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Jesus: What's Fact? What's Fiction?
By Daniel Harrington, S.J.
The Da Vinci Code book and movie make several unusual claims. A leading New Testament scholar takes a look at "the real Jesus."


A Difficult Question
Major Sources
Other Sources
Gospel Development
Getting Back to Jesus
Jesus' Ministry
Historical Quest
Meaning for Today
The Da Vinci Code Jesus
The 'Other' Gospels

Jesus: What's Fact? What's Fiction?

CNS photo courtesy Catholic Communication Campaign

THE QUESTION of Jesus’ identity is central to us as Christians. Because Christianity is an incarnational faith—centered on Jesus, the Word of God who became flesh and dwelt among us—it is important to learn as much as we can about the Jesus of history.

He lived in the land of Israel during what we now call the first century. The question of his identity still has great relevance for us in the early 21st century. Just consider the recent media attention received by Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.

When Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” he got several different answers: John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets. Even when Peter identified Jesus correctly as the Messiah, Jesus felt the need to redefine messiahship in terms of his coming passion, death and resurrection.

A Difficult Question

While important, the question about Jesus’ identity is difficult to answer. It is hard to know the whole story about any person, even someone who has lived in our own time, let alone someone who lived 2,000 years ago.

The major sources about Jesus—the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—were written in light of the authors’ convictions about Jesus’ resurrection and continued existence with the one whom he called Father. The claims that these authors made about Jesus (such as “Jesus is Lord”) go beyond what is said about even the greatest human heroes.

Here I want to tell as best as I can the “honest truth” about what we can know about Jesus of Nazareth and thus provide a reasonably objective account against which the claims of Mel Gibson, Dan Brown and others can be measured.

I write as a Roman Catholic priest, a Jesuit and a professor of New Testament since 1971. In my academic research I have taken special interest in the Dead Sea scrolls and other Jewish texts from the time of Jesus. As editor of New Testament Abstracts, I see all the books and articles published in the field.


Major Sources

The four Gospels are the major sources for what we know about Jesus. Nevertheless, they do not allow us to write a full biography about him. Rather, the evangelists were primarily interested in Jesus’ religious significance and his impact as a moral figure.

Mark’s Gospel, written around 70 A.D., perhaps at Rome, tells the story of Jesus’ public ministry in Galilee, his journey with his disciples to Jerusalem and his short ministry there, as well as his passion, death and resurrection. Mark gave special attention to Jesus as the suffering Messiah and to the mystery of the cross.

Between 85 and 90 A.D., Matthew and Luke independently produced their own revised and expanded versions of Mark’s Gospel. They added a large amount of teaching material from other sources and traditions.

Matthew emphasized the Jewishness of Jesus and his fulfillment of Israel’s Scriptures, the books of the Bible Christians commonly call the Old Testament. Luke stressed Jesus’ significance not only for Israel but also for the other peoples of the world. Because the first three Gospels offer a common outline and vision of Jesus, they are often called the synoptic Gospels, which means “viewed with one eye or lens.”

While John’s Gospel has much in common with the synoptic Gospels and contains many pieces of solid historical information, it spreads the public ministry of Jesus over three years instead of one, introduces different characters and focuses more on Jesus as the revealer and revelation of God than on the Kingdom.

These four Gospels became part of the Church’s list of approved books (canon) because of their wide use, orthodox theological content and association with the apostles.

Other Sources

The noncanonical gospels attributed to Thomas, Peter, Mary Magdalene, Philip and others did not become part of the Church’s New Testament canon. This was due in part to their lack of wide usage, sometimes unorthodox theological content and relatively late dates of composition.

These sources now often serve as the basis for works like The Da Vinci Code and other, often sensationalist interpretations of early Christianity—some even by well-known scholars. They may contain some early authentic traditions, though it is often difficult to isolate these from their less credible content. Likewise, while there are stray sayings attributed to Jesus in other early Christian writings, it is almost impossible to prove they originated with Jesus.

The only substantial ancient description of Jesus apart from Christian sources appears in Jewish Antiquities by Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian in the late first century A.D. But the explicit statements about Jesus’ identity as the Messiah and about his resurrection suggest that Christian scribes may have inserted their own convictions about Jesus.

Josephus wrote: “About this time arose Jesus, a wise man, if indeed it be lawful to call him a man. For he was a doer of wonderful deeds, and a teacher of men who...drew to himself many, both of the Jews and the Gentiles. He was the Christ” (18:63-64, Loeb Classical Library translation).

Gospel Development

The early Christians were more concerned with experiencing the risen Jesus and the Holy Spirit than with writing books about Jesus. Jesus died around 30 A.D., and the first complete Gospel (Mark’s) appeared 40 years later.

In those intervening decades there was a lively process in which traditions from and about Jesus, whether in oral or written form, were handed on among Christians. These traditions were often shaped and reshaped in response to the pastoral needs of the communities.

Understanding the process by which the Gospels were formed requires keeping three realities in mind: the focus of the evangelist, the development of the early Church and who Jesus was. The Gospel writers composed the final forms of their works with an eye toward their significance for particular communities. The gathered materials had been formulated and adapted in various settings over 40 or more years. And, of course, they all sought to tell us the “honest truth” about Jesus, as best they could.

Getting Back to Jesus

Are there ways of going behind the Gospel texts and the traditions of the early Church and getting back to Jesus himself? Biblical scholars have developed several tools to isolate material in the Gospels that most likely goes back to Jesus. If a teaching is unlike anything in Jewish and early Christian traditions, then it probably can be assigned directly to Jesus. An example would be Jesus’ absolute prohibition of taking oaths: “Do not swear at all” (Matthew 5:34).

Other such criteria include: when a tradition appears in several different sources (Last Supper); local Palestinian coloring (Aramaic words, farming methods); embarrassment at what might reflect badly on Jesus (his reception of John’s “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”); what led to Jesus’ death (the “cleansing” of the Temple); and coherence (what fits with what can be established by other criteria).

These historical methods do not tell us everything we would like to know about Jesus. Nor do they necessarily establish what was most important about him. But they do tell us something.

Jesus' Ministry

Study of the Gospels and application of these historical criteria make it possible to develop at least an outline of Jesus’ public career. Having been raised in Nazareth in Galilee, Jesus accepted baptism from John and may have been a member of John’s movement.

When Jesus went out on his own to continue and adapt John’s mission, he gathered disciples near the Sea of Galilee at Capernaum, including some of John’s followers. He spent much of his public life preaching about the Kingdom of God and how to prepare for it. He also healed the sick as a sign of the presence of God’s Kingdom.

Before Passover in the spring of 30 A.D., Jesus and his followers made a long journey to Jerusalem. There he continued his ministry of teaching and healing, but they ran into intense opposition from some other Jews and from the Roman authorities. Under the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate, Jesus was executed by crucifixion as a rebel and a religious troublemaker. And he was said to have appeared alive again to some of his followers.

Careful study of the Gospels also allows us to reconstruct the major themes in Jesus’ teaching. At the center was the Reign or Kingdom of God in both its present and future dimensions. Jesus’ relationship to God was so close that he dared to address God as Father and invited others to do the same. He proclaimed the possibility of the forgiveness of sins and of reconciliation with God.

Jesus challenged his followers to love their enemies and told them how to act in anticipation of the coming Kingdom of God. He showed special concern for marginal persons—the poor, the lame, “sinners and tax collectors,” prostitutes and so on—and manifested a free attitude toward the traditions associated with the Jewish Law and the Jerusalem Temple. Most of these themes appear in the Lord’s Prayer that Jesus taught to his disciples.

Historical Quest

The Jesus whom modern historians can recover and investigate by using the tools of historical research is sometimes called the “historical Jesus.” A more accurate term would be the “historian’s Jesus.” This Jesus is not the whole person of Jesus, nor is he the traditional object of Christian faith.

The one whom we worship is not only the earthly Jesus but also—and especially—the risen Jesus who will come again in glory. Christians believe that there is a close continuity between the earthly Jesus and the Christ of faith and that the two cannot be totally separated.

The quest for the historical Jesus, however, refers to the project of separating the earthly Jesus from the Christ of faith. It began among liberal German Protestants in the late 18th century in an effort to peel away the wrappings given to Jesus in Church tradition and to recover the simple figure of the “real” Jesus.

Many of the early seekers discarded the miracles of Jesus and rejected his virginal conception and resurrection as “unhistorical.” One positive development was the recognition of the Kingdom of God as the focus of Jesus’ teaching and its roots in Jewish hopes about God’s future actions on behalf of his people (sometimes called eschatology or apocalyptic writing).

The quest in the 20th century focused on the parables of Jesus as a way of recovering the “voice” of Jesus about the Kingdom, developing criteria for identifying material from Jesus and situating Jesus within Judaism. Recent presentations of Jesus have depicted him as a prophet sent to speak of the end times, a wisdom teacher, a philosopher and a poet skilled in his use of parables and images.

Meaning for Today

While charged with frustration, the quest for the historical Jesus has been a fascinating and even irresistible topic. It reminds us that there is no uninterpreted Jesus and that we are dependent on sources that historians find challenging. For people of faith, the witness of the Gospels is more important than the historian’s Jesus. Nevertheless, historical methods can help us to see the basic reliability of the tradition about Jesus and to encounter Jesus as the strong personality behind the Gospels and the traditions and truths contained in them.

This article is adapted from the March 2006 issue of Jesus: A Historical Portrait (a new, 12-issue newsletter from St. Anthony Messenger Press). All articles are by Father Daniel Harrington, S.J. Subscriptions and back issues can be ordered through www.American or by calling 1-800-488- 0488.

Father Daniel Harrington, S.J., is professor of New Testament at Weston School of Theology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Since 1972, he has been general editor of New Testament Abstracts and is a past president of the Catholic Biblical Association. His most recent books are What Are They Saying About Mark? (Paulist Press) and How Do Catholics Read the Bible? (Sheed and Ward).

The Da Vinci Code Jesus

by Carol Ann Morrow

NOVELIST DAN BROWN makes several assertions about Jesus that cannot be found in the New Testament. Four of these are especially troublesome:

1. Jesus was not the Christ or Messiah, but was declared to be so by the Council of Nicaea (325) as a Church power play.

2. Emperor Constantine decided which Gospels to include and outlawed any Gospels emphasizing Jesus’ humanity.

3. Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene.

4. Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a daughter named Sarah. The Merovingian dynasty, which ruled France from the fifth to the eighth centuries, traces its ancestry to her.

Separating Fact From Fiction

The Da Vinci Code’s frontispiece, entitled “Fact,” states, “All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.” Many readers of this novel have incorrectly assumed that Brown is factual in other areas such as theology, Church history and Scripture.

1. That Jesus is the Christ, the Savior of the world, is, of course, an act of faith. This faith is bolstered by the witness of the Gospels, by the actions of the earliest Christian communities and a belief proclaimed long before the Nicene Creed was formulated.

In Matthew 16:16, Peter says, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Acts 2:36 asserts, “...God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

While Brown never cites the four Gospels found in the canon of Scripture (written between 70 A.D. and 100 A.D.) or the early teachers of the Church, he frequently cites non-canonical gospels, such as those attributed to Peter or Mary, which were thought to be written much later.

2. At least 150 years before Constantine became sole emperor in 324, the canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were recognized by the Christian community as inspired. They were commonly read at celebrations of the Eucharist.

3. The New Testament does not indicate that Jesus was ever married. Brown’s sources are gospels that are not part of the New Testament. The Da Vinci Code spends more time on Mary Magdalene as wife than on Jesus as husband. Brown presents Jesus’ marriage as making him more human, as the natural husband of Mary Magdalene and as a father.

These non-canonical gospels, however, never mention a marriage but rather tell of intimate kisses between Mary Magdalene and Jesus. These descriptions may never have been intended to be taken literally, since the Gospel of Philip emphasizes the union of the soul (symbolized by Mary Magdalene) with God (in the person of Jesus).

The idea of a marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene was popularized in a 1982 book, Holy Blood, Holy Grail. This book has little standing among historians, but has attracted many people drawn to conspiracy theories. It also led to an unsuccessful lawsuit against Brown for plagiarism.

Other more reputable scholars theorize that Jewish rabbis were expected to marry, and a married Jesus would have had higher standing and respect. Still other biblical scholars counter that Jesus defied many customs of his time. Why not this one?

4. The Priory of Sion was supposedly charged with protecting the bloodline of Jesus from extinction. Its documents linked France’s Merovingian dynasty to Sarah, alleged daughter of Jesus, and, thereby, argued for a return to monarchy. In 1993, the French courts judged that the documents about the Priory were forgeries, part of an elaborate hoax.

Want More?

For Online Immediacy: This site, established by the U.S. bishops’ Catholic Communication Campaign, offers essays and answers to worrisome Code-inspired questions. The site also promotes a TV special (available for purchase after it airs on NBC affiliates), a booklet and parish bulletin inserts.

For Serious Study: Mary of Magdala: What the Da Vinci Code Misses (a 2006 revision of a 1995 book), by Mary R. Thompson. Paulist Press. 156 pp. $14.95.

For Succinct Answers: De-coding Da Vinci, by Amy Welborn. Our Sunday Visitor. 124 pp. $9.95.

To Prepare for Trivial Pursuit: The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Mary Magdalene, by Lisa Bellevie. Alpha Books. 358 pp. $12.95.

Carol Ann Morrow is an assistant editor of this publication.


The 'Other' Gospels

by Diane Houdek

MANY SCHOLARS believe that Mark’s Gospel was completed around 70 A.D. A decade or so later Matthew and Luke used it as a source for their Gospels. They may have had another source in common, known as Q (from the German word quelle, “source”), as well as their own separate sources. Q was most likely a collection of Jesus’ sayings, but with none of the miracle stories so familiar to us, and no accounts of Jesus’ passion.

The Gospel of Thomas is a “sayings gospel” written perhaps as late as the second century. Even though it contains many of the same parables and sayings as the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the Church does not consider it to be authentic revelation because it was not in widespread use among the early Christian communities.

Other texts not included in the Bible contain folktales about the life of the boy Jesus or the childhood of Mary. The best known are the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Infancy Gospel of James. They contain fanciful tales such as Jesus making clay pigeons and clapping his hands to bring them to life or getting mad at a playmate, causing the child’s death by an angry word and then raising him to life again. While these stories may be appealing, their authenticity is questionable.

Diane Houdek is editor of Bringing Home the Word and Weekday Homily Helps, two newsletters published by St. Anthony Messenger Press.


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