CHAPEL HILL — Bart Ehrman will admit that the person seated to the left of Jesus in Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous “Last Supper” masterpiece seems a bit effeminate.
But that doesn’t mean it’s a woman, Ehrman points out, nor does it necessarily mean the person is Mary Magdalene.
“It sure looks like a woman,” Ehrman, a religious studies scholar at UNC, said recently. “I don’t think it is. Art historians tell me that’s absolutely crazy.”
The suggestion that the person is Mary Magdalene — a follower of Jesus — forms the basis of one of several claims made in “The Da Vinci Code,” the best-selling novel that religion scholars say is rife with falsehoods.
Ehrman, who chairs UNC’s religious studies department, takes a shot at debunking many of these claims in his new book, “Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code.”
Ehrman, an expert on Jesus and the New Testament, knew the subject matter so well, the book took all of two weeks to write.
“My book was a response to all these historical claims,” Ehrman said this week from his office on campus. “They’re all wrong.”
Though Dan Brown’s wildly popular work has been the subject of a number of “debunking the myths” books in the popular press, Ehrman’s is the first from a prominent academician who doesn’t put a conservative religious spin on the issue.
Ehrman isn’t defending any particular position in his book, he said — just the truth. His book, Ehrman said, is a response to historical claims Brown makes in “The Da Vinci Code” about Jesus, Mary and the Gospels.
Among other claims which might shock a general reading audience, “The Da Vinci Code” contends that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and the two had a child, thus continuing Christ’s bloodline.
In the book, a main character argues that the person to Christ’s left in the Da Vinci painting is Mary Magdalene, thus proving she’s a more important person to Jesus than has been believed.
This contention has its own set of problems, Ehrman said. First, even if the person is Mary Magdalene, it doesn’t prove she was married to Jesus. And since the painting is supposed to depict Jesus dining with the 12 apostles, one apostle would be unaccounted for if the person in question is indeed Mary Magdalene, he said.
And even if you take the leap and accept that they were married, there is still no evidence at all that Jesus ever had a child, he added.
“The DaVinci Code,” which is sold as a novel and isn’t advertised as a work of non-fiction, also offers up the idea that Jesus very well may have been married because, at the time, it was quite rare for Jewish men to be single.
Also not true, Ehrman says. In fact, the Dead Sea Scrolls, ancient writings discovered in caves near Jerusalem in 1947, were authored by a group of single, celibate Jewish men called The Essenes.
“The idea that a Jewish man couldn’t be single is ludicrous,” Ehrman said. “There were, in fact, single men in the ancient time and they had world views much like Jesus.”
Further, a character in “The Da Vinci Code” refers to the Dead Sea Scrolls as one of Christianity’s earliest writings. That claim, too, was a head-scratcher for Ehrman, pointing out once again the ancient scrolls were written by Jews.
“There’s nothing Christian about the Dead Sea Scrolls,” he said.
Even while poking holes in the popular novel, Ehrman said he isn’t too bothered by it, in large part because while some readers may take its claims at face value, it isn’t truly a scholarly work. In the introduction to his own book, Ehrman admits liking “The Da Vinci Code,” calling it “a terrific page-turner.”
“It gets people talking about Jesus and Mary Magdalene and Constantine, and I think that’s all fine,” he said. “The problem with it is that he begins the book by claiming all the documents he cites are factual. He’s not a scholar.”
Brown, who taught English before turning to writing, has generally declined to comment on his critics. He has said that the arguments are “healthy for religion.”
The article includes material from an Associated Press report.
Jan. 15, 2005