether Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, but whether Jesus ordained her!

These ancient texts give witness to confusion in the early Church about the role of women, and they prove that some people who called themselves Christians, and may have even been orthodox on all other counts, held that women could be ordained!

For example, in light of all recent textual discoveries, it is widely accepted that Mary Magdalene probably was not a prostitute. More importantly, she was likely pre-eminent among the Apostles. While I like the story of a converted prostitute becoming a great saint, the historical record indicates that there was more likely fourth or fifth century attempt to smear the name of Mary Magdalene in order to suppress Christians who regarded her as an Apostle.

Saint Paul refers to 500 witnesses of the resurrection as Apostles in 1 Cor 15:5-9. Mary Magdalene is the first witness to the resurrection in all of the canonical Gospels! Paul also refers to a woman named Junia as an Apostle in Rom 16:7. The Gospel of Mary and the The Dialogue of the savior referenced above indicate that a belief in women apostles was "in the air" in the second century. We also see this in The Acts of Paul where a woman named Thecla is called an Apostle. There is little that can be clearly called more unorthodox in these text than ideas found Dionysius the Areopagite, and Dionysius was held in high regard by Thomas Aquinas.

What I see happening here is that there very clear evidence that women played a prominent role in early Christianity. Not until Tertullian do we start seeing clear resistance to woman leaders in the Church, and his reasoning was explicitly misogynist. Furthermore, he eventually was condemned as a heretic. Not until the fourth century to we have orthodox bishops and saints clearly acting to eliminate women from ministerial roles, and the non-canonical text bear witness to the fact that there were women who held roles of ministerial leadership, including ordained roles!

Peace and Blessings!

Readers may contact me at

Post Script: After reading The Da Vinci Code I wrote a review Here.

None of my critique of Brown's theory of a marriage between Mary Magdalene and Jesus presented above was changed by the book, and I found other troublesome portions. But the book was a fun read and does raise some valid questions.


posted by Jcecil3 1:40 PM

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