The Da Vinci Code

The Da Vinci Code
Gregg Strawbridge, Ph.D. 
Pastor of All Saints Church

Dan Brown’s, The Da Vinci Code is being called the best selling “theological thriller” ever. As a murder-mystery action story it boasts phenomenal success. To date it has sold 60.5 million copies since its publication in March of 2003. Now on the silver screen, it is incarnate through moguls like producer Ron Howard (aka Opie) and leading man, Tom Hanks (aka Forrest Gump). After opening on May 19, it raked in $77 million the opening weekend domestically and $224 million worldwide. Now in less than two weeks it is up to $462 million worldwide.

It features some fast action, intriguing cryptography, and pretentious art talk, besides your basic flat characters, and Christological heresies. It is the back story that has caused all the fuss. You guessed it—the true secret of the holy grail encoded in the art and architecture of Western Civilization. What is this great secret which a self-flagellating albino monk will kill for? To conceal the marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene and more particularly their royal bloodline—the true holy grail.

The book is full of the lame claim that the Church suppressed the real story about Jesus, told by the Dead Sea Scrolls and other “gospels” rejected from the Bible by Constantine. The Church conspiracy was to fabricate a Divine Jesus through the Council of Nicea to gain political power and dominate the simple, good-hearted pagans who exalted the divine feminine. Thus the conniving Church hid the truth that Jesus was merely human and married to Mary Magdalene, with whom he had a child.

Even though it is a novel, the book prominently claims, “Fact: . . . All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.” One of the characters (Sir Leigh Teabing) proclaims that Jesus’ divinity was determined by a “relatively close vote” at the Council of Nicea. “Until that moment in history, Jesus was viewed by His followers as a mortal prophet” (p. 233). “The Bible, as we know it today, was collated by the pagan Roman emperor Constantine the Great” (p. 231).

While there are not quite as many errors and factual mistakes in the book as copies sold, pretty much nothing in the book is trustworthy beyond what you can see. There is a museum in Paris and a church in Scotland, but all references to history and sources on Jesus are contorted beyond recognition. And don’t take your history lessons from the likes of Opie and Forrest Gump.

A general knowledge of the ancient world shows the cartoon of Christian history drawn by the book as a farcical absurdity: It was really paganism, not Christianity, which valued humanity? It was really the gnostic [from the Greek word gnosis, knowledge] texts which make Jesus human? The canonical gospels only show Jesus as divine? The Dead Sea Scrolls tell the true story of Jesus and Mary Magdalene? The pagans exalted the high status of women in the world before Christianity?  If you believe these things, then I have some beach front property in Orlando, Florida, for you. These claims are anything but “facts.” Still, many have been seduced to grant them credibility. After first reading the book, I thought there were so many factual blunders that Mr. Brown (and perhaps editors) knowingly included agitating inaccuracies to increase the controversy. “Fact: The book has made a lot of money from the controversy it created.” “Fact: All sales figures for the hardback edition are accurate.” Unfortunately, it is evident from what Mr. Brown has said publicly that he does take the historical claims seriously. “As I started researching The Da Vinci Code, I really thought I would disprove a lot of this theory about Mary Magdalene and Holy Blood and all of that. I became a believer” (ABC News Special, November 3, 2003).

His sources are nothing less than sensationalist speculations passed off to an uncritical public. He depends upon low brow conspiracy theorists for his “facts,” most notably Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, Henry Lincoln (1983). This non-fiction is about at the level of “the Egyptian pyramids were created by extra-terrestrials.” It speculates endlessly about a conspiracy of certain secret societies, who were the guardians of the Merovingian Bloodline—vis-a-vis the progeny of Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

Like the book, the film took the audiences on the same magical, mysterious, fallacious tour. I thought the film downplayed some of the more ridiculous anti-facts. But it certainly increased the overall yarn of Mary Magdalene as the symbol, if not the actual, “sacred feminine” goddess. When my wife and I saw the film, we noticed that the theater was packed with teens. We asked those seated around us if any had read the book. The answer in every case was “no,” but someone they knew had read it. Furthermore, it seemed that many, like the author of the book himself, believe the Da Vinci Code mythology.

This only reinforces my impression of our culture. Many people get their views from television, their history from the movies, and what they read in non-fiction books like Holy Blood is received as almost infallible revelation. Such minds pose a blank canvas on which an enterprising novelist can paint. While any sixth-grader with a World Book could debunk the “facts” of The Da Vinci Code, the culture at large craves the novel, the sensational, and the provocative.

The truth about the canon of the books accepted in the New Testament has nothing to do with an alleged Constantinian conspiracy. The Dead Sea Scrolls are pre-Christian and do not reference the historical Jesus at all. Christian and non-Christian scholars alike agree the second and third century, “Secret Gnostic Gospels” are falsely attributed to their authors (Thomas, Philip, Mary, Peter, etc.). They are “pseudepigrapha”—false writings of gnostics to promote their religious views. Mr. Brown is quite erroneous in presenting these texts as authentic accounts from the actual followers of Jesus. A more basic error, if there could be one, is that texts such as the “Gospel of Philip,” quoted in the book, present the humanity of a married Jesus. Gnosticism promotes a supra-spiritualist view of Jesus who helps his followers escape from this evil material creation. Humanity, marriage, and child-bearing are denigrated by gnosticism, not least in the Gospel of Philip: “. . . the undefiled marriage a true mystery! It is not fleshly, but pure.”

These second and third century texts are far removed in every way (linguistically, idealogically, and geographically) from the Jewish context of the first century, Jesus of Nazareth. On the other hand, the earliest (actual) extant document we have is a copy of a piece of the Gospel of John (a fragment known as "Papyrus 52"). This copy is dated to the early 100s. The original, written decades earlier declares that the “Word was God” and “became flesh” (1:1, 14). Even earlier, First Corinthians dates to the 50s A.D. In it Paul teaches the divinity and humanity of Jesus and mounts a sustained argument for the physicality of the resurrection of Jesus’ body (1 Cor. 15:22–26, 51–58). Here Paul makes a striking factual claim that the resurrected Jesus appeared to the apostles and to “over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:6–7). 

By the popularity of the book and film, thankfully, some people who slumbered in biblical oblivion are awakening to talk of Jesus, ancient history, and alleged Bible books. Armed with the true-facts, we may seize this opportunity to tell of a gospel which liberates from the falsehoods of sin and crowns humanity by union with the reigning Son of God. To those who have put on Christ, writes Paul, there is real equality, “neither male nor female” (Gal. 3:28). This gospel is not “secret” or conspiratorial. It is open for examination. There would have been no scandal at all had Jesus simply been a mere man, who fathered a child with Mary Magdalene. The real scandal and astounding factual claim is one that created martyrs from traitors, preachers from fishermen, and ministers from murderers like Paul, and it is this: God raised Jesus from the dead.

In the classical Christian education community, this confirms to us that at a very basic level we stand against our culture with a gospel bound together with a civilization. It also confirms and provides another instance of why classical Christian training must prevail among the faithful. In this environment, now as much as ever, we must train ourselves and our children to think through truth claims and have the discipline to reason through a wasteland of data. In a relativistic age Francis Schaeffer coined, “true truth.” Now we must show our children that a Christian view of history is not just our story of faith, it is true fact.

Within the Christian world why are such claims credible? On the one hand there is the unorthodox enlightenment, institutional Christianity which reduced our faith to the “fatherhood of God” and the “brotherhood of man.” Jesus, instead of invoking creative power in feeding the 5,000, is nothing more than an enlightened avatar showing us how to share our sack lunches. We now have a legacy of liberal Protestantism which has proofed Scripture with the anti-supernatural spell-checker to remove anything without a purely natural explanation. On the other hand, there is a well-meaning fundamentalist reaction. If the King James Version was “good enough for Paul, it’s good enough for me.” The Bible and Christian orthodoxy dropped from the sky with golden confetti.

The antidote to enlightenment rationalism and simplistic Biblicism is surely classical Christian education. A Christian education should prepare students with the knowledge of Christian history so as to appreciate the providence of God in shaping early orthodox doctrine and the marvelous collation of the canon of Scripture. A classical education ought to impart a knowledge of the classical world which shows the blunders of Dan Brown to be perfectly absurd.