Not the old old story

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This review essay forms part of the resources linked to the Da Vinci Code series.


The interplay of history and metaphor in the construction of religious narrative has been in my mind recently as I read two books that had been recommended to me by various people.

The first book was The Pagan Christ by Tom Harpur (Allen and Unwin, 2004). The second was The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown (Bantum, 2003). To round out my crash course in popular religious culture, I even made myself sit down to watch a DVD of Mel Gibson's film, The Passion of the Christ.

In some ways those three contemporary expression of popular interest in religion have little in common, but each of them intersects with my own research interests as well as being "texts" which have had a powerful impact on the way religion is currently perceived in many quarters. When the students in my Year Twelve religion class were asking me questions about The Da Vinci Code, I knew it was a book I was going to have to read!

Harpur dispenses entirely with an historical Jesus in favour of a "Christ myth" that originates in ancient Egypt, and argues for a consistently allegorical interpretation of the biblical texts. Brown draws upon recent scholarship on Mary Magdalene as a senior figure within the immediate circle around Jesus, as well as the Gnostic gospels from Nag Hammadi, as part of his religious detective story. On the other hand, Gibson steadfastly ignores contemporary gospel scholarship in his film on the physical and psychological suffering of Jesus during the final 24 hours of his life. More about all three works shortly.

One of the interesting things is why it took me so long to get around to reading/viewing them. My reluctance was in part due to a sense that I would find their treatment of the historical issues so out of synch with scholarly methodology that the experience of reading the works would cause me significant frustration. I could imagine myself writing copious comments in the margins (or on a note pad) as I read the book (or watched the film).

Despite these misgivings, I have recently read or watched all three of these influential contemporary compositions.

The Pagan Christ

The Pagan Christ had come up in a conversation with a participant at a workshop in Sydney a few weeks earlier. I had been vaguely aware of the book, but had not even acquired a copy at that stage. Having begun to read it, I found that it was also being read (and used in the homilies) at an inner city Catholic parish we sometimes visit. The homilists were citing the book in a very positive way, somewhat to my surprise as I was by then about halfway through the book and was finding it far from convincing.

Harpur is a former Anglican priest and was at one stage a professor (Greek and New Testament) at the University of Toronto. In this book he is especially dependent on the work of three Orientalists who specialized in Egyptology: Godfrey Higgins (1771-1834), Gerald Massey (1828-1908) and Alvin Boyd Kuhn (1881-1963). From them, and especially from Kuhn, Harpur has taken the idea that there was a widespread religion found throughout the ancient orient that understood humans to be incarnations of a divine "spark" and which shared a common myth in which a Christ figure symbolizes the need to die to flesh and be raised in the spirit. Following Kuhn, Harpur traces this myth to ancient Egypt and insists that Jesus of the Gospels is simply a reworking of the timeless Isis/Osiris myth, with Jesus being equated to Horus. Harpur combines this view of the origins of the Jesus story, with his own version of a conspiracy theory in which the fourth century Church knowingly contrived to eradicate texts and teachers that promoted the (true) allegorical meaning of the NT with the result that a sublime allegory has been subjected to the cruel fate of being treated as literal history.

Clearly Harpur has an interest in the metaphorical meaning of Scripture, rather than historical research into the texts and their worlds. At the same time, Harpur is not averse to citing (or at least alluding to) historical information about ancient Egypt and the Patristic era of Christianity. He has some authentic historical threads in his hands as he begins to knit his new seamless garment of "Cosmic Christianity," as he describes the resulting reinterpretation of Christianity that flows from his work.

These authentic threads include the following items:

  • Egyptian cultural dominance in the eastern Mediterranean and beyond for most of the historical millennia prior to modern times.
  • The wide dissemination of a fertility cult involving a dying/rising god.
  • The persistence of ancient iconography into early Christian art (e.g., Mother/Child figures).
  • The influence of Hellenistic mystery religions on early Christian ideas and practices.
  • Dualistic and Gnostic influences within Christianity including denigration of flesh in favour of spirit.
  • The suppression of dissident and heretical voices by the imperial Church.
  • The destruction of pagan (and dissenting Christian) texts by the Church.
  • The condemnation of previously esteemed teachers such as Origen.

In addition, it seems to me, Harpur is on sound ground when he asserts that the primary intent of the Gospels is not to relate history but to provide sacred stories that can be read in various non-literal ways for spiritual insight.

Where I found Harpur's book most disappointing was in its failure to provide anything like a critical apparatus. In its approximately 240 pages there are numerous claims that require careful documentation, but there are only about 9 pages of endnotes and few of them provide bibliographic information to assist a reader in checking the claims independently. Instead, the reader is repeatedly told to consult the works of Higgins, Massey and Kuhn for detailed substantiation -- but even so, it is rare to find page numbers. We are presumably expected to read the entire corpus of Kuhn's Theosophical writings in order to locate the information. (Harpur seeks to evade this duty by saying that his book is intended for the general reader rather than the scholar, but the intended reader has even more need of such a critical apparatus than the professional scholar.)

In the absence of adequate documentation, the breathless claims of an ancient conspiracy seem a little overdone. In some ways this strikes me as a shame, since the "pearl of great price" that seems to lie at the heart of Harpur's manuscript is the idea that we do well to read the gospels as allegories for the spiritual journey we are each on (rather than seeing the Gospels as historical sketches or psychological profiles of Jesus).

The Passion of the Christ

In between reading The Pagan Christ and The Da Vinci Code, I happened to watch Mel Gibson's film, The Passion of the Christ. Where I had approached Harpur's book with some positive expectations, I came to this DVD with a head full of objections. I had read a great many negative reviews of the film, and recently purchased the anniversary collection of reviews published by Belief.Net. I disagreed with Gibson's historical reconstruction, and I disagreed with his theological view that the death (and especially the suffering) of Jesus was the most significant thing about him. I also have a low tolerance for graphic depictions of violence, and knew that my comfort zones were about to be assaulted.

Despite all that I found the film far less objectionable than I had anticipated. I could view it as a work of art, and I could appreciate some of the biblical interpretations Gibson was offering (for example, when Jesus crushes the serpent under his heel in fulfilment of Genesis 3:15). The implicit blaming of the Jews for Jesus' death was no worse than what we might hear read in church from the New Testament any Sunday. While the casual blending of episodes only found in one Gospel into an artificial composite story was irritating to me, I could see that Gibson was doing no more than many preachers and catechists have done over the years.

In effect, it seemed to me that Gibson was taking the Gospel of John as the controlling story and elaborating it with scenes from the synoptics as well as from non-biblical sources. Since I do not regard any of the NT Gospels as historical accounts of what actually happened at the time of Jesus' death, I found myself watching this new digital passion narrative with a certain detachment.

History, allegory and truth (or at least meaning) were interacting in unexpected ways.

The Da Vinci Code

After those two recent experiences, I approached the task of reading The Da Vinci Code with an expectation that Dan Brown's work would be more like Harpur's text. In fact it was an entirely different reading experience for me, although I can imagine how some readers would find the book's contents quite confronting. To my surprise and my delight, I found The Da Vinci Code a good read -- a whodunit for a Religion scholar! When I found myself deciphering some of the secret codes before the book's characters had solved them, I knew I was enjoying the book.

One of the differences between this book and both of the other two works is that Dan Brown is not trying to convert anyone. It is simply a well-written detective story with most of the plot involving a struggle to secure (or protect) secret religious knowledge.

Presumably the shock value of this book derives from that secret knowledge being an unconventional view of the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. The idea that Magdalene was at least a disciple with equal status to the Twelve, and maybe even Jesus' wife, comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with recent historical Jesus research. Certainly there are non-canonical gospels now extant that refer to ongoing debates over Magdalene's unusual status among the disciples, even if none of them explicitly affirm that she was Jesus' partner.

To the extent that The Da Vinci Code and The Pagan Christ both presume that the Church authorities have colluded to suppress information about Jesus these books share some common ideas. However, Brown's book is entertaining literature while Harpur's book is a tedious sermon and Gibson's film is an all too familiar pastiche of pious assumptions.

Of course, fundamentalists will be offended by the suggestion that Jesus was married (a strange thing to take offence over, given their "family values" agenda). Faithful Christians will be offended by the assertion that the Church was deliberately covering up evidence that Jesus was entirely human and not in the least divine. Catholics will be offended (but perhaps not surprised) by the portrayal of the Church as a self-serving institution interested mostly in its own survival. However, all of these points are views attributed to the mythical Priory of Sion, rather than being beliefs that the author seeks to impose on the reader.

These two books and the film by Mel Gibson all relate in some way to the explosion of historical information about the world of Jesus and the diversity within earliest Christianity. In a sense they demonstrate that the knowledge created in the academy does eventually find its way into the street and becomes part of the common discourse of our society.

Rather than rage against the errors in these books, or the bias of the film, perhaps the challenge is to see how we can generate and disseminate information about Jesus, the composition and interpretation of the Scriptures, and the history of Christianity that will promote a general Religious Literacy and equip people to discern more reliably those expressions of faith that are toxic and those that are life-giving? All beliefs are not equally true, nor are they equally healthy when adopted as the basis for individual or communal choices.

In the stories that we construct now to say where we come from and how we ought to live, how can we best combine history and metaphor in the service of meaning, and perhaps even of truth?

To what extent will these new stories draw on Scripture? How will they draw on the new understandings of the cosmos that are emerging from the sciences? Will we be able to discern the presence of the Spirit of Jesus in that process, leading us into all truth

Greg Jenks
May 2005