We all know Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. It is selling in millions all over the world. It is an excellent thriller. But we are not going to discuss this book as a piece of literature, following in that Bart D. Ehrman. We are not even going to fiscuss this book at all. The two themes it contains are looming high in books and on the wide screen at the moment : the Holy Grail seen as Mary Magdalene, the spouse of Jesus, and their blood line still alive, on one hand, and, on the other, the Templars and their treasure captured in the founding layers of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem during the Crusades. Walt Disney is also interested in that gold mine and their recent National Treasure deals with the second theme and ignores the first. We will follow Bart D. Ehrman here and we will only take into a account the topics the book deals with, i.e. the Christian elements in the novel, b ut through a discussion of Ehrman's own book, hence discuss Ehrman's historical method and not the religiouzs topics as such. The truth does not interest us here but the method we can use to analyze the documents at stake in these religious topics and what we can draw from them about the history of Christianity or even the history of humanity and their cultures and world representations at the time of the birth of Christianity.
Ehrman presents us with a book that is going to be essential in the debate, if not even controversy, that is raging around Dan Brown's book. Dan Brown had been clear in the book itself and had announced that all those who are for a rather conservative approach of the Christian faith, particularly the catholic church, will get up in arms to fight against the ideas and hypotheses contained in his book. As a matter of fact, Dan Brown had chosen to make his heroes keep the secret and the « treasure » in its hiding place, which is by the way under the Louvres pyramid, not to disturb the course of history, not to create a real mess in the minds of millions of people, which implies that Dan brown does not know where this hypothetical treasure is and hence would not be able to retrieve it and publish it. But, even if Dan Brown does not bring up the content of this treasure, the book contains enough controversial elements for a real battle to start raging around them. Bart D. Ehrman is one of the battlefield knights but on the side of orthodoxy and continuity. Yet that is not the main interest of his book. His book is a textbook about what he calls « critical history » and a demonstration how it works. And it is this level of this book I would like to discuss here.
The work of a « critical historian » in the field of the history of early Christianity and of the study of early Christian documents is very clearly explained in his sixth chapter, in a subchapter entitled « Our Methods for Reconstructing the Life of the Historical Jesus » (p. 122-126). He states that critical historians follow four principles in that perspective that all deal with which documents are supposed to be considered as valid, how to look at these documents and what conclusion to draw out of them. We are going to discuss these four principles, not in general but in the light of the study of Christian documents at the time of the birth and building of the early Christian church.
The First Principle
The first principle is « The Earlier the Better ».
Ehrman thus classifies the Gospels according to their dates of writing. For him the first Gospel to have been written is Mark's, then two come later but borrowing a lot from this first one, viz. Matthew's and Luke. John's come a lot later and is not at all used or examined since it is stated to be quite different. We can also note that among the other canonical documents, the Book of Revelation is absolutely not even mentioned, and the only ones to be used in some depth are Paul's letters. He rejects completely all apocrypha and pseudepigrapha, even those he quickly considers, since they are all dated from a later period.
This criterion brings up a serious problem. Ehrman is able to trace in Matthew's and Luke's Gospels what is borrowed from Mark's, what is borrowed from an hypothetical Q manuscript that would have been a collection of quotations from Christ's preaching, and some other sources, L for what is original to Luke only and M for what is orginal to Matthew only. This is quite standard in the field, but provided we ignore the Secret Gospel of Mark.
This first and extensive version of Mark's Gospel was brought into existence through the discovery, in 1958 by Professor Morton Smith at the Mar Saba monastery, southest of Jerusalem, of a letter attributed to the bishop Clement of Alexandria who quotes it and rejects a version used by the Carpocratians, the Christian followers of Carpocrates (fl. c.130-c. 150, according to the Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition, 2001, that historically position the preaching period of that « Alexandrian philosopher ») from Alexandria and his son Epiphanes. The interest of this letter by Clement is that it reveals one particularly striking episode (in two successive incidents with the same people) in Jesus life. It is asserted as true by Clement. It is asserted that there are many other elements in the Secret Gospel of Mark used by the Carpocratians that are true, but they are not specified, and also many other elements that are falsified without any specification, which brings to mind the idea that these elements may be true and already the sign of a « rewriting » of ancient sources to fit a canonical vision of Jesus emerging at the time. The very existence of this Secret Gospel of Mark proves that older documents did exist before and were circulated in writ. It also proves, if we look at the quotations from this Secret Gospel of Mark in Clement's letter, that Jesus and his followers practiced a quite different type of conversion « rite » or procedure from the one we are used to consider. Let me quote these two passages :
« And they come into Bethany. And a certain woman whose brother had died was there. And, coming, she prostrated herself before Jesus and says to him : `'Son of David, have mercy on me''. But the disciples rebuked her. And Jesus, being angered, went off with her into the garden where the tomb was, and straightaway, going in where the youth was, he stretched forth his hand and raised him, seizing his hand. But the youth looking upon him, loved him and began to beseech him that he might be with him. And going out of the tomb they came into the house of the youth, for he was rich. And after six days Jesus told him what to do and in the evening the youth comes to him, wearing a linen cloth over his naked body. And he remained with him that night, for Jesus taught him the mystery of the Kingdom of God. And thence, arising, he returned to the other side of the Jordan. »
This passage is situated in the Gospel (that we understand as being the official one) of Mark by Clement in these words : « For example, after `'And they were in the road going up to Jerusalem'' and what follows, until `'After three days he shall arise'', the Secret Gospel brings the following material word for word. »
Clement refutes the Carpocratian addiction : « naked men with naked men ».
But Clement adds then a second quotation from the Secret Gospel of Mark :
« And after the words, `'And he comes into Jericho,'' the secret Gospel adds only, `'And the sister of the youth whom Jesus loved and his mother and Salome were there, and Jesus did not receive them.'' »
Without entering the debate about the sexual practices one can imagine from such quotations, even with Clement's correction that shows a desire to lead to a non-sexual interpretation rather than the sexual one, we have here a document that is essential to assess the validity of all later writings. Note before starting that these excerpts from the Secret Gospel of Mark bring into our mental picture a strange verse in Jesus's Passion in Mark's Gospel at the moment of Jesus's arrest, a verse that no one has ever been able to interpret, and what's more a verse that is kept entirely by Bach In his Mark's Passion : « A young man who followed him had nothing on but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the cloth in their hands and ran away naked. » (14:52) We could see a link there and hence start seeing a possible meaning that remains to be elaborated.
First, Mark is definitely someone who wrote early, as Clement specifies : « As for Mark, then, during Peter's stay in Rome he wrote an account of the Lord's doings, not, however, declaring all of them, nor yet hinting at the secret ones, but selecting what he thought most useful for increasing the faith of those who were being instructed. » We can note that there are even facts and recollections that are kept secret out of this Secret Gospel of Mark by Mark himself but that are known of the inner circle of the nascent church and hence transmitted orally.
Second, Mark wrote himself this Secret Gospel and we even know when. This goes against a remark that Ehrman often reiterates that most of the followers of Jesus and even his apostles were illiterate. Mark was not as proved here. Matthew by profession was not as a tax collector. Luke by profession was not as a doctor, and also as an artist if we believe the Christian Orthodox tradition that says Luke was the first to paint an icon, and that this icon represented the Holy Virgin Mary. And the Book of Revelation (1:9) was written by John himself when in prison in Patmos, even if we can follow the Jerusalem Bible when it says it probably was made up of several different apocalypses (two) and maybe other texts from different authors, but all from the Johannine circle.
Third, these early documents circulated with addenda or not. Read more ›