On July 22, 1209, the anniversary of Mary Magdalene's death, armed Crusaders descended on the French town of Béziers and massacred more than 20,000 people. Their crime? Sheltering heretics who believed Mary Magdalene was the concubine of Jesus. Imagine how Pope Innocent III, who sent the attackers, would have reacted to The Da Vinci Code, the modern thriller based on the same incendiary idea.
The thesis of the bestselling novel is that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and had a child whose descendants later founded the Merovingian dynasty. Mary's womb, not the chalice of the Last Supper, was the real Holy Grail, and a Catholic sect is killing people to hush it all up. The book also makes Leonardo da Vinci the past leader of a shadowy order sworn to protect documents proving the existence of Jesus's child. Da Vinci depicts not the disciple John next to Jesus at the Last Supper, the book says, but Mary Magdalene, a symbol of the "divine feminine" principle that the church is determined to obliterate.
The book has spawned heated speculation: Why did the church wrongly label Mary a prostitute? Was she marginalized by a patriarchal church afraid of female leaders? How intimate was she with Jesus? Does the debate over the child obscure a more profound role for Mary in the future of Christianity? "Most people who read The Da Vinci Code have no way of separating historical fact from literary fiction," says Bart Ehrman, chairman of the religious studies department at the University of North Carolina and author of Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code.
Celibate. Take the book's notion that Jesus had to be married because celibacy was condemned according to Jewish custom. The Essenes, a sect that shared Jesus's expectation of an apocalypse, were unmarried, celibate men, Ehrman points out. Furthermore, there is no mention of Jesus's wife in the Bible or in any ancient sources.
The book's main character, Leigh Teabing, says the Gnostic Gospel of Philip calls Mary a "companion" or spouse to Jesus. But the Greek word the Gospel uses, koinônos, means simply friend or associate, Ehrman says. The text says Jesus kisses Mary, but Jesus kissed all his disciples; the gesture was not considered sexual.
Ehrman also disputes the novel's claim that Jesus intended for Mary Magdalene, not Peter, to lead the church: In the second-century Gospel of Mary, supposedly the source of these instructions, Jesus discusses the soul's salvation, Ehrman says, not who will guide his mission. Indeed, in another Gnostic text, the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus seems to pronounce that Mary must be made male to enter heaven.
Legend. The idea that Mary Magdalene bore Jesus's child, a folk legend for centuries, was given a boost in the 1960s by Frenchman Pierre Plantard, who forged documents purporting to show that that this child was the ancestor of the French Merovingian kings. Plantard later recanted under oath. The 1982 book Holy Blood, Holy Grail popularized Plantard's theories and added that Mary's womb was the Grail. Author Dan Brown lifted much of his conspiracy material from this book, but Ehrman slams it. "Of the hundreds of professional New Testament scholars whom I personally know...there is not a single one, to my knowledge, who finds the claims of the book to be historically credible," he writes.
As for da Vinci slipping Mary into The Last Supper, most art historians agree that the Renaissance master simply painted a feminine John to distinguish him as the youngest disciple. "Leonardo's preliminary sketches very clearly identify the figure as John," argues Diane Apostolos-Cappandona, a cultural historian at Georgetown University. What about Teabing's assertion that the apostle has breasts? "Just the way the garment folds," she says.
To many scholars, focusing on a Mary-Jesus marriage, however titillating, is a wasted opportunity. "There's a genuine religious impulse to understand a feminine figure like Mary Magdalene and how she understood Jesus's mind," says Chilton, "but there's no need to sexualize her.... To see her simply as a potential vessel for his seed is missing the point." The bottom line, says Apostolos-Cappandona, "is she's an independent woman. She's not the daughter of anyone, the wife of anyone, the sister of anyone, and that's enough. Sometimes, I just want to stand up and scream, 'Why do we have to make her Jesus's wife?'"