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The Magdalen and The Da Vinci Code

The Da Vinci Code maintains that Jesus and Mary Magdalene enjoyed a sexual relationship and had children. As the recent British lawsuit made clear, Dan Brown derived this notion from Holy Blood, Holy Grail, a work of the 1980s that pretends to be a historical study. Brown argues that patriarchal Christianity gave us the familiar image of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute and suppressed knowledge of the relationship between Jesus and Mary.

Brown’s story contains elements of truth. The legend of Mary the prostitute, found nowhere in the New Testament but well attested by the sixth century, developed from a conflation of several biblical women. It undercut Mary’s status and, therefore, women’s status in the church.


The legend of Mary the prostitute undercut her status and, therefore, women’s status in the church.

The Gospels (Luke 8:2–3) portray Mary as a key follower of Jesus, who supported his public ministry and witnessed his resurrection. The Gospel of John offers the most elaborate account. Peter and the “beloved disciple” come to the tomb on Easter morning. The beloved disciple looks in and believes, but Peter doesn’t understand. Mary turns from the empty tomb and stands grieving in the garden. She asks one whom she takes to be the gardener what he has done with the body of Jesus. Upon hearing his voice calling, “Mary,” she turns and recognizes him, saying, “Rabboni, my master.” Jesus commissions her to tell his disciples that he has risen—thus making her apostle to the apostles.

Church fathers such as Hippolytus, a bishop in third-century Rome, acknowledged this role, despite the fact that other New Testament texts honor Peter as the primary witness. The emphasis on Peter’s role reflects a masculine bias that would come to dominate early Christian literature and social organization.

The claims about a sexual relationship between Jesus and Mary rest in part on false assumptions (e.g., that all Jewish men in the first century were married) and the evidence of two second-century apocryphal works. One, the Gospel of Mary, recounts a post-resurrection dialogue in which Jesus teaches his disciples about their return to the world of spirit. After Jesus' ascension, Mary tells of her visionary experience and explains the teaching of Jesus. Peter objects to her teaching, but Levi says, “Mary can teach us because Jesus loved her more than any of us.”

This text—hardly evidence for first-century history—defends women’s roles as teachers and preachers, roles threatened by an increasingly patriarchal church. But support for women’s leadership is not an endorsement of sexuality. Ecclesiastical leadership in such texts is usually associated with strict ascetical discipline.


“Jesus loved Mary more than the rest of us, because he used to kiss her on the …”—and here is a hole in the text.

The second text, the Gospel of Philip, focuses on rituals, including the ritual kiss. This was an early equivalent of “passing the peace”: instead of shaking hands with those next to you, you kiss them, in the Mediterranean mode of greeting. The practice won second-century Christians a bad reputation. Men and women, gathered in nocturnal assembly—calling each other “brother” and “sister,” and kissing—sounded to critical ears like incest. Such folk also claimed to eat flesh and drink blood, evidence of cannibalism!

Many second-century apologists sought to refute such accusations. This text seeks, rather, to explain Christian ritual. It interprets the kiss as a means of inculcating spiritual value. Like the Gospel of Mary, it also cites precedent: “Jesus loved Mary more than the rest of us, because he used to kiss her on the…”—and here is a hole in the text. One reasonable supplement is the word “mouth.” Brown construes the passage as evidence of a sexual relationship. But the context suggests that the story is an etiological legend, justifying the ritual: “We can exchange the ritual kiss because even Jesus did so with Mary.”

Is it possible that Jesus and Mary had a sexual relationship? Of course, and if so, he would indeed be a very human character. But is it probable? Early evidence suggests otherwise. His sayings subordinating family life to loyalty to his cause (e.g., Luke 14:26) point in another direction. His “hard saying” about those who make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 19:12) also bespeaks commitment to a radical, celibate lifestyle. Such a saying is not what someone would invent, but what a provocative preacher and teacher like Jesus probably pronounced. It is hard to think of the man who said that having a wife and children.

The Da Vinci Code continues to fascinate, in part because it is an engaging bit of pulp fiction, in part because it raises provocative questions about Christian origins. The fiction may be entertaining; the historical claims must be taken cum grano salis.  the end


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