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Interview with Dan Burstein,

co-editor of Secrets of Mary Magdalene

This appeared at the time of the publication of Secrets of the Code in the UK (September 2004).

Was Mary Magdalene really Christ’s bride?

With more than 15 million copies sold and a Hollywood version in the pipeline, Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code has been this summer’s runaway bestseller. The controversial – and, some believe, blasphemous – ideas put forward in its pages have provoked heated debates in and outside the Christian church. Now, the new book, Secrets of the Code: The Unauthorised Guide To The Mysteries Behind The Da Vinci Code, seeks to unravel some of the theories presented in the novel. Here, its editor DAN BURSTEIN explains to CLARE HEAL why he believes that Jesus was actually married …

What proof exists that Jesus might have been married?

In those days, it was almost unheard of for a Jewish man of 32, the age Jesus is thought to be at the time of the crucifixion, to be unmarried. Aside from some marginal sects, there was no premium on celibacy at that time so there is no reason to think that Jesus would have remained without a wife. Assuming he took one, Mary Magdalene is the likely candidate. She is the woman in the Bible to whom Jesus was closest.

Was Mary Magdalene really a prostitute?

It was probably Pope Gregory the Great who did poor Mary Magdalene the greatest disservice. By the late Sixth century – and with a largely illiterate population – he decided that, with so many women called Mary, it over-complicated the Bible. In one account, there are three different women named Mary. Gregory decided that Mary Magdalene must be the same person as a prostitute named Mary who was described a few paragraphs earlier. In the 1960s, the Vatican adjusted the record and admitted this had been an error and that Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute, but the damage to her reputation had been done for 1400 years.

What was Mary Magdalene’s role among Jesus and his followers?

Mary Magdalene is mentioned 12 times in the traditional gospels. She is there at the scene of the crucifixion – remaining at the foot of the cross after all the male apostles had fled – and she is the one who goes to the tomb and to whom Jesus subsequently appears. In the gospel according to Luke, she is described as feeding and housing the itinerant group of Jesus and his followers. More important than just another follower of Christ, she was more like a patron to him.

Are there other sources of information on Jesus’s life to back up this theory?

Over the past 25 years, Bible scholars have been paying a lot of attention to the so-called Gnostic gospels. Gnosticism was a mystical religion combining elements of Christianity, Greek philosophy, and Judaism but also occultism and magic. Its name comes from the Greek word for knowledge and its emphasis was on divine inspiration and revelation. The Gnostic gospels consisted of 52 documents, written in Coptic and discovered at Nag Hammadi, Upper Egypt, in 1945. One in particular, the Gospel of Philip, contains references to Jesus and Mary Magdalene, saying that Jesus chose her and favoured her above the rest of the apostles. In one passage, it is said Jesus “loved her more than all the disciples and used to kiss her often on her”, followed by the presumed Coptic word for “mouth.” The rest of the word has been eradicated by a hole in the paper but some scholars believe the missing word is “mouth” and interpret this as evidence of a sexual relationship between the pair. Furthermore, it has been suggested that Mary was the person Jesus wished would lead his movement after his death, but Peter disapproved of a female leader. There are references in the gospel of St. Matthew to Jesus choosing Peter to carry on his church but history is written by the victor and some think this may have been added later.

Is it at all plausible that Jesus’s bloodline survives and that descendants of his are around today? The central character in The Da Vinci Code is “symbologist” Robert Langdon, who believes he has uncovered a 2,000-year-old conspiracy to hide the truth about Jesus’s relationship with Mary Magdalene and that, in fact, descendants of their child and his bloodline survive to this day. The amount of actual scholarly or archeological evidence for this is extremely limited. Of course it is not impossible, but no one alive today can trace their ancestry back more than a thousand years, let alone two thousand years. A traceable bloodline is therefore pure speculation. Far more plausible is the notion that, if we assume Jesus to be a genuine historical character, he had a very special relationship with Mary Magdalene.

In Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting of The Last Supper, is the figure seated next to Jesus actually Mary Magdalene? If you look at The Last Supper with fresh eyes, you can see what Dan Brown has seen – the figure to Jesus’s right looks feminine. It was always thought to be John but what if Leonardo was party to some secret knowledge and it is actually Mary Magdalene seated at Jesus’s side? I don’t believe this. Leonardo may have had many radical ideas but I don’t think this is how he would have communicated them. Why would the Church want to suppress information about Jesus and Mary Magdalene’s relationship? Another of Dan Brown’s themes is that women are substantially less visible and much less powerful in modern religion than in ancient times. Ten or twenty thousand years ago, the earliest religious ideas are born out of fertility rites and goddess culture. Cave paintings make it very clear that early human beings associated the supernatural and the idea of life-giving force with women. It’s a tradition that continues throughout ancient civilisations from the Egyptians to the Greeks. Both have a strong tradition of goddesses and sacred femininity but, as we move out of the ancient world, there’s a power shift to a male vision of God and a much more patriarchal way of looking at worship. Dan Brown takes this idea and spins it into a Fourth-century conspiracy by the Emperor Constantine to eradicate this tradition of the sacred feminine and cut Mary Magdalene from the history of the Church. When Christianity moved from the Holy Land to the heart of the Roman Empire, the Romans eventually stopped massacring Christians and adopted their religion when Constantine realised that, given the size of the Roman Empire, it would be advantageous to unite it with a common religion. He and subsequent emperors made a point of eradicating what they saw as heresies and creating a standardised version of Christianity, the one we know today. Dan Brown is poking a hole in the idea that what we have now is the only interpretation of Christ’s life and teachings. He is pointing out that the decisions about which gospels were heresy and which were accepted were made by a pagan Roman emperor and his advisors with ulterior motives. Constantine would have wanted a patriarchal view of Christianity with a strong association between state and religion and wouldn’t have wanted it to be a movement for the meek, outcasts and women. There is a lot about this issue that we don’t know and never will but I believe that the person who has become known as Jesus Christ was a true historical character, a radical Jewish reformer. There is a high likelihood that he would have been married and, given that that there seem to be no other possible brides mentioned in the gospels, the possibility that he was married to Mary Magdalene is a very real one. Dan Brown’s tale of descendants of Jesus being hunted by secret Church societies is highly entertaining but laughable. The idea of Mary Magdalene being a different and much more important character in history than most people have been thought, however, is an important historical and conceptual idea that is worth discussing and understanding.


• Secrets Of The Code: The Unauthorised Guide To The Mysteries Behind The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Burstein (Weidenfeld & Nicolson. £10.99) is out now.