Although cast in the realm of fiction, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code at least cracked open the door to discussion and thought about traditional views of Jesus of Nazareth. At the same time, it created the potential to obscure potentially legitimate ideas in the mire of a fictional mishmash. Robert Price is one New Testament scholar who seizes upon the opportunity Brown’s work presents to try to engage a wider audience in a discussion of the origins of Christianity.
Price’s entry in this field is The Da Vinci Fraud. The title may be a bit misleading as Price stays largely within his particular area of expertise. A fellow in the Jesus Seminar, Price’s work does not concentrate on whether Leonardo da Vinci or other notables were members of some secret society devoted to protecting the secret that Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene married and gave rise to the Merovingian dynasty of France. Likewise, he does not explore whether da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” actually contains clues as to this version of “history” and Mary Magdalene’s role in Christianity. Instead, The Da Vinci Fraud is a straightforward and generally very readable analysis of the validity of the theories espoused by Brown’s characters and how they correlate with research into the evolution and history of New Testament.
Price, who occasionally goes by the moniker “The Bible Geek,” writes with the nonspecialist in mind and takes a logical approach to the subject. He first deconstructs Brown’s sources. His critical analysis of those works shows not only gaping holes but some of the leaps of logic — if not faith — they make to reach their conclusions. (Two authors of perhaps the leading work have sued Brown for plagiarism in a case set to go to trial this February). Then, because much of Brown’s conglomeration of theories supposes the Holy Grail is a reference to Mary Magadelene carrying the child of Christ, he explores the history of the Grail legend and what it tells us about Brown’s work and the concepts upon which it is based. It is only after laying this groundwork that Price gets to the meat of his topic — what history, the apocryphal works ultimately excluded from the Bible, and objective analysis of the content and evolution of the Bible tell us about Jesus and his life, Mary Magadelene and Christianity as a whole.
If traditional views of the Bible and Christianity are considered conservative, Price is on the liberal if not radical end of the spectrum. He has no problem entertaining and assessing such questions as whether Christ really died on the cross, how what we know as the New Testament came to be and the evolution and role of both Jesus and Mary Magadelene historically and in early Christian thought. Price’s point, well taken at times and not so well at others, is that the truth is often more fascinating than the theories espoused in Brown’s novel.
Undoubtedly, some will find Price’s contentions and conclusions theologically challenging, if not heretical. For example, one of the areas Price explores is whether Jesus was a historical figure to whom elements of myth were applied or whether Jesus was merely a figure created to “historicize” existing myth. Thus, in evaluating the contention in Brown’s book that the Roman Emperor Constantine was responsible for transmuting Jesus of Nazareth from essentially an itinerant preacher of human origins to the status of God taking human form, Price points out that portions of the Constantinian version of Jesus come from earlier pagan story elements.
One can find all the maxims of Jesus in the literature of contemporary philosophy as well as among the rabbis. This fact should surprise no one except ultraorthodox Christians, who seem to imagine the world was under a blanket of moral darkness before Jesus. Beyond this, the notion of Jesus as a dying and rising savior god, the Gnostic idea of a heavenly being descending into this dark world to redeem his elect, the use of saving sacraments of bread and wine and baptism — all this was held in common with earlier mystery cults and was probably borrowed from them centuries before Constantine. The evidence is overwhelming, though conservative Christians remain stubborn in their refusal to admit it, at least publicly.
Price does not make this point for shock value. He is simply reiterating what is extant in the historical record. Even though he raises these questions, Price does leaves readers to their own ultimate conclusions on whether Jesus was real or a historicized myth. Similarly, Price seeks not necessarily to attack Brown and his work but to show there is a factual and historical basis for assertions Brown tends to bury by congealing them with chunks of fiction.
Price ultimately disagrees with Brown’s thesis that Mary Magadelene was the wife of Jesus, that they had children or that she was a female apostle the Church obscured and covered up. He does not entirely rule out the possibility of marriage but believes the historical record undercuts the validity of such a theory. Likewise, he questions many of the roles to which both the traditional church and modern advocates of Mary Magadelene seek to assign her. As with the rest of the text, Price takes the reader step by step through his analysis, pointing out the evolution of Mary Magdalene’s role in both canonical and gnostic writings. Price himself, however, ultimately goes a step farther and assigns her a role in Christianity that is as theologically radical as Brown’s thesis, if not more.
Ultimately, The Da Vinci Code serves largely as a vehicle by which Price can present his historical analysis and arguments to readers who might not otherwise dare to read a work that, at bottom, not only challenges some of Christianity’s core beliefs and doctrines but does so through an apparently rational analysis of Christian history and texts. Readers with strongly held traditional Christian beliefs may be offended or upset by some of Price’s contentions, ideas and conclusions. That does not change the fact such views and concepts are worthy of examination and debate on their own merit rather than being simply cast aside as the fanciful imagination of a best-selling novelist.