2016-06-30

ABCNews correspondent Elizabeth Vargas is the host of Jesus, Mary, and Da Vinci, a news special looking at the claims of the best-selling novel "The Da Vinci Code" (air date: Monday, Nov. 3 at 8 p.m. ET). Here, Vargas discusses what her research revealed about the possibility that Jesus might have been married to Mary Magdalene.

What sparked your interest in Mary Magdalene? Was it reading "The Da Vinci Code," your own religious background, or something else?

I hadn't read the novel until after I was assigned to do the special. It was fascinating to read it and think, "Wait a second, this can't possibly be true--or could this be?" To start to investigate what parts of it there might be some evidence to back up and what parts are just pure fiction. After I got the assignment, I began reading [many books]. There have been books around for decades talking about Mary Magdalene and theorizing about her importance--scholarly looks at aspects of Bible history, like Elaine Pagels' "Gnostic Gospels." I didn't know that there were Gnostic gospels. I didn't know that it wasn't until hundreds of years after Jesus died that there was a vote that he was God-that that was a politically controversial thing at that time. I didn't know about the speech by the pope in 591 declaring Mary Magdalene a prostitute.
As someone who was raised Catholic, went to CCD [after school religion classes] every single week, and went to Mass every Sunday--during Lent, we went to Mass every day--my parents are tremendously involved in the Catholic Church... What was your parents' reaction to the idea of this show? Initially they weren't terribly thrilled. They were like, "Oh, you're doing what?" They had both read the book. My parents are strict not-rock-the-boat Catholics. They believe, in a very educated way, in the four gospels of the New Testament, though they know about the fact that there were other gospels written. They know that my job as a journalist is to ask tough questions and play devil's advocate to all sides. This was doing that with something near and dear to their hearts. We're talking about faith, which is as fundamental and important an issue in everyone's lives as there can be. Which is why we really, from the very beginning, tried very hard to be as respectful as we could be. We understood that a lot of what we were saying would be controversial, and no matter how carefully we said it, some people would take offense. But we tried as hard as we could to be fair and respectful, so we could spark a discussion. Having more people talk about the Bible and go back and read the Bible, and talk about Jesus in history and in their personal spiritual lives, can only be a good thing. On the show, you're careful to say that there's no rock solid evidence proving that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married...

None. Or that Mary Magdalene fled to France or had a child... Even less. I want to be very clear on that. We were able to pretty well prove that she wasn't a prostitute. We were able to show that it would have been highly unusual for Jesus to be single. We were able to show also that there is absolutely no evidence either way. There are no facts. No one will ever be able to prove he was not married or he was married, barring a second Nag Hammadi scroll discovery. We've got scholars who say he might have been married or who don't think he was married at all. But in the process, they reveal information about that time that, I believe, will allow our viewers to draw their own conclusions.

An interesting thing was finding out from scholars, for example, that there wasn't even a word for "bachelor" during the time of Jesus. I didn't know it was considered unheard-of for a Jewish man not to be married and not to have children.

We can talk in an educated way about "Was Mary Magdalene a prostitute?" or "Was she married to Jesus?" Once you start getting to [her] arriving on the coast of Provence, and having a baby, and there being a secret society, it gets really murky; you're really stretching it. It's interesting to delve in, but as you learn more, you realize how much you can't know. With the exception of Darrell Bock, all the scholars interviewed--Elaine Pagels, Karen King, Richard McBrien, Robin Griffith-Jones--are vocal liberals sympathetic to feminism. How would you answer critics who might feel they have biases? We also have Jeff Bingham, another evangelical. I don't think you could say all those scholars have a feminist agenda. Elaine Pagels doesn't think Jesus was married; Karen King thinks there are tantalizing clues but that you can't deduce a conclusion either way. Father McBrien is certainly known as a progressive Catholic, but he's balanced out by two evangelicals who are very literalist in their interpretation of the Bible, and very respected. We spoke with a lot of scholars. Not all of them made it into the program, a lot of them were on background. We couldn't have ten people saying the same thing; we had to pick one voice for each point of view. After interviewing all those people, did you find any kind of consensus on whether Jesus could have been married? Did the majority of the people you interviewed lean one way or another?

He could have been married. Interestingly enough, after a screening, we asked the clergy who were there-some of whom were definitely not in agreement with some of the speculations raised by some of the people we interviewed-everybody seemed to agree that he could have been married, and if he were, it didn't threaten his divinity. I find that fascinating.

We haven't found anybody yet who said if he was married and did have children, then he can't be the Son of God-that this throws out the window all we've ever known and believed.

Have any of your beliefs changed since you started working on the show? No, I don't think so. My husband is Jewish, my baby son has been baptized a Catholic but we're going to expose him to Judaism as well. My family is already a melting pot: I've got devoutly traditional Catholic parents, I was married by a priest and a rabbi. To do that, you have to be flexible in the way you apply your religion in your life. You can't be so dogmatic about "my way or the highway." So it didn't change my beliefs. Learning more about Jesus' life and how the Catholic Church evolved-that it wasn't a smooth process, there was a lot of fighting and struggle, it was a very human process--I found that wonderfully comforting. It was less neat and more realistic. What do you want viewers to take away from the show? I just hope it sparks some thought. The thing we did sort of prove by talking to everyone--from conservative theologians and scholars to progressive ones--was that Mary Magdalene was very important to Jesus. At a time when nobody else was doing this, Jesus incorporated women in a way that was very progressive.

Whether she was married to him or not, she was clearly very important to him. He appeared first to her in three of the gospels, she's listed first among all the women who are with him, she was at the foot of the cross when he died. I hope we've brought her to life for our viewers.

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