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Diane E. Curtis

Dan Brown's novel "The Da Vinci Code" remains high on bestseller lists after 70 weeks. Earlier this summer, five-hundred people filled Claremont's Mudd Theatre to hear what four prominent scholars had to say about the book.

The Institute for Antiquity and Christianity and the Claremont School of Theology. co-hosted a panel discussion in May entitled "Cracking The Da Vinci Code" featuring Karen Jo Torjeson, Dean of the CGU School of Religion; Marvin Meyer, Religious Studies Department Co-chair at Chapman University and former President of the SBL Pacific Region; George Gorse, Professor of Art and Art History at Pomona College; and Dennis R. MacDonald, Professor of Religion at CGU and Director of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity. The evening event was moderated by Patrick Horn, the Associate Dean of the School of Religion at Claremont Graduate University .

The Mudd Theatre was nearly filled to capacity (about five-hundred people) and nearly half were interested "civilians" who had read the book and desired to learn more about the "facts" behind the fiction. Others attending were CGU students and faculty, and other scholars in the field.

Each panel member gave a fifteen-minute lecture and then opened the floor for questions.

For Dennis MacDonald, the historicity of Mary Magdalene is suspect, for there are no independent witness accounts of her, and she does not appear in the scriptures until the Gospel of Mark, which was written after the fall of Jerusalem and many years after Jesus' crucifixion. He points instead to her symbolic importance. Magdala was a watchtower town, and Mark imbues Mary Magdalene with its qualities. She is the first to greet the risen Christ, brings that news to the other apostles, and serves as a look-out, a signal and a beacon at different times in the Gospels.

According to Karen Jo Torjesen, everyone loves a conspiracy, which is what makes the Da Vinci Code so popular. The novel helps to bring to the surface the long-suppressed history of the role of women in the early church. House churches were central to the growth of Christianity in the second century C.E., and many of these were administered by women who served as priests, bishops and teachers. Paul addresses twenty-two different church leaders in his epistles, a third of whom are women. In the centuries that followed, male scholars and translators erased women from the church record by changing the gender inflection of some of the names, and marginalizing or demonizing some of the others. In the sixth century C.E., Pope Gregory was the first to call Mary Magdalene a "whore." However, a critical reading of the New Testament will bear no evidence to suggest she was either whore or adulteress.

When asked if ancient translators of Christian texts deliberately or inadvertently "erased" literary evidence of women's roles, Torjeson opined that it was perhaps a bit of both, yet the degree to which women were "erased" certainly points to collusion on the part of early scholars.

The Gospel of Thomas and Gospel of Mary provide evidence of "editorial suppression" in the New Testament, and Marvin Meyer argued that a strong case can be made for Mary Magdalene having been the Beloved Disciple, not John. For further reading on Mary Magdalene, he suggests the Nag Hammadi Codices, the Manachaean Songs, the Gospels of Thomas, Philip and Mary, and the Epista Sophia. Most of these texts appear in the well-organized and accessible The Gnostic Bible, edited by Willis Barnstone and Marvin Meyer. He also suggested reading The Gnostic Gospels and Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas both by Elaine Pagels.

George Gorse, speaking on the life and work of Leonardo Da Vinci, points out that nowhere in any of Da Vinci's writings does he mention The Priory of Sion. Gorse discounts many of the claims of the Mona Lisa being "Da Vinci in Drag," and that it is Mary sitting next to Jesus at The Last Supper as little more than urban myth or art folklore. In the New Testament, John is imbued with feminine qualities, and therefore from an artistic standpoint, it is not unreasonable to expect visual interpretations of John would also be feminine.

The panel discussion offered a fascinating and entertaining exploration into the worlds of Early Christianity, Church conspiracy, medieval folklore and Renaissance art intrigue; much like the novel itself. Panel members all admitted to having enjoyed the novel despite its unapologetic dramatization of certain "facts." The popularity of the work and the skillful way in which Dan Brown weaves a tapestry of fact and fiction compelled them to hold the panel discussion in an effort to shed light on the legitimate scholarship behind the novel. Such a careful and meticulous blending of those elements can blur the lines between what is accepted scholarship and what are flights of fancy: a precarious road to travel without the background required to distinguish between the two. Those who heard the presentations had an opportunity to find a deeper understanding of the dizzying array of traditions employed in The Da Vinci Code, and a richer appreciation of both the art of the novel and the study of theology.

Diane E. Curtis is a senior history and anthropology student on the Dean's List at Kennesaw State University, and works part time as an Administrative Assistant for the Society of Biblical Literature.

Citation: Diane E. Curtis, " Four Scholars Take a "Crack" at "The Da Vinci Code"," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Aug 2004]. Online:


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