What About Judas, Mary Magdalene?

Scholars who probe the history surrounding the Bible are mining to decipher a real Da Vinci Code. They seek clues from the past that suggest truths that underlie the narratives of tradition and faith. They seek to understand the origins of modern religion and how these faiths have evolved over time.

During last month’s Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, one panel discussed the roots of religion. All the panelists were as astute and captivating as advertised, but one scholar, in particular, professor Dennis R. MacDonald, spoke to the issue of reality vs. myth in the story of Jesus. And when it came to the myths, he didn’t stop at the work of “The Da Vinci Code” author Dan Brown. MacDonald took on mythmaking around the life of Jesus that is nearly 2,000 years old.

Here are excerpts from the comments of MacDonald, who is John Wesley Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Claremont School of Theology and co-director of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity at the Claremont Graduate University. He is also the author of “Christianizing Homer and the Legend and the Apostle.”

About “The Da Vinci Code”:

Dennis MacDonald: I enjoyed reading “The Da Vinci Code.” It is smart and entertaining and engrossing — and the historian in me gets sick when I read it.

Regarding the recently discovered Gospel of Judas:

DM: The Gospel of Judas is a magnificent discovery. It is extremely important for understanding a group of Christian Gnostics, about whom we knew, but had nothing from them themselves.

These are called the Cainites. And their claim to fame is favoring biblical losers, like the serpent in the Garden [of Eden] and Cain — which is where they get their name — and now Judas. And my attitude is you learn as much about the historical Judas from the Gospel of Judas as you do about the historical serpent in the Garden of Eden.

One early Christian tract has not yet been found, and it may never be. “Q” is considered a key source for the gospels that make up the New Testament. Through careful study, experts have deduced a lot of what “Q” must have contained. So how is “Q” like a real Da Vinci Code?

DM: “Q,” from the German word quelle [source] … is reconstructed by teasing out material painstakingly from the synoptic gospels themselves. [The synoptic gospels are the three broadly overlapping tellings of the story of Jesus that make up Mark, Matthew and Luke/Acts in the New
Testament.] This document is most obvious in places where Matthew and Luke share content with each other they could not have derived from Mark, their primary source. But it’s becoming clear that the author of Mark also knew “Q,” as well.

What is astonishing about “Q” is not only what it says, but what it does not say. And that what it says has such an interesting affinity to what we know about [early Christian evangelist] Paul and the early Christian traditions of Paul.