The Da Vinci Code

"Do not seek to become a Christian, but a Christ"
The Gospel of Thomas

Elaine Pagels commented on ‘The Da Vinci Code’: What is compelling about this book is not its falsehoods but what is true – that some views of Christian history were buried for centuries because leaders of the early Church wanted to present one version of Jesus' life: theirs. Some of the alternative views of who Jesus was and what he taught were discovered in 1945 in an ancient jar containing more than 50 ancient writings. These documents include gospels that were banned by early church leaders. The companion of Jesus is Mary Magdalene and Jesus loved her more than all the disciples. What if the version of Jesus' life that Christians are taught isn't the right one?

What we know is that Irenaeus insisted that of the dozens of writings revered by various Christians, only four were genuine - Mark, Luke, and John. Few scholars today would agree with Irenaeus and we cannot verify who wrote any of these accounts. The ‘heretical’ texts suggest that the way to God can be found by anyone who seeks. According to the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus suggests that when we come to know ourselves at the deepest level, we come to know God: "If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you.'' This message – to seek for oneself – was not one that bishops like Irenaeus appreciated. Second, Jesus appears as human, yet one through whom the light of God now shines. So, according to the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus said, "I am the light that is before all things; I am all things; all things come forth from me; all things return to me. "Do not seek to become a Christian, but a Christ.'' As Irenaeus read this, it was "an abyss of madness, and blasphemy against Christ.'' Worst of all, perhaps, was that many of these secret texts speak of God not only in masculine images, but also in feminine images. The Secret Book of John tells how the disciple John, grieving after Jesus was crucified, heard Jesus' voice speaking to him: "John, John, why do you weep? Don't you recognize who I am? I am the Father; I am the Mother; and I am the Son.'' After a moment of shock, John realizes that the divine Trinity includes not only Father and Son but also the divine Mother, which John sees as the Holy Spirit, the feminine manifestation of the divine. Those possibilities opened by the "Gnostic'' gospels -- that God could have a feminine side and that Jesus could be human -- are key ideas in The Da Vinci Code.

Do you believe that Christianity and Western civilization would have been different had the "Gnostic'' gospels never been banned? Should we reevaluate today what the "heretics'' were saying, and imagine what might have been?

[Elaine Pagels is the author of The Gnostic Gospels and Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas. She is a professor of religion at Princeton.]

Posted March, 8, 2007


Vinny Hall said...

Great book but lousy movie! Got me following up on some interesting art stuff and some of the religious angles. I like the last supper picture but I still can't figure out who is holding the dagger, it has a hand holding it but the hand doesn't seem to belong to anybody! There does seem to be something fishy about how the Catholic church tried to play down the Mary Magdalene role. It said she was a prostitute for centuries and then lately proclaimed that she wasn't. How come? As I recall she was the only one who stuck around after the crucifixion yet Peter came out of the whole thing as the key guy.

I must say I never heard that take on the Trinity before and to be honest I prefer it to the present one. Maybe we can persuade the pope to change his mind on that one too!


Joan Ferguson said...

Vinny maybe you can help me here but I remember reading somewhere that Mary Magdalene is actually Mary THE MAGDALENE just like Jesus THE CHRIST. There was an argument in one of the magazines as to whether she was from a town called Magdala but the writer said this wasn't so that Magdalene was a title and that she is the only woman in the bible who is given a designation like this.


PRD said...

Apparently there was no town of 'Maglala' in Judaea in the time of Jesus although there was a 'Magdolum' in Egypt. So if Mary was from a particular town she would have had to be Egyptian. On the other hand in Hebrew 'Magdala' means 'tower' or 'elevated, great'. So Mary the Magdalene would be a title meaning 'Mary The Great'.

Margaret Starbird has some interesting books on this particularly 'The Woman with the Alabaster Jar' in which she points out that the NT reference to Mary the Magdalene is a reference to Chapter 4 of Micah verse 8 where the word Magdal-eder refers to watchtower. The place name "magdal-eder' means 'tower of the flock' in the sense of a high place used by a shepherd as a vantage point from which to watch over his sheep. Therefore referring to Mary as 'Mary the Magdalene' shows that she was regarded as the one who watched over Jesus's followers. This would also support her important role as being the Apostle to the Apostles following her unique role in the events following the crucifixion.

Unfortunately, the orthodox church suppressed the story of Mary the Magdalene and put Peter into the prime role. Had this not happened our popes might well have been women! PRD

Pianoman said...

It's movies like this that show up the problems with religion in today's modern world. As I see it advanced theological/historical research on the bible and the historical 'Jesus' stays in the universities. It never seems to make it down through the pulpit to the guys in the pews who are leaving the churches in droves.

Can you imagine modern science being talked about only in the elite universities where they now believe that the earth goes around the sun while the professors knowing about the recent developments allow their students to continue believing that the sun goes around the earth. That is basically what is going on today in the liberal protestant churches.

Brenda Moorhead said...

this was the best book I have ever read and i couldn't put it down. i finished the whole thing in 2 days. at times i would switch over to the internet to find more information on the stuff in the book including all the stuff about the last supper painting. i wasn't too much interested in these topics until i read the book and i was really surprised when i went to my local barnes and noble to see the amount of stuff that was in the religion section on mary magdalene and the gnostic gospels. i had never heard of all of the stuff before i read the book and now i am fascinated by all of it. i know more after 2 years of further reading more about christianity, art, paris and london that I learned in my previous 55 years. thank you dan brown!

Vinny Hall said...

Didn't Martin Luther believe that Jesus and Mary (the) Magdalene were married?


Joan Ferguson said...

Pianoman raises an interesting point. What I don't get is why the churches are not talking about the new gospels that were discovered. If they all contain information that goes beyond what is in the four bible gospels why aren't they now included in Christian churches?


Brenda Moorhead said...

Pianoman wrote that liberal protestant churches don't allow modern theological teaching to filter down to their churches.

I think that this is correct for conservative churches particularly the RC church but the liberal protestant churches certainly do encourage discussion about these issues in their churches. I would agree, however, that it is just at the level of discussion and doesn't make it formally into what comes from the pulpit but I don't see that as a permanent situation. Where is the equality of women and the equality of all peoples with different gender perspectives most welcomed? I see it in the liberal protestants.

Peter said...

Actually equality of women and acceptance of gender issues seems to be more prevalent in the atheist community than in most religious communities.

Take care,

Vinny Hall said...

In the April 7, 2006 NY Times there is an article entitled “In Ancient Document, Judas, Minus the Betrayal”

The Article talks about The Gospel of Judas which was discovered about 50 years ago and the Gospel says that Judas Iscariot was not a betrayer of Jesus but was his favored disciple and willing collaborator.

The article says and I quote:

“In this text the account of events leading to the Crucifixion differs sharply from the four gospels in the New Testament. Here Jesus is said to entrust Judas with special knowledge and ask him to betray him to the Roman authorities. By doing so, he tells Judas, "you will exceed" the other disciples. "You will be cursed by the other generations, and you will come to rule over them," Though some theologians have hypothesized the "good Judas" before, scholars who have translated and studied the text said this was the first time an ancient document lent specific support to a revised image of the man whose name in history has been synonymous with treachery. Already, some scholars are saying that this Gospel sheds new light on the historical relationship between Jesus and Judas. They find strands of secret Jewish mysticism running through the beliefs expressed by some branches of early Christianity. But others say the text is merely one more scripture produced by a marginalized Christian cult of Gnostics, who lived so many years after Jesus' day that they could not possibly produce anything accurate about his life. For these reasons, the discoveries are expected to intrigue theologians and historians of religion and perhaps be deeply troubling to some church leaders and lay believers. The 26-page Judas text is believed to be a copy in the Coptic language, made around A.D. 300, of the original Gospel of Judas, written in Greek the century before.”

According to the NY Times religious scholars are taking this all very seriously. The Times article went on to mention Elaine Pagels who said that this explodes the myth of a monolithic religion and demonstrates how diverse the early Christian movement really was.

Karen L. King, a professor of the history of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School, who is not involved in the Judas project, said this gospel might well reflect the debates that arose in the early centuries. "You can see how early Christians could say, if Jesus' death was all part of God's plan, then Judas's betrayal was part of God's plan," said Dr. King. The standard gospels either give no motivation for Judas's betrayal or attribute it to the pieces of silver or the influence of Satan.


Avid Reader said...

On the Newsweek/Washington Post blog Elaine Pagels says that the recent James Cameron’s movie about the discovery of the tomb of Jesus is like The Da Vinci code – fiction pretending to be fact. She then goes on to raise a couple of interesting questions about what we actually know about Jesus.

She writes that “the Da Vinci Code did much to raise public awareness that there are, in fact, genuine archeological discoveries that really are changing what we know about the beginnings of Christianity. The surprise discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1945 opened up whole new perspectives on the world in which Jesus lived—as the discovery in Egypt of previously unknown early Christian gospels—the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, and over 50 other early Christian writings, discovered between 1890 and 1973, when the Gospel of Judas was found and first published only last April. Since we have no single written account about Jesus contemporaneous with him—even the New Testament gospels are written more than a generation after his death---and no external historical sources from the time that mention him, such accounts tell us all we have ever known about Jesus; astonishingly, the Christian movement grew out of them. What genuine discoveries—like the Dead Sea Scrolls and the non-canonical gospels—do offer are new roads of access into the heart of the early Christian movement as it was first taking shape. No wonder, then, that so many people are investigating these discoveries with enormous excitement—and that their work generates so much controversy. What, then, do we know about Jesus of Nazareth, and how do we know it? Historical explorations may lead us into the deeper question--what the stories about Jesus might mean"

Ever, DM

Joan Ferguson said...

I expect that the Catholic church would dimiss all of these new Gospels as heretical stuff but does anyone know what stance the major protestant denominations take about them? Would any protestant minister read them from the pulpit and preach a sermon on them?


Michael N. Hull said...


What I would like to see is that the discoveries be assembled in a single book and placed in the churches as 'Other Christian Writings'. I notice in Presbyterian churches that there is now an additional church hymnal - the old one wasn't replaced it was supplemented.

Although the present Bible canon has never been officially closed, for all practical purposes it is. So instead of including some other texts into the present Bible I think by just adding another 'book' would not be a big deal. It would probably add an extra dimension to the Christian experience.

How do others feel about this concept?


Brenda Moorhead said...

Michael, i agree. i wish the churches would move forward on some of these matters.

Avid Reader said...

Time has an article in its March 07, 2007 edition about Elaine Pagels and her view on ‘Early Christianity’s Martyrdom Debate”. The article can be read at,8599,1596991,00.html

The article discusses her new book “Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity which she wrote in collaboration with Harvard Divinity scholar Karen King about the second-century "Gospel of Judas" that was made public last year.

Here is the text of the interview .....

TIME: You and Karen write that the "Judas" author was angry, particularly at the Christian church's developing cult of martyrdom. You write that he conveyed "the urgency of someone who wants to unmask what he feels is the hideous folly of leaders who encourage people to get themselves killed in this way." Whom might he have meant?"

Pagels: So far as I know, all the so-called "fathers of the church" glorified martyrdom. Ignatius, who wrote in Syria in around 108 AD, speaks passionately about "being ground up by the teeth of wild beasts to become God's wheat," — that is, by martyrdom, he becomes the bread of the Eucharist.
What could have provoked such adamance?

Christians were undergoing terrible persecution at the time. Leaders like Ignatius felt that a willingness to "die for God" was essential for the movement to survive; otherwise, its members could be intimidated, and it might have died out.

Was it a successful strategy?

Yes. We have evidence to that effect. The philosopher Justin wrote that Socrates said that the purpose of philosophy was to prepare us to die bravely, and when Justin saw illiterate Christians facing torture and execution in the public stadium, he became a convert — and later a martyr himself.

And the Judas author objected to this?

He did not suggest that a believer should deny being a Christian, even if the penalty were death. But he challenges leaders who encourage people to "die for God" with what he thought were false promises — huge rewards in heaven, and guaranteed resurrection.

Does this tell us something new?

Before these discoveries, we knew little about Christians who opposed martyrdom — or opposed encouraging it — because the people who challenged the dominant view were ridiculed as cowards and heretics, and their writings didn't survive. The Gospel of Judas shows what intense and painful arguments martyrdom caused among Christians.

Both Catholicism and, to a lesser extent, Protestantism honor martyrdom. And some scholars suggest that Islam picked up the idea from Christians. Is it possible that despite all that, martyrdom isn't really intrinsic to the faith?

Before either Christians or Muslims spoke of martyrdom, Jewish communities celebrated those who were willing to "die for God." After Jesus was crucified by the Romans, those who still remained his followers were suspected of treason against Rome, and leaders were executed. The focus on crucifixion has a lot to do with fact that his followers remained in danger of arrest, torture, and execution themselves. Without that I can't imagine that discussions of his suffering and death would have occupied the central place that they do for many Christians.

Could Christianity have done without it?

Certainly. Many Christians focus more on Jesus' teaching about relationships — loving God and one's neighbor, caring for the sick, the poor, those in prison and destitute — teaching that what God commands is to "love one another." But because it started after Jesus' crucifixion, his followers often have been willing to risk dying for what they see as the sake of the truth. You can see it in the life and death of Martin Luther King, Jr. — his willingness to risk violence and death allowed him to defy those in power and change our society.

Do you think that the writer of the Gospel of Judas was familiar with the idea the Jesus died for our sins?

Yes — the earliest writing we have about Jesus, from the apostle Paul, says that Jesus "died for our sins," and many insisted that Jesus had voluntarily died a sacrificial death. But others asked, What kind of God are you talking about? If God would not allow Abraham [in the Hebrew Bible] to offer his son Isaac as a human sacrifice, but told him to offer a ram instead, would God then sacrifice his son Jesus?

Doesn't this suggest that God is some kind of monster, instead of the loving God of whom Jesus spoke? Would God refuse to forgive human sin apart from human sacrifice?

Do you yourself have any affinity for that last question?

I think it's worth asking, and long overdue for those who haven't asked it.

Do you feel it's strange to say, as orthodox Christians often do, that God required Jesus to die for our sins, and that this is the greatest demonstration of God's love?

Yes. Perhaps especially to a parent whose son has died. That happened to my late husband and me when our first son was six. And like many parents with that experience, we could hardly hear those words the same way others do.

The Judas writer doesn't ask that outright.

No. His concern was about leaders who encouraged martyrdom, and in this gospel, the other apostles stand in for these leaders, and he criticizes them harshly. I don't want to sound like I'm advocating the Gospel of Judas. What I love, is that this sort of document shows you the other side of the moon, the voices of the people who were regarded as not articulating what became the official doctrine of the Church — a more dense, more detailed, more human picture of the early Christian movement than we've ever had available before.

Ever, DM