The fascination of a hidden and secret gospel leads easily into a dark world of conspiracy and male repression. Simon Heans has been reading earlier versions of Dan Brown’s thriller

Rarely do I board a train into or out of London without seeing somebody with nose stuck in The Da Vinci Code. Its absurdities have been exposed in many places, notably by the Channel 4 investigation conducted by Tony Robinson, and decisively in The Da Vinci Code Hoax by Carl Olson and Sandra Miesel. However, it is perhaps less well-appreciated that the ‘Da Vinci Code phenomenon’ is nothing new.

In Hidden Gospels, Professor Philip Jenkins has made a study of the work of the scholars on whose writings Dan Brown draws. He is particularly interested in Elaine Pagels’ bestseller, Beyond Belief (about the Gospel of Thomas), and Karen King’s The Gospel of Mary of Magdala. Jenkins argues persuasively that these two ‘Gospels’ are far from being the authentic sources for the earliest Christianity vaunted by Pagels and King. He dubs them ‘new/old scripture,’ not only because they are not as old as Pagels and King claim, but also because they have been known to the scholarly world for much longer than the breathless reviews of Pagels and King would suggest.

Nothing new

Between 1880 and 1920, there was what he calls ‘a cascade of new discoveries [which] transformed attitudes to early Christianity, both the mainstream and the heretical fringes.’ Parts of the Gospel of Thomas (known as the ‘Sayings of Jesus’ at the time) and the Gospel of Peter, not to mention various Gnostic scriptures including the Apocryphon of John, The Wisdom of Jesus Christ, the Gospel of Mary and the Pistis Sophia were all unearthed then.

Jenkins is particularly intrigued by this latter text because it contains the themes beloved of feminist scholars like Pagels and King. Jesus is a mystic teacher especially close to powerful female disciples like Mary Magdalene. And the main narrative concerns the stages by which Jesus liberates the supernatural – and female – figure of Sophia from her bondage in the material world, so as to restore her to her previous divine status in the heavens.

At the turn of the last century, these texts were presented to the public, not by female American dons, but by members of the Theosophical Society. Its secretary, G.R.S. Mead was their most indefatigable champion, but another enthusiast was the young Aleister Crowley. Before he embraced full-blown diabolism, he was chief pastor of the Gnostic Catholic Church.

Ancestors of the Code

However, the way most people encountered such writings was through fiction. When It Was Dark was The Da Vinci Code of the Edwardian era. By the now forgotten Guy Thorne, it was published in 1903 and became a transatlantic bestseller. It describes the devastating effects on society when archaeologists discover a text purporting to be Joseph of Arimathea’s confession that he faked the resurrection of Jesus, and indicating the real site of his tomb. The new gospel causes a mayhem of looting, rioting, suicide, rape and general moral collapse across Christendom. But at the end it is discovered to have been a hoax by a wealthy Jewish conspirator, an Antichrist figure. I suppose today the novel would fall foul of ‘incitement to religious hatred’ legislation.

By contrast, in The Brook Kerith by the Anglo-Irish novelist George Moore, Jesus survives the crucifixion and thereafter undergoes some character development. Although this does not involve Mrs Mary Magdalene, Moore’s Jesus certainly opts for domesticity. In fact, he becomes the model bourgeois. He even speaks like Mr Pooter: ‘there is but one thing…to learn to live for ourselves and to suffer our fellows to do likewise.’

Nevertheless, happy retirement years at Kerith are disturbed by the visit of a power-hungry Paul, who presents him with the incomprehensible new doctrine of ‘the death and resurrection from the dead of the Lord Jesus Christ.’ Since Jesus speaks only Aramaic, he has to ask the meaning of the unfamiliar term ‘Christ.’ Discovering the imposture perpetrated in his name, he is with great difficulty dissuaded from going to Jerusalem to expose the lie.

Eventually he joins a group of itinerant Indian monks and travels with them back to the subcontinent. In all of this Moore preaches a consistent message about Christianity which can be summed up in the words of The Da Vinci Code’s main character, Harvard ‘symbologist,’ Robert Langdon: ‘Every faith is based on fabrication.’

There is another echo from this period in The Da Vinci Code, one that comes across loud and clear in the novel. Its major theme is the call to recover the ‘sacred feminine’ and a revitalized worship of a goddess or goddesses. In responding to a question on his website about his novel being ‘empowering of women,’ Brown claims that ‘two thousand years ago we lived in a world of gods and goddesses’ but now the latter have disappeared with the result that ‘women…have been stripped of their spiritual power.’

This was the argument of Mead’s Theosophical Society colleague, Frances Swiney in her book The Esoteric Teachings of the Gnostics (1909). In her view, Gnostic women were ‘early pioneers of the liberation movement of their sex, dialectical daughters questioning the truth and authority of received opinions, earnest intellectual women.’ Christian feminists will also recognize this statement from Swiney‘s book: ‘The Gnostics kept true to the original pristine faith in the Femininity of the Holy Spirit…a truth universally suppressed in the fourth century by the male priesthood of the Christian Church.’

Male conspiracy?

Another favourite doctrine of feminist theology is anticipated in this description by Swiney of Gnostic belief: ‘the real human is male-female, devoid of differentiated sexuality.’ When Canon Winkett said on the Channel 4 programme, Women Bishops, ‘it is the humanity of Jesus that matters, not his maleness,’ did she know she was agreeing with Mrs Swiney the Theosophist?

It was also Mrs Swiney’s view, that a male priesthood was responsible for the fragmentary nature of the Gnostic texts. ‘It is very suggestive of a sinister motive,’ she writes, ‘that in most of the erasures, and where pages are missing in these Gnostic writings, the subject is some hidden mystery, the interpretation of which was unacceptable to the masculine mind and bigoted orthodoxy.’

Of course Swiney laid claim to the secret of the ‘hidden mystery,’ and Brown goes in for exactly the same hocus-pocus: ‘the secret I reveal is one that has been whispered for centuries. It is not my own.’ Whether centuries, or barely a century old, Brown is certainly right to be modest about the originality of The Da Vinci Code.