Dan Brown’s The Dan Vinci Code is well past its sell-by date now. But it has given wings to a fanciful myth about Christian origins which had being crawling around in the academic world in the US and elsewhere but has now, thanks to Brown’s book, nested in the public consciousness.
What is this myth? The redoubtable New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, in the course of a lecture given in 2005 which exposes the sillinesses of the above-mentioned book, outlines the five elements of the Myth of Christian Origins:-
1. ‘There were dozens if not hundreds of other documents about Jesus. Some of these have now come to light, not least in the books discovered at Nag Hammadi in Egypt 60 years ago. These focus on Jesus more as a human being, a great religious teacher, than as a divine being. And it is these books which give us the real truth about Jesus.’
2. ‘The four Gospels in the New Testament were later products aimed at divinizing Jesus and claiming power and prestige for the church. They were selected, for these reasons, at the time of Constantine in the fourth century, and the multiple alternative voices were ruthlessly suppressed.’
3. ‘Therefore, Jesus himself wasn’t at all like the four canonical Gospels describe him. He didn’t think he was God’s son, or that we would die for the sins of the world; he didn’t come to found a new religion. He was a human being pure and simple, who gave some wonderful moral and spiritual teaching, that’s all. Oh, and he may well have been married, perhaps even with a child on the way, when his career was cut short by death.’
4. ‘Therefore: Christianity as we know it is based on a mistake. Mainstream Christianity is sexist, especially anti-women and anti-sex itself. It has aimed at, and in some places achieved, considerable social power and prestige, enabling it to be politically quietist and conformist. This, I find, goes down especially well with those who are escaping from either fundamentalism or certain types of Roman Catholicism.’
5. ‘The real pay-off: It is time to give up, as historically unwarranted, theologically unjustified, and spiritually and socially damaging, the picture of Jesus and Christian origins which the church has put about for so long, and to return to the supposedly original vision of Jesus himself, not least in terms of getting in touch with a different form of spirituality based on metaphor rather than literal truth, of feeling rather than structure, of discovering whatever faith you find you can believe in. This will revive the truth for which Jesus lived, and perhaps for which he died.
Suppression of ancient documents?
So, was there a multitude of ancient documents relating to Jesus, the majority of which were suppressed?
There is no point in looking (as some popular writers suppose we can) at the Dead Sea Scrolls. They are Jewish documents, and have little or nothing to do with Jesus. But, at about the same time that they were discovered, the Nag Hammadi documents came to light. These include the well-known Gospel of Thomas. Are the Nag Hammadi documents the earliest Christian writings, perhaps taking us right back to to Jesus himself? In a word – no. The Nag Hammadi documents represent a form of Gnostic literature, and date from the late 2nd century at the earliest. They represent dependence on, and a theological departure from, the canonical literature.
The Gospel of Thomas is basically a set of sayings attributed to Jesus. It is written in Coptic, but this is probably a translation from Syriac. Translated back into this probably original langauge, the nearest parallels were have are with the literature coming from 200 years after the time of Jesus.
Where sayings in the Nag Hammadi documents are similar to those recorded in the canonical Gospels, it is highly likely that it is the former that are dependent on the latter. For one thing, they represent a move away from the Jewishness of the canonical Gospels to a kind of dualist Platonic viewpoint. For another thing, they represent a departure from a narrative account of Jesus’ life and present, in stead, a series of unconnected sayings or ‘greatest quotes’. And again, they represent Jesus not as someone who lived and died and rose again, but merely as a teacher. Their message is not one of good news, but of good advice.
Dan Brown and others give a central place in their fantasy to Mary Magdalene. She represents the ‘sacred feminine’, and married Jesus and bore his children. But, far from the union of Jesus and Mary being mentioned ‘countless times’ in the Nag Hammadi documents, Mary is mentioned only three times. None of these references support any idea of Mary represending the ‘sacred feminine’, or that she was married to Jesus. The Gospel of Philip refers to Jesus ‘kissing’ Mary, but the suggestion that this implied romantic attachment has much more to do with the world of Hollywood than the world of ancient antiquity. The Gospel of Thomas has a reference to Mary, in which “Jesus” tells her that “Mary will be saved if she makes herself male, because every female who makes herself male will become fit for the kingdom of God” – hardly a ringing endorsement of the sacred feminine.
The canonical Gospels
The canonical Gospels, on the other hand, are widely recognised as dating from within 50 years of the time of Jesus, and as being based on traditions that are very early indeed. Christian writers dating from the early 2nd century know and revere the canonical Gospels, but demonstrate no awareness of the Gnostic writings.
‘When the canon of the New Testament was finally decided upon, it was not a matter of selecting four books arbitrarily from a list of several dozen. It was a matter of noting that these four Gospels had been known from very early on to have been the core testimony to Jesus.’
The myth popularised by Dan Brown and others is that Jesus was just a good man who went around inspiring others to be good people. The canonical Gospels suppressed these very human characteristics, in order to present Jesus as divine.
To be sure, the canonical Gospels do present a very surprising portrait of Jesus. But it cannot be denied that they present him as very much as flesh-and-blood. He struggles in prayer and weeps at the tomb of a friend. But he also embraces a vocation that, in terms of the Old Testament Scriptures, only Israel’s God is called to. You would not know, either from the Nag Hammadi documents or from the modern perpetrators of the modern myth, that the death and resurrection of Jesus were central to the faith of the early Christians. It is from documents that date from the 1st century and which are based on eyewitnesses accounts that we learn that Jesus is both human and divine.
As to the view that the formation of the canon was politically motivated:-
If the canon was written, or read, to curry political favor, it was dramatically unsuccessful. Those who were thrown to the lions were not reading “Thomas” or Q or the “Gospel of Mary.” They were reading Matthew, Mark, Luke, John.
The proponents of the modern myth suppose that the Gnostic gospel was so subversive that it had to be suppressed. But the political powers were challenged little by an invitation to re-arrange one’s private spirituality. It was authentic Christianity, rooted as it was in the real world rather than in some kind of escape from it, that was the real threat.
And when Constantine saw that half his empire had turned Christian, and turned Christian himself, who was compromised, and with what?
See N.T. Wright, Decoding the Dan Vinci Code.
A full transcript of the lecture is available here.