Opinion Page: 'Da Vinci Code' Truths Religious historian Elaine Pagels says what is important about The Da Vinci Code is not what the movie got wrong, but what it got right.
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Opinion Page: 'Da Vinci Code' Truths

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Opinion Page: 'Da Vinci Code' Truths

Opinion Page: 'Da Vinci Code' Truths

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NEAL CONAN, Host:

Time now for the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page. Despite some bad reviews and claims of historical and theological errors, the movie version of The Da Vinci Code topped the weekend's box office sales, taking in $77 million. The central theme of both the novel and the movie revolves around the controversial idea that Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene were married and had a child, and that the Catholic Church covered up the truth.

Elaine Pagels is a Professor of religion at Princeton University. She's also the author of The Gnostic Gospels and Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas. In this Sunday's San Jose Mercury News, she wrote an op-ed piece arguing that Brown's story is a work of fiction, but what makes it so compelling is not the parts he made up but those parts that are true.

If you've read the book or seen the movie, what are your questions about what's true or not in The Da Vinci Code. 800-989-8255, that's 800-989-TALK. And the e-mail address is talk@npr.org

And, Elaine Pagels, nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Professor ELAINE PAGELS (Professor of Religion, Princeton University): Thank you. Good to be here.

CONAN: Professor Pagels is with us from her office in Princeton, New Jersey. And I guess we have to begin with the big one. Is there any evidence to support the idea that Jesus Christ was not crucified, got married, and he and Mary Magdalene had children?

Prof. PAGELS: Well, there certainly isn't, although nothing's probably impossible historically, but there's no evidence that I know. I mean, it makes a great fiction novel, I think.

CONAN: And I guess that's the point, fiction.

Prof. PAGELS: Yeah, it is. Although, you wonder if Dan Brown had said it was just fiction whether it would have been such a sensation. There is a lot in it that's very interesting and true.

CONAN: Well, you wrote in your piece, in fact, that Dan Brown credited you and your book on the Gnostic Gospels, particularly the Gospel of Philip, for sending him off on this novel.

Prof. PAGELS: That's true. This is a secret Gospel. It was found - it's probably written in the early 2nd century and it has words like this, Jesus loved Mary Magdalene more than the other disciples and kissed her often. And the other disciples were jealous and asked, why do you love her more than all of us? Now, you know, in the Gospel of Philip that sounds pretty provocative.

CONAN: It sure does. Tell us, for those of us who don't follow such things closely, what are these Gnostic Gospels, when were they written, who wrote them, and how do they relate to the Gospels that we're familiar with in the New Testament?

Prof. PAGELS: Well, those are big questions. I mean, what I learned in graduate school was a surprise, that there are many other Gospels that we didn't know about. A lot of them were buried and suppressed as early as the 2nd century and rediscovered, actually, in 1945 in an archeological find that was just amazing. We found about 50 ancient Christian texts. And so, you know, they show us a much more diverse picture of the early Christian movement than we ever saw before.

CONAN: And a picture, you say, the Church, neither then nor now, is altogether too happy with.

Prof. PAGELS: Well, yes. But, you know, these texts are various. What they mainly claim is that certain disciples had secret teachings of Jesus and it differs in some ways from what the Church teaches.

CONAN: In an important way, what some of them suggest is that Christ was not himself divine, but human.

Prof. PAGELS: Well, that's true; although it suggests he was human as we are, and also had a capacity to manifest God. And I guess one of the things that is disliked by many people in the churches is the suggestion that you and I are like that, too, that we are human but we have within us a connection with God because we're created in His image.

CONAN: A direct connection, as opposed to one that requires us to go through the church?

Prof. PAGELS: Right. The church, in a way, invented a sort of technology of getting to God, which is not, I think, a bad thing. I'm not a conspiracy theorist like Dan Brown. But some of these texts suggest it's not necessary, that you can find God in yourself, you can find God in the universe.

CONAN: Of course, an idea that resulted some years later in a major theological split in the Christian churches?

Prof. PAGELS: Oh, absolutely. I mean, most of the churches are based on the assumption that, you know, outside the church there's no salvation. That is, you have to go to the churches, you have to be saved through Jesus Christ, and so forth.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And so this idea that these - there is hidden history to the gospels that were suppressed by the church. Dan Brown writes about that. And broadly, you're saying, he got that right.

Prof. PAGELS: He did. And that's the great adventure that those of us who work on these texts are exploring at this point. Actually, I find what we - what the real story is more interesting to me than what we could make up, because it does show a secret gospel of Mary Magdalene, for example.

CONAN: And saying that - talking a lot more about the feminine side.

Prof. PAGELS: Well, that's true, and that's another thing Dan Brown picked up from some of these sources. That is, if you can speak of God, who anyway would be infinite, in masculine form as a father and king and judge and all of that, you could also speak of God in feminine form as Holy Spirit and mother, because those words in Hebrew and Syriac are feminine words; Holy Spirit, wisdom, and so forth.

CONAN: Well, let's get some listeners in on the conversation. If you'd like to join us, our number is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org.

We'll start with Greg(ph). Greg calling from Raleigh, North Carolina.

GREG (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Greg.

GREG: Hi. Dr. Pagels, I read in your book on the Gnostic gospels, I believe it was, in the introduction you refer to that quotation from the Gospel of Philip about the...

Prof. PAGELS: Yes.

GREG: ...kissing often. And I noticed in your work, when I checked your footnote, you had inserted, on the mouth, but in the original there's a hole there. How did you come up with that?

Prof. PAGELS: Well, that's right. That's a good point. What happens, you know, is these texts are made out of papyrus. They're very ancient, and if you touch them they crumble. There're many parts of them that are broken, so it says, just as you said, Jesus kissed her often on her, and then the text breaks and you never know.

GREG: Yeah.

Prof. PAGELS: So no, I wasn't the person who put that word in, but others who worked on it before realized that the word mouth would fit in the space that's missing. Now, maybe other words would fit in the space and you can imagine what they might be, but that's the one that most people thought was most appropriate.

CONAN: So they put the word mouth in her mouth, as it were.

Prof. PAGELS: That's absolutely correct. And you see...

GREG: I just thought - when I checked the footnote, though, when I actually looked at what you were quoting from, it didn't say mouth there.

Prof. PAGELS: Well, if you look at Robert McLloyd Wilson's(ph) edition, I think it was published about '59 - he's at the University of Edinburgh - he put that reconstruction in. But when you do, you're supposed to put little marks...

GREG: Yeah.

Prof. PAGELS: ...that indicate that it's reconstructed. And that's what...

GREG: The brackets. Yeah.

Prof. PAGELS: Yeah, brackets, right.

GREG: Yeah.

CONAN: All right, Greg, thanks very much for the call.

GREG: Thanks.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go now to Carl(ph). And Carl's with us from San Antonio.

CARL (Caller): Yes. It seems to be odd how Mr. Brown has gone out and he announces this book as fiction, but it seems the whole Christian community feels threatened by a book that the author has gone out there and claimed it's fiction; which is almost like twenty years earlier, I believes it was Holy Blood, Holy Grail, they're almost similarly the same. But it just hits me odd how people can go up in arms and everything else on this.

CONAN: Well, Prof. Pagels, he said it was fiction, sort of.

Prof. PAGELS: Well, he did, you know, I think you're right about that. And Holy Blood, Holy Grail is a really far-fetched thing. It's not really history. You're right. But the other side is, he said that it was all based on fact, you know, so he wanted it both ways.

CARL: Yeah, I mean...

Prof. PAGELS: And I think if he hadn't said that, then it wouldn't have been the sensation that it was.

CARL: Yeah, but there's a lot of other stories that are out there that are the same thing, where they blend in fact with fiction.

Prof. PAGELS: That's true.

CARL: And to make you great novels and everything else. You know, like Gone With the Wind, that just didn't, you know...

Prof. PAGELS: I guess somehow these here...

CARL: I don't understand why people feel threatened by this book when it's, you know, the author himself has announced it as being fiction but a mixture with history. You know, in the same way as Gone With the Wind.

Prof. PAGELS: Well, that's a good point. I mean, I find, as a piece of fiction, it's perfectly okay with me. But you're right; a lot of people take it very seriously.

CONAN: Well, a lot of people would consider some of these ideas heretical. Some of these ideas that they say are, you know, part of a, well, you know - this is an effort to undermine the church.

Prof. PAGELS: Well, I gather that, you know, his purpose is rather anti-Catholic, and suggests that the Catholic Church, you know, or Opus Dei anyways, having people killed to keep the secrets hidden and so forth, I mean that's really far-fetched, I would think.

CARL: Yeah, but it just hits me odd, that's all. That's all I wanted. All right, thank you.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Carl.

CARL: Bye.

CONAN: Opus Dei, of course, the previously mysterious group that is, in fact, a real group, which was willing to talk about itself a great deal, much more openly in the aftermath of The Da Vinci Code than it was beforehand.

Prof. PAGELS: Well, they probably felt they had to.

CONAN: Yes. Let's get another caller on the line. This is Eric(ph). Eric calling from Macon, Georgia.

ERIC (Caller): Yes, I was wondering if Prof. Pagels can comment on the historical accuracy of the book and the movie concerning the first Ecumenical Council in Nicaea, and some of the issues that were involved.

I think in the book, as I recall, it was implied that the divinity of the Christ was decided upon at the church council - at the instigation of the Emperor Constantine, and it was done, actually, with a rather close vote.

I don't think that's exactly - that's an accurate depiction. What are your thoughts about it?

Prof. PAGELS: Well, I'd have to check again, you know, exactly what he says there. It is true that at the Council of Nicaea the main issue was whether Jesus was to be considered God or not. I don't think the vote was close at all. I think you're right about that, it was overwhelmingly in favor of the creed, and the Emperor voted in favor of it.

And when the Emperor voted in favor of it, anyone who didn't vote with the Emperor could easily be seen as, you know, kind of suspect.

CONAN: Or hurry and change their vote.

ERIC: (Unintelligible) vote for this at the council, though.

Prof. PAGELS: Pardon me?

ERIC: I don't believe the Emperor voted at the council, though.

Prof. PAGELS: He didn't vote, but I'm saying that the bishops who did tended to favor his point of view. Although, I think it was favored by many of the bishops, as well.

ERIC: In any case, an additional problem with the thesis that the Roman government forced that decision on the Council of bishops is that, at some point 20 or 30 years afterwards, the opposite position, the Arian position, and maybe you can comment about who Arius was, the Arian position came to the forefront and for some 50 or 60 years, Arianism was, at least the Roman government's...

Prof. PAGELS: Yes, you're right. There's a very good book by Timothy Barnes, which you may have read, called Constantine and Eusebius, which talks about this.

Arius was a priest from Libya who was preaching in Egypt, and he opposed the idea that Jesus was God incarnate and suggested that Jesus was human. And that debate, as you say, was intense and was very highly engaged for many decades by many bishops.

CONAN: We're talking with Elaine Pagels on TALK OF THE NATION's Opinion Page. She wrote a piece that was published yesterday in the San Jose Mercury News. If you would like to see a copy of that article, go to our website and there's a link to it: npr.org.

Here are the headlines for some of the other stories we're following here today at NPR News.

Louisiana Congressman William Jefferson, who's under investigation for bribery, was reportedly caught on videotape accepting $100,000 from an FBI informant. FBI Agents later found much of the cash in Jefferson's freezer, according to reports.

And the National Hurricane Center is predicting that the 2006 Atlantic storm season will be very active for storms, with as many as ten hurricanes and 16 named storms. However, the center says this year should not be as bad as 2005. Of course, details on those stories and much more later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Right now you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get back to Prof. Pagels and our conversation about The Da Vinci Code and the Gnostic Gospels. And interestingly in 1945 - that's the same year that the Dead Sea Scrolls were found.

Prof. PAGELS: Absolutely. It's an amazing year, and there's only a small part of the Middle East that's so dry that papyrus doesn't rot, it actually survives. And that's where both the Dead Sea Scrolls and these texts were found in Egypt.

CONAN: Let's get another listener on the line. This is Carrie(ph). Carrie calling from Lawrence, Kansas.

CARRIE (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE: I would like to say it's delightful to listen to you speak with all these gentleman callers.

Prof. PAGELS: Thank you.

CARRIE: One of the things - I've only read the book, I've not seen the movie. And the reason why I read the book, having sort of picked it up and sort of given it a cursory look at the bookstore and chose not to purchase it, was that later on, my 20-something car salesman was all excited about it. And I thought well, if my car salesman is excited about this feminist theology-based book, I think maybe I should go read it.

My question, though, and this is a discussion that I had recently with my husband, is that, is there anywhere in - I guess it's implied, but does it say specifically anywhere that Christ was a virgin? Is there any reason that we should think that he was not sexually active?

Prof. PAGELS: That's a very interesting question. I don't think anything is said about that that I know of in the New Testament or any other Gospel. I mean, some people suggest that he may have been married, because it was common for most rabbis to be married...

CARRIE: (Unintelligible)

Prof. PAGELS: ...back then, as it is now. And because, you know, it might not have been a subject for comment, because it was just taken for granted.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. PAGELS: But there are teachings in the New Testament, at lest in Mark and Matthew, in which Jesus praises people who are single and celibate. And so, you know, blessed are the eunuchs, for they shall make themselves, you know, it's in Matthew 19. Those who make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven, and those are people who are sexually inactive.

CARRIE: Inactive.

Prof. PAGELS: So there were at least suggestions that he was celibate, but we don't know that for sure. It's a good point.

CARRIE: Well, thank you very much and I look forward to hearing the rest of the conversation.

CONAN: Okay, Carrie. Thanks very much. Let's turn now to Katherine(ph). And Katherine's calling from Minneapolis.

KATHERINE (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

Prof. PAGELS: Hello.

KATHERINE: I wanted to respond, actually to the earlier callers comment about -he was wondering why the church was so - or why members of the church have been outraged about the book when he claims that its fiction.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

KATHERINE: I think that one of the messages that a lot of readers are taking away from Dan Brown's book is that we shouldn't necessarily look at the bible or biblical documents as, you know, literal documents that should be interpreted literally, or that we should necessarily take the church's interpretation of them, you know, at face value, but that we should look at them in an historical and cultural context of the time in which they were written. And that puts into question a lot of peoples' doctrine and belief about bible and the Christianity, in general.

Prof. PAGELS: Well, I think that's a really good point. Historians do the same thing, though, whether they're Christians or not, and many of my teachers and colleagues are very definitely Christians; myself included. So, you know, looking at them in historical context, you're right, it does change it.

Taking literally, though, doesn't just go on one side. I mean, I thought he took, you know, Jesus kissing Mary Magdalene, very literally. Because if you read the Gospel of Philip - further than he did - you realize that it's a mystical text and that she, here, represents the Holy Spirit or the Church, and the Church is the bride of Christ, as Christians know from the letters of St. Paul.

So there's a great deal of symbolic and mystical language in these texts, which, you're perfectly right, shouldn't be taken literally, and which needs to be interpreted and understood spiritually.

CONAN: Katherine, thanks very much.

KATHERINE: Thank you.

CONAN: Prof. Pagels, have you seen the movie?

Prof. PAGELS: Not yet.

CONAN: You looking forward to it?

Prof. PAGELS: Well, I'd like to see it. Have you?

CONAN: Not yet. But I'm looking forward to it too.

Elaine Pagels, thanks very much for your time today.

Prof. PAGELS: Okay. It was a pleasure.

CONAN: Elaine Pagels, a Professor of religion at Princeton University and author of the book, The Gnostic Gospels and Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas. Her Op-Ed appeared in yesterday's San Jose Mercury News. You can find it by going to the TALK OF THE NATION page at npr.org.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

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