Ruffling Religious Feathers

Long before Dan Brown’s bestselling The Da Vinci Code hit the shelves, Harvard’s own biblical sleuth was on the case.

Long before Dan Brown’s bestselling The Da Vinci Code hit the shelves, Harvard’s own biblical sleuth was on the case. Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History Karen L. King has been cracking the codes of early Christianity for more than 20 years.

Due in part to the popularity of novels like Brown’s—in which a Harvard professor discovers a ancient conspiracy involving the Catholic Church—King’s somewhat unique work has gained increased attention. Two of her recent books on religious figures have been particularly controversial. The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle “portrays Mary Magdalene as an important apostle after the resurrection,” King explains. Her other book, What is Gnosticism?, targets a more academic audience.

An increasing public interest in early Christianity has resulted in lots of mail for King.  Although her work challenges Christianity and can make readers uncomfortable, King says that 95 percent of comments have been appreciative. Some people have sent her their version of the story of Mary and Jesus as it has been channeled to them “in a trance state, which is when the spirit talks to them.”  

In the sense that she asks people to rethink their conceptions of Christianity, King deals with many of the same ideas as Da Vinci Code. But she brushes aside comparisons between herself and the novel’s fictional Harvard symbologist, Robert Langdon. The scholar and self-described feminist says the closest field to Langdon’s nonexistent field of symbology would be semiology, a field unrepresented at Harvard.

King concedes that the “fast-paced” potboiler gets its first point right—Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute. As to whether Jesus and Mary Magdalene married and had a child, which the book postulates, King acknowledges that it is possible. But, as scholars we can’t know, says King, and “it’s really, really unlikely that they were married.” Anyone reading Da Vinci Code would be “ill-advised to take it as history,” King continues, because the book presents a “mixed bag of misinformation and partial truths and in some cases things that are just wrong.”  

But from a scholarly perspective, she credits the book with “lead[ing] people to ask questions” about the Church like “if that’s not true, what else haven’t we been told?” King explains Da Vinci Code’s phenomenal success by suggesting that people look for meaning by thinking about the body and sexuality in a Christian way. Women, she thinks, find comfort in the idea of a married woman with a baby as an alternate figure to the polarized female models of virgins and prostitutes in Christianity.  “People are looking for a different kind of religious understanding,” King explains.

—C.E. Jampel