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Tuesday, 15 March 2005

The Da Vinci Code and the 'Browning' of Christian history

For some time various people have been telling me that I must read Don Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. So I did.

It does not pretend to be a great literary work, just a novel; a thriller about a Harvard professor in search of the Holy Grail. On the surface it is just another tale that captures your attention and holds it, as well as any John Grisham novel.

Its extraordinary success and controversial content, however, have made it more than a best-seller. Some critics are calling it a ‘phenomenon’. There are a number of web sites devoted to discussing Brown’s view of theology and history. There are TV documentaries that will be aired this year to examine the books claims.

The book promises to reveal secrets about Jesus, secrets long suppressed by the church and other religious organisations; secrets that debunk traditional and orthodox views of Jesus and early Christianity. While we live in a culture that is still fascinated by the person of Jesus, there is wide spread biblical illiteracy. Fewer and fewer people are able or equipped to discern fact from fiction. Moreover, the novel’s first page declares ‘FACT…all descriptions of art, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate’. Thus, most readers are likely to think that the book contains more fact than fiction. It is possible, unless challenged, Brown’s views will become mainstream, and the credibility of historic, authentic Christian faith will be further eroded.

Without going into much detail, here is a short tour of the seven deadly historical errors in the book, drawn from Ben Witherington’s excellent book The Gospel Code.

Error 1: The canonical Gospels, that is Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, are not the earliest Gospels, rather the earliest are the suppressed Gnostic Gospels such as the Gospel of Philip or the Gospel of Mary. This claim is made several times in the book, by the fictitious experts Teabing and Langdon. There is, however, no credible evidence to support such a view. The Gnostic Gospels were written in the late 2nd or even the 3rdcentury AD, while the gospels in the New Testament were written in the second half of the first century.

Error 2: Jesus is a great man, but was never proclaimed divine until the Council of Nicaea in the 4th century. This is patently false. Jesus is called ‘God’ (theos) seven times in the New Testament, including in John’s Gospel, and he is called ‘Lord’ (kyrios) in the divine sense on numerous occasions. All the Council of Nicaea did was formalise what the New Testament has clearly taught.

Error 3: Emperor Constantine suppressed the ‘earlier’ Gnostic Gospels and imposed the Canonical Gospels and the doctrine of divinity of Christ on the church. Simply not true. Neither the Western nor Eastern Church ever accepted the Gnostic Gospels, because they were clearly fictional. It was not a case of suppression, simply one of recognising the major historical flaws in the ‘late’ (not ‘early’) Gnostic Gospels. By 130AD most of the New Testament, as we have it, was seen as authoritative. Irenaeus reports this, as does the Muratorian Canon from the second century. Constantine certainly presided over the Council of Nicaea, but there is no reason to believe he shaped its conclusions. Certainly he helped spread Christianity, but he did not engineer the canonizing process.

Error 4: Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. The New Testament is completely silent on this issue. Brown quotes the late 3rd century Gospel of Philip, but on further examination, this seems highly unlikely. The Gospel of Philip uses the term ‘companion’ which does not mean ‘spouse’. The suggestion of a ‘kiss’ in the Gospel of Mary, is the common ‘Holy Kiss’ referred to by Paul in I Cor:16. This is simply an early form of Christian greeting, not evidence of romance.

Error 5: Jesus must have been married since he was an early Jew. This argument again is flawed. Most Jewish men did marry, but several ancient Jewish authors attest to the fact that some early Jews were called to celibacy. There is no reason why Jesus could not have been one of them. (see Matt. 19. v10-12. for further reasons).

Error 6: The Dead Sea Scrolls along with the Nag Hammadi documents are the earliest Christian records. What a howler! The Dead Sea Scrolls are purely Jewish documents, there is nothing Christian about them. There is no evidence any of the Nag Hammadi documents existed before the late 2nd century, with the possible exception of the Gospel of Thomas, which is mid 2nd century.

Error 7: The Church suppressed the ‘sacred feminine’. Brown contends God was organically a female deity. Nonsense. The God of the Bible is neither male nor female, rather God is Creator and God is Spirit (John 4:v24).

In Shakespeare’s King Henry IV, Part Two, the king rebukes Prince Hal, who is contemplating his father’s death and his own assumption of the throne, saying ‘Have you a ruffian that will ….commit the oldest sins in the newest kind of ways?’ There is nothing very new about the religious agendas underlying The Da Vinci Code. It is simply a bad amalgam of paganism and, strangely enough, old Gnosticism brought back to life by a masterful storyteller. It can be quite entertaining, but also misleading. We need to treat this book as what it really is – not historical fiction, but almost entirely fiction, at least when it comes to its assumptions and assertions about Jesus, Mary Madgdalene and early Christianity.

A fascinating read, but riddled with historical and theological distortions. Buyer and reader beware.

Steve Francis