The Mysteries of 'Jesus, Mary and Da Vinci'

ByABC News
October 28, 2003, 3:51 PM

Nov. 3, 2003 -- -- For most of the last 2,000 years, the Catholic Church called Mary Magdalene a prostitute who gave up her sinful life to follow Jesus.

But some people believe that Mary Magdalene was maligned through the centuries, and that she actually played a much more significant role in Jesus' life: as his wife, the mother of his child, and the most important of his disciples.

The truth, they believe, was deliberately suppressed by church leaders. There is a theory that the truth about Mary was kept alive by a secret society known as the Priory of Sion, whose members included some of the greatest artists and thinkers of Western civilization, including Leonardo Da Vinci.

Author Dan Brown believes the renaissance master encoded the truth in some of his most famous paintings. His best-selling book, The Da Vinci Code, has a lot of people talking these days. The book is a novel, but author Dan Brown says much if it is drawn from historical evidence.

To investigate some of the claims in the book, ABCNEWS' Elizabeth Vargas traveled from one edge of the Mediterranean to the other. She found that not all the claims in the book are credible, but that some of them appear to have elements of truth.

The depiction of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute has its origins in interpretations of Luke's gospel, where it says she was cured of seven demons.

She's also introduced Luke right after a story about a prostitute whom Jesus forgives for her sins. In the year 591, Pope Gregory the Great overlapped the two identities.

The Vatican eventually corrected that impression, but not until 1969, 1,378 years later.

Brown believes the church allowed the confusion to obscure the truth about Mary's relationship with Jesus.

Scholars said the confusion has eclipsed important information the Bible does provide about Mary Magdalene.

"She's perhaps the most frequently mentioned woman who is among the followers of Jesus in the Gospels of the New Testament," said Biblical scholar Elaine Pagels.

The Rev. Richard McBrien of Notre Dame University said he thinks Mary Magdalene would have been recognized as one of Jesus' main apostles and possibly the key apostle had she been a man.