on 15 January 2005
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. In those days books had to be copied. The copier could change many things. But the preaching was oral of course and the spreading of the « good news » was mainly oral too, at least for the masses of the preached one and future converts (it is clearly said in the Book of Revelation, 1:3). Ehrman takes this into account but without understanding or mentioning that in an oral society like that of Jesus, memory was an extremely well developed quality both among some people who had memory as a profession, but also among all people. And that memory was literally photographic, absolutely faithful and perfect. In Africa for instance we can know the older state of an African oral language by studying what the griots have committed to their memory, be it laws, rules, commercial agreements or tales (the first three elements require perfect fidelity to what was decided, agreed upon or said). Ehrman does not use this element enough and in fact underestimates it. The writings may be from a later period but oral transmission in this society had to be extensive and faithful. Which means distortions were voluntary and motivated, hence meaningful, and they have to be studied in detail, though it is difficult to know what is what in two different versions of one event : who is the one who distorted and who is the one who did not distort ? But there are no reasons to reject Gospels that were transmitted orally and transcribed later on in any language. By the way that is Clement's attitude, but Clement of course had or knew the original versions of the texts at the time, even the secret elements that were not written but only transmitted orally among those who were in a closed and inner circle in the church. Some French catholic researchers (Francis Lapierre and Dominique Labbé) presented at the University of Western Brittany in Brest in november 2004 a study of Mark's Gospel showing how the doublets or parallel verses can be analyzed as reflecting a semitic source for one verse and a Greek source for the other, which is the proof that the Gospel existed in Amaraic first and was tranferred into Greek later on. The necessity of the parallel verses comes from great differences between the two languages, hence for example the opposition between « rabbi » on the Semitic side and « lord » on the Greek side. It is quite obvious that « rabbi » does not have an equivalent in Greek and that the use of « lord » enables to approach the meaningL This also proves that these canonical texts were « written » in successive layers according to the linguistic need of the preaching and missionary work as the Christian faith spread beyond its Semitic original area.
Fourth, most of the texts were probably written collectively within Christian circles. Ehrman says so and it is quite clear when we study the texture itself of the text linguistically, which had been true too of the canonical books of the Old Testament : we all know the two successive versions of the creation of the world and man in Genesis that are linguistically different, along with some differences in content. Ehrman names some groups, though he remains general with the gnostics instead of taking particular groups (the gnostics around and after Philip in the Coptic church have little to do with the carpocratians), but here again he neglects the Johannines who played an important role by being behind both John's Gospel (who may have been written or even composed by someone else or some other people than John, even Mary Magdalene if we want to follow Ramon K. Jusino, M.A., 1998) and the Book of Revelation, according to the Jerusalem Bible.
The Second Principle
The second principle is « Piling on the Testimonies ».
If one fact is only present in these already selected texts only once, it is rejected as dubious. To be considered as reflecting the truth a fact has to be mentioned several times in different documents. This is a prudent principle but in no way a guarantee of truthful conclusions. At times one single element can be crucial and may have been neglected by all but one person. Ehrman gives himself a good example of this : he got from one man only the verbal testimony that the Egyptians who were digging for some fertilizer when they came upon what was to become the Nag Hammadi Library, first hit a skeleton. He accepts it apparently because he got it from « the head of the archaeological team » that was « later responsible for exploring the site near Nag Hammadi » (p. 192, note 5). One man who got it from other people later (no date about the team's work in the book) that is to say several years at least after the actual find : embellishing stories is a very human quality both for the farmers in Egypt and also for archaeologists when it has no consequence whatsoever on the value of the documents that were found there. Its singularity does not mean it is a fantasy even if it may be. Otherwise UFOs are definitely true.
But some elements can only be found, and repetitively at times, in the texts that emanate from Mary, Thomas or Philip and their followers or continuators, and other apocryphal or pseudepigraphal texts. The question here is why have these texts that can only represent long oral traditions, been excluded by the church at a certain time, even if it took three centuries to do so, but also by « critical historians » today, and this in spite of the « piling up » of testimonies in these documents ? As a historian we do not have to assess this or that assertion as conceivable or not, for instance the miracles, scientifically. We have to assess the picture these documents want the audience to have of Jesus.
Ehrman is going to say that he wants to really build an objective and real knowledge of the material real man called Jesus. Right. But then he should have mentioned the meaning of Christ, the anointed one, and then moved to the word « chrism » that is only used in apocryphal writings, though Jesus is called the anointed one quite often everywhere. For instance in the Gospel of Bartholomew :
« Jesus said unto him : `'Bartholomew, my Father did name me Christ, that I might come down upon earth and anoint every man that cometh unto me with the oil of life : and he did call me Jesus that I might heal every sin of them that know not ... and give unto men (several corrupt words : the Latin has) the truth of God.'' » (IV:65)
The text shows that the truth of God is latin and not the original language Greek, or the other derived language Slavonic, not to speak of the original oral language in which this Gospel was spread out of Palestine and its Semitic Aramaic or other dialects and languages. This ointment, this chrism is a real mystery about Jesus and his practices, this oil of life, corrected in a way into the truth of God. The question here is, accepting the anointing Jesus practiced undeniably with some ointment, the chrism, to know the nature of this chrism, this ointment.
Many discussions are going on and around about this secret ointment the rabbis used in their secret meditation and preparation. Jesus here seems to say that he has the mission to reveal this secret to everyone and use it for everyone. That goes along with the Secret Gospel of Mark : why in the nude if not for any sexual contact ? To be anointed with this oil of life ? That is no magic (a concept that will develop quite later) but maybe and probably a simple medicine of these days, and anointing people with special oils was common practice and will remain common practice for many centuries, before being turned into witchcraft in the late Middle Ages. Those oils were composed of many elements and we know that some had bacteria-killing qualities, or leading to visions if not hallucinations. This was a common practice among the Jews from the Exodus to the Kaballah :
« The chrism. Yahweh spoke to Moses and said : `'Take the choices spices : ... liquid myrrh... fragrant cinnamon... scented cane... cassia... olive oil... compound into a holy chrism...'' » (Exodus, 30:22-25).
What is this « scented cane » ? In Hebrew it is « kaneh-bosm » (note a plural due to the « -m » ending, hence leading to the understanding of it as the floral endings of some plant. Some even see in this word the designation of « cannabis ». In a word, if we use Ehrman's second principles with all the documents that have been rejected out of the canon, and he accepts this rejection, we come to some disquieting questions we probably cannot be answered.
The Third Principle
The third principle is « Cutting Against the Grain ».
Here Ehrman considers the elements in the canon that go against the grain of a certain picture the church of the time wanted to give of Jesus, according to what we think the church's intention was. But how do we know it since we have so few documents according to Ehrman. He considers there must be some pregnant value in these elements for them to have been retained. I like this argument but it is in many ways circular. We choose an element in documents that are extremely difficult to assess as authentic based on the intention of the church at the time that can only be rebuilt from documents that have been produced and retained in a context of deep divisions and conflicts within the Christian community, and hence that are very difficult to assess as authentically representing the will or desire of the church.
These surviving documents that are in no way canonical but are instructions, orders, recommendations from the important bishops or thinkers of the church, are obviously political and ideological, produced to build and defend an institution, what's more a nascent institution. It is quite clear that those opposed to this orientation either did not have the means or the authority to produce similar documents, or they were declared heretics and their production was destroyed. Actually Ehrman gives a perfect example of what happened before and after the council of Nicea with the debate between Arius and Athanasius, both from Alexandria in the fourth century. Since Athanasius won in Nicea, Arius disappeared from the picture and we can think Athanasius is the cause of the burying of the gnostic books that will become the Nag Hammadi Library recovered from the desert only in 1945.
But this third principle should lead Ehrman to at least include some of the elements found in the apocrypha and pseudepigrapha because they obviously go against the grain, particularly the gnostic elements, or the elements we can find in the gnostic corpus of docuemnts, because we know the church fought very hard against these facts, these documents and even the people who were inspired by them.
the Fourth Ptinciple
The fourth principle is « Context is (Almost) Everything ».
To conclude, without discussing all the elements brought forward in Ehrman's book, I will say that we cannot capture who Jesus was if we do not deal with this character or personage from an anthropological point of view and with an anthropological method enriched with a lot of linguistics. After all Jesus was first of all a voice, a preacher, someone who moved the world with his oral discourse, and first of all by attracting around him a set of people who will become his voice after his death. Was Jesus also a political calculator ? Maybe. But he never conquered political power, so the question is useless and vain. Were his disciples political people ? Definitely. Their perspective was to build a movement that could lead them to power, or rather lead their movement, their convictions to power and Constantine will give them full satisfaction.
So where is Jesus in that ? He is the one who brought a discourse that could articulate the contradictions of the time into some kind of a new synthesis of the antagons. And here, though Ehrman negates it in a way and yet accepts it too, Constantine was crucial. Without Constantine that new synthesis would not have been possible or would have taken a lot more time to get into power, hence that new equilibrium which was indispensible because the Empire was confronted to the Germanic tribes who were not knocking at the door for entry but starting to knock the doors down. The Christian religion was the only easy way for Constantine to unify the Empire, after he had conquered power of course, under his rule and get it ready for the coming fights and battles.
Even in his most apocalyptical approach, Jesus or his followers, particularly John, was seeing beyond this apocalypse. Men and women were supposed to be ready for the coming of this Doomsday and he understood that things had to be done straight away and in the society the way it was, though that meant changing it, changing the rules, no longer cleaning your hands, as if being clean in your body was enough to be clean for God, but cleaning your heart because real cleanliness is in the heart and not in the body, and by heart Jesus always meant the spirit that is in any man and any woman and can receive God and his message. So there is no point discussing Jesus's marriage to Mary Magdalene, etc, because that was not the point for Jesus and his followers : the point was to move the world forward for it to be ready for doomsday, though I think we have quite enough elements in the canonical Gospels and texts and in the apocrypha and pseudepigrapha to assert that Jesus did not have a desexualized vision of or ideal for the world, present and future. And we have to take the whole corpus of early Christian documents (over three centuries) in an athropological approach to understand anything and reconstruct the mystery (common meaning not Christian meaning) that is called Jesus.
I think this book is essential if we want to get some perspective about Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, but it is not enough and Dan Brown's book does not deserve researchers in relihgious history to analyze and criticize it. It is not a piece of research in that field. It is a novel and nothing else, not even science fiction. So read Ehrman's book and try to neglect the constant hammering it contains against Dan Brown's book. Read it for the research and method on historical questions it contains. You may even see better why Blake was Blake, why the radical dissenters of the 17th century were so divided, and you may understand that when a social contradiction is engrossed with a religious contradiction, the solution will have to come from within that religious contradiction, if we do not want to get into radical solutions that some other people in the 20th century also called final solutions.
Bart D. Ehrman should have worked six more months on that book to get away from Dan Brown and up into a wider and more constructive approach. One thing is sure, Dan Brown, if that was his intention as exposed in the book by a couple of characters, has definitely stirred the boat of the tradition in religion and millions of people are probably somewhere wondering about some crucial religious questions, even if most of them know that a book is a virtual being that more or less loses all reality when we close the back cover down.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU