11601 Bryant Rd, El Monte, CA
Sitting on the back porch of a Nova Scotia bed and breakfast one evening, I was engaged in a rather remarkable discussion with the owner of the house. "Long before Columbus," she said, "people from Europe visited this part of the world. We know that because they find a lot of stuff around here that just doesn't fit what we were taught in school. I think the Knights Templar visited this place and stashed their treasure."
It was interesting, and there is a lot of evidence that Europeans had visited North America well before Columbus set foot here. But then the story got stranger:
"In fact, I think the Knights Templar knew something about Jesus that the church has been hiding from us for years. I think Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, and they had a child. There are lots of ancient documents that have been suppressed by the official church to prove it. The Holy Grail isn't actually the cup that Jesus drank from at the last supper—it's the hidden bloodline of Jesus!"
I knew immediately that she had been reading Holy Blood, Holy Grail, written by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln. The book raises questions about the Christian church's historical understanding of Jesus, suggesting—among other things—that He was married, had a child, and did not actually die on the cross. As the book hit stores across the nation, a Los Angeles Times book review proposed that the book was, "Enough to seriously challenge many traditional Christian beliefs, if not alter them."
The book did not, obviously, topple the Christian church and for a good reason. No credible historian took it seriously because the weight of historical evidence clearly contradicts it. Furthermore, even though many people are easily romanced by a good conspiracy theory, this one was far enough off the wall that most people simply didn't buy it—until it was reincarnated in a new format when The Da Vinci Code hit bookstores.
This time the strange theory hit a chord with much of the general public. The Da Vinci Code has sold more than 40 million copies, and Hollywood recently splashed its contents across the big screen. Then in a move almost certainly calculated to maximize publicity for the magazine, National Geographic announced that it was in possession of an ancient "gospel" that presents an alternate version of the events surrounding Jesus' death: the gospel of Judas (Even though many people seem to assume that this document has only recently been unearthed, it was actually discovered years ago).
An obscure theory has suddenly been pushed to the forefront of public discussion. Popular news magazines are running stories about it. The television airwaves are full of "davinciesque" specials. Christian churches are voicing their concern over all the publicity Dan Brown's book is receiving.
Christians, of course, are naturally troubled by the book and for good reason. If the theories presented by Dan Brown are true, then the foundations of a two-thousand-year-old Christianity have been essentially ripped out from under the church. Among other things, the claims presented in the book include:Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and fathered a child with her. Jesus intended for Mary Magdalene to become the head of the Christian church, but because of a patriarchal conspiracy, the concept of the "sacred feminine" was rejected and her role in the formation of the early church was stolen from her. The church has suppressed women ever since. Jesus was never considered to be divine by the early church; this was an idea adopted by the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. The four Gospels presented in the New Testament were put there by the Roman Emperor Constantine to cover up what had been done. Many other "gospels" that revealed the truth were covered up.
Secret societies, like the Knights Templar and the Priory of Zion (a group whose members are said to have included such luminaries as Sir Isaac Newton and Leonardo Da Vinci) have carefully guarded these facts for centuries in the face of oppression from the organized Christian church.
The book, of course, is sold in the fiction section of the bookstore, and no publisher has yet made the claim that it is historically verifiable. Yet the clever manner in which Dan Brown presents his material has, while not convincing many people, still confused them. An author's note in the book assures us that "all descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate."
This gives the average reader—who is understandably not widely educated in ancient Christian history—the distinct impression that The Da Vinci Code is at least historical fiction, based on real events.
That's where the essence of the concern over the book really lies. The lines between fact and fiction have been carefully blurred, making it seem as if many of the strange theories listed above might actually be true. The reality is that The Da Vinci Code is wildly inaccurate.
Take, for example, the book's suggestion that the Dead Sea scrolls contain some of Christianity's earliest documents (the assumption is made that these were suppressed by the early Christian church) - a claim that is utterly impossible. The Dead Sea scrolls are exclusively Old Testament documents.
Additionally, the ancient manuscripts discovered at Nag Hammadi in the 1940s are said to contain the "earliest" Christian documents. This simply isn't true. The writings of the New Testament were all completed before the first century expired; the books discovered at Nag Hammadi, at the earliest, date back to the late second century. (The one exception would be the gospel of Thomas which might date back as early as 130AD. This still puts it many years after the books of the New Testament were completed).
The story presented in The Da Vinci Code also seeks to persuade us that the four Gospels we now have in the New Testament are only there because of the political ambitions of the Roman Emperor Constantine. This supposedly happened at the Council of Nicea (325 AD), when the church needed Matthew, Mark, Luke and John to prove their newly-adopted theory that Jesus was divine. They purportedly selected the four Gospels we have today from as many as eighty other "gospels" which told a different story.
This assertion is utter nonsense, as any well-versed historian can tell you. There was no occasion on which the church sorted through eighty documents. Additionally, the veracity of the New Testament Gospels had been well established by the Christian church for hundreds of years before the Council of Nicea, which is proven by the fact that earlier church writings make constant reference to them as authoritative documents. The so-called "other gospels" are never mentioned in any list of books considered authoritative for the Christian.
There is also no record of the Council of Nicea making the decision that Jesus was divine. This was a doctrine well understood by the Christian church since the first believers wrote about His miracles and His claims to Godhood. The only topic of discussion at Nicea dealing with Christ's divinity had to do with how God the Son related to God the Father—but the fact of His divinity was not questioned, nor introduced for the first time.
Constantine would have been a relatively easy target for the likes of Dan Brown, because he did make a number of questionable decisions that are well recorded throughout history. We know, for example, that his influence allowed some pagan ideas to drift into the thought patterns of the Christian church. But Constantine did not create the canon of the New Testament or invent the notion of Christ's divinity. Those notions are utter fiction and a deliberate assault on the well-documented historicity of the Christian faith.
And what of the claim that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene? This was supposedly hidden from us for a number of reasons, including the way established Christianity frowns upon sexual relationships—including those found within the context of marriage. While the Christian church at large has, on occasion, taken a less-than-healthy attitude toward positive sexual relationships, this assertion is simply wrong. The New Testament book of Hebrews makes it abundantly clear that "marriage is honorable among all, and the bed undefiled." (Hebrews 13:1) Marriage in Christian teaching does not diminish the sanctity of the individual; it rather elevates it.
If Jesus had been married (He was, after all, fully human in addition to being fully God), it would not have been a sin. The book of Ephesians—written in the mid-first century—uses marriage as a striking illustration of the sacred relationship of Jesus to His church. Listen to the words of Jesus Himself:
And He answered and said to them, "Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning made them male and female, and said, For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh? So then they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate."
How could marriage be considered as defiling when God Himself thought of it? And yet Dan Brown insinuates that the early Christian believers had a poor view of it and covered up the "fact" that Jesus was married. The fact is that Jesus did not marry, and there is not one shred of ancient historical evidence to prove it - in or out of the biblical record. An appeal is made to the ancient Gospel of Philip, which was probably written sometime in the late 3rd century, because of the mention that Mary Magdalene was a "companion" of Jesus, and that He often kissed her. There are a number of things that I should probably point out:The gospel of Philip is not an eye-witness account like the four canonical gospels. Even if threads of the genuine story of Jesus can be found in it, it is still a work of fiction. A "companion" is hardly a spouse. Many people greeted each other with a kiss in Jesus' day—it does not mean it was sexual in nature. Judas greeted Jesus with a kiss on the night of His betrayal.
Just what are these strange "other gospels" that Dan Brown and others refer to in their attempt to overthrow the traditional understanding of Jesus' life? As Christianity spread in the early centuries, so did problems and distortions of the Christian message. Among these groups were the Gnostics, who adopted a rather incredible version of the story of salvation. They believed that an inferior god—known as the Demiurge—created the material world we live in. According to their understanding, this was a grave mistake, because a material existence is less than ideal. We should have never been created to live a physical existence in the first place. The mission of Jesus Christ, in Gnostic theology, was to set us free from the prison of the material world and the mistakes of the Creator. They wrote a number of so-called "gospels" and other books—the vast majority of which were written more than 100 years after the books of the New Testament - to espouse these views.
The gnostic world view is in direct competition with the view presented in both the Old and New Testaments. In opening chapters of Genesis, we are told that creation was "very good," and that it was man's rebellion against God that corrupted it. In the New Testament, we discover that Jesus Himself is the Creator. (See passages like John 1:1-3, Colossians 1:16, 17, Hebrews 1:1-3. So much for the idea that Jesus wasn't understood to be divine by Christian believers until the fourth century!)
He came to set us free from the consequences of our rebellion against the Creator through His sacrificial death at the cross, not from the physical, material world. In fact, the Bible clearly indicates that we will eventually be restored to a newly-created world for all eternity once the effects of sin have been eradicated. (See Isaiah 65:17-25, Revelation 21-22)
What is particularly interesting is the appeal to the ancient Gnostics to both elevate the status of women and endorse sexuality that seems to permeate The Da Vinci Code. In reality, the Gnostics spurned the physical world (including sexual relationships), and demeaned women to a degree that would have been unimaginable for the early Christian church. Take, for example, this saying taken from number 114 from the gospel of Thomas:
Simon Peter said to him, "Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life." Jesus said, "I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven."
It is hardly a ringing endorsement on the value of womanhood. In other Gnostic writings found at Nad Hammadi, Jesus warns his disciples to pray somewhere that women are absent and to destroy the "works of womanhood." The appeal to Gnostic writings to elevate the "sacred feminine" is strange indeed, given the anti-female tone found in many of them. In the New Testament Gospels, you will never find a statement from Jesus that demeans women.
As accomplished New Testament scholar Ben Witherington III points out, the Gnostic gospels really can't be called gospels at all:
"...the term gospel ("Good News") is not just a Christian term, but rather one that was already in use in the Greco-Roman world before the canonical gospels were written. Because the ancient world didn't have a free market economy, public gifts from higher-status persons were what greased the wheels of society and commerce. Emperors were lauded for their good deeds of benefaction and their triumphs in wars. The "gospel" was good news about actions taken on behalf of the people by the emperor (or another wealthy person). The benefactors weren't in the main, praised for their great philosophical or wise utterances.
When early Christians picked up the term gospel, they had in mind the goods news of things Jesus had done, while also including some of his teachings." (Ben Witherington III, The Gospel Code (Downer's Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 2004), p. 97)
All four of the New Testament gospels drive relentlessly toward the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. His teachings are emphasized, but they inevitably lead us to the cross and what Christ accomplished there in our behalf. They underscore the fact that we cannot save ourselves, so God did something to save us. That is why these four books are gospels—Good News.
The gnostic "gospels," on the other hand, do not tell the story of God becoming man and giving His life to save sinners. Instead, they present a different Jesus, one who speaks in mysterious riddles and vague philosophical sayings. This is because the Gnostics, far from being more pluralistic and accepting than the early Christians, were terrible elitists who believed that only people who were mentally capable of achieving hidden mystic knowledge would find salvation.
The door was not open to all; others were despised as inferior and unworthy. The Gnostics essentially left you on your own to find salvation. The God who created you, they said, was incompetent and made a terrible blunder when He did it. If you can't seem to wrap your head around secret knowledge, there is no hope for you. That is not good news. It is not a gospel.
Why has The Da Vinci Code struck such a chord with so many people? Why would somebody choose to reject the real good news of Christian belief—the divinity of Christ and His victory over the grave in our behalf? It's hard to tell. Maybe it has something to do with the scandals in the Christian world over the last couple of decades that have rocked the faith of so many people in things they used to count on. That's possible, but I somehow doubt that is all that's going on.
If we accept the Bible as true, it is an admission that the Creator has some claims on our lives. The misunderstanding is that somehow, these claims will enslave us and rob us of the liberty we crave. Nothing could be further from the truth. When you come face to face with Jesus Christ, you will discover that the Bible is reliable and the words of Jesus present both hope and truth. "If you abide in My word," said Jesus, "you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." (John 8:31)
What is freedom? For Dan Brown and others, freedom appears to be a release from the claims of the biblical Christ. But in the end, this leaves you with a serious problem that forces you into unimaginable bondage: you have to sort out your sin problem all by yourself. You become a slave to the material world, fighting to escape it with all your might. That's not freedom. As Jesus stated, "Whoever commits sin is a slave to sin. And a slave does not abide in the house forever, but a son abides forever. Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed." (John 8:34)
God does not offer us slavery in the New Testament Gospels; He offers us the chance to become sons and daughters of the Most High God. And He offers us this opportunity through what Jesus accomplished at the cross.
Has there been a historical conspiracy to hide the truth? Absolutely. The Bible describes it well:
But even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them.
There is a cover-up taking place, and The Da Vinci Code, ironically, is part of it. It's a deliberate attempt to keep the truth of the Gospel - the Good News of what Jesus has done for you—out of your hands. The so-called "light" of The Da Vinci Code, in reality, is a shroud of darkness being thrown over the hope that God wants you to have.
So why does Dan Brown feel the need to present an alternate version of Christianity? Why not simply reject the Christian faith all together? Many years ago, the New Testament Scriptures predicted that in the last days, just before Jesus returns, there would be those "having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away!" (2 Timothy 3:5)
There is no question about it: a Jesus who did not die for us and was not divine is an attempt to have a form of Christianity that denies the power behind it. It has been stripped of all hope. This is the real problem with Dan Brown's Jesus. Without the resurrection of God's Son, the grave will be the end for all of us:
For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable. But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ's at His coming.
It's hard to imagine someone who is truly delighted in the message of The Da Vinci Code—at least if they understand what Dan Brown is really saying. Where is the hope? Where is the Good News? Where is God?
Our generation is susceptible to the ideas presented in The Da Vinci Code because for most of us, it's been a while since we've looked at what the Bible actually says about Christ and what He did for us. Why not take a fresh look at the biblical gospels and the major themes of the Bible? I think you'll be amazed at how much more meaningful they are for your life than the Jesus of the best-sellers list and the silver screen.
- Pastor Shawn Boonstra