(NOTE: A great many people have asked me about The DaVinci Code, so I felt the need to share some reflections on the book. This results in a Messenger article significantly longer than usual–but the issues the book raises need to be dealt with at some length. I hope, anyway, that you find it interesting).
WORD FROM THE PASTOR: The DaVinci Code
Everywhere I look, I see The DaViinci Code. A woman walks down the street holding the book under her arm. The book lays on the seat in the car next to mine at the convenience store. The guy next to me on the train is absorbed in the novel. I can’t recall another book that was so visibly popular. (And it’s not even in paperback yet!)
The book is popular because it is an absorbing and well-crafted thriller, with twists and surprises around every corner. Taken on that basis, it is a very enjoyable reading experience.
Of course, the book claims to be more than just a “good read”. It claims, in essence, to tell the truth about the origins of Christianity–to expose facts that were buried by a sinister conspiracy, facts that have been kept alive by another, more benign, conspiracy...facts that the author is now making known.
Because Dan Brown writes such compelling fiction, there’s a danger that readers will assume that his facts, too, are credible. We need to remember, however, that writing a good mystery does not make one an expert on Christianity. Mr. Brown’s “facts” are either completely unverifiable or verifiably wrong.
Among the contentions the book makes are:
(1) The early Christians worshiped a goddess alongside the masculine God–this goddess
worship was completely suppressed by later Christian authorities
(2) Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married; the church later suppressed this fact, and
identified Mary Magdalene with the unnamed prostitute of Luke in order to
(3) The early church never worshiped Jesus as God; this idea was established by the
Emperor Constantine at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D.
Let me make a few comments on each of these assertions:
No Evidence of a Goddess
(1) There is nothing in the Scriptures that even hints at the worship of a “goddess”.
Feminine language is very occasionally used of God (thus, God is compared to an angry mother bear in Hosea 13:8; to a serving maid’s mistress in Psalm 123:2; and to a loving mother bird in Luke 13:34), but there is nothing in the Bible to indicate that early Christians practiced goddess worship.
Of course, the thing that makes conspiracy theories like that of The DaVinci Code so hard to refute is that the lack of evidence is seen as a sign of how successful the conspiracy has been. The conspirators have managed to completely vacuum the Bible of any reference to the goddess cult! A similar attempt to explain away lack of evidence happened recently when some people asserted that Satanists in America sacrifice thousands of babies to the Devil every year. When law enforcement agencies (including the FBI) reported that there is absolutely no evidence of wholesale child sacrifice, the folks who believed in the Satanic conspiracy concluded that either (a) the FBI is part of the conspiracy, or (b) the conspiracy is so effective in eliminating all evidence that even the FBI was fooled.
Similarly, the complete lack of evidence in the Bible for goddess worship is, for Mr Brown’s theory, simply evidence of how far-reaching the conspiracy against the “goddess” has been. But think about what a mammoth task it would be to eliminate all references to goddess worship from the Bible and from other Christian literature! Such censorship of goddess references would have to be carried out over a huge geographical area, and would have to be done in all three of the languages of ancient Christianity (Greek, Latin, Syriac). Would such a wide-ranging conspiracy be possible before the advent of modern communications? It seems doubtful.
A Married Jesus?
(2) There is no evidence in the Bible that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married. One proponent of Brown’s theory suggests that the fact that Mary touches the risen Lord at the tomb on Easter morning suggests they were married (a Jewish woman at the time would never have touched any man other than her husband). Actually, however, there are several other places in the Gospels where Jesus is touched by women (the woman with the haemorrhage in Mark 5:25-31, the sinful woman at Simon’s house in Luke 7:36-38, Lazarus’ sister Mary in John 12:3)), so this bit of evidence doesn’t seem to hold water.
I don’t think it would disturb any traditional Christian teachings if Jesus had been married. There is nothing sinful about married life (see Hebrews 13:4), so a wedded Jesus still could be the Saviour who died for the sins of the world. However, the Bible tells us that Jesus actually is married–to the church! “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church...” (Ephesians 5:25). “I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb...” (Revelation 21:9) He is the bridegroom, His church is His beloved bride. This is a metaphor, of course; and I suppose He could still have a literal, earthly wife without committing “bigamy” against the church. But if He did have an earthly wife, I think it might detract from our sense that He loves His church passionately, and that He loves each of us passionately. (As the old song “Wedding Bells Are Breaking Up That Old Gang of Mine” testifies, sometimes when our friends get married, the friendship weakens. Would this apply to my friendship with a married Jesus?)
Soiling Mary Magdalene’s Reputation?
Mr. Brown’s assertion that the church mis identified Mary Magdalene as the prostitute of Luke and John is certainly true: there is no Biblical evidence that she was a prostitute. However, his conspiratorial assertion that this identification was made as a way of discrediting her is absurd and easily refuted. Christianity never holds a person’s past against him or her. St. Paul persecuted Christians–he even had a small part in the killing of St. Stephen in Acts 7:58. Yet that past is not held against him, but rather is seen as evidence of how God can turn a person’s life around. In the geneology of Jesus in Matthew 1, several women are listed–as ancestors of the Saviour Himself!–whose pasts are not squeaky clean: Rahab the harlot, Tamar who “played the harlot” in Genesis, Bathsheba who committed adultery with David. These women had shady pasts, yet St. Matthew goes out of his way to mention them in his geneology of Jesus! One of the most revered women in the ancient Christian church was St. Mary of Egypt–who, before coming to Christ, had been a prostitute! Christians rejoiced that God had delivered us from such a past.
So the idea that Christians invented a “shady past” for Mary to discredit her is completely without merit. In the Bible, a shady past never discredits a person (as long as the shadiness remains in the past!); indeed, such a past sometimes give a person added credibility.
Was Jesus God?
(3) Here we come to a point at which Brown is simply and irrefutably wrong. He asserts that Christians did not believe that Christ was God until the Council of Nicaea in 325. Essentially, he contends that the Roman Emperor Constantine foisted the doctrine of Christ-as-God upon the church as a political ploy. This is simply factually incorrect and shows a shocking and embarrassing ignorance of early Christian history and thought. The idea of Christ as God is already present in the New Testament–in John 1:1 (“In the beginning was the Word, and theWord was with God, and the Word was God); in the use of “Lord” as a title for Jesus; in a statement like “Before Abraham was, I am” in John 8:58; in Christ’s unique way of teaching, when instead of saying “Thus says the Lord” (as the prophets of the Old Testament did) he simply says: “I say to you...” After the New Testament, countless Christian authors confessed Christ as God well before Constantine and the Nicene Council:
St. Ignatius of Antioch (early second century) “continue unseparated from Jesus Christ our God”
Tatian (second century) - Christ is “God in the form of a man”
Melito of Sardis (second century) - Christ was “by nature God and a man”
Irenaeus (late second century) - “he was true man and true God”
Tertullian (late second-early third century) - “Jesus in one person at once God and man”
There is even pagan evidence of early Christian belief in Jesus as God: the second-century Roman writer Pliny refers to Christians who gather to sing “a hymn to Christ as to a god”.
The Council of Nicaea in 325 gave clear formulation to the concept that Christ was God ,
but most certainly did not create that concept. It is present in the Scriptures, as well as in most Christian writers before Nicaea. Here is where Mr. Brown’s thesis truly shatters against irrefutable fact.
How Did They Get to Armenia?
I would offer the church in Armenia as evidence against the idea that a conspiracy radically changed the Christian message. Armenia became a Christian nation in 303 A.D.–more than a decade before the Roman Emperor Constantine became a Christian and, so The DaVinci Code says, got the conspiracy underway. Armenia did not come under Roman influence until around 387 A.D. Thus, Armenia was beyond the reach of the “conspiracy” during its formative stages. One might expect Armenian Christianity, then, to preserve more of the supposedly original Christian message. And indeed, there are more “Jewish” elements in worship of the Armenian church than in most other traditions. But in its basic faith, the Armenian church is substantially identical to the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions–even though it is independent of those churches. The Armenian tradition knows nothing of goddess worship, nothing of Jesus being married to Mary Magdalene, nothing of a purely human Jesus. (Indeed, the Armenian tradition tends to stress the divinity of Christ to the point where the humanity almost disappears.) Mr. Brown needs to address the question of how the conspirators were able to so completely reshape the Christian traditions of a nation that was not directly influenced by the Roman Empire until well after Constantine.
Conspiracies R Us
Mr. Brown’s book joins a whole parade of books that have presented strange theories about Jesus and Christian origins. A generation ago, Hugh Schonfeld in The Passover Plot held that Jesus faked his own death (by taking a drug that induced a catatonic state), revived in the tomb, then went off to live for another couple of decades. Around the same time, a prominent scholar named John Allegro published The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross, a book whose thesis is bizarre beyond description: there was no man named Jesus; “Jesus” is actually code for hallucinogenic mushrooms that were taken by early Christians to achieve a state of ecstasy. The shape of the cross is actually supposed to suggest a mushroom. (Next to this stuff, The DaVinci Code is actually pretty tame!) Then there was Jesus and the Zealots by S.F.G. Brandon, who contended that Jesus was actually a political revolutionary who was crucified for leading his disciples in violent rebellion against the Roman Empire.
All of these books share one assertion: that the church covered up the truth; that all of Christian history is built upon a lie. Traditional Christianity is phoney, built upon a misconception of who Jesus was. I detect an eerie similarity between these books and the countless works on the Kenneday assassination. As one whose life was deeply impacted by President Kennedy’s loss, I have followed assassination conspiracy theories with some interest: The Cubans did it, the Mafia did it. Lyndon Johnson did it, the CIA did it... These countless conspiracy scenarios end up cancelling one another out...if they were all true, then more shots would have been fired at Dealey Plaza than at Gettysburg. The sheer abundance of conspiracy theories pretty much leaves us back where we began, with Lee Harvey Oswald as lone gunman. The same is true of Jesus–he can’t at one and the same time be Mary Magdalene’s husband, a political revolutionary, a trickster who fakes his own death, and a mushroom. So for me, this collection of bizarre conspiracy theories takes us back to where we began, with what the Bible tells us: He is the Saviour, the one who is both God and man, who came into the world to die for the world’s sins.
This brings us to the real conspiracy in early Christianity–a conspiracy between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They worked together to change the history of the world–to deliver the world from sin and death. The Father sent His Son; the Son, in obedience, took upon Himself our human nature; and the Holy Spirit descended upon the Virgin Mary to clothe the Son in human flesh. This “conspiracy” reached its climax at the holy Cross, where the Son paid for the world’s sins. And Father, Son and Spirit are still “conspiring”–working together to transform your life and mine every day. (Interestingly, conspiracy and Spirit come from the same Latin word!)
I rejoice that my life has been touched by that conspiracy!
Should Christians Read The DaVinci Code?
A Christian with a strong faith and a skeptical eye should have no fear of reading The DaVinci Code. One can enjoy religiously-based fiction without accepting the religious viewpoint of the author. I love Dante’s Divine Comedy, even though I don’t share his belief in purgatory or limbo. People can enjoy the Left Behind series without sharing the authors’ extremely literalistic view of a Biblical book (Revelation) that is clearly meant to be read symbolically. Of course, The DaVinci Code is a great deal further from Biblical truth than either Dante or Left Behind; and Christians who read it need to be aware of that. One of the most helpful verses in the Bible is Paul’s statement in I Thessalonians 5:21: “Test everything; hold fast to what is good.” This is true of what we read, too.
And remember: the book is in the fiction section!
God loves you and so do I!