Scholars who probe the history surrounding the Bible are mining to decipher a real Da Vinci Code. They seek clues from the past that suggest truths that underlie the narratives of tradition and faith. They seek to understand the origins of modern religion and how these faiths have evolved over time.
During last month's Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, one panel discussed the roots of religion. All the panelists were as astute and captivating as advertised, but one scholar, in particular, professor Dennis R. MacDonald, spoke to the issue of reality vs. myth in the story of Jesus. And when it came to the myths, he didn't stop at the work of "The Da Vinci Code" author Dan Brown. MacDonald took on mythmaking around the life of Jesus that is nearly 2,000 years old.
Here are excerpts from the comments of MacDonald, who is John Wesley Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Claremont School of Theology and co-director of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity at the Claremont Graduate University. He is also the author of "Christianizing Homer and the Legend and the Apostle."
About "The Da Vinci Code":
Dennis MacDonald: I enjoyed reading "The Da Vinci Code." It is smart and entertaining and engrossing -- and the historian in me gets sick when I read it.
Regarding the recently discovered Gospel of Judas:
DM: The Gospel of Judas is a magnificent discovery. It is extremely important for understanding a group of Christian Gnostics, about whom we knew, but had nothing from them themselves.
These are called the Cainites. And their claim to fame is favoring biblical losers, like the serpent in the Garden [of Eden] and Cain -- which is where they get their name -- and now Judas. And my attitude is you learn as much about the historical Judas from the Gospel of Judas as you do about the historical serpent in the Garden of Eden.
One early Christian tract has not yet been found, and it may never be. "Q" is considered a key source for the gospels that make up the New Testament. Through careful study, experts have deduced a lot of what "Q" must have contained. So how is "Q" like a real Da Vinci Code?
DM: "Q," from the German word quelle [source] ... is reconstructed by teasing out material painstakingly from the synoptic gospels themselves. [The synoptic gospels are the three broadly overlapping tellings of the story of Jesus that make up Mark, Matthew and Luke/Acts in the New Testament.] This document is most obvious in places where Matthew and Luke share content with each other they could not have derived from Mark, their primary source. But it's becoming clear that the author of Mark also knew "Q," as well.
What is astonishing about "Q" is not only what it says, but what it does not say. And that what it says has such an interesting affinity to what we know about [early Christian evangelist] Paul and the early Christian traditions of Paul.
"Penance of Mary Magdalene" Museu del Cau Ferrat, Barcelona (1587-97)
Paul wrote before any of the gospels. He is dead before the first evangelist picks up a pen. He's also probably dead before the author of "Q" picked up a pen. But by comparing "Q" and Paul, we get an understanding of Jesus that is really quite remarkable. The things that are missing include an infancy narrative and anything about a virgin birth, which Paul never mentions, nor does "Q."
Also missing is a transfiguration. Also missing are nature miracles, like stilling the storm or walking on water or the multiplication of loaves for 5,000. Also missing is a narrative of Jesus' death, quite surprising, although that is so important for Paul. And also missing is a resurrection or ascension narrative. Also missing is any reference to Judas Iscariot or Mary Magdalene.
Paul says nothing about Judas Iscariot or Mary Magdalene. Every reference to those two characters and another half dozen in the New Testament all go back to the Gospel of Mark.
So the question is, if we make a historical judgment about these characters, we're making a historical judgment about Mark, because every single reference to these characters derives ultimately from the Gospel of Mark.
How the author of Mark and the other writers of the gospels borrowed from literary forms of the time to shape the story of Jesus -- this is a real Da Vinci Code.
DM: The authors of Mark and Luke/Acts are heavily indebted to the Homeric epics. This is not to say that they are plagiarizing, or that they are ripping things off. Rather, they are transforming these texts, so that just as early Christians are interested in showing that Jesus is superior to Moses and David and the prophets, they're also interested in showing that Jesus is superior to Hector and Odysseus and Heracles. They're equal-opportunity imitators.
For the first part of the gospels, the author is heavily indebted to "The Odyssey" [which features] a hero who travels with idiots. And the sea is important; meals are important.
[The hero of "The Odyssey"] gets back home, and there are rivals for his house and he needs to keep his identity secret, because if his enemies discover who he is, they'll kill him. So, similarly in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus travels with nincompoops, he calls his house a house of prayer that has become a den of thieves. He needs to keep his identity a secret. The Sea of Galilee becomes a real sea and so on.
For the death and burial of Jesus, the author seems to be heavily indebted to Books 22 and 24 of "The Iliad" and the death of Hector.
[The author of] Luke has his own imitations of Homer over and over again: The recognition of Jesus by his wounds is similar to the recognition of Odysseus by his scar. The shipwreck story in Acts 27 is clearly modeled after the shipwreck of Odysseus in "Odyssey 5." It goes on and on.
And the descent of Christ to the netherworld, where he empties Hades of all the dead -- that is a Christian "Odyssey," like Odysseus going to the netherworld, but Odysseus leaves them there.
The longest stretch of narrative in the New Testament is the two-volume book we call Luke/Acts. It has been argued that Luke/Acts is a response to Virgil's "Aeneid." It is doing for the Christian community what the "Aeneid" did for the early empire. Namely, it talks about a hero who has one divine parent and one mortal one.
And that's why they have the virgin-birth story in the gospel -- because you have Aneus with Venus [a pagan god] as his parent. Romulus [the legendary founder of Rome] and [Roman Emperor] Augustus were both said to be sons of deities.
You have an ascension in Luke because the Roman emperors claimed that the bodies of the emperors before them were raised in an ascension.
I don't think there was a historical Judas or Mary Magdalene, just in case you're wondering. Let me put it another way: Jesus might have been married, but it was not to Mary Magdalene. Jesus probably was betrayed, but it probably wasn't by Judas Iscariot.
Luke ... seeks to provide his readers an alternative to the hegemony of the Roman Empire in the East.