Bible Review 20:1, February 2004

Jots & Tittles

Bible Review

A best-selling thriller about the Jesus and his closest followers has awakened popular interest in Christian origins and the Bible’s feminine side. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code has inspired TV documentaries and numerous magazine features, and as Newsweek reported in their December 8 issue, it has particularly raised awareness of the elusive Mary Magdalene.

The novel’s premise is that Leonardo da Vinci concealed in paintings clues to a secret suppressed by the church for two thousand years: that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and had children. In Brown’s scenario, the legendary Holy Grail, the secret guarded through the ages by an elusive fraternity (including da Vinci) and sought by medieval knights and modern scholars, was actually Mary Magdalene herself. She was, in this interpretation, the “vessel” that held Christ’s blood—his children—and is the feminine-looking figure da Vinci placed to Jesus’ right in The Last Supper. (Scholars universally agree that this is actually the “beloved disciple” of the Gospel of John, who in art is always depicted as a beardless young man.) After her husband’s execution, according to Brown’s novel, Mary lived out her widowhood in southern France.

The fact that characters in Brown’s novel cite real ancient texts and respectable scholarly sources has caused his rather heretical retelling of church history to be taken seriously by many readers. While some scholars are happy to see a biblical woman enter the limelight, others urge caution. In October on the Web site Beliefnet, for example, BR columnist Ben Witherington III affirmed Mary (Hebrew, Miriam) Magdalene’s importance among Jesus’ disciples but asserted that there is “absolutely no early historical evidence that Miriam’s relationship with Jesus was anything other than that of a disciple to her Master teacher.”

Mary Magdalene was undoubtedly an important member of Jesus’ circle of followers. Luke 8:3 records that she and a few other female followers “provided for [the Twelve] out of their own resources”—meaning she may have been wealthy. Matthew (27:56) and Mark (15:40) list Mary first among the witnesses to the crucifixion; Luke (24:10) lists her first among the discoverers of the empty tomb; and John (20:14–18) records that she was first to see Jesus after his resurrection.

Mary Magdalene’s role is greatly expanded in several extrabiblical texts, including the Gospel of Philip, which describes her as Jesus’ “companion” and claims that Jesus “loved her more than all the disciples, and used to kiss her often on her mouth.” In The Da Vinci Code a character cites this line to defend his thesis that Jesus and Mary were married—even though the Gospel of Philip was probably written in the third century A.D. and may have little factual basis. The same character also invokes Elaine Pagels’s The Gnostic Gospels, a 1979 scholarly study of the heretical Gnostic movement. Pagels herself, however, has argued that Jesus was probably celibate.

None of the Gospels, canonical or noncanonical, ever refer to Mary Magdalene as Jesus’ wife or say that Jesus was married, but that possibility has long interested biblical revisionists (and conspiracy theorists). The main argument in its favor is that the Bible never actually says Jesus wasn’t married and that it would have been unusual for a Jewish man to have been single. One of Brown’s main sources in The Da Vinci Code, a controversial 1982 work of history and speculation called Holy Blood, Holy Grail, suggests that the Wedding at Cana mentioned in John’s gospel was Jesus’ own wedding.

Brown’s spin on Christian history may sound preposterous if you assume, as many Christians do, that Mary Magdalene was simply a reformed prostitute who took up Jesus’ call and joined him on his mission. But the idea that she was a prostitute is also the product of a later reading that has little basis in the biblical text. According to Jane Schaberg in an October 1992 BR article, the mistake arose in about the sixth century, when readers conflated Mary Magdalene with other female characters such as the unnamed “woman of the city” mentioned in Luke 7:36–50 and the woman caught in adultery in John 7–8.

In the end, even if its history is iffy, Brown’s thriller—and with it a spate of other recent fiction and nonfiction books about Mary Magdalene—is making people take a new look at an enigmatic biblical character. She wasn’t Jesus’ wife, but she wasn’t a whore either.

Absalom’s Pillar, the 55-foot-tall, bottle-shaped monument in Jerusalem’s Kidron Valley, is in the news again. Last summer, Dead Sea Scroll scholar Emile Puech and retired anthropologist Joe Zias announced that a fourth-century A.D. inscription on the south face identified the structure as the tomb of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. Now, Zias and Puech have translated a nearby inscription (both appear in the drawing) that identifies the same monument as the tomb of Simeon, a devout Jew who, according to the Gospel of Luke, immediately recognized the infant Jesus as the savior. The new Greek inscription, also dated to the fourth century, reads in full: “The tomb of Simeon, who was a very just man, he was old and very devout, and he was waiting for the consolation of the people.” The description of Simeon is a direct quote from the Gospel of Luke 2:25—making this inscription one of the earliest New Testament quotations ever found outside the Bible.

Archaeologist James Strange of the University of South Florida, who excavated at Sepphoris, told AP that Byzantine Christians refrained from inscribing biblical passages in stone because they believed it would debase the text. Thus there are very few extrabiblical inscriptions dating earlier than 1000 A.D. (One rare example is a Byzantine mosaic floor from Caesarea that quotes Paul’s Letter to the Romans.)

The inscriptions on Absalom’s Pillar date to a period when Christians eager to associate Holy Land landmarks with biblical characters co-opted the Kidron Valley burial monuments as monuments to their faith. Thus, the new inscriptions do not confirm that any New Testament figures were buried here; they just prove that fourth-century Christians believed this was the case. Jewish tradition identified the pillar instead with the monument David’s rebellious son Absalsom erected in his own honor (2 Samuel 18:18). In reality the pillar was a burial monument erected about 1,000 years after Absalom, in about the first century B.C., to mark the tomb complex of a wealthy Jewish family.—E.W.

On accepting an invitation to view the Lion’s Den, we naturally expected to be met by someone called Daniel. On the guest list were a couple of Peters, a Paul, two Marks and a trio of Johns, but, sadly, there endeth the Biblical connection.” So The Journal (Newcastle, U.K.) reported on the opening of a mini-brewery dubbed the Lion’s Den in Hartlepool, England. Modern allusions to the tale of Daniel in the lion’s den, as narrated in the sixth chapter of the Book of Daniel, are common, but as every Hartlepool reader and drinker knows, it helps to have someone named Daniel and a place with lions (or at least the lion-like) for the metaphor to work.

The sports arena provides an ideal context for the formidable lions and the even more formidable Daniel. Thus, with the help of footballer John Daniels, “All pre-match predictions about trips into the Lion’s den ... were turned joyfully on their head yesterday as the Lions [a South African rugby team] overcame a comatose first half.” Two evocatively titled stories—”Daniel in the Lion’s Den and Lapping It Up” and “Daniel Enters Lion’s Den as Footy Run Gains Pace”—celebrate the on-field exploits of young Gold-Coaster Daniel Merrett, an Australian who, predictably enough, plays for a team called the Lions.

This imagery retains its appeal for sports writers even when they need to stretch the allusion a bit. Thus, a story from Auckland, New Zealand, titled “Fighting Chance: Don’t Count Daniel Out in Lion’s Den,” assesses the future of Kiwi welterweight Daniel Codlin: Although “he’s no Oscar De La Hoya, he has the needed boxing skills.” Another boxer, “scaffolder Jamie Arthur,” is described as “ready to march into Lion’s Den and gain gold for Daniel,” in this case, a reference to his three-year old son. And, from the United States comes the story of a California high school football team that “apparently reviewed the biblical story of Daniel before ... facing the league-leading Lions.” Their victory demonstrated that “it’s hard [but not impossible] to walk out of the lions’ den with your hide intact.”

The arts world can be a lion’s den of its own. Thus, “Daniel Wins in Lion’s Den of Rap Prize” recounts the success of a 15-year-old from Gloucester, England, known only as Daniel, who “was awarded first place in the rapping section of OXY DJ 2003.” Another story, titled “Great Leap Forward for Daniel in Lion’s Den,” relates the fortitude and fortunes of Daniel Baker, a 15-year old Australian, who wanted to learn ballet when he was only three years old. His parents finally took him seriously when he won a year-long scholarship to the School of American Ballet, under the tutelage of no less than Mikhail Baryshnikov—the “great leap forward” of the story’s headline.

The direness of the biblical Daniel’s situation is captured better in the title of the new book by French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy: Daniel in the Lion’s Den: Who Killed Daniel Pearl? A distinct seriousness also attaches itself to a story titled “Daniel in the Lion’s Den, Again,” in U.S. News and World Report about author Daniel Jonah Goldhagen and his recent rebuke of the Catholic Church’s conduct during the Holocaust.

The stirring narrative of Daniel facing the lions has the power to attract, even when there are no “lions” and no “Daniel” present. “Berkeley law professor Phillip Johnson has been in the lion’s den since 1991, when he horrified the ‘mandarins of science’ by publicly challenging Darwinism ... [This] Daniel of the Year continues to befriend the lions even as he declaws them intellectually.” In an autobiographical mode, Richmond, Virginia, writer Garvey Winegar reports: “When I shelled out $4 and entered the gun-show auditorium this past weekend, I felt like the prophet Daniel about to enter the lion’s den.”

Finally, as reported by the Copley News Service, we can leave it—or not—to today’s scientists to explain the ailments of yesterday: “Poor Job. He tossed and turned in the pages of the Bible. Esther’s husband also had insomnia. And King Darius had a devil of a time trying to sleep after he threw Daniel into the lion’s den.” In addition to isolating these biblical examples of what we today might call sleep disorders, scientists have also pinpointed the causes, including “stress, anxiety, loneliness and guilt,” all of which “negatively impact a good night’s rest.” So it was with Darius, from whom, according to Daniel 6:18, “sleep fled.” To avoid his fate, I will now proceed to pull up the covers, fluff up the pillars and dream up columns to come—with no nightmares, I hope!