There is little doubt that the Da Vinci Code has hit a cultural nerve. It has been on the best seller list in the USA for two years. The same is true of many other countries around the world. Sales estimates run at forty-three million, while reader estimates reach as high as one hundred million. A major movie produced by Ron Howard with Tom Hanks in a lead role is on the world’s radar screen. The novel’s combination of mystery, history, conspiracy and the use of romantic locations and figures have made it a popular piece of fiction. Its plot has intrigued its readers and raised many questions about the history of early Christianity. Polls by George Barna show that 43 to 53 percent of its readers have felt spiritually benefited from reading the book. By any count, that means many people are being influenced by its claims, even though its genre is fiction.
What has made it so controversial is the author’s claim that the backdrop to the novel is rooted in historical fact. Dan Brown made such claims on American morning television in November 2003, a point documented in his book by a note on page. 1. His web site originally claimed that he was a believer in the theories the book. He said he came to these views after much detailed research (He has since backed off this claim to a degree, simply saying he wanted to get these ideas out in the public square). This left the impression that the book is a kind of “tweener” genre, a cross between fiction and non-fiction, that is, fiction with a solid non-fiction skeleton.
Now everyone knows that one should not get one’s history from a piece of fiction. But what is one to do when the author claims his skeleton is real, has been carefully researched and many millions of people apparently take him at his word because their knowledge of church history is limited? Many people end up with legitimate and sincere questions about claims the book makes. This is especially the case when most people’s knowledge of church history can be summarizes as follows: there was Jesus the apostles and the book of the New Testament in the first century. Then came Augustine, Luther, and Calvin. Then there was Billy Graham and Pope John Paul II. What about those first three hundred and fifty years of Christianity? Since the novel makes authoritative characters make many pronouncements about this history and people have no way to assess it, they naturally have sincere questions. So what is one to do?
The best thing to do is to examine those claims. Such claims include that (1) Jesus Christ was married to Mary Magdalene, that (2) the four gospels were chosen from among several (namely 80!) that existed in the fourth century because the four gospels presented a divine Jesus versus a human Jesus in the excluded works, and that (3) the divinity of Jesus became orthodoxy by a close vote at the council of Nicea in AD 325.
The key to the novel’s plot is that many in the church knew that Jesus was married and to protect his late emerging divinity they conspired not to let that become known, even to the point of murder. Now as fiction, this makes an intriguing story, but what about as a historical skeleton that lays claim to being almost quasi-non-fiction? There are three major problems in the book we shall look at before making an observation about the nature of our times that such a book can garner such numbers and such a response.
Three Major Problems Plus
Problem 1: Was Jesus Married? Basic to the story line is the claim that Jesus Christ was married to Mary Magdalene and that many in the church knew (as did people like Leonardo Da Vinci later on in history). The evidence for this claim comes from two extra biblical gospels, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene 17:10–18:21 and The Gospel of Philip63:33-36. Both contain remarks that Jesus had a special relationship to Mary or that he loved her more than any of the twelve disciples. One text uses the term “companion” to describe her. In addition, there is an appeal in the Phillip text where Jesus is said to kiss Mary on the lips. So the inference is that if he kissed her in public he must have been her husband.
Now the facts are these. First, almost all scholars question whether these extra biblical gospels contain anything of value in terms of the historical Jesus. However, even if they did, the texts noted do not actually affirm that Jesus was married. In fact, the famous kiss on the lips text actually has a blank in the original manuscript right at the point where it describes where Mary was kissed. So it could be the lips or the cheek, which would simply refer to a kiss of fellowship. The term companion is debated as to its force. Most interpret the term as pointing to a spiritual relationship Jesus had with Mary because of the mystic character of the gospel in which it appears. So it does not allude to actual marriage at all, but to a fellowship that Jesus and Mary shared as believers.
More than this, we have volumes of texts about Jesus from the first five centuries. I have a series in my library of 38 volumes from this period. They are small print, single space, double columned texts of several hundred pages each. They include traditional orthodox texts and those that were rejected as heretical. In all of these materials not a single text describes Jesus as married and most assume he was not, as that was a basis for some arguing that priests should be single.
In 1 Corinthians 9, the argument appears that spouse of those married should be supported. Had Jesus been married Paul could have clinched his argument by noting this fact. All of this leads to the conclusion that Jesus was single.
Now some reply that 1 Corinthians 7 mentions believers being single and yet does not mention Jesus. However, here Paul only advises being single. Had he mentioned Jesus’ example that might have said more than Paul intended, by giving an impression this is what to do. So this is the likely reason Jesus being single was not mentioned.
John Crossan and I were both asked to write articles for beliefnet.com about whether Jesus was married when the novel came out. He is a liberal; I am a conservative. We both agreed that Jesus was single. I tell my classes that when a liberal and a conservative believe something is true about the historical Jesus, then it probably is true. In sum, there is no evidence Jesus was ever married. If this is so, then entire backdrop to the novel collapses.
But one final point needs to be made. The novel claims that that a married Jesus would need to be covered up by the church because it would expose the fact that Jesus was not divine. However, it is not a given that had Jesus been married, this would have resulted in a question about his divinity, because the church has always confessed the full humanity of Jesus and the status of marriage would fit in nicely with such a claim. Thus, even the premise of the theological problem the novel sees for a married Jesus is false.
Problem 2 The Emergence of the Gospels. The novel also claims that the four gospels were chosen late from about eighty gospels to be a part of the Bible because the four gospels had a divine Jesus as opposed to other gospels that had a human Jesus. Once again we are at a place where liberal and conservative scholars agree. The study of what is called the canon (or the recognition of the books that comprise the New Testament) is a complex area when it comes to the compilation of the entire New Testament. Athanasius in AD 367 is the first figure we have who lists the 27 books of the New Testament as we have them today. It may be that Dan Brown rested his view on this fact, although he never mentions it. However, what this late date does not take into account is that the books under discussion in the third and fourth centuries were some epistles and Revelation, books like 2 Peter, Jude, 2 and 3 John, not any of the four gospels.
Scholars of the canon agree that by the end of the second century the four-fold gospel (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) was recognized as authoritative. This is a full 125 years before Constantine and the Nicean Council came on the scene to do the alleged defining work for orthodoxy according to the novel. The evidence for this includes (1) Irenaeus’s majestic description of the gospel needing to have four gospels as the world has four zones and four winds. This text appears in his Against Heresies 3.11.8, a famous and often cited text from the end of the second century. (2) The attempt of Tatian to combine the gospels into one running account in AD 170 in his Diatessaron largely failed. This effort to tell Jesus’ story in one running account on the surface made sense, but it failed because the four gospels were already too well established in the late second century church to be replaced, even by a seemingly more efficient way to present the gospels. (3) We also have a citation from Origen in the early third century from his First Homily to Luke on Luke 1:1 that gospels like Thomas are not read in the churches because they are not seen as having authority. (4) Justin Martyr’s description of the gospels in his First Apology 66:3 in the middle of the second century explains why the gospels were so highly valued. He calls them the “memoirs” of the apostles, a description that notes they are rooted in testimony that gores back to the apostles. It is the apostolic roots of the four gospels, the fact they go back to the apostles and those who followed, them that gives these gospels their historical roots and that led to the recognition of their unique status as sources about Jesus.
By the way, what about those claims of eighty gospels? That number is a gross exaggeration. We have about two dozen works called gospels from these early centuries. If we throw in works not called gospels that supposedly discuss events in Jesus’ life, then the number goes up about another dozen. That is far short of eighty. In addition, many of those works have a Jesus who is too divine. Jesus cannot be a human, because the spirit cannot mix with this flesh. This is seen in a works like Apocalypse of Peter 81:4–24 and Second Treatise of the Great Seth 56:6–19, two works of Gnostic Christians, the group of Christians Dan Brown appeals to for his claims. He does not mention such texts in detail, however. What they teach is that Jesus was in heaven laughing as the crucifixion took place because people mistakenly thought they were crucifying Jesus. This is a Jesus who is too divine and cannot be human, a view known as docetism. The works that were not recognized fail to attain an important status because their theology was so different on issues like the creation by God, the person of Jesus, the work of Jesus, and salvation. I document these differences in detail in a new book called The Missing Gospels.
Thus, the idea that the gospels emerged as a reflection of orthodoxy about the time of the fourth century around the time of Constantine and the Nicean Council is just bad history. In addition, the claim that eighty gospels were out there and that a human Jesus was present in such works is wrong. Nothing shows this more clearly than the Gospel of Thomas77. This saying from the most significant of the extra-biblical gospels has Jesus confess that he is the All. Jesus goes on to say that if you look under a stone Jesus is there and if you split a piece of wood he is there. This is an omnipresent Jesus, a reflection of high christology in a work that Brown claims teaches about a human Jesus. I do not cite this passage to say Thomas’ view of Jesus is an actual saying of Jesus but simply to note that in this earliest of extra-biblical works, the portrait of Jesus is also one that says he is more than human. This leads to the next problem.
Problem 3: Did A Belief in Jesus’ Divinity Receive its Decisive Sanction through a “close vote” at Nicea in AD 325? This claim by Brown is probably the worst of the three problems. What we know about Nicea is this. It gathered not to determine the divinity of Jesus but to discuss the Arian view of Jesus, who saw Jesus as Son of God, but appointed to that role versus the view that the council adopted that Jesus possessed Sonship from eternity. So the debate was the type of Son of God Jesus was, not whether Jesus was divine. Arius believed that Jesus was Son as the first created being with a special, unique relationship to God. What Nicea ended up affirming is that Jesus was eternally the Son and was not created.
Constantine did call this council together because he wanted peace and unity in the church. The council had from 216 to 316 bishops from around most of Christendom in attendance, but the vast majority were from the East. There was no close vote. What the bishops did was sign a creedal statement known as the Nicean Creed. Only two out of the entire group refused, so the “vote” was hardly close. Most politicians today would view a 214-2 to 314-2 vote as a landslide (a ninety-nine percent plus majority!). There were no “hanging chads” at this signing.
Now there was pressure to accept this confession at the council, as originally seventeen opposed it. When Constantine threatened exile, that number reduced to 2. However, even if we take seventeen as the number originally opposed, this is still a significant minority of less than ten percent of the total in attendance. Brown’s claim, then, is false here as well.
This claim of a late developing view of deity also ignores the fact that the acceptance of the divinity of Jesus is something fundamental to the earliest documents we have from Christianity. This appeal is a matter of historical record about our earliest available sources. One can look at the writing of Paul (1 Cor 8:5-6; Phil 2:9-11), the unknown author of Hebrews (Heb 1:3), the author of Revelation (Rev 1:1-7 and chapters 4-5), the gospel of John (John 1:1-18), or even Jesus’ own testimony at his Jewish examination (Mark 14:62-65 and parallels) to see that the claim was that Jesus was at the side of God in a position of status equal to His, receiving worship as He does. These works all date anywhere from the sixties to the nineties of the first century. One can add to this the testimony of Pliny the Younger, writing as a Roman Governor of Bythnia, far away from Jerusalem. He writes to the Roman Emperor Trajan in around AD 117 speaking of Christians singing hymns to Jesus as a god. So even non-Christian texts corroborate the views we see in the earliest Christian texts that Jesus was worshipped long before Nicea. The belief in Jesus as divine was a core belief of the earliest church. Paul’s testimony and conversion tells us that this was believed in the thirties of the first century as letter to the Galatians indicates. Jesus’ divinity was not the result of a close decision in the fourth century. Its roots go back to Jesus himself, which is what explains why the church, originally made up of Jews, held to this new view on the doctrine of God.
Other Problems. There are a host of other problems with the “historical backdrop” of the novel.
(1) The idea that Mary was an apostle to the apostles misquotes Hippolytus’ commentary on Song of Songs. He was a church father of the later second century. When he made this remark he was not describing an office that Mary held. Rather Hippolytus used the phrase to describe all the women who saw the resurrected Jesus and reported his resurrection and not just Mary. In this sense, all these women were apostles in a generic sense, namely commissioned messengers sent on behalf of another, rather than being members of a church office. In fact, the exact phrase in the singular “apostle of the apostles” comes from the ninth century at the earliest.
(2) Leonardo Da Vinci would never have painted a Last Supper scene and replace one of the Twelve with a woman. An art historian whose work we included in the latest editions of Breaking the Da Vinci Code made this point to me originally in an email. He notes that when Mary is present at the Last Supper scene she is placed at Jesus’ feet. This scene is so stereotyped in the period of this painting that there had to be twelve apostles present because the scene’s content reflects the biblical account. In a lecture given by three art historians at the Georgia Museum of Art at the University of Georgia in January, 2004, the experts on the period present said simply that Dan Brown got his art history wrong.
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What to Make of the Novel?
It is my view that the interest in this novel shows a few things about contemporary culture. There is a keen interest in things related to the origins of Christianity, Indeed, there is a spiritual hunger of sorts out there. However, it is not a very discerning kind of quest. This makes it all the more important that those who teach about early Christian history today know the roots of the early history of Christianity and communicate some of that to their students, who in turn can have informed discussions with their inquisitive neighbors. Pastors need to absorb this knowledge as well.
I have found four types of people responding to the novel. (1) Some treat the novel as fiction and do not believe its claims. Just have a nice conversation with them. (2) Others never having been in the church have heard this for the first time and have no way of knowing whether it is true or not. Just interact with their sincere questions. (3) Others in the church are in a similar position never having been taught about this material. What they need is good information, not an overreaction. (4) Some are looking for a reason, or, for reasons, not to believe. The novel’s information is something they grab onto for support. Be patient in interacting with them. In other words, as you talk about the novel, do so with a calm and confidence that the supposed “facts” the novel presents have missed the mark.
The fact that this book has put this history into the public square is a good thing. Perhaps if people are well equipped to dialogue with the novel’s readers in an engaging tone, then more readers may uncover the real code that opens up the way to life. Those readers may also be in a position to better appreciate the history of a faith that lies at the roots of our Western culture.