Despite my antipathy of organized religion, I have always been fascinated by and read several works on New Testament research and scholarship. Robert Price’s The Da Vinci Fraud uses the opportunity presented by Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code as a framework to try to engage a wider audience in a discussion of the origins and history of Christianity and the New Testament.
Price, a fellow in the Jesus Seminar, does not concentrate on whether Leonardo da Vinci or other notables were members of some secret society devoted to protecting the idea that Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene married and their offspring gave rise to the Merovingian dynasty. Likewise, he does not explore whether da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” actually contains clues as to this version of “history” and Mary Magdalene’s role in Christianity. Instead, his book is a straightforward and generally very readable analysis of the theories espoused by Brown’s characters and their viability in light of New Testament history and research.
Price, who occasionally goes by the moniker “The Bible Geek,” takes a logical approach to the subject. He first deconstructs Brown’s sources. His critical analysis of those works shows not only gaping holes but the leaps of logic — if not faith — they make to reach their conclusions. (Two authors of perhaps the leading work have sued Brown for plagiarism in a case set to go to trial this February). Then, because much of Brown’s mishmash of theories supposes the Holy Grail is a reference to Mary Magadelene carrying the child of Jesus, Price explores the history of the Grail legend and what it tells us about Brown’s work and the concepts upon which it is based. It is only after laying this groundwork that Price gets to the meat of his topic — what history, the apocryphal works ultimately excluded from the Bible, and analysis of the evolution and content of the Bible tell us about Jesus and his life, Mary Magadelene and Christianity as a whole.
If you place traditional views of the Bible and Christianity on the conservative end of the spectrum, Price surely falls on the liberal if not radical end. He has no problem entertaining and attempting to objective assess such questions as whether Christ really died on the cross, how what we know as the New Testament came to be, and the evolution and role of both Jesus and Mary Magadelene historically and in early Christian thought. Price’s point, well taken at times and not so well at others, is that the truth is often more fascinating than the theories espoused in Brown’s novel.
Price ultimately disagrees with Brown’s thesis that Mary Magadelene was the wife of Jesus, that they had children and that she was the female apostle the church obscured and covered up. He does not entirely rule out the first but believes the historical record undercuts the validity of such a theory. Likewise, he questions the roles to which both the traditional church and modern advocates of Mary Magadelene seek to assign her. As with the rest of the text, Price takes the reader step by step through his analysis, pointing out the evolution of Mary Magdalene’s role in both canonical and gnostic writings. Price himself, however, ultimately goes a step farther and assigns her a role in Christianity that is as theologically radical as Brown’s thesis, if not more.
Readers with strongly held traditional Christian beliefs may be offended or upset by some of Price’s assertions, ideas and conclusions. That does not change the fact such views and concepts are worthy of examination and debate on their own merit rather than being simply swept in as part of the fanciful imagination of a best-selling novelist.
[I]f we wish to play the role of historians, all we can do is to set forth the probabilities of the case and maintain an open mind. The historian is not in the business of substituting one dogma for another.
Robert M. Price, The Da Vinci Fraud