Mrs. God

A new documentary suggests that Jesus might not have been celibate after all.

Elizabeth Vargas on the trail of the wife of Christ

Was Jesus married? Is it possible that what religious history and scriptures call the Holy Grail—the cup Jesus drank from at the Last Supper—was not the chalice that held his blood, but rather a symbol representing the woman who bore his child?

On Monday night, ABC will air a documentary that offers an alternative view of Christianity inspired by Dan Brown’s best-selling mystery novel The Da Vinci Code. The film, titled Jesus, Mary and Da Vinci, is certain to make some people uncomfortable since it examines the idea that Jesus didn’t live a celibate life, as Christian history has always maintained. Yet it’s unfortunate that the documentary gives as much credence to the novel as it does: In doing so, it forgoes serious scholarship in favor of sensationalist rumor and shaky theorizing.

The novel suggests that Jesus married and fathered a child with Mary Magdalene who, in order to keep the child safe, fled the Middle East with a group of early Christians. These refugees settled in the south of France, and from them came a line of French kings known as the Merovingians. Brown’s theory—which is based on old legends and forms the backdrop for his novel—is that the existence of Jesus’ descendants was kept a secret by a group of loyal cultists well into the 20th century. The leaders of this society, called the Priory of Sion, included prominent men from science, politics, and the arts, including Galileo, Isaac Newton, and Leonardo Da Vinci.

In Brown’s telling, the group deliberately altered the record of Mary’s role in the life of Jesus to save her family from the hands of those in the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy who preferred their own version of Jesus as a celibate savior. To do this, they used code and symbols to represent her, hence the “code” of the title. In this way they could record her existence as the wife of their beloved Christ without telling the whole truth about the role she played in his life. Over time and throughout artistic expression, this symbolic representation morphed into the “chalice” of the Lord, or the Holy Grail: the feminine symbol of the container or vessel that contains the bloodline of Jesus Christ.

This film wonders if such a story, put forth as fiction in Brown’s book, might actually have fact behind it. As it happens, it doesn’t. The film’s hostess, Elizabeth Vargas, interviews Catholic priests and Protestant evangelicals as well as art historians and biblical scholars, none of whom can produce any conclusive proof on the question of Jesus’ putative marriage. Much screen time—far too much—is devoted to Brown himself, who is presented as a kind of historian; he expresses his belief in the theory with great animation but without any real scholarship or evidence to back it up.

The film leans heavily on Brown’s interpretation of Da Vinci’s famous painting The Last Supper. Look closely at the figure to Jesus’ right, Brown says; it’s obviously a woman. What any art historian could tell him is that the figure, always thought to be St. John the Apostle, resembles other Leonardo portraits of biblical figures as effeminate men. * If Da Vinci thought John looked like a girly man, that’s one thing. But a girlish-looking figure in a painting isn’t proof that Mary was present at the Last Supper, let alone that Jesus and Mary were married. (And, by the way, if Mary was sitting in John’s seat at the Last Supper, where was John?)

Many of the other mysterious threads of Brown’s theory lead to unsubstantiated sources. The names of the ostensible leaders of the Priory of Sion, as well as the extensive family tree tracing Jesus’ lineage into the modern day, come from a document supposedly found by an unknown person in the bowels of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris in the 1960s. The film never mentions origins of the document, nor does it acknowledge the possibility that it could be an elaborate hoax.

To Vargas’ and the producers’ credit, they trot out some impressive scholars to comment, including Elaine Pagels, Jack Wasserman, and Umberto Eco. While many of the interviewees express polite interest in the theoretical ramifications of this notion, they can’t shed any real light on the question. Yes, the Catholic Church has had problems dealing with sex and women. And it behaved extremely badly at times, the Crusades and the Inquisition being two shameful examples. But those sad facts do not a conspiracy make. As titillating or shocking as the idea of Jesus having sex might be, we just don’t know if he did. The few historical texts we can refer to, including recently recovered ones like the Gospel of Thomas, don’t mention Mary’s relationship to Jesus, and so they don’t bring us closer to the truth.

The film no doubt aims to encourage religious discussion by bringing an incendiary theory to light. But any debate on this topic is bound to be fruitless and frustrating since hard facts simply don’t exist to support it. In the end, the film only provides extra (unnecessary) publicity for Brown’s best-selling novel.

It’s likely that most Christians welcome representations of Jesus that make him seem more real, more like us, more modern. He is, after all, supposed to have been wholly human and wholly divine. And what could be more completely human than loving someone and having a child with that person? Some will find that notion very attractive indeed; others most emphatically will not. But Christians won’t find definitive answers to the mystery in the novel or this film.

Correction, Nov. 3, 2003: The original version of this article identified the figure next to Jesus in Da Vinci’s The Last Supper as John the Baptist. It is not John the Baptist but rather St. John the Apostle. So much for rigorous scholarship!  Return to the corrected sentence.