THE JESUS PUZZLE
Was There No Historical Jesus?
by Earl Doherty

BOOK AND ARTICLE REVIEWS
THE CASE FOR THE JESUS MYTH


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A Magdalene Triptych

- I -
The Da Vinci Code

by Dan Brown
Doubleday, 2003

- II -
The Da Vinci Fraud
Why the Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction
by Robert Price
Prometheus Books, 2005

- III -
The Secret Magdalene
an historical novel
by Ki Longfellow
Eio Books, 2005


Introduction

     Mary Magdalene is in the process of becoming something of a cult figure. She is being pressed into service to fill several needs and roles in today's charged atmosphere of religious evolution. The Christian Church is under increasing pressure to sweep out the cobwebs of orthodox tradition and prejudice, while its patriarchal and misogynist history and continuing tendencies are under attack by both scholars and laity. The Gospels are no longer regarded as reliable historical accounts, and the nature and origins of early Christianity as presented by the Church in its canonical literature are being increasingly questioned. A new branch of "feminist scholarship" in the field of New Testament research has thought to uncover a much less scrubbed and sanitized picture of Jesus and the circles following him, in which women played a larger role than official history has allowed. Mary Magdalene is seen as a central figure in this 'golden age' pre-sexist period of Christianity, both in her relationship to Jesus and in the growth of the church after his deathin ways which have shocked and appalled orthodox sensibilities. From The Last Temptation of Christ to The Da Vinci Code, modern society has been both fascinated and offended by the proposition that Jesus may have been a little more human than we were led to believe. In this, we are seeing a reversal of an almost three-millennia campaign by the Jewish and Christian establishment to deny its God a female consort, something that was virtually unparalleled in the religions of the ancient world. Women scholars and believers, frustrated by the male-dominant character of their traditional churches, are turning to the figure of Mary Magdalene to create a new role model for their faith and its origins.

Along with the move to bring Jesus down to earth (as well as into the bedroom), scholars and other writers have undermined the longstanding view of what constituted Christian belief in the earliest period. For almost a century, critical scholarship has uncovered a picture of early Christian expression which was much more varied and heretical (by orthodox standards) than anyone realized. Nor was the now-accepted orthodoxy by any means always the first on the scene, with heresy a later development. In fact, the earliest evidence in several locales (such as Egypt and inland Syria) indicates that orthodoxy came in as a much delayed runner-up. The "triumph" of Christianity as we know it was not so much the winning over of paganism and the Roman empire, but the eventual prevalence of orthodox views of an historical Jesus over the many divergent Christian sects of the first three centuries of the era. It was a political victory for the Church of Rome marked by a ruthless extermination of its rivals and their writings, as well as of conflicting viewpoints within its own ranks. A revision and doctoring of its own records (along with many non-Christian documents that came into its hands) kept pace with the Church's evolving christology and picture of its past.

This is not simply a reference to the mythicist scenario, an evolution from the belief in a solely spiritual Christ by people like Paul to the adoption of an historical Jesus based on the Gospels. Critical scholarship as a whole, even if preserving some picture of an historical figure at the base of the movement, has come to perceive a style of faith in early Christian expression which was later suppressed and rooted out, to be labeled heresy. This faith was known as Gnosticism, a system of cosmology and salvation based on the idea of esoteric knowledge ("gnosis" in Greek) which conferred understanding of the self and personal salvation. We will further explore this broad philosophical movement in the second panel of our triptych, in Robert Price's The Da Vinci Fraud. While Gnosticism fully flowered only in the second century CE, it existed in various seminal forms during the first century, and its elements can be perceived in some of the earliest Christian documents, mainly the epistles of Paul. Gnosticism is currently undergoing something of a revival, an adjunct in some ways to the New Age phenomenon but also as an expression of modern insights into the nature of early Christianity. It appeals to many people who have been disillusioned by established religion's long petrification, as well as the evangelical fundamentalism that is choking much of North American society. Of course, it's really a pseudo-gnosticism, since much of what was integral to gnosticism in the ancient world is too bizarre and unscientific to be any longer acceptable. Like all things in the history of ideas, we preserve and recast those things which will continue to work for us, though we retain, unfortunately, much more than what ought to work for us in the 21st century.

Novelist Dan Brown has made Mary Magdalene the background centerpiece of his crack murder mystery, and in the process he has intrigued the minds of millions of readers, much to the Church's dismay. And the Church has a point of sorts, in that most of that background is as fictional as The Da Vinci Code plot itself—although it is not presented that way. Robert Price takes up the debunking of Brown's underlying thesis (which may not perturb the now-wealthy novelist one bit), but he does so as the starting point to a broader debunking of Christian historical tradition as a whole, indicating that the truth is indeed stranger than fiction. There is as much scholarship and insight into Christian beginnings in this relatively small book than in piles of more academic tomes from today's mainstream New Testament research, including a detailed examination of the Mary Magdalene myth. In the third panel of our triptych, novelist Ki Longfellow has created an historical novel about Mary Magdalene of unprecedented quality, both as a piece of writing and as a vehicle offering a fresh look at Christianity's beginnings and the figure of Jesus, one rooted in that long-buried gnostic nemesis of the early Church. Even if Jesus himself never lived, even if Mary Magdalene is a fictional creation of the first Gospel writer Mark, Gnosticism is not, and The Secret Magdalene proves to be an ideal way to get in touch with what it was—not to mention a deeply satisfying reading experience in itself.

- I -
The Da Vinci Code

      I am not going to say a lot about Dan Brown's novel. For one thing, I don't want to be a spoiler to those who haven't yet read it. The Da Vinci Code is an uncommonly gripping and intelligent thriller, though it has its features stereotypical to the genre, and the reader's suspension of disbelief is occasionally strained. The puzzles inherent to the plot, which I assume are Brown's product, are a real treat. But what of its background? The Da Vinci Code has virtually given birth to a secondary field of literature: analyzing, evaluating and refuting the background elements of Brown's story. To what extent does Brown himself believe in them? It may be hard to say, but Robert Price suggests that he has derived them from a type of dubious scholarship that has recently become popular, most notably The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln. More sensationalism than legitimate scholarship, such books have given rise to all sorts of speculative theories about Jesus' life, his possible survival of the crucifixion and subsequent career in other parts of the world, often involving Mary Magdalene. At the very least, Brown cannot claim to be honest with his readers, because he presents this ill-founded speculation as virtual established fact, and he starts out with what must be a knowing misrepresentation of the nature of the Priory of Sion, a medieval "secret society" which is integral to his plot.

This is unfortunate, because there is much in The Da Vinci Code which legitimately questions established Christian tradition and uncovers new ways of looking at the story of Jesus. But anything which breaks open the musty vault of the Church's long monopoly on that story and lets fresh air into the public mind has to be a good thing. (Some of this fresh air has been circulating for over a century in the halls of New Testament academia, but prior to the recent Jesus Seminar was deliberately kept from the pulpit and the public eye.) But the reader might have benefited from having a better basis for distinguishing between fiction and fact, rather than being invited to swallow a farrago of fantasy which is every bit as egregious as the Gospel story.

Dan Brown's novel has reinterpreted the legendary Holy Grail as a "truth" which would destroy the Church and Christianity if it were revealed: namely, that Jesus did survive the crucifixion, married Mary Magdalene and gave birth to his own bloodline which survived through medieval times into the modern era. The physical element of this "Grail" was not only a purported set of documents witnessing to that truth, which Brown's characters are trying to track down
the location of which has been guarded by the leaders of the secret Priory for centuries and left behind in a series of puzzles by the final murdered and dying member of the groupbut it includes the very body of Mary Magdalene herself, her mummified remains wrapped with those telltale documents. Naturally, the bad guys, connected with the Catholic Church's infamous Opus Dei (a genuine modern 'secret' society), try to prevent this discovery and revelation of the Grail, providing Brown with his thriller plot.

Brown's story also owes allegiance to the modern reaction alluded to above, against Christianity's long misogynist nature, its "suppression of the feminine" (as Brown's characters put it) both in its traditions of origin and its ongoing church institutions. Mary Magdalene as the true Grail is an expression of this idea, which gives The Da Vinci Code an additional appeal to the more progressive reader, a factor operating as well in Ki Longfellow's novel. Again, all of this can only be a good thing, and we are certainly living in a period when old pillars are crumbling. The tools of that collapse will be many and varied, and I have no objection to rubbing shoulders with Dan Brown (as long as readers differentiate the comparative quality of our research). Certainly The Da Vinci Code will reach more minds than The Jesus Puzzle. What ultimately matters is the effect they achieve, on whatever the scale.


Could the Brown and Baigent type of plot conceivably be factual, at least in its essence? Could Mary Magdalene, and the feminine element she represents, have been a force in earliest Christianity, later suppressed? Could she have had a relationship with Jesus that was anything but kosher in the Vatican's kitchen? Is there any solid basis to modern feminist scholarship on Christian origins which has virtually reinvented the role of women and the Magdalene? My own thinking is no. There is not a murmur of this Mary in the earliest Christian record, not in the epistles, not in the Apostolic Fathers, not in the rest of the non-canonical documents of the first hundred years, and this is something which cannot simply be accounted for by male sexist suppression. Nothing in that record points to a particularly feminist nature to the initial movement, though some of it may witness to a relatively healthy involvement of women in some circles of the faith. Of course, the mythicist conclusion that this same record strongly witnesses to the lack of any figure of an historical Jesus in the early movement also helps bury the Magdalene myth. Everything that Christian tradition has to say about Mary Magdalene is based on her appearance for the first time in the Gospels, which came to be much enlarged on in apocryphal invention from the latter part of the second century onward. It can no more be trusted to be based on reality than the many fantastical enlargements on the activities of the early church as embodied in the "Acts" of this or that supposed apostle. The human imagination is notoriously capable of running amok, and no better example of that tendency exists than in the Christian documentary record as a whole.

These issues will be examined in greater detail in the second panel of our triptych.


- II -
The Da Vinci Fraud

     Most refutations of The Da Vinci Code have been written as a defense of orthodoxy. Not so Robert Price's delightful new book. He assumes that Brown has been taken in by the pseudo-scholarly lore found in books like The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and adopted it wholesale. Perhaps so, or perhaps Brown simply recognized a useful and popular trend when he saw it. It is certainly true that the novel presents a series of boners and plain silly ideas as purported history, something Brown should not be forgiven for, and Price is thorough at pointing these out. But he does more than that. We get capsule histories of everything from the great Church Council debates of the 4th and 5th centuries to the medieval Templars; from the evolving Grail legend through medieval writers to modern religion's focus on the Magdalene as a new "Christian Goddess" in alliance with neo-paganism; from bite-sized accounts of the various mystery religions and their Christ-like savior gods to a very useful survey of the great variety of Christian and Gnostic documents of the first few centuries. All of it is in Price's inimitable relaxed, almost colloquial writing style, dotted with modern pop culture references, as readable a page-turner as anything Dan Brown has given us.

Rather than following a tightly-knit structure in pursuit of a central thesis, The Da Vinci Fraud dips into various fascinating aspects of Christian history and tradition where they relate to claims made in Brown's novel. I propose to present and discuss a series of these, mostly for intrinsic interest but including when they touch on the concerns of the Jesus Myth theory, something which Price himself soft-pedals, though he raises the point occasionally to make the reader aware of the option itself.

The Space-Alien Syndrome

The first thing Price is at pains to reveal is the dubious basis on which Brown has staked his plot, namely a recent spate of research (Price calls it an "arbitrary, ill-informed and distorted business") contained in several books, such as The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and The Templar Revelation: Secret Guardians of the True Identity of Christ by Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince. Like true conspiracy theorists, such authors (and each book seems to require a team of them) have plumbed all manner of obscure and legendary material for any hint of the secretive and sensational, and if an idea appeals to their agenda (and it's always to 'blow the lid off' something, it seems), they present it as virtually established fact. What is remotely possible becomes something that must have been. "Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln constantly connect the dots of data provided by medieval chronicles, etc., linking them with the cheap Scotch tape of one speculation after another: 'What if A were really B?' 'What if B were really C?' 'It is not impossible that...' 'If so-and-so were the case, this would certainly explain this and that.'...It is essentially a creative enterprise, not one of historical reconstruction....We are familiar with this logic from tabloid theories that space aliens built the pyramids...." [p.23-24]

One of the planks of The Da Vinci Code is a supposed set of documents unearthed in the mid-20th century known as Les Dossiers Secrets or the Priory Documents. This turns out to have been a hoax perpetrated by a fringe political sect in France which appropriated the name of the long-dead Priory of Sion and sought to anchor its claim of descent and receipt of secret knowledge from the medieval Templars through these 'unearthed documents.' Both the Baigent and Picknett teams were taken in by the hoax which was later confessed to. Whether Dan Brown knew of that confession and ignored it is not known.

In discussing Picknett and Prince's The Templar Revelations, Price goes in some detail into the authors' view of what Jesus really was, namely a sorcerer of Egyptian derivation, "an initiated priest of the Isis religion who had experienced orgasmic deification in a ritual union with Mary Magdalene, a temple 'prostitute', one who sought to reintroduce the Egyptian gods to Israel, regarding himself as Osiris and Mary as Isis." [p.35] Perhaps this is where Brown got his idea that the Priory of Sion worshiped Mary as Isis. Very often, this evident similarity between ideas that may be separated by either great time or great distance (as in similar salvation systems identified at different times around the world) tends to be explained by direct derivation, something hypothesized as passed along in secret or through obscure channels
a core concept of The Da Vinci Code. Price presents [p.36] a much more cogent and simpler explanation, one I have advocated myself, namely that the human brain tends to respond in the same ways to similar challenges and data, no matter what the time, locale or circumstances. It is only the same brain's fascination with the idea of clandestine discovery and covert machinations which makes it fail to recognize and acknowledge its own universal workings. And of course, when we are numbered among those who have uncovered such secret goings-on, the appeal of such interpretations is only increased.

The Legend of the Holy Grail

Most people today would identify the legendary Holy Grail as the cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper. Price shows how this legend, based on oral traditions (which included a role for King Arthur and his Round Table), evolved even further at the hands of various writers of the 13th century. This chapter on the Grail legend is a fascinating one, forming a kind of 'prequel' to the quantum leap which the Grail took in the 20th century at the hands of Baigent & Co., transformed into a code for the bloodline of Jesus through Mary Magdalene. But the whole tenuous thread shatters with one revealing insight into the legend's earlier forms. Price shows (as have others before him) that the written versions of medieval time contain a variety of odd features which are unrelated to Christianity. In fact, these Grail romances "are based on materials derived from Celtic myths and legends" [p.67]: the Grail cup recast from the mythic horn of plenty of Bran the Blessed, a Celtic god, the bleeding lance from the flaming lance of Lug, the Irish sun god, and so on. The legend that took shape in medieval times was simply a Christianization of various Celtic mythical elements, and thus cannot go back through earlier Christian history. All Christian coloring is secondary. This insight into the way legends evolve when they pass from one community into another should provide a blueprint for understanding how the Christian myth of Jesus of Nazareth could have evolved in a relatively short time as the faith spread through the various parts of the eastern Roman empire during the first and second centuries. What resulted by the time of the emergence of orthodoxy in the late second century (and we are lacking any Gospel manuscripts or fragments prior to the third century) may bear little resemblance to the ideas about the Christ operating in the first century.

The Gnostic Connection

Price provides a chapter in which he compares the death and resurrection stories of the Gospels with current Hellenistic romance literature, finding many parallels between the two, as well as suggestions in the Gospels themselves of an earlier version of the story in which Jesus survived death in well-worn romance fashion. Then he moves to one of the central issues of the book. Was Christianity originally gnostic, and did Mary Magdalene teach this type of doctrine?

Price approaches the subject by laying out a succinct definition of what constituted ancient Gnosticism. Not that it was a unified movement, but rather (like earliest Christianity) a hodge-podge of sects holding a range of ideas that fell into much the same broad category. As Price describes it, Gnosticism was a pessimistic world view held by those who felt themselves a superior class, possessing knowledge about their own nature as containing fallen divine elements destined to be reunited with the Godhead in heaven. They regarded the physical world as having been created by a distant offspring of the high God, an evil "Demiurge" whom they came to identify with the Jewish biblical god Yahweh. Various Gnostic sects believed they had been enlightened by a heavenly redeemer who had come to earth (not necessarily in incarnated flesh) to reveal the truth; such revealers eventually came to be identified with the Gospel Jesus, such was the magnetic power of that Markan creation. The threads of this complex development and mutual association are difficult to unravel, but Price suggests that Jesus of Nazareth may have coalesced out of gnostic predecessors, rather than the other way around as the orthodox camp later came to claim (and still does). Price's picture of the riotous gnostic landscape of the second century and its relation to more orthodox terrain is remarkably clear and accessible, as are his insights into why Gnosticism was doomed to be overrun by the institutionalized Church of Rome.

Just as Dan Brown seems to champion the idea of gnosticism as a viable alternative for today's religion, there are New Testament scholars who also promote the essence of that ancient movement. And as Price shows, it all fits appealingly into the intellectual spirit of our time, that as individuals we need not follow the dogmatic dictates of any human institution with its supposed divine laws, but rather that we can get in touch with some higher truth for ourselves and fashion our own lives and morality around it. Such an attitude could even function in an atheistic setting. While this new version of pseudo-gnosticism dismisses the fantastic cosmology of its ancient predecessor, Price points out uncomfortable parallels to it in our attitudes within the modern world. The ancient gnostic texts (as in the recently discovered Nag Hammadi collection) are being appealed to as the basis for services and sermons, for the living of a spiritual life. One might indeed think that there is nothing new under the sun, but only reworkings of old ideas.

Constantine and the Transformation of Jesus

Price says [p.117]: "One of the gross historical errors in The Da Vinci Code is the claim that, in the interests of imperial propaganda, Constantine and his vest pocket bishops abruptly replaced the hitherto prevailing understanding of Jesus as a simple mortal with the mythic view of Jesus as a god who only seemed to be human." Price corrects this "utter nonsense" with a thorough survey of what went on in the 4th century as Christianity became the state religion and succeeding emperors engineered several Church Councils to sort out competing christologies. But Dan Brown and his mentors are not the only ones guilty of such a misrepresentation. Many mainstream New Testament scholars do it all the time, claiming that Jesus really only attained the Godhead at those late Church Councils. To support this, they have to ignore or reinterpret the picture of Jesus presented in the New Testament epistles, where writers like Paul and the author of Hebrews give us a Christ Jesus who is already at the level of pre-existence with God, sharing in his nature, the agent of creation and sustainer of the universe, ruler of all in heaven and earth. (See 1 Corinthians 8:6, Colossians 1:15-20, Philippians 2:6-11, Hebrews 1:3 and so on, all without any identification of such a cosmic Son with an earthly Jesus of Nazareth. These were ideas, by the way, very dependent on Greek philosophy.) The second century Gospels come down considerably from this lofty orbit in their portrayal of Jesus, but this is because the human character at the center of their story is essentially derived from the idea of the Q founder figure, a Galilean preacher and miracle worker, with which the Pauline type of cultic Christ originally had nothing to do. From that Gospel Jesus, behind whose expanding shadow the cosmic Son of the earliest period tended to become obscured, there was indeed a subsequent elevation to the Athanasian product of the Councils, the "unbegotten Son equal to the Father." This three-century graph of the two zeniths at either end with the dip in the middle is something that biblical scholarship has failed to perceive or acknowledge, with the result that our picture of early Christianity has been consistently distorted.

From his discussion of the Church Councils and the controversies they dealt with, including docetism (the idea that Jesus only seemed to be flesh and human) and the question of the exact mix of Jesus' divine and human natures, I can't resist quoting one of Price's more chuckle-producing paragraphs [p.137]:

The story goes that Nestorius, Bishop of Constantinople, was disturbed at hearing some of his parishioners praising Mary as the Theotokos, Mother of God. This made him reflect upon the Christological question: how are the divine and human natures of Jesus Christ related? He decided they could not be related in any way that would make it meaningful to call Mary's infant son "God." He is said to have exclaimed, "God is not a baby two or three weeks old!" Imagine the scene at home with the Holy Family: "Mary, can't you change God's diaper?" "Joseph, it's time for the Almighty's two o'clock feeding!" In the controversial 1985 French film Hail Mary, which sets the nativity story in the modern world, the Holy Family is setting off for a picnic in the country when all of a sudden, out of nowhere, young Jesus announces, to no apparent point, "I am he who is." Joseph's reaction: "Get in the car."

Loose Canon

In another revealing chapter with the above title, Price surveys the evolution of the Church's canon of authoritative documents that became the New Testament. Talk about intrigue! One of Dan Brown's characters pronounces the entire Bible as "the product of man, my dear." And any study of how the bible, old and new, was put together has to bear him out. As Price says [p.146], "there is no reason whatever to believe that either the origin or the growth of the Bible was supernatural in character. Again quoting Brown: "the modern Bible was compiled and edited by men who possessed a political agenda
—to promote the divinity of the man Jesus Christ and use His influence to solidify their own power base." Of  course, Brown at the same time gets things horribly wrong by having his character declare that it was the emperor Constantine who engineered this editing of the collection, rooting out Gospels which portrayed Jesus as only human and embellishing those that made him godlike, as though Jesus as a divinity was essentially a Constantinian invention.

And thus Price leads us on the tortured history of the canon's formation, beginning with the gnostic arch-heretic (so judged by the orthodox Church) Marcion, who probably began the whole process in the second quarter of the second century, either by adapting a collection of first-century Pauline letters which he had put together, or by simply forging the whole corpus himself in the name of that legendary apostle whom few by this time had much interest in. Marcion's use of Paul, real or imagined, was to change all that. His presentation of Pauline doctrine was cast in the interests of supporting his own gnostic theology about Jesus and the higher, true God (above the Jewish Yahweh) whom Jesus had come to earth (in docetic form) to reveal. The emerging Roman orthodox Church would not stand by and see Paul so co-opted, nor could they accept Marcion's use of what was probably an Ur-Luke Gospel. With the latter and his collection of Pauline epistles (not including the Pastorals), Marcion had formed the first "canon" of documents having a claimed authoritative nature. Over the next half century the Roman Church responded with a canon of its own. It reclaimed Paul and his letters for itself. It added an assembled group of miscellaneous epistles from around the empire which were assigned to legendary followers of Jesus, and chose (with some reworking) four Gospels from the many that were now circulating. To this was added a newly written Acts of the Apostles, which served to tie all the early loose ends into one unified history and apostolic movement
—leading, of course, directly to the Church of Rome and its divine authority. New traditions that Peter and Paul had been to Rome and had there undergone martyrdom were added to the mix. Unlike Marcion, Roman orthodoxy held onto the Jewish scriptures as the first part of its new "Bible," turning them into a prequel that prophesied the supposed star of the new canon and Testament, the human Jesus.

Price continues the history of the canon's fine-tuning from Irenaeus to Eusebius to Athanasius, including a discussion of the alleged criteria by which canonicity was decided upon. It was only with the last of the above-mentioned figures, in 367 CE, that we encounter a list of authoritative New Testament documents matching the one we have today, though universal acceptance and usage was not achieved for another millennium
. Then the whole thing was thrown open again with the Reformation. As Price points out, the human fingerprints in the establishment of the proper word of God are all over everything, for reasons which had nothing to do with divine revelation or infallibility.

A Multiplicity of Gospels

Now comes the chapter which by itself would be worth the price of The Da Vinci Fraud. In Brown's historical fantasy, the remainder of the "eighty gospels" from which the New Testament four were chosen seem to have been buried with Mary Magdalene's mummy. They were secretly harbored by the inner circle of the Priory of Sion to be revealed at some chosen time (these things are always in the future) that would be best suited to bring down the Catholic Church. Many of these Gospels are purported to have described Jesus as "a wholly human teacher and prophet" [p.170], and these are said to include "The Magdalene Diaries, Mary's personal account of her relationship with Christ, His crucifixion, and her time in France." To counter this dubious assertion, Price leads us on a tourist's treasure trove of the major Christian gospels of the early centuries (nowhere near eighty), including some of those recovered in the gnostic Nag Hammadi collection as well as important non-orthodox gospels of the time that have survived only in fragmentary quotations in Christian commentators.

The classic Gnostic gospel is styled as a Resurrection Discourse, that is, a set of teachings in a dialogue setting between Jesus and his disciples following his death and resurrection, but before his ascension to heaven. Price tentatively places the Gospel of Thomas (styled by the Jesus Seminar as the "fifth Gospel") in this category, taking its opening reference to "the living Jesus" as implying that a post-resurrection setting is envisioned for the sayings. He suggests that this type of gospel presupposes an historical Passion and Resurrection narrative in the mind of the writer or the community which produced the gospel, but I wonder if this is essential. While the versions we possess may, under the influence of the historical Jesus juggernaut, have taken on that coloring, the original forms may not have presupposed any historical Jesus at all, but regarded such teachings as spiritually imparted in revelatory fashion by a spiritual Christ. Price notes [p.174] the longstanding observation of mainstream scholarship that "early Christians made no distinction between remembered sayings of a historical Jesus and inspired prophetic oracles issued in the early Christian congregations by prophets uttering a word of wisdom or word of knowledge in the name of the Risen Lord." Such scholarship, however, has failed to note that nothing in the early record is actually placed in the former category, leading one to think that no distinction was made because only the second category existed for those early writers (like Paul).

The Gospel of Peter, The Gospel According to the Hebrews, to the Ebionites, to the Egyptians, various Infancy Gospels, the Pistis Sophia, the Dialogue of the Savior, Apocalypses and Apocryphons and much more, are given handy bite-sized treatments for a good overview of the range of Christian expression throughout the first few centuries. The Gospel of Mary (Magdalene) is taken by scholars such as Karen King and Elaine Pagels as evidence that prophetesses and female preachers were active in the early days and had to fight their own battles with male counterparts who sought to suppress them. This could be, as suggested by several confrontations between Peter and Mary which we find in such gospels, along with the occasional emphasis on Mary's special talent for understanding. On the other hand, Mary's primary role here is that of a specially-favored recipient of Jesus' teachings in parallel with other cases involving male disciples, such as Thomas or Philip, and Pheme Perkins regards her as simply another convenient figure close to Jesus to whom the reception of special wisdom could be attributed. The writers of such documents with Mary as a central character may have adopted her as their own channel from Jesus, grounds for the authenticity of their communities'
teachings. All this would not necessarily speak to a vibrant female voice in the early Christian movement, let alone an historical apostleship for Mary Magdalene, although Price is certainly right in pointing out that women did generally 'better' in the more heretical groups as opposed to those of emerging orthodoxy.

What this multiplicity of gospels and their dramatic variety of thought reveals most is the universal and unscrupulous practice across the entire Christian world of creating sayings, narratives and traditions, or revising those of previous sources, to reflect the producing community's own evolving faith and claims. That there could be any notable distinction or exception to this practice between the so-called apocryphal or heretical writings and those chosen for the New Testament canon is simply insupportable. Matthew or Luke, who shamelessly revised Mark for their own purposes, can no more be considered to reflect eternal or divine truth, let alone actual words and deeds of an actual Jesus, than the Wisdom of Jesus Christ or the Gospel of Mary. We have no more right to regard the canonical Acts of the Apostles (most likely a product of the mid-second century, with no attestation before c.170) as necessarily any more historical than the many legendary "Acts" of various apostles such as Peter, Andrew or Philip. That the later works tend in most cases to be more fantastical and obviously apocryphal than the earlier is simply because they have built on the example of the latter and carried their features to ever greater heights of imagination and self-serving invention.

The Christian Goddess

In his last two chapters, Robert Price focuses directly on the figure of Mary Magdalene. In the canonical Gospels she is "a tantalizingly enigmatic figure," revealed in a few "intriguing scraps," many of which are obviously legendary, such as that she had been possessed by seven demons or was a reformed courtesan. By contrast, several gnostic gospels suggest that she was a central figure in Jesus' circle, favored recipient of Jesus' secrets. Is there any history in these divergent portraits?

After surveying the several gnostic texts in which Mary Magdalene is featured, Price discusses the issue in present day scholarship alluded to above, whether in fact the figure of Mary was appropriated as the mouthpiece for pro-women gnostic views. Many think that the focus on Mary by these second and third century writers is 'narrative representation' and does not speak to a reliably authentic role that she actually played. All of it could be based on the Gospel representation of her as the first one 'sent' to the tomb to witness the fact of the resurrection, and to inform the disciples of such. In fact, on the direct question of whether Mary Magdalene had an apostolic ministry, Price on that possibility comes down on the side of the negative. For him, the evidence points to her appearance in the various documents surveyed as simply a "literary mouthpiece," "a later propaganda argument on behalf of one side in a theological dispute between Catholic and other types of Christianity." [p.218-19]

Price devotes several pages, and much discerning analysis, to the appearance and evolution of Mary within the four canonical Gospels. What can be said about her pre-gnostic trajectory in the early record? Price's examination is too long and detailed to go into here, but his conclusion in regard to the resurrection story is that the personal appearances of the Risen Christ to Mary Magdalene in both Matthew and John are literary products of the respective evangelists. They are not traditions the writers have preserved which point to the memory (real or imagined) of a special role for the Magdalene in Jesus' resurrection appearances and in subsequent activity based on such an accorded privilege. There is thus no solid evidence anywhere in the Christian record for Dan Brown's "assumption" and modern scholarship's virtual "dogma" that Mary Magdalene enjoyed a tradition of having been in a favored position in regard to Jesus, and that she could have conducted an apostleship after his death. To be honest about the matter, there is really no solid evidence that she existed at all.

Finally, when we turn the coin over, might we find an obverse image of Mary Magdalene as the representation of a Christian "goddess"? Is she the literary translation of an Isis-like conception? Price approaches this question by surveying the parallels between Christian expression and the savior-god myths of the Hellenistic mystery cults: Dionysus, Osiris, Attis, Tammuz and so on. In other books, Price has made it clear that he has little sympathy for the contrived efforts of apologists, especially within mainstream scholarly ranks, to discredit any such parallelism. He addresses the issue again here. His argument counters three main apologetic points: One, that there is no real parallel since Jesus was an historical figure
—which is blatantly begging an important aspect of the question under debate. Two, that there is no evidence of dying and rising gods before Christianity and that if anything, the mysteries borrowed the idea from Jesus. This, as Price says, "is nonsense." Belief in the death and resurrection of Osiris, Baal, and Tammuz is amply attested many centuries before Christianity. In any case, the early Christian Fathers themselves acknowledged that the mystery versions came earlier, since they have to explain such an anticipation as "planned counterfeits" planted by Satan before Jesus' time to confuse believers. Third, the claim that Jews would never have borrowed from pagan myths is based on the erroneous assumption that pre-70 Judaism was too monotheistic and monolithic to do any such thing. But the pre-rabbinic period shows a very different picture which is well in keeping with the idea that some Jews in some locales could have come up with their own version of a Hellenistic savior cult with little difficulty or opposition, especially if it was done in league with gentile circles.

While traditional scholars like to think that this application of Greek mythical interpretation to Jesus was done to a real man, Price offers as an alternative "that there simply was no historical Jesus, and that the gospel portrait of an itinerant healer and sage is a subsequent attempt to 'historicize' the mythic Jesus figure, much as Plutarch supposed Osiris and Isis had really lived, but that they were the first king and queen of Egypt." [p.250] He declares the case "for heavy influence upon Christianity from the religions of the resurrected gods" a strong one. In this case, does Mary Magdalene symbolize an important part of the borrowed myth?

It turns out that Mary Magdalene's portrayal in the Gospels does indeed closely parallel the mythical goddesses attached to several dying and rising gods. In such myths, "the savior is always resurrected by his consort" [Price's emphasis, p.254], Osiris by Isis, Attis by Cybele, Tammuz by Ishtar. Mary Magdalene's actions in following Jesus on his journeys, witnessing his death and burial, going to the tomb to anoint the body, are direct echoes of similar activities in the cultic myths: women divinities mourning for the slain god and seeking his body for anointing. Even the words John puts in Mary's mouth in 20:13, "they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him" are a carbon copy of an Osiris mourning chant in which Isis exclaims, "Evil men have killed my lord, and I know not where they have laid him." Price sees a parallel to the anointing of the god to produce resurrection in the reworked and transplanted episode of the woman at Bethany who anoints Jesus feet in advance of his death. There is good reason to regard this woman as a disguised Mary Magdalene from an earlier version.

In sum, Price declares [p.260] "that a very good case can be mounted to the effect that Mary Magdalene is a historicized version of an underlying mythic redemptrix like the Egyptian Isis," just as
—I would add—that Jesus of Nazareth is an historicized version of the mythic savior god idea which seminal Christianity created, one that was enlarged upon from another direction, namely the idea of an historic "Q" founder figure for whose actual existence there is no better evidence than for an historical man lying behind Paul's faith in a divine Son of God. If this is the case for Mary Magdalene, then it is incompatible with the idea that she was an historical follower of some crucified man and that she embarked on a teaching ministry of her own. In both the Gospels and Dan Brown's Holy Grail recasting, she must be cut loose from history.


- III -
The Secret Magdalene

     None of this matters in Ki Longfellow's superb story of a Yeshu and Mariamne Magdal-eder who lived and loved in first century Palestine and helped give birth to Gnostic philosophy and Christian soteriology. This third panel of our triptych is filled with vibrant color, vivid characters and settings, a picture of an emerging thought-world that rings so true one can taste it. It matters not for her story that no Jesus may ever have existed. Indeed, an historical novel often works best, especially when its object is to convey the ideas and spirit of a time, when the key characters are entirely fictional. One can portray them in whatever way one wishes. Of course, those characters in The Secret Magdalene are based on traditions which many do regard as historical; and the novel presents an alternative way of envisioning a set of events and lives which might have given rise to the much reworked and now orthodox version of our Christian origins and originator. But like all great literature, what really matters is the emotional and intellectual effect created in the reader, and for that, Longfellow's novel can neither be faulted nor found wanting.

Although I had already read the book in advance copy and praised it highly, I was struck by the force of the reactions expressed on Amazon.com by ordinary readers. Many of them styled it as an epiphany. Here's a sampling:

I loved every moment I spent inside this book. I loved every person I met, every sight I saw, every new thought presented to me. I wish it had gone on and on. I feel bereft now that I've closed the last page.

My whole idea about religion is in turmoil now. I think this book has changed my life. I know that's a big statement, but this book is a big statement.

I was completely caught up in this version of the story of Jesus and the Magdalene's relationship, as well as the purpose and meaning of Jesus' life... Quite a departure from the traditional spin and it makes total sense to me. Longfellow breathes life and humanity into all the characters... I had tears as the book ended, not only touched by its depth and drama, but sadness that the book was over.

The story was a page turner, and the philosophy of gnosticism it depicts, during the time of its origins, fascinated me. The philosophy evolves naturally with the story, and humanizes Jesus as he struggles with his personal questions and doubts. As a non-Christian, THIS is a Jesus I could believe in. I had no idea of the complexities of Jewish culture during those times, and the story of Jesus moved me deeply. So much so that I cried both times I read the book....

I'll come back to these reactions later.

Historical novels have always been my own favorite genre of literature, particularly those set in ancient times. I read Mika Waltari's The Egyptian at the age of 12 and never looked back. The best historical novels create an atmosphere. That was one of Waltari's great strengths, through language and imagery, to immerse the reader in the world of the novel. I still remember one review impressing my adolescent mind: "One can taste the dust of Waltari's Egypt." And so it is with Ki Longfellow's world of the Magdalene. One feels the stone streets of Jerusalem beneath one's feet, one breathes the dust of the scrubby Judean wilderness; the close air and beating sun by the stinking salt sea of inland Palestine clog the reader's pores. The great city of Egyptian Alexandria, lazing on the broad breast of the Nile delta, sparkles not only in the Mediterranean sunlight, it is lit by the intellectual vibrancy of its philosophical schools, by the vast knowledge and artistic creativity collected within the walls of the ancients' greatest library. Within this world of sand, sea and parchment moves Longfellow's heroine who has caught the imagination of so many who have come to know her.

But however magical an achievement is the creation of Longfellow's atmosphere of the ancient world, it is almost eclipsed by the book's intellectual and emotional landscape. It is the richness of the characters and their minds and feelings that dominate this novel. But even this operates on two levels, a microcosm and macrocosm, if you like. While the characters think and feel as individuals, it is through such as them that a new philosophy, a new way of looking at the world and the nature of humanity is emerging, and the novel conveys that broader sense. The first century CE was one of those pivotal times when one could say that human enlightenment was taking a leap forward. Historians of the development of ideas identify another as around the mid-point of the first millennium BCE, centered on the 6th century. It can be no accident that many seminal figures, real or later imagined, who are seen as having had an impact on human thought and behavior, have been located in those two periods: Confucius, Lao-Tze, Zoroaster, Solon in the earlier; Jesus, Hillel and other Jewish rabbis in the later. They were also times of pivotal historical events: the Jewish exile, the advent of the Persian empire, the emergence of its great rival the Greek city states and their democracies, and later the first Jewish War (Rome's single greatest military undertaking in its history). Through the lives of her down-to-earth characters, Longfellow manages to convey to us that great things were afoot.

Gnosticism was a philosophy which eventually became burdened with a lot of strange and fantastical trappings, carrying some of the basics of Plato's thought about the universe (he did us no favor) to bizarre lengths, although so did other religious philosophies, including Christianity. One of the uncertainties about the history of Gnosticism is exactly what ideas entered the picture at what point. Early in the first century its overblown heyday still lay in the future, but even the letters of Paul, if we may place them in the mid-first century, show that basic gnostic ideas
perhaps they should be styled proto-gnosticwere circulating and could be found in some of his own thought about the new Savior-Son he was preaching. Longfellow has distilled the best of these, perhaps with a tinge of the idealistic, within her main characters, and their awakening to the potential in those ideas becomes our awakening. As one reviewer put it:

"...so talented is the author that her efforts to educate us are transparent; we learn along with the characters....Unlike other books about Mary Magdalene that attempt to convey some larger message, this does not read like a dry, preachy tome. It's a literary and philosophical treasure that will be savored by the spiritual seeker and casual reader alike."

All the characters, even the secondary ones, are drawn with depth and sensitivity. It may not be too much to say that Mariamne herself is one of the most perfectly crafted figures in modern fiction, which makes it no surprise that so many readers have taken to her so emotionally. She will no doubt eclipse all other representations of Mary Magdalene for some time. One reviewer writes:

Ki Longfellow has achieved, in my opinion, the best Mary Magdalene novel ever written. She has left no trace of the weepy penitent, the sultry courtesan, or the harlot with a heart of gold. Gone are the demons, the groveling, and the superficial saintliness. The Magdalene that has replaced these tired old caricatures is complicated, robust, strong, tender, pensive, awkward, imaginative, and loving. In a word, Mary Magdalene is finally human.

We are introduced to Mariamne as a young girl growing up in her father's house in Jerusalem. Through the merchant friends that attend Josephus of Arimathea's dinners, through Mariamne's secret contacts with those who would overturn their Rome-dominated society, we learn of the various political and factional currents that are shaping the time, of Sadducees and Pharisees, of the hotheaded sicarii who assassinate in the name of their God and the establishment of a new order, all under the brooding rumor of the rising of a Messiah and the arrival of the End Time. Mariamne and her childhood friend Salome, both emerging into womanhood, become involved with a circle that includes John the Baptizer whom many hope is the Messiah himself, and Simon Peter, the rough and menacing Galilean and his fellow daggermen. But the group also includes more thoughtful and temperate members, including two brothers, Jude and Yehoshua. Mariamne possesses abilities of a seeress, though she little understands them, and it is her reputation as a prophet that gains her admittance into this dangerous circle. But she and Salome must do so disguised as male adolescents, and for several years this is how they are known. It is in the midst of this God-ridden group, ever on the verge of rushing into open political rebellion, that new ideas begin to emerge.

A crisis drives Mariamne from her father's house, and together with Salome she flees into the Judean wilderness and into the company of would-be rebels and masses of the marginal and deprived, where "the world clots with messiahs" and debates and quarrels dissect scripture, the Law, God, and the future. After a time, Mariamne and Salome, in the company of a male friend, seek a safer exile and travel to Alexandria in Egypt. In this riotous hub of the world's philosophy, Mariamne, who has all her short life lusted for knowledge, studies at the great library, her mind growing with her body. Into these chapters, Longfellow has sown a tantalizing variety of the ancient world's myth and thought, its understanding of the heavens and the earth, its poets and philosophers and historians. There, still disguised as male, they meet Philo Judaeus and study for a time under his tutelage, introduced to the concepts of gnosis, the Logos, and the mysteries of Osiris. We are also led, through the musings and discussions of Mariamne and her fellow pupils, to the great questions which will form the basis of Longfellow's portrayal of Yeshu/Jesus' transformation into a visionary and teacher of a new idea.

Mariamne returns to Judea, now a woman, and there finds herself drawn ever closer to the pensive Yeshu who withdraws into the desert for his own epiphany and emerges with transforming convictions. And while most of those around him, chafing at the bit for revolt against Rome, fail to comprehend his new message, they follow him as their new leader after the arrest of John the Baptizer, expecting him to lead them to political victory as the looked-for Messiah. He embarks with them and with Mariamne (revealed now for what she is) on a preaching mission, in which both followers and audience struggle to understand his insights and intentions. This is the birth of gnosticism
—perhaps somewhat romanticized, but symbolizing all that was best in that ancient philosophy. Would that it could be true, that this moral and world-transforming vision of reality was indeed offered to the world so long ago by one fit to proclaim it, but then the corruption in what became political and institutionalized Christianity with its petrified Jesus would be all the more painful to bear.

There are episodes in this ministry that "pre-echo" elements of the canonical Gospels. Longfellow has cleverly cast the picture of Yeshu's words and activities in ways that show how the very human and non-miraculous could have been turned into the later miracles of Christian tradition, how Yeshu's teachings could have been sanctified and transformed (as well as distorted) into those of Jesus the Son of God. The figures around Yeshu, many familiar to readers of the Gospel stories, show what could have been their true natures, before the legend machine and its competing handlers came into operation. And the fate of Yeshu himself? Without giving too much away, desperate apostles have been known to take matters into their own hands, with unpredictable
and unfortunate results. Longfellow's ending is both heartbreaking and inspiring.

The ideas which lie at the heart of The Secret Magdalene's presentation of gnostic beginnings are a mix of those known from gnostic writings and a broader expression of other currents of Greek philosophy. (The extent and integrity of Longfellow's research is often amazing.) They are sometimes expressed with a more modern resonance familiar to us from today's popular focus on the quest for a "spiritual" understanding of self and universe, but there is nothing illegitimate in that, especially in a novel. Were we truly to write as the mind of the ancient thinker would have spoken or written (as any reading of the classic Gnostic documents will show), this would make for a difficult write and read. Much of it would be unintelligible (as some of Paul is). We can only see and understand ancient ideas through the prism of our own experiences and thought processes
—a limitation operating in both history and fiction. This is a limitation that renders modern religion's interpretation of its origins so skewed and misleading. (And it is the major impediment facing the modern mind in understanding the philosophical basis of Christianity's original non-historical mythic savior.)

I have often said that I am anything but a mystic (though some have disputed that), and I prefer to use terminology that is non-"spiritual" because I am convinced that all understanding of ourselves and our universe can ultimately be arrived at and presented in a broadly scientific manner. But I have long been drawn to the kinds of ideas which Longfellow's characters express, though I would cast them without their affiliation to religious conceptions. Mariamne, in listening to one of Philo Judaeus' lectures in Egypt, muses to herself: "I wonder: could not the visible world be God speaking to Itself?" When she hears her male companion in Alexandria, Seth, say, "God, then, is Consciousness itself," she wonders if she is alone in finding something in this idea that transports her. For Mariamne, gnosis becomes this insight into the relationship between the individual and the collective, between human life and the universe. "To a Jew, the Invisible God is always above and apart. And so He is to all the prophets. He remains apart no matter the heaven they find themselves caught up into. And they are sore afraid. But I have seen with my own eyes that God is not above and apart. God is within and without. There is nothing that is not God. In which case, there is nothing to fear from God....As Seth once said, 'It is not that there is one God. It is that God is One.' And as he also said, 'God is One, meaning All, meaning All There Is. Therefore, it is not 'His' Mind that moves all things, but 'Our' mind."

It is this same insight which has seized Yeshu in the desert wilderness and which he struggles to impart to his followers and any who will listen, for he sees it as the knowledge which will lift fear and oppression and inequities from society. Yet it is an insight too far above the capacities of most, and so he decides to offer himself as a sacrificial god-man to his own people in the manner of the mysteries.

Other elements familiar from gnostic thought are also presented as finding their genesis at this time and among people like these. The basis of gnosis, together with the conviction that the "spiritual" among men and women are those who bear the fallen spark of divinity within them, could well have begun with a more basic insight like this [p.217]: "Seth teaches that all men and all women are angels of light clothed in the cloth of self
—but do not know it. Not knowing it is the Dark in the Center of the Soul. Seth says it is the heart of gnosis to know it, that merely to know this one simple truth is to be set free." And there are the darker thoughts of gnosticism being formulated and debated. I would like to offer some excerpts from a more extended passage [p.350-1] because it is a superb presentation of how ideas arise out of the minds of people, and, knowing what we know of the future of these particular ideas, how they can be turned into dogma and even millstones. (The same may be said for some of the ideas presented by Yeshu in his ministry.)

By the riverbank sit Mariamne and Yeshu and an assortment of followers:

....By now, Dositheus never uses the forbidden name, Yahweh...but only the name Plato gave his Maker of the Universe: Demiurge or "Craftsman," because, as says Dositheus, "This god has 'fabricated' a copy of the higher world, which by its nature can only be base imitation." But where Plato thought the Craftsman worked to the best of his ability and therefore his copy is as good as it can possibly be, Dositheus thinks the Craftsman is fatally flawed by self-centeredness and arrogance and the desire to dominate human affairs, and therefore his copy is fatally flawed....
    Eleazar, leaning over far enough to fall as he sits near us, though not quite with us, pretends to skip a pebble over the water, and Dositheus follows its course with a gloomy eye. "More and more, I come to believe as it is taught in certain secret sects that there is a realm of the Spirit which is good and is called Pleroma, and over against it there is a realm of Matter which is evil and is called the World. I am entirely convinced that is it not the Supreme Being who calls this World forth, but the Demiurge who is the Master of Matter. And into this evil matter we have fallen, and cannot find our way out again, being tormented by the Nephilim who mimic the Divine, but who are lesser deities of the chief Archon, and evil in themselves...."
    Yeshu is staring out at the sea, but he is listening, especially now as Seth is moved to reply to Dositheus of Gitta. "You would have two realms, then? One dark and one light, each antithetic to the other, indeed, opposed to the other?"
    "I would."
    "And therefore you would say that Duality is at the root of all things, as is conflict and discord?"
    "Yes. I believe this is where my thought takes me."
    "As it takes others. But tell me
—in this World of Evil in which we take vital part, consciously knowing no other world, have you come to believe that men and women themselves are evil?"
    Dositheus holds up his hands, his woeful face wreathed in worry at the very thought. "No. No. I cannot bring myself to think that, though there are surely evil men, or at least men who do evil...."
    "It seems to me," replies Seth, "as it did to Parmenides of Elea, that the very thoughts of man and of woman are the World, and if there is evil in it, it is our evil, and if there is goodness, it is our goodness. I maintain there is no battle between Good and Evil that is outside the self. There is only a mastery of the eidolon, or smaller self, that leads to Knowing...."

Here we can recognize that demon Duality which still governs the view of so many in modern society, of dual worlds and forces of good and evil, the natural and the supernatural, divinity and humankind. For all the human mind's wonderful inventiveness, insight and discovery, it has always been capable of following dark and tortuous paths and creating millstones for itself. Seth, incidentally, declares that he is working on a book which he thinks to call On The Origin of the World, and hopes that his companions will read it. Those familiar with the Nag Hammadi collection will recognize this as one of its components, a product of so-called Sethian Gnosticism (as there later arose a form of "Dosithean" Gnosticism), though in its surviving form it would hardly go back to the early first century; gnostic documents like everything else show signs of emendation and evolution as ideas developed over time. But it's a nice touch, and the novel is full of nice touches like this. Another "incidentally": lest it be thought by my focus here on the "ideas" dimension of The Secret Magdalene, that the novel is over-dominated by such material, or that it is not agreeably balanced by action, characterization and sheer pleasurable reading, let me disabuse you of any such impression. And when the ideas themselves are presented with such clarity and lyricism, intimately linked with the characters, there is no ill-effect involved. (Besides, some of us thrive on the rush and tumble of ideas.)

It is Yeshu's personal expression of gnosis and its ethics which seems the most appealing and promising, more optimistic and human, more free of the terror of Deity than any of them. The passage in which Yeshu recounts to Mariamne his epiphany in the desert is almost unbearably powerful and affecting. Over time
which Mariamne, composing this record in her old age with Seth as her amanuensis, comes into touch withit was swamped and adulterated and buried, and so we could see it as buried even until today, though there are those who would like to regard it as now undergoing resurrection. Perhaps so, though if so, it is through the wedding of intuitive insight (if we may style it that) with scientific and rationalistic advances which the ancients had little access to. And it still faces opposition greater and more hostile than ever.

Did Christianity really begin with this sort of gnostic philosophy at its heart? It would be nice to think so, and it might be possible to think so. But we have very little to go on, especially considering that the one source for that early period we regarded as reasonably secure, the genuine letters of Paul, may not be so secure after all; and the Gospel traditions, many springing from the minds of the evangelists, provide too few clues, if any. The current disposition to see "Jewish Christianity" (in sects like the Ebionites) as going back to the initial period, having a view of Jesus simply as a human prophet and sage, is ill-based on the evidence, which all comes from later periods; in any case, it does not particularly point to a gnostic character. Perhaps the closest we come to a gnostic message attributed to Jesus is the so-called "mystical" sayings within the Gospel of Thomas, but scholars are unsure as to whether they go back into the first century. (This Gospel's attribution of its sayings, the repetition of the little "Jesus said" prefaces, is most likely a second century addition.) Q's root message in its "wisdom" sayings, no matter who or when it goes back to, are not really gnostic in character. Yet there are fingerprints of incipient gnosticism in the Pauline epistles (which I happen to think are largely first century products), and classic Gnosticism itself did not spring full-blown with the advent of the second century. The picture of gnostic philosophy presented by Longfellow, while tinged with modern overtones, could well lie at the roots of classical Gnosticism. And who better to represent its genesis and spread, if only symbolically, than a young Judean woman with a thirst for knowledge, consort to a visionary whose great heart and consuming passion to better the lot and understanding of those around him led him on a doomed ministry? Heaven on earth is hard to establish, but someone has to start somewhere.

The reactions to Ki Longfellow's novel show that her envisioning of the Mary Magdalene figure and the visionary Yeshu has struck a chord with many readers. For several decades there has been a growing disillusionment with established religion
—even as the ranks swell, especially in North America, of those who have surrendered their intellects and much of their humanity to the darkness of a closed and often bigoted mind. Those readers and many others like them seek a focus, a philosophy, a vision of reality upon which to lay the light they themselves sense and are trying to articulate. As often happens, they may turn to a past, or an envisioned past, to figures which seem to embody the elements of that search for meaning. And even with modern scientific enlightenment, there is still the tendency to cast such meaning in perceived manifestations that are larger than ourselves or the world around us. It's a new kind of myth, perhaps, to have the God out there, as Yeshu and Mariamne present it, take up residence in human self, to see ourselves as the expression of a great spiritual force which has so much worthier a promise than its previous incarnations. Maybe it's simply a matter of the language we use, but I believe we will take the last step to maturity when we realize that our myths are entirely about ourselves and the visible world we are a product of, its and our (which are the same thing) inmost features and capacities, strengths and flaws, that we don't need to extrapolate them onto divinities, literal or figurative, much less to identify them with unique historical figures who never really lived except as previous manifestations of what we still are: an evolving life form groping to find ways to understand the marvel of the universe in which we find ourselves and the bodies it has formed of which our minds are a part. Again, they are really two aspects of the same thing.

I take The Secret Magdalene as symbolism, and as such it enriches and exhilarates me, it nourishes my optimism and further washes away any fear of the unknown.  Mariamne in her old age, immortalizing her thoughts for future ages, tells Seth [p.174]:

You said that all men experience themselves first as the eidelon, which is the mortal self, the personality—becoming lost in the belief that their eidelon was all there was to self, and when this died, they died. Blinded by the eidelon, small and suffering, they could not do otherwise than perceive God as "other" and separate: That Which Is Enormous and Unknowable. Anything that is enormous and unknowable is also a thing to be feared. As this small self, they would see their higher self, which Socrates called the Daemon, as also separate; they would think it an independent thing, call it a Guardian Angel. But to those who blessed themselves by seeking gnosis, or complete Self Knowledge, the Daemon would be discovered to be the Divine I, the One Soul of the Universe, the Consciousness in all men and in all things. To know this, all men could say: I am God. To know this would be to know what is meant by I AM. 

*

Ki Longfellow's The Secret Magdalene is available from http://www.eiobooks.com and www.amazon.com.
Robert Price's The Da Vinci Fraud is due to be published by Prometheus Books in September 2005 and will be available from Amazon.com.
...and you don't need me to tell you how to get a copy of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code.


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