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This ‘recreation’ of the Last Supper owes far more to Dan Brown than to Leonardo da Vinci

It matters that photographer Alistair Morrison has chosen Julie Waters to portray St John

By on Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Julie Walters plays St John, traditionally the youngest disciple (PA)

Julie Walters plays St John, traditionally the youngest disciple (PA)

Here is something extremely silly that you may have missed. Forgive me for bringing it to you attention. A photographer has “recreated” the Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci. There is nothing wrong with this per se. However:

Photographer Alistair Morrison said: “My first two choices were Robert Powell who had to be Jesus, recreating the famous role played in Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth, and Julie Walters, who was asked to play Mary Magdalene (there has been speculation about whether it was Mary Magdalene or John the Apostle who was seated next to Jesus) and they both readily agreed. Their enthusiasm and influence helped to bring together this outstanding group of actors.”

Now let us be really clear about this. The Last Supper is a well-attested historical event, to which all four of the gospels bear witness. There is no doubt from the gospel accounts (which are the only ones that should be credited) that it was John the Evangelist who reclined next to Jesus, and that Mary of Magdala was not present.

The “speculation” to which Mr Morrison refers, and which has no basis in history or tradition, and which no serious historian or theologian has ever entertained, is of course the fevered imagining of multi-millionaire Dan Brown. Mr Brown’s fantasy that Mary of Magdala was, alone of the women, present at the Last Supper, and that John the Evangelist, alone of the Apostles, was absent, has no basis whatever. It simply makes no sense to see Mary there and John not – which is one reason why no one ever thought of this until Mr Brown did.

Morrison has now decided to photograph a reconstruction of a fresco as imagined by a contemporary novelist, further taking us away from historical reality, by having the John figure played by Julie Walters. St John was traditionally the youngest of the disciples, a beardless boy. Miss Walters is 63.

Does any of this matter? You bet it does. When nonsense like this is allowed to pass, myths are made, and myths have the habit of hardening into false histories. Moreover, behind this process is a pernicious philosphical heresy, which claims that history is anything you want it to be. There are no facts, only interpretations. What really happened is completely lost, can never be recaptured, still less reconstructed. What we are left with is a series of images, each one distorted, and the truth forever beyond our reach. Thus Morrison’s Last Supper, Dan Brown’s, Leonardo’s, or the way you or I see Leonardo’s – each is a valid interpretation, but there is no canonical interpretation that trumps any other. There is in fact no “Last Supper”, just an infinite variety of last suppers.

This is, of course, subjectivism, the mother of all heresies. In opposition to this, Catholics and all people who believe in reason must insist on there being objective facts and facts that can be objectively known. Morrison, like Brown, presents history as infinitely malleable. In a happier age, he and Dan Brown would have had some explaining to do. In our own confused age, both can doubtless gain an admiring audience.

  • Sara_TMS_again

    The Disciple Whom Jesus Loved is not a woman, according to the Gospel text (‘But what about this man’ -houtos). Anyone who thinks it is is not reading the text carefully enough.

  • Sara_TMS_again

    I don’t think you have much sense of how ancient evidence works. The Gospels may not be ‘objective’, but there’s a great deal of historically plausible and often verifiable material in them.

    But it simply makes no sense to take an incident that’s only in one Gospel and say 1. that the Gospel is correct to say a disciple loved by Jesus leaned on his breast, but 2. it wasn’t who that Gospel says it is. If John’s Gospel is reliable in the one case it is going to be reliable in the other. The alternative is that it’s an edifying story about a community close to Jesus’ heart, which would also mean it’s not a woman called Mary Magdalene.

  • Sara_TMS_again

    The Romans thought Jesus existed- see Tacitus’ Histories.

  • Acleron

    The facts and his claims are at variance. Facts win over opinions every time.

  • Acleron

    If ancient evidence just means making it up as you go along then sure, I don’t have a lot of experience. The study of history is littered with examples of stories that have been proven not to have happened by real physical evidence. The insertion of scientific methods to garner irrefutable, evidence within its limits, has on occasion been strongly resisted. But there are many events which very probably happened. We can see them by dating, statistical textual analysis, trace element determination, cross checking truly independent sources even when we don’t have the originals and even genetic analysis. The events described in the gospels concerning Jesus have no verifiable evidence. We know religions can spring up very quickly and we know that the true origins can be lost equally quickly. Thirty years after such a religion started in the Pacific, believers were convinced their messiah was John Frum who almost certainly never existed.

    No one can be convinced that Jesus didn’t exist, an apocalyptic preacher fits into that era very well, but the stories surrounding him cannot be assumed to be correct without evidence other than something written some thirty years later.

  • Acleron

    The Tacitus passage is interesting for a number of reasons. It is not mentioned by any of the Christian historians until the 15th century. Even old Eusebius who banged on about persecution failed to use it in support. Tertullian, a christian, quoted Tacitus extensively but also failed to mention the only bit that mentions Christianity. The events described by Tacitus are also strange. First he calls Pilate a Procurator, as a politician and historian, he wouldn’t make that error, Pilate was a Prefect. Then there is the widespread grisly killings of Christians in Rome where he relates that Nero was blaming the Christians for unrest. Apart from the minor quibble that no-one else noticed such upheaval, it was supposed to happen at the very time Paul was wandering around Rome apparently quite freely.

  • Dave

    There is probably no instance of a census being directed by Rome in a client kingdom, but with the shifting nature of governing arrangements in the Roman east and the mixed evidence concerning how tributes and taxes were collected, I doubt any definite conclusions can be definitely be reached. It was been over a decade since I have looked at any scholarship remotely related to the subject, but I recall Brunt, in his influential article on Roman revenue collection, but I recall him saying something like, “If we were to trust arguments from silence in reference to Roman taxation, we should have to conclude that there were provinces in which Rome extracted not a single penny from her subjects.”

    Classical historians often assess the general reliability of a source when possible to try and determine how far it can be trusted when there is no other evidence to confirm or deny what it said. There is nothing wrong with applying this to Luke concerning his general knowledge of Herodian politics. The census would be an odd thing to get wrong, which is obviously not that same thing as asserting it is not wrong.

    Problems in the mss are not a major concern here. The NT is much better established than numerous ancient texts and there is nothing I can see in the app crit of my Greek New Testament to suggest an error in the transmission that is relevant here. Even if there was something, it would just add to my point that it is hard to draw any definite conclusions on the historical basis of the census.

  • Acleron

    I’m sure that Rome didn’t extract taxation from all its dominion. Some places were occupied for strategic reasons, much as we hold the Falklands. Others could be exploited for their mineral wealth. Occupying Britain wouldn’t have been very profitable without the tin and lead mines. But the style appeared to be taxation of those lands governed directly by Rome and payment by the governing body for those with puppet kings such as Herod. The Romans were assiduous record keepers and even lowly foot soldiers could read and write, it would be improbable for an earlier census to take place without record.

  • VamaDivani

    Today Dan Brown has more influence on the collective imagination of centuries of culture and art … need to think about this.

  • Darren

    Indeed, an opinion should be subject to revision according to the available evidence, knowledge, wisdom and proof. But this seems to go against what you were saying earlier:

    I have opinions, which is what I believe is all any of us have. Opinions are not facts for which proof is available. They are just opinions, to which we are all entitled.

  • Darren

    Lamentably this is true. It is a shame because I think that Dan Brown is actually a very capable writer, and I found The Da Vinci Code an enjoyable read, although complete tosh.

    Brown is one of the few writers that regularly produces novels about Renaissance art and architecture, things which I am passionately interested in, so I am naturally drawn to this genre. Unfortunately he always seems to make the Church the villain of the piece, or at least ambiguous.

    Regrettably, I think his novels are the first and only case in which many folk come across the various symbols, masterpieces, and characters of the Italian Renaissance, and they therefore take his fiction to be fact.

  • cjkeeffe

    pray tell if the gospels indeed the whole New Testamnet is 100′s of years after the fact – why does none of the text refes to that epoch shaping event in Judaism the Judeo – Roman War of AD70 and teh Roman destruction of the Temple. It strikes me that the NT was written before that event.

  • $20596475

    Where is there any inconsistency? If something becomes proved it is no longer an opinion is it? Although many people do reject what others claim as proof. Very few things are universally accepted as without any doubt.

  • Dave

    Roman soldiers were a mix of “literates and semiliterates” according to William Harris’ book on the subject.

    You are wrong about the Roman records. There are huge gaps in the patchwork of literary and epigraphical evidence. Even for the registrations in Egypt, for which there is a disproportionately large amount of evidence, prior to 33 AD, how confident can we be in scholarly efforts to establish the dates of registrations? What can be say at all about the Augustan census in the provinces of Sicily and Sardinia? Establishing the dates and procedures for the census in the Roman empire is subject to a vast amount of scholarly research, speculation and debate. No one suggests dismissing the the 146 BC tributum capitis in Africa because the only evidence is a passing reference by Appian, who was writing a several hundred years later. There are well established grounds for doubting Luke’s account, but there are also potential ways of harmonising Luke with the other evidence, which are open to debate, as conclusions are inconclusive.

  • Acleron

    Trying to harmonise the gospels means that there is an assumption they are correct. Well there is a tiny chance that Quirinus left a military campaign he was running, travelled hundreds of miles to carry out a census that was unrecorded and out of character and then travelled back to successfully conclude the campaign. But only an apologist could think this way.

  • Sara_TMS_again

    ‘no-one else noticed such upheaval’

    What about Suetonius?

  • Dave

    Trying to harmonise the gospels means that there is an assumption they are correct.
    No. Here it only involves accepting the possibility that one detail could be correct until the evidence is clear. It has nothing to do with apologetics and in any case I am personally indifferent to whether Luke has his history correct.

    It is very likely already obvious to you that Luke never says that Quirinius conducted the census himself. One could discuss Quirinius’ position and activity, during the Homonadensian rebellion, or even its date, but there probably no point as you have not addressed anything I have written so far, and now you are just making things up.

  • Acleron

    Making up what? And every post except the initial has been in response to points, how that could be not addressing your points is sheer nonsense, as is believing the gospels are anything other than fallible records.

  • Dave

    Not nonsense, no. I have replied to you on several points concerning mss, census records, and other points of Roman history, which you have not responded to. Your bit about Quirinius needing to run away from a military campaign is made up; no reason at all to assume anything of the sort.

    … as is believing the gospels are anything other than fallible records.
    I have only argued that Luke is possibly correct regarding this one detail, as the evidence still allows for this as a real possibility. It is a odd that you keep trying to make points about religious belief and then complaining that I am acting the part the apologist. As I said before, I am personally indifferent to whether Luke has his history correct.

    Also, it is Quirinius not Quirinus; we are talking about the Roman politician not the villain in Harry Potter.

  • Julian Lord

    You clearly have no experience of Bibliology and Exegetics.

  • Julian Lord

    Paul was wandering around Rome apparently quite freely

    Paul was a Roman Citizen, regardless of your latest pointless irrelevancies.

  • Julian Lord

    I’m sure that Rome didn’t extract taxation from all its dominion

    This statement is extremely ridiculous.

    it would be improbable for an earlier census to take place without record

    So ? There is a greater than 99% probability that any particular contemporary document will have been destroyed by the passage of 2000 years of time, particularly given that the local administrative center, Jerusalem, was utterly destroyed by the Roman Army in AD 70.

  • Julian Lord

    Trying to harmonise the gospels means that there is an assumption they are correct

    Rubbish, you appear to understand textual analysis not in the slightest.

  • Julian Lord

    A plausible theory concerning the CV of an obscure Provincial Roman official is not, in reality, “an outlandish statement”.

  • Julian Lord

    This cognitive jelly that you extoll is not constitutive of rationality.

  • Dave

    And there are all sorts of difficulties even when a document does survive. For just one example, I was skimming though the proceedings of a Semitic papyrology conference not long ago and there was an article on a document that has for decades been understood as a list of soldiers in the army of the Bar Kokhba revolt, which the article reinterpreted as an official Judaean land registration, which if correct makes it the only surviving one (I think).

  • Acleron

    The self parody is side splittingly good, keep it up.

  • Acleron

    If it was plausible you might just have an argument but as it isn’t …

  • Acleron

    Would you like to share your arithmetic to arrive at two significant digits of probability? It should be fascinating. Just remember that the reports of how much was collected, cost of collection etc would be reported to Rome.

  • Acleron

    Quirinius was conducting a campaign in Galatia from 12-3BC, he would have to abandon that to go to Judea. Saying that you are neutral about Luke would mean that you would accept the available evidence and the conclusions from it. If all you are saying is that there is a very small chance that Luke could be correct then fine.

  • Acleron

    Preaching Christianity at the very time the Tacitus passage says that Christians were being crucified for insurrection? There are just too many problems for it to be accepted as authored by Tacitus.

  • Acleron

    Did Suetonius say anything about the Christians causing it? I thought he was famous for blaming it all on Nero.

  • Dave

    I see what you mean now. My guess it that you got those dates from the wikipedia article on Quirinius, since they are not in any scholarly source on the subject that I have seen (not to mention the fact that they are incredulous for all sort of reasons). Wikipedia gives three sources (and not the best sources) for those dates. Lets look at those:

    1) Erich S. Gruen, “The Expansion of the Empire under Augustus” in The Cambridge Ancient History, Volume X: The Augustan Empire, 43 BC – AD 69, (Cambridge University Press, 1996) pages 153–154

    Gruen gives the dates of this campaign as ‘perhaps c. 5-3 B.C.’ Wikipedia erroneously interprets these Gruen was saying Quirinius was a legate for these years; another error.

    2) Ronald Syme, The Roman Revolution, (Oxford University Press, 1939, reissued 2002), page 399.

    Syme writes ‘At some time in the twelve years after his consulate Quirinius governed Galatia and subdued the Homonadenses.’ Quirinius was made consul in 12 BC. In any case, Syme is a bit dated on this.

    3) Justin K. Hardin, Galatians and the Imperial Cult, (Mohr Siebeck, 2008) page 56.

    Hardin suggests the dates of this war were around 5-3 BC, same as Gruen.

    Somehow a campaign taking place sometime around 5-3 BC has ‘wikified’ itself into a 9-year war with some mountain men. So ‘conducting a campaign in Galatia from 12-3BC’ is not correct. But it is irrelevant anyways, as nowhere in Luke does it say Quirinus was conducting the census himself, as I have already mentioned. So it is not a matter of conflict whether he was involved in a military campaign in some capacity during approximately the same time period that the hypothetical census would have taken place.

    I would say there is a possibility that Luke is right. But I would not speculate on the probability. As for some of the theories which try to reconcile Luke with other historical records, which are put forward by theologians and apologists who lack historical training and do not handle the evidence accurately, I would pay little regard, but there are arguments in support of Luke’s statement, that I would regard as possible.

    PS: I do not very often consult wikipedia, but I hope that its general quality is better than the incoherent illiterate account of Quirinius’ career. As online sources go, this is better for simple facts:

  • Julian Lord

    Your willful ignorance is deplorable, Roman citizens were immune from arrest and prosecution for such reasons or circumstances — go and read a book instead of displaying your profound ignorance for all to see …

  • Julian Lord

    he would have to abandon that to go to Jude

    This statement is utterly ludicrous, and it ascribes to this individual the status of slave ; not Governor.

    In reality, ten years of one man’s life is a rich and varied experience, not accurately summarised by whichever idiotic “skeptical” one-liner …

  • Julian Lord

    Would you like to share your arithmetic to arrive at two significant digits of probability?

    arithmetic ???

    This is erosion, not “arithmetic”, as well as the FACT FACT FACT that nearly EVERY piece of 1st century literature (including I believe every shopping list) no longer exists.