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The Last Supper

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One of the central images used by Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code is the mural Leonardo painted at Santa Maria delle Grazie, which depicts Jesus and the twelve disciples gathering for the Passover meal prior to His crucifixion, The Last Supper. It was at this gathering that Jesus shared with the twelve his coming betrayal by one of them, as well as the practice of sharing communion with one another in remembrance of Him. However, Brown's character Sir Leigh Teabing alleges that the painting provides clues within an elaborate conspiracy to conceal a relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene:

"'It's a matter of historical record,' Teabing said, 'and Da Vinci was certainly aware of that fact. The Last Supper practically shouts to the viewer that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were a pair.'"

Leonardo, beginning work on the mural in 1495, was known for his desire to depict images in a realistic fashion and his criticism of other artists for embellishing imagery. Yet some conspiracy theorists, like the character of Teabing, argue that Leonardo's painting is an elaborate clue to a secret he was under charge to protect as a member of the Priory of Sion. It might be helpful to point out at the outset that lacing a very public work with overt clues to a secret he was supposed to protect might be a conflict of interest. It would seem to me that a better motive would need to be suggested for Leonardo to want to reveal the "secret" but only through cryptic symbolism in his paintings. Nevertheless, many allege that the incriminating symbols are in fact there.

The famous allegation is that the figure to the right of Jesus, appearing to swoon in the direction of Peter, standing to his right, is actually Mary Magdalene, not John, as was traditionally understood by the Church and art historians alike. The theory cites the feminine appearance of this figure as obvious evidence that Leonardo was intending to paint a woman, rather than a man. Some indicate that Jesus and the figure to His right are painted as mirror images of each other with symmetrically matching clothing, forming a 'V' shape, which represents a female womb and thus homage to the "divine feminine." Additionally, the shape of Jesus and the mysterious figure to His right are also said to form the shape of the letter "M," perhaps for the word "matrimony" or "Magdalene." I think that such interpretations require far too much of the presupposition that Leonardo had some sort of secret agenda with the painting, which ultimately begs the question. However, the claims of Teabing get even more farfetched. He says, "Oddly, Da Vinci appears to have forgotten to paint the cup of Christ," indicating that the absence of an actual cup in front of Christ proves that the grail is something other than a literal cup- perhaps the bloodline of Jesus Himself!

Such theories are ultimately fantasy. In fact, they seem to rely upon the assumption that Leonardo was a reliable source regarding the event of the last supper, as if he had himself been there. However, Leonardo depicted the scene over 1400 years after it occurred, presumably relying upon the Gospel accounts themselves to do so. Given the likely reliance upon the Gospels, it is no surprise that the cup is not a central element of the depiction as it was certainly not in the Biblical narrative. The legend of the Grail having supernatural power resulting from Jesus' use came much later and has no scriptural precedent. Moreover, the assumption that Leonardo would have even been motivated to lace the painting with clues to a conspiracy is based upon his membership in the Priory of Sion, a legendary secret society which has been proven to have been a hoax invented in the 20th century. Without the Priory connection, there really is no substance to the theory.

Art historians, however, have consistently approached The Last Supper as being both typical of Leonardo and typical of contemporary Florentine trends. They interpret the figures and their expressions as follows: From left, Bartholomew, James the Lesser, and Andrew (his hands up as if to say 'stop!') form a group and are surprised. Judas Iscariot, Peter, and John form the next group. Judas is depicted as withdrawn and somewhat sinister as he holds a small bag presumably carrying the silver he received as payment for his betrayal. He appears to be in shadow, symbolizing his spiritual lostness. Peter wields a knife, pointing toward Bartholomew (some say to reference Bartholomew’s future martyrdom, others to foreshadow Peter's actions at Gethsemane), while John swoons in Peter's direction. Thomas, James and Philip are the next group to Jesus' left. Thomas shows distress, while James throws his arms out in dismay. Philip seems to ask for clarification. Finally, Matthew, Jude, and Simon the Zealot form the last group, the former two appearing to consult Simon. Incidentally, this interpretive scheme was confirmed by the discovery of a document known as The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci, found in the 19th century.

The feminine appearance of the figure historians almost unanimously interpret to be John is no surprise given that it was typical of Leonardo's depiction of young men, as well as the Florentine tradition of painting John as beardless and youthful. What's more, this character appears to be wearing men's clothing, not those of a woman. The traditional interpretation of art historians seems a much more likely explanation than Teabing's, which relies on too many assumptions to be justifiable. Another problem raised by interpreting this figure as Magdalene is that her presence would reduce the count of the disciples to eleven, with one missing, which contradicts the Biblical and traditional accounts.

While Brown creates a compelling narrative around the imagery of Leonardo, conspiracies and esoteric knowledge, the historical credibility is just not there. However, even if Leonardo had been a member of a secret society with fantastic ideas about Jesus and Mary Magdalene, which he decided to hide in his paintings, there is no supporting evidence to suggest that anyone should take him seriously in this regard. Even the recently proven hoax of the Priory of Sion set its date of establishment at 1099, a millennium after Christ! Leonardo, painting four-hundred years later, likely did not have accurate insight into the details of the real "last supper," nor does it seem that he had any feasible esoteric agenda.

The Claims of The DaVinci Code

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As there have been many requests for information regarding the claims of The DaVinci Code, I would like to direct readers to the following posts.

Claim: The four Gospels were chosen from 80 other gospels.
I discuss this claim in What About All the Other “Gospels?” Part 1

Claim: Jesus was married to Mary Magdelene and left the church in her charge.
I discuss this claim in What About All the Other "Gospels?" Part 2

Claim: Pre-Biblical documents tell the true story of Jesus and Mary and are located in Mary's tomb.
I discuss this claim in What About All the Other "Gospels?" Part 3

Claim: The New Testament scriptures are unreliable.
I discuss this claim in The Reliability of the New Testament Scriptures and A Survey of New Testament Documents and The God Who Wasn't There, Part 2

Claim: Leonardo's The Last Supper contains visual clues to the secret of Jesus' marriage to Mary Magdalene.
I discuss this claim in The Last Supper.

Some additional recommended resources:

Biblical scholar Dr. Craig Blomberg has done two excellent lectures related to the claims of The DaVinci Code, available for download here:
The DaVinci Code (Part 1): Was There a Plan to Suppress "Secret" Gospels?
The DaVinci Code (Part 2): Was There a Conspiracy to Concoct a Divine Jesus?

Also, Stand To Reason has produced a great 10-page PDF document addressing The DaVinci Code, available here:
http://www.str.org/site/DocServer/5-6_2006_SG.pdf?docID=961

CNN refutes The DaVinci Code!
Click here to read a decent article on CNN.com dealing with the credibility of the claims of The DaVinci Code.

CBS 60 Minutes debunks Priory of Sion!
Click here to read an article at cbsnews.com detailing the forged origin of Priory of Sion documents used by Dan Brown in his 'historical' research for The DaVinci Code (thanks BB for the link).

US News & World Report sets the record straight!
Click here to read an article at usnews.com generally outlining the historically incorrect claims of the DaVinci Code and the corrections to them.

What About All the Other “Gospels?” Part 3

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After looking at the Gnostic “other gospels” in light of the recent media attention, as well as in terms of their historical and theological validity, I want to examine one last issue that is often mentioned within the context of the discussion. This concerns the hypothetical “Q” document, supposed by some scholars to be the source of information to which the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke refer.

Suggested by the German scholar Friedrich Schleiermacher in 1832, the “Q” hypothesis (named for the German word Quelle, or “source”) was proposed to account for the parallels between Matthew and Luke’s writings of the sayings of Jesus. Some 250 verses of both Gospels show parallels, in that they have particular similarities that are not found in the Gospel of Mark, which scholars suggest is due to an actual document having pre-existed the Gospels and served as their source. Schleiermacher was prompted to take up this study after encountering the writing of Papias of Hierapolis, who wrote, “Matthew compiled the oracles of the Lord in a Hebrew manner of speech.” It had previously been interpreted that Papias meant that Matthew had written in Hebrew, but Schleiermacher interpreted this quote to mean that there was a document previous to Matthew.

The hypothesis has a particular presupposition of Markan priority, meaning that the Gospel of Mark was written first, to account for the similarities. However, if Matthew was actually written first, the hypothesis has little basis to be defended. Some advocates of the “Q” hypothesis reason that the format of the “Gospel of Thomas” (see What about Other “Gospels?” Part 1) shows that a purely sayings-based document has historical precedent. However this relies upon the assumption that such a format would precede the narrative accounts found in the canonical Gospels, which, given the later date of “Thomas” is not necessarily the case.

Interestingly, an expert character in Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code suggests,

Also rumored to be a part of the treasury [of supposed documents hidden in the tomb of Mary Magdalene] is the legendary “Q” document, a manuscript that even the Vatican admits they believe exists. Allegedly, it is a book of Jesus’ teachings, possibly written in his own hand…Another explosive document believed to be in the treasury is a manuscript called the ‘Magdalene Diaries,’ Mary Magdalene’s personal account of her relationship with Christ, His crucifixion, and her time in France.”

To be fair, Brown’s book is, after all, a fictional work, making his completely unfounded suggestion of the existence of a diary written by Mary Magdalene (completely without historical credence) ignorable. However, Brown does open the book with a note explaining that all descriptions of documents within the book are accurate. For the record, however, though the “Q” document is an existing hypothesis and the basis of valid scholarship, no scholar has ever suggested that there is any reason to think it would have been written by Christ himself.

Contrary to the claims of the mostly Gnostic “gospels” I have examined in my previous two posts, the existence of “Q” would not actually cause any theological or historical problems. In fact, it was common for certain able followers of a Rabbi at the time to take notes of his teachings so that they may commit to memory and deliver to others what they had learned. If “Q” did exist, I would assume that it would have been on the level of such notes, since no copy of it has survived nor has it been explicitly referred to by any other early documents. However, we have no tangible evidence for either position, so “Q” must remain a hypothesis until we do.

What About All the Other “Gospels?” Part 2

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In the general discussion of documents in my last post, I briefly mentioned two specific manuscripts that are of interest in the study of apocryphal gospels. In fact, these two books, the “Gospel of Philip,” and the “Gospel of Mary,” have frequently been cited by liberal Biblical scholars and Gnostic scholars alike in argumentation for the diversity of Christian thinking in the first century. They even play a significant role in the most recent and popular of such speculative work, The DaVinci Code, leading author Dan Brown’s characters to conclude that Jesus had been married to Mary Magdalene and left the church in her charge.

The “Gospel of Philip,” discovered among the documents of the Nag Hammadi library, is like the “Gospel of Thomas” in that it is primarily comprised of sayings or teachings of Christ rather than being a narrative or story. These sayings, which include “Truth is the mother, knowledge the father,” and “it is not possible for anyone to see anything of the things that actually exist unless he becomes like them… You saw the Spirit, you became Spirit. You saw the Christ, you became Christ. You saw the Father, you shall become Father,” are widely considered to be extremely Gnostic in character. However, this particular “gospel” is most often cited as introducing the proposition that Jesus had been married to Mary Magdalene.

Though the document has sustained damage which makes deciphering some of its text a challenge, the passage in question reads: “And the companion of the…Mary Magdalene…more than…the disciples…kiss her…on her…” Some scholars, however, have filled in the gaps, inferring that the passage perhaps read like this: “And the companion of the Savior is Mary Magdalene. Christ loved her more than all the disciples and used to kiss her often on her mouth.” Dan Brown’s professorial expert character argues specifically that the Aramaic word used for ‘companion’ always means ‘spouse,’ therefore there can be no question that the two were married. Unfortunately, the only existing copy of this manuscript was written in Coptic, not Aramaic! Though many Gnostic texts tend to have earlier versions in Greek, scholars have never found any in the Aramaic language. Supposing, however, that this document was in some way credible, despite being quite late (3rd century AD), the notion that Magdalene was a simply companion of Christ is thoroughly Biblical. She is often mentioned among the various women accompanying Christ in his travels. Even the notion that they might exchange a kiss is not necessarily scandalous as greeting one another with a ‘holy kiss’ was commonplace among first century Christians. After a closer look, it seems that the marriage conclusion is quite unlikely.

Like the “Gospel of Philip,” the “Gospel of Mary” is another Coptic apocryphal text, discovered in 1896 within a larger manuscript known as the Akhmim Codex. Also like “Philip,” this text is the only existing Coptic version, though it is missing portions of its content. Again, the most common inference from this text is a bit of a departure from what is actually there, as some scholars claim it teaches that Jesus left Mary Magdalene, not Peter, in charge of the church.

The passage most often referred to reads:

And Peter said, ‘Did the Savior really speak with a woman without our knowledge? Are we to turn about and all listen to her? Did He prefer her to us?’ And Levi answered, ‘Peter, you’ve always been hot-tempered. Now I see you contending against the woman like an adversary. If the Savior made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her? Surely the Savior knows her very well. That is why He loved her more than us.’”

I see nothing in this passage that presents a convincing argument for Mary’s charge. However, several other facts call the very legitimacy of scholarship surrounding this manuscript into question. As I mentioned earlier, many Gnostic texts had prior versions written in Greek, the “Gospel of Mary” included. In fact, the earlier Greek manuscript copy exists in two portions surviving from the 3rd century AD, but it ends prior to this particular passage! Additionally, though this book is often referred to as the “Gospel of Mary Magdalene,” the name Magdalene appears nowhere in the text. For all we know, this book could refer to any number of Marys, Jesus’ mother included (though, in all fairness, its Gnostic origin makes it likely that Magdalene was intended). Needless to say, the actual document’s relationship to Mary would be in name only, as it was written long after the first century.

The subject of other “gospels” is sure to attract interest (and sell books, in the case of The DaVinci Code) while subversively introducing Gnostic Christianity as authoritative and/or authentic. However, only a small amount of investigation reveals the truth and affirms the exclusion of Gnostic apocryphal works from the scriptural canon. Ironically, the “Gospel of Mary” includes another quote, this time from Andrew, who says “Say what you think concerning what she [Magdalene] said. For I do not believe that the Savior said this. For certainly these teachings are of other ideas.” I am convinced that we can safely agree with Andrew and trust the Word of God which has been preserved for us from the very beginning!

What About All the Other “Gospels?” Part 1

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As the recent release of the so-called “Gospel of Judas” seems to suggest, many skeptics and scholars today allege that in addition to the four Gospels found in the contemporary New Testament, many other gospels were written and yet withheld from the canon for various sinister reasons. In fact, in his book ‘The DaVinci Code,’ Dan Brown suggests (by way of one of his ‘expert’ characters) that more than eighty gospels were considered for inclusion in the New Testament! I would like to briefly examine the veracity of this claim and suggest that, in reality, the number of other documents that could even be (mistakenly) construed as a legitimate gospel is roughly half the total Brown suggests.

Contrary to the popular suggestion of “gospel” rivalry during the growth of the early church, no other gospels were even suggested by first-hand authors for inclusion in the canon, or even by followers of such supposed authors. Only two gospels were mentioned in a favorable light during the time prior to the establishment of the canon, though not judged for canonicity. They include the “Gospel of the Hebrews” and the “Gospel of Thomas.” The “Gospel of the Hebrews” has actually never been found, though it is mentioned among the apostolic fathers’ literature and was said to resemble the Gospel of Matthew. The “Gospel of Thomas,” found among the Nag Hammadi literature, is a compilation of sayings of Jesus rather than a documentary account of His ministry. While a portion, perhaps a third, of the recorded sayings resemble those of the canonical Gospels, the remaining are Gnostic in nature and do not conform to the teachings of Christ as recorded by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Interestingly, the Jesus Seminar, a collective of radical liberal Biblical scholars, included “Thomas” as the fifth Gospel in their famous study which sought to prove that little of the words attributed to Jesus actually came from Him. In the case of “Hebrews,” there is no physical evidence allowing for even a debate as to whether it should have been included within the canon; the consensus of the early church is apparent from its lack of preservation. In the case of “Thomas,” its late date and obvious Gnostic corruption set it outside of the body of literature produced within the first century and among the followers who were directly connected to Christ, making the possibility of inspiration or even canonical qualification a non-issue.

During the second and third centuries of church growth, unorthodox teachers began to assemble groups based upon heretical teachings and recommend the use of spurious literature. Three so-called “gospels” tended to be referred to in such instances. They included the “Gospel of Peter,” “A Different Matthew” and, again, the “Gospel of Thomas.” These documents, as I wrote earlier, were written well after the time of the names associated with them, meaning that the authorship was forged. Additionally, like “Thomas,” these documents were thoroughly indicative of Gnostic corruption. In fact, I briefly examined the a passage from the “Gospel of Peter” in my previous post, “The Historical Resurrection of Jesus, Part 2 (The Empty Tomb),” which showed the remarkably strong influence of mythic symbolism and religious iconography that would not have been present in an early document (see that post for more and a quote from a passage recounting the resurrection of Christ).

There are another nine remaining documents, of which fragments still remain, which bear the name “gospel,” though for similar reasons to the three mentioned above, are apocryphal. These include, the “Gospel of Truth,” “Gospel of Philip,” “Gospel of the Egyptians,” “Gospel of Mary,” “Gospel of Bartholomew,” “The Apocryphon of James,” “The Ascent of James,” the “infancy” “Gospel of Thomas,” and the “Gospel of Nicodemus.” Again, these documents are today, and were at the time of the early church, rejected on the basis of spurious and late authorship, as well as corrupted and Gnostic-influenced doctrinal teaching. In the interest of time and space, I will discuss the “Gospel of Philip,” and the “Gospel of Mary” in more detail in a forthcoming post.

Roughly six or seven additional fragments were found among the documents at Oxyrhychus, which I mentioned in my previous post, “A Survey of New Testament Documents,” that contained duplicate accounts of Jesus’ miracles found in the New Testament Gospels, though they seem to originally be from separate documents. These fragments, however, present nothing controversial, nor do they include extra-Biblical teaching that would have been suppressed. The possible seventh document is of a bit more interest, though it is difficult to even call it a document. In 1958, scholar Morton Smith visited an Egyptian monastery where he claims to have viewed a letter from Clement of Alexandria, who lived around AD 200. Smith said that this letter contained a quote from a distorted version of the Gospel of Mark, which Clement was endeavoring to refute. The quote mentions a young man who visits Jesus in the night wearing nothing but a linen garment, and is “taught the secrets of the kingdom” until the morning. Sadly, it is this quote, having never been verified by one shred of evidence beyond Smith’s verbal account, which leads some to outrageously infer that Jesus was a homosexual. Clearly, and even if it were genuine, the passage overtly contains nothing of the sort. Smith did return to the monastery once more to take photographs of the document, which were reportedly last seen in 1973. Since then, some scholars have attempted to suggest that this “distortion” of the Gospel of Mark was actually the original, of which the Biblical Gospel of Mark was a distortion! Not only is there no evidence to verify that the ancient letter of Clement actually exists, there is no existing evidence to corroborate the supposed distortion of Mark nor the hypothesis that the New Testament Gospel of Mark was a later version of the one cited by Clement. For skeptics, the pre-Mark “gospel” may just be wishful thinking. Finally, among ancient documents, scholars have found twenty-eight other references to texts simply called “gospels,” though none of these have ever been found or corroborated by additional sources.

It appears that, despite the frequent claims of skeptics, the allegation of numerous “gospels” that competed for canonical inclusion is quite incorrect. In fact, the cumulative total of all the documents I have cited here (including the supposed distorted “Gospel of Mark”) is 48 documents. This, by the way, is roughly half the number suggested by Dan Brown. This data is ultimately convincing that the suggestion that there were eighty other “gospels” is quite disingenuous.

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