Kearsarge Unitarian Universalist Fellowship
Stone Chapel, Proctor Academy, Andover, NH
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The following is the text from Earl Abbe's presentation on October 16, 2005.

CHRISTIANITY, GNOSTICISM AND THE DA VINCI CODE

 PREFACE

Good Morning.  The topic of discussion this morning is Christianity, Gnosticism and The Da Vinci Code.  My information on the matter was obtained by reading and other study.  Many of the source materials are on the back table for your later inspection.  Our time is brief; we have only 45 minutes.  I plan to talk for half of that and to invite questions and discussion for the remainder.  We can also continue our discussions at the coffee hour after the service. 

THE BOOK

To Begin:  The Da Vinci Code by author Dan Brown is a publishing phenomenon.  Prior to The Da Vinci Code, Brown published three novels selling a total of 20,000 copies.  As of today (10/16/05) The Da Vinci Code has been on the New York Times Best Seller List for 133 consecutive weeks and has sold well over 27 million copies.  27 million copies.  Clearly the book has something going for it.

It is a fun read.  But why should a comparatively light-hearted adventure story attract such interest?  It is not the complex plot weaving menace with history, secret societies, art, and architecture.  Brown’s previous novel, Angels and Demons, had all that and even the same hero but had sold only in the low thousands by that time.  What The Code has that its predecessor lacks is a supposed secret from the foundation of Christianity, which the Church tried to destroy and a complex series of people and organizations preserved for various reasons.  And it is not a tale that Brown invented.

The long story of these competing forces is fascinating and full of hypotheses, myths and lies.  It touches on, and at times explains, some of the mysterious events of Western history.  It embroils some of the most famous personages in a great game of power and deception.  There is no way that we can do justice to even a small part of it in the brief time that we have here.  So, unfortunately, I will not expound on the Cult of the Black Virgin, the Emperor Constantine and the Council of Nicea, the selection and editing of Scripture, the Merovingian kings, the Priory of Sion, the conquest of the Holy Land, the Knights Templar, the Holy Grail, the Albigensian Crusade and the Cathars, the symbolism in Da Vinci’s art, the Freemasons, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Rennes-le-Chateau and many other associated matters.

Instead I will jump to the heart of the matter.  Clearly the role of Mary Magdalene in the life and work of Jesus Christ was different and more important than is traditionally presented.  The supposed secret of The Da Vinci Code is that this role included Mary being Jesus’ wife and the mother of his child.  Additionally it claims that descendents of this child—Jesus’ child—are alive today.  These ideas are very disturbing or even blasphemous to many people.  A major Catholic organization is now demanding that the upcoming movie version of The Da Vinci Code be prefaced by a statement that the story is a only work of fiction.

Of course The Da Vinci Code is a work of fiction, with invented characters and events.  It also includes misstatements, exaggerations and hypotheses presented as fact.  But author Brown did not invent the supposed secret of The Da Vinci Code, nor is it without support.  Let us consider what is known. 

THE EARLY CHURCH DIVIDED

Despite the supposedly coherent view of Jesus’ life and teachings given in the New Testament the record is far from clear and there were major, major disagreements in the early Church.  These disagreements were about such fundamental matters as the nature of God, Jesus, the World, the crucifixion and resurrection, salvation, the Kingdom of Heaven, and Jewish scripture and practice.

For example, what was the nature of Jesus?  Was he human or divine or both?  Here are some of the known different beliefs of various early Christian groups:

      Jesus was a good man adopted by God,

     Jesus was two beings—a man possessed by a divine spirit,

He was one being who was somehow part human and part divine,

He was one being simultaneously completely human and completely divine,

He was a subordinate god who only simulated the form of a man,

And he was the Creator of the Universe incarnate.

We can see hints of these divisions in the New Testament Epistles and the surviving polemics against heresy.  But history is written by the victors.  Works deemed heretical were destroyed or simply not preserved.  Except for isolated fragments, scholars had little material to show what any of the losers in those early doctrinal wars had really thought.  This changed in 1945.

In December 1945, bedouin fieldhands in Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt found a burial containing 46 Gnostic writings, sealed in a jar sometime in the 400s.  After a complex series of events, most of the material survived to become available for study.  We now know much of what the disparate Gnostic groups believed and practiced.  It is a fascinating alternative Christianity.

Here are some of the shared Gnostic beliefs: 

The god of the Old Testament is an inferior, legalistic bumbler who produced an inferior, bumbled creation.  Man’s body is from him but man’s spirit is from the ultimate god, who sent Jesus to show us the way to free ourselves from this sorry world and return to the higher god.

The crucifixion was in some manner a sham.  The resurrection either did not occur or is irrelevant.

The Kingdom of Heaven is available now, within each person and hidden all around us, and is not some entity that will appear on earth after an apocalyptic event.

Salvation is to be achieved through true knowledge of the world and self.  This knowledge is secret or esoteric and must be individually attained.  There is no authoritative doctrine or creed.

And so on.

Of particular importance to our discussion are copies of the Gnostic gospels of Philip and of Mary found in the Nag Hammadi collection. 

MARY MAGDALENE

We all learned of Mary of Magdala or Mary Magdalene as the prostitute who repented and followed Jesus and whose sole importance was to be the first to discover his empty tomb and receive the message of his resurrection.  Very inspiring—a reformed sinner, so humble a person to be granted such a wonderful role.  So what is wrong with this picture?  Well, for one thing, the canonical and Gnostic Gospels do not support it.  Pope Gregory I in the 500s declared that Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, and the unnamed repentant prostitute mentioned in the New Testament were all the same individual and that is the view widely held to this day.  Some even add the unnamed “woman taken in adultery” to the mix.  However, even the Catholic Church (as of 1969) admits that that pope on this matter was wrong.

In the New Testament the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene are the only women mentioned in every gospel.  In all but one of the enumerations of the women with Jesus, Mary Magdalene is listed first, appearing before even (yet another) Mary the mother of two Apostles, and Joanna the wife of King Herod’s steward.  Luke states (8:2-3) that Mary Magdalene and the others “ministered” to Jesus “of their substance”; that is, they funded Jesus’ ministry.  Mary Magdalene is presented as an independent woman of status and means.

In the Gnostic Gospel of Mary, Mary Magdalene reports a private apocalyptic vision that she has received from Jesus.  She, with Thomas and Matthew, receives another apocalyptic vision from Jesus in “The Dialogue of the Savior”, one of the other Nag Hammadi documents.

In the Gospel of Mary, after Jesus’ final departure, Mary Magdalene is portrayed as rallying the dispirited male apostles and sending them forth to preach the good news.

And finally, in a Gnostic document entitled “Pistis Sophia” that was found in Egypt, but not at Nag Hammadi, Jesus is asked a series of 46 questions.  Mary Magdalene asks 39 of those questions and Jesus describes her as being more devoted to heaven’s kingdom than all the male disciples.

So Mary Magdalene appears to have been not otherwise attached, marriageable, and prominently on the scene. 

JESUS MARRIED?

But is it reasonable to believe that Jesus married anyone?  It was the usual practice for adult male Jews to be married and the production of children is an obsessive preoccupation in the early Jewish scriptures.  However, if Jesus had erroneously believed, like the Essenes, that the end of the world was about to occur, he, like the Essenes, would probably have been celibate.

But at the Marriage in Cana, Jesus does not object to the event and performs his first canonically recorded miracle to facilitate the proceedings.

Also, in the canonical and Gnostic gospels, Jesus is frequently called rabbi or teacher.  These may have been unearned honorifics.  After all, honorifics are cheap.  (In my career, I did on more than one occasion deliberately call a major “colonel” or add in a gratuitous “doctor” when speaking to someone whose favor I wished to obtain.)  If these rabbi references were more than empty air they are significant however.  Holy Blood, Holy Grail quotes from Jewish Mishnaic Law, “An unmarried man may not be a teacher.”

The Cana wedding event report is a puzzle in itself and may be one of those Biblical accounts that show the effects of bad editing.  As presented, an itinerant preacher early in his career and others associated with him are guests at a wedding party.  The wine has run out.  Suddenly the preacher’s mother and then the preacher start giving orders and the servants of the household snap to and immediately obey them despite their strangeness and wine is produced from water.  But why was Mary so concerned about the state of the party?  Why should it have been Jesus’ responsibility to do anything to bail out the host?  Why were the servants so ready to run about doing strange things for these strangers?  It makes more sense if one assumes that it was Jesus’ house and hence his own wedding. 

WITH THE MAGDALENE?

Now let’s get to the sexy parts, found in the Gospels of Phillip and Mary.

From the Gospel of Mary:

Peter said to Mary:  “Sister, we know that the Teacher loved you differently from other women.  Tell us whatever of any words he told you which we have not yet heard.”  (10:1-6)

And

At this Levi spoke up:  “Peter, you have always been hot-tempered, and now we see you repudiating a woman, just as our adversaries do.  Yet if the Teacher held her worthy, who are you to reject her?  Surely the Teacher knew her very well, for he loved her more than us.  (18:7-14)

In the Gospel of Philip, Mary Magdalene is described as Jesus’ “companion” or “partner” or “consort” with all that implies.  The Coptic language word used can be translated equally well into any of these.

And so from the Gospel of Phillip:

Three Marys walked with the lord:  His mother, his sister, and Mary of Magdala, his companion.  His sister and mother and companion were Mary.  (32)

And

The companion of the savior is Mary Magdalene.  The savior loved her more than all the disciples, and he kissed her often on her mouth.  The other disciples said to him, “Why do you love her more than all of us?”  The Savior answered, saying to them, “Why do not I love you like her?”  (55b)

So we have an interesting possibility that can’t be ruled out, out of hand, that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, and perhaps together with her produced a child.  Gnostic Christians, a couple hundred years after Jesus’ death, appear to have believed in this marriage.  It is of course far, far from proven.  I think that even if the modern group purporting to be the Priory of Sion does come forward with its supposed hidden evidence, the matter will still not be definitively resolved. 

CONCLUDING REMARKS

How do I feel about the concept?  I think that these words from Holy Blood, Holy Grail, summarize my thought far better I can myself:

“Underlying most Christian theology is the assumption that Jesus is God incarnate.  In other words, God, taking pity on His creation, incarnated Himself in that creation and assumed human form.  By doing so He would be able to acquaint Himself at first hand, so to speak, with the human condition.  He would come to understand, in the most profound sense, what it means to be a man—to confront from a human standpoint the loneliness, the anguish, the helplessness, the tragic mortality that the status of manhood entails.  By dint of becoming man God would come to know man in a way that the Old Testament does not allow.  Renouncing His Olympian aloofness and remoteness, He would partake directly of man’s lot.  By doing so He would redeem man’s lot—would validate and justify it by partaking of it, suffering from it, and eventually being sacrificed by it.

“The symbolic significance of Jesus is that he is God exposed to the spectrum of human experience—exposed to the first-hand knowledge of what being a man entails.  But could God, incarnate as Jesus truly claim to be a man, to encompass the spectrum of experience, without coming to know two of the most basic, most elemental facets of the human condition?  Could God claim to know the totality of human existence without confronting two such essential aspects of humanity as sexuality and paternity?

“We do not think so.  In fact, we do not think the Incarnation truly symbolizes what it is intended to symbolize unless Jesus was married and sired children.  The Jesus of the Gospels and of established Christianity is ultimately incomplete—a God whose incarnation as man is only partial.  The Jesus who emerged from our research enjoys, in our opinion, a much more valid claim to what Christianity would have him be.”

And I now invite your questions and comments.

 

(If the discussion lags, ask questions…)

Why do you think people are unsettled by the idea that Jesus was married and fathered a child?

Why did Jesus after the resurrection choose to appear first to Mary Magdalene?

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