Saturday, May 20, 2006

The Da Vinci Code: Bracing My Faith Against Jesus' Marriage

Twice now I have specifically heard this reaction to the claim in The Da Vinci Code that Jesus was married: it doesn’t matter that Jesus was married or not-it doesn’t change who he was.

When that thought is expressed in the form of a question to Christians opposing the message of the book and movie, it is intended to be a kind of stumbling block intended to befuddle the Christian who has never thought about the merits of Jesus’ bachelorhood, and to open up room for the claim that maybe he was married to Mary Magdalene. I do not know off the top of my head if there are any good theological or philosophical objections to Jesus being married, but I am almost sure there are some. I don’t think that is the right immediate response to that question, however.

The proposal that Jesus was married, and that it isn’t a big deal, is a red herring: it is the wrong question given the context of The Da Vinci Code and all the historical documents relating to Jesus’ life.

The reason Christians should defend the proposition that Jesus was not married is that it is true. It is akin to defending the proposition that George W. Bush is the current president of the U.S. or that Caesar Augustus was ruler of the Roman Empire at such-and-such a time. Truth matters. The truth of historical detail matters and those truths help identify historical figures as who they really were, what they really stood for, and what their followers uphold today.

All the reliable sources about the life of Jesus do not entail his marriage to anyone. The only sources claiming any such marriage were written long after Jesus’ death by those who wanted to change the Christian message.

A friend told me of a Christian co-worker whose reaction to The Da Vinci Code included the conclusion that it doesn’t matter to her whether Jesus was married. She is doubtless trying to exhibit a strong faith, but what it betrays is in fact a powerful anti-intellectualism. It does matter whether Jesus was married because that is a significant feature of his life and all the reliable evidence points to him being a bachelor. Our friend does not need to posit a faith that can stand up to the possibility that Jesus was married because it is false that he was.

It is akin to saying that it doesn’t matter to my faith whether Jesus was born to a Roman noble family in Carthage. I simply don’t need to brace my faith against that possibility.

8 comments:

Ben said...

Phil,

I couldn't agree with you more. My wife and I are reading through the Da Vinci Code right now (partly to so we can talk to others about it, partly to enjoy a work of fiction) and I would say that one of the book's biggest struggles for people is that it causes Christians to ask the wrong questions about their faith.

Rather then trying to identify the theological implications of some of the more outrageous claims of the book, I believe that the book should be read as any piece of fiction should - with the sense of adventure and curiosity. If elements of a fiction novel pique your interest and cause you to do further reading in a particular area, so much the better.

The good news for believers is that there is overwhelming and easily accessible responses to most of the Di Vinci Code's historical and theological indulgences. You don't need run out and get a copy of Di Vinci Code Debunked or something like that either. The little book we like to call the Bible will answer most of the questions.

Kevin Winters said...

Phil,

You say: "All the reliable sources about the life of Jesus do not entail his marriage to anyone."

But "[a]ll the reliable sources about the life of Jesus do not [say that he was not married]" either. Both views are appealing to silence on this matter. I, for one, see no philosophical or theological arguments that can be marshalled against Christ being married; given the Jewish and Christian message of the importance and goodness of marriage itself, I think quite the opposite would be the case.

Tim Van Tongeren said...

From the Rocky Mountain News:

Unlike the Gospels, these latest tales don't have deep roots
By Douglas Groothuis
May 20, 2006

Jesus is back in the headlines. The fantastically popular novel and movie, The Da Vinci Code, asserts that the Gospel accounts of his life are untrustworthy, that Jesus was not divine, and so on.

A spate of other books claim that Jesus' disciple Judas was not really a traitor, but the most illuminated disciple (The Gospel of Judas), or that Jesus did not die on the cross, but survived (The Jesus Papers). One movie sensationally claims that Jesus never existed (The God Who Wasn't There). No end to the revisionism is in sight.

Jesus has been controversial ever since he uttered a word in public. As the late Yale scholar Jaroslav Pelikan wrote in Jesus Through the Centuries, "Regardless of what anyone may personally think or believe about him, Jesus of Nazareth has been the dominant figure in the history of Western culture for almost 20 centuries. If it were possible, with some sort of super magnet, to pull out of that history every scrap of metal bearing at least a trace of his name, how much would be left?"

Nevertheless, many strive to pull Jesus out of history and into fantasy. Despite their popular appeal, these strange new tales about Jesus ring historically hollow.

Rather than taking blind leaps of faith or making audacious contrarian assertions concerning Jesus, it is wiser to consider which theory about Jesus makes the most sense, all things considered.

The primary documents about Jesus of Nazareth are the four Gospels. Some claim that these documents have been translated from one language to another until we have no idea what the originals said. This is false. The Gospels (and the rest of the New Testament) are better attested to by manuscripts than any other piece of classical literature.

There are more than 5,000 Greek manuscripts of these books in existence. Scholars draw their translations from these sources. A fragment of the Gospel of John dates to the early second century, probably only a few decades after it was originally written. By comparison, the recently published Gospel of Judas (like all Gnostic documents) has no such manuscript pedigree; it dates from the third century, has no history of manuscript transmission after that, and is difficult to reconstruct given its spotty quality.

But who wrote the Gospel accounts and when did they write them?

The Gospels are quoted so extensively by second century Christians it is clear that the Gospels and 25 of the 27 books of the New Testament were in circulation by A.D. 100. There is good evidence that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke (and the book of Acts) date before A.D. 70. The Gospel of John was written perhaps 20 years after that.

Given the importance of memorizing the teachings of religious authorities in that ancient oral culture, we have reason to trust that Jesus' words and actions were accurately preserved.

The most ancient traditions claim that Matthew and John were written by Jesus' disciples, that Mark was a colleague of the apostle Peter, and that Luke was the companion of the apostle Paul (many of whose New Testament letters probably predate the Gospels). In the New Testament we have the testimony of eyewitnesses or those who carefully consulted eyewitnesses. Besides this, numerous facts from extra-biblical writers (Josephus, Tacitus, Thallus, Suetonius and Pliny the Younger) and from archaeology confirm many aspects of the Gospel record.

These are some of the historical credentials of the Gospels.

The Da Vinci Code to the contrary, the Council of Nicea did not rig the selection of New Testament books. Rather, they were selected on the basis of their perceived historical veracity.

Strange tales about Jesus notwithstanding, this Gospel story hangs together; and for Christians it continues to ring true.

-- Douglas Groothuis is professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary and the author of Jesus in an Age of Controversy and On Jesus.

http://www.rockymountainnews.com/drmn/speak_out/article/0,2777,DRMN_23970_4712846,00.html

Brian B said...

Kevin said:
>>But "[a]ll the reliable sources about the life of Jesus do not [say that he was not married]" either. Both views are appealing to silence on this matter. I, for one, see no philosophical or theological arguments that can be marshalled against Christ being married; given the Jewish and Christian message of the importance and goodness of marriage itself, I think quite the opposite would be the case.<<

I disagree - you, for instance, did not "appeal to silence," but rather marshalled a philosophical argument for the conclusion that it is probable that Jesus was married. You did so by offering the "message of the importance and goodness of marriage" as evidence for that conclusion.

And likewise, I think one could offer the "silence" of the gospels regarding Jesus' marital status as good evidence for Jesus being unmarried. One would think that, given the importance and goodness of marriage in the Christian message, Jesus' marriage, if it existed, would have featured prominently, both in Jesus' own teachings and examples, and in his disciples' recording of his life and works. But it doesn't. So he wasn't.

While both this argument and your argument (and others like it) are not "conclusive" or "demonstrative," they render their conclusions probable (to varying degrees), and increase or decrease the justification with which we believe one or another proposition. We can see which theory best explains the evidence available to us - and that's a completely standard scientific and philosophical method for belief-formation and revision. Absence of evidence can be evidence, though not "full proof", of absence.

Kevin Winters said...

Brian, how many of the apostles were married and, "given the importance and goodness of marriage in the Christian message," we lack information on it? According to an "absence of evidence" approach, we must conclude that most (all?) of them were likewise unmarried. Perhaps in further qualifying my previous claim, I do not say that it is 'likely' or perhaps even 'probable.' But 'possible' and 'not incredibly unlikely'...that I would agree with.

Brian B said...

I guess I would think it less likely that the gospels would talk about the apostles' personal lives, given that the focus of the gospels is not on the apostles' lives, but on the person and life of Jesus. So for them, absence of evidence wouldn't be as compelling (just like the absence of evidence regarding the question whether Mary Magdelene had a mole on her left shoulder would have an easy explanation: the gospel writers weren't much concerned with that). Andrew, Bartholemew, etc. - none of them were anywhere near the focus of the books; Jesus' life, by contrast, was.

I agree that, so far as what the gospels record, a lot of things are possible. And my argument was primarily designed to show, with a bit of irony, that the "evidence" one could give in favor of one thesis is just as easily used in the service of the opposite thesis.

I guess I view the situation as somewhat analogous to the situation we face with regard to the question whether unicorns exist on earth. We can't "prove" it - all we have it empirical "silence" on the matter. And yet that silence ought to strongly recommend the conclusion that they do not exist. Given a few plausible assumptions, the "silence" of the gospels regarding Jesus' wives ought to strongly recommend the conclusion that they did not exist. Or at least, I find the assumptions plausible - and the assumptions offered in favor of the opposite conclusion, in comparison, far more tenuous and ad hoc. (Perhaps people disagree primarily over these assumptions?) I'll gladly give you 'possible' - but plenty of things unworthy of assent are possible.

Anyway, absence of evidence, as I said, CAN be good reason to deny something (e.g. the existence of unicorns; Jesus being married) - and in other cases, we can't draw any conclusion from the absence of evidence (e.g. Mary's mole). My main point was to contest the claim that "silence" is generally (or even in this case) a reason to remain agnostic about a given thesis, or that one cannot give a theological or philosophical argument regarding such matters.

Kevin Winters said...

Fair enough. The fact remains that the possibility of Christ being married has no inherent negative implications for the Christian message, surely not as much as denying Christ's divinity. This is why I find it so strange that so many blogs are focusing on exactly that issue: it is a minor point with little relevance or significance.

Phil Steiger said...

Thanks everybody for your input, and I apologize for my delay in responding. In reflecting on this issue, I decided to reply in the form of new post.

One one level, I certainly agree, Kevin, that it is odd this is such a big deal with so many people. My particular problem, though, is not that Jesus being married poses some kind of theological problem, but that there is no good evidence for Jesus being married. Therefore, the tempest about his bachelorhood is almost literally warrantless.