Now a new novel is forcing people to confront another biblical puzzle. The DaVinci Code, a thriller by Dan Brown, tells the story of a Harvard professor summoned to the Louvre Museum after a murder there to examine cryptic symbols relating to DaVinci's work. During the course of his investigation, he uncovers an ancient secret: the claim that Mary Magdalene represents the divine feminine, and that she and Jesus had a sexual relationship.
Is it possible Jesus had this kind of relationship with her or that they were, as some suggest, married?
Karen Leigh King, a Harvard professor who is the world's leading authority on early Christian texts about Mary Magdalene, gives "The DaVinci Code" a thumbs-up--but only as fiction. ("It's a good read but historically way off.")
"The book certainly fits our times.. Since the 1960s there has been a hostility toward traditions in Christianity that are anti-sexuality," says King, adding that the novel also plays to interest in women's issues.
But, she says: "there's no historical information whatsoever that either of them was married, let alone to each other. When there's an argument from silence, you can jump either way. On one hand, why not? Why shouldn't they have sex? On the other hand, why every time you put a man and woman together do they have to have sex?"
The possibility of Jesus' marriage fascinates people; biblical scholars say they are often asked by audiences and readers about it. In general, only the most liberal scholars even bother to entertain the question.
Here is what we can say about Jesus' sex life:
Conservative biblical scholars think the entire question is silly, since the notion simply isn't in the Bible. "Mary Magdalene was one of several women who contributed to Jesus' ministry and supported it," says Darrell Bock, New Testament professor at Dallas Theological Seminary.
And that's it.
Even liberal biblical scholars don't really think Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a sexual relationship-though they don't entirely dismiss it, either. Marcus Borg, a professor of religion and culture at Oregon State University, for instance, had this to say about the possibility of Jesus and Mary Magdalene as sex partners: "It wouldn't bother me if he had a non-married sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene. In some way I wish he was married because it would shake up our ideas about Jesus and sexuality."
According to the New Testament: The Gospels say Mary Magdalene was a follower of Jesus and that, according to Luke 8, she supported him out of her own means, meaning that she was probably wealthy. She was the first, or among the first, to discover the empty tomb. (Mark 16:9 says, "Now after He had risen early on the first day of the week, He first appeared to Mary Magdalene, from whom He had cast out seven demons.") After the Resurrection, Jesus commissioned her to go to the other apostles with the news. Thus, she has been known traditionally as the "apostle to the apostles."
But since the earliest decades after Jesus' death, a parallel lore flourished, particularly in southern France, where in 1208 the people were condemed to death by Pope Innocent III for believing that Mary Magdalene was the "grail mother." In the parallel story, Jesus married Mary Magdalene, and she was pregnant with his child when he was crucified at Qumran, not Golgotha as it is usually thought. Mary delivered a child, and then she and the baby were spirited to France, where she died. This secret teaching-partially described in "The DaVinci Code"--is said to have been preserved by the Knights Templar, a monastic military order formed at the end of the First Crusade.
Outside France, historians and theologians for many years have debated if Jesus was married-to Mary Magdalene or to someone else. In 1970, for instance, a Presbyterian minister and scholar named William E. Phipps wrote a controversial book called Was Jesus Married? His conclusion is "yes," because the vast majority of Jewish males of Jesus' era married.
In the 1960s and 1970s, there was a rash of Jesus books and movies about Jesus, including Jesus Christ, Superstar, which made the assumption that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a sexual relationship. More famously, Martin Scorsese's 1988 movie The Last Temptation of Christ includes a sex scene between Jesus and Mary Magdalene.
The two Codex discoveries included The Gospel of Mary, the Sophia of Jesus Christ, and the Gospel of Philip, among others. For a long time, they were considered unimportant. But in the last decade, biblical scholars have begun looking at these texts more closely. The Gospel of Mary, for instance, dates to about 125 C.E., according to King, which places it among the oldest texts of the early Christian church. By way of comparison, the Gospel of John was written in the 90s C.E.
Particularly in the Gospel of Mary, Mary Magdalene is depicted as having special knowledge of Jesus: "Peter said to Mary, 'Sister, we know that the Saviour loved you more than the rest of women." In the Gospel of Philip, she is described this way: "There were three who always walked with the Lord: Mary, his mother, and her sister, and Magdalene, the one who was called his companion." Some scholars point to these passages as possible proof of the Jesus and Mary Magdalene relationship.
A slightly more common view among liberal scholars is that whether or not Jesus and Mary Magdalene were intimate, she was as important as Peter. In fact, they say, Mary Magdalene was an apostle, but her story was suppressed by early church fathers who excised the Gospel of Mary from the Bible in the 5th century.
And that is the idea that "The DaVinci Code" may popularize.
"They didn't attack Mary Magdalene because she was Mrs. Jesus," says liberal scholar John Dominic Crossan. "They attacked her because she was a major leader, that she was up there with Peter and the rest and they fought like hell to put her back down in her place."
Crossan does not believe Jesus was married. In fact, he considers the entire question an insult to Mary Magdalene, because it implies that she is important only through marriage. "To say Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene is a putdown, unless you say she was clearly as important as Peter and that's the reason she's married to Jesus."
Crossan believes, instead, that Jesus wasn't married to anyone-because he was too poor to afford a wife and children.
In any case, many scholars agree that in the 4th Century, around the time Constantine converted to Christianity, church patriarchs began trying to suppress women's leadership roles in the Christian movement. At the Council of Nicea in 325 C.E., convened by Constantine, Jesus' divinity was debated and voted on. Later, as the church evolved, the 27 books of the New Testament were canonized-and the Gospel of Mary and the others were thrown out.
Liberal scholars say that, among the reasons these other books didn't make it into what is called the "biblical canon" are that they include clear evidence of Mary Magdalene's importance in Jesus' ministry, and that they portray Jesus less as the Son of God and more as a great teacher preaching about an interior spiritual path.
He also says the theory of Mary Magdalene as a major church leader doesn't hold up. "Anyone who argues that there were women who had a full-orbed ministerial role in the time of Jesus that's equal to the Twelve Apostles is arguing beyond speculation. There's really no basis for it at all. There certainly were women who participated in the earliest church and who were faithful. But the only office women held was deaconess in the early church period. And there is no trace of a ministry of Mary Magdalene in any of the biblical materials."
Still, this much is known: In the 5th Century, not long after the Council of Nicea, Pope Gregory the Great delivered an Easter sermon in which he associated Mary Magdalene with sinfulness. He said that the adulterous woman in John 8 was Mary Magdalene, even though that woman is never named. And he said that the woman who anointed Jesus' feet in Luke 7: 36-50 also was Mary Magdalene-but she, too, is not actually named in the Gospel. "They turned Mary Magdalene into a paradigmatic female sinner," King says. Meanwhile, the church began describing Mary, the mother of Jesus, as a virgin. In the process, says King, "they molded the ideology of femininity in Christianity."
Now, it seems, that ideology is being examined-and in some liberal quarters-debated, even within Christianity. Many of these liberal scholars say they wouldn't mind if someone proved Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married. If it could be proved, all kinds of questions about Christian women's roles would be forced into the open. But at this point, the facts aren't there.
"History for historians is more fun than fiction," says Crossan. "Fiction for me is like playing tennis without a net. But history means you have to go with the facts you have."
Nevertheless, popular culture continues to grab at bits of biblical text to answer perplexing questions. How will the world end? Left Behind takes a piece of I Thessalonians to answer. Those who are "left" alive on earth when the Lord "comes down from heaven" will be "caught up together in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air." The word rapture doesn't even appear in the text.
And now, the ancient legend of Jesus' marriage and the divine feminine reemerges. The question remains if it will become-like Left Behind--popular theology, as well as popular fiction.