The Challenge of the Code
- Special Edition -
by Kel Willis
Interact Magazine 2005
Volume 16 Number 4 (Special Edition)
Once in a while, a novel appears whose impact is so extensive that it transcends being merely an enjoyable read and becomes part of contemporary culture. Lord of the Rings by JR Tolkien was one such novel, whilst more recently, JK Rowling’s Harry Potter has captured the imaginations of young and old alike.1
Yet in terms of a work that combines gripping storytelling with a thematic plotline that strikes at the heart of central aspects of a key world religion—Christianity—none comes close to rivalling the impact of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. First published in 2003, the book has sold over 25 million copies worldwide (over 1 million in Australia) in 44 languages2, and this number is likely to rise even further with the release within the next year of the movie starring Tom Hanks and directed by Ron Howard.
More significant, however, is the impact the book has had in leading numbers of its readers to question their traditional understanding of Christianity. Thus, for example, in awarding the book its 2004 Book of the Year award, Booksense.com stated: ‘This is one of those rare books that comes along and makes you question everything you thought you knew about religion, art, and what you were taught in school.’ 3
For those not familiar with the story, here’s a summary:
Late one night, the curator of the Louvre is murdered inside the museum. The victim, we are told, is also the head of the Priory of Sion, a secret society, Clues at the crime scene lead the police to Robert Langdon, a historian and professor of religious symbology at Harvard. As he and Sophie Neveu, a gifted crypotologist and the curator’s granddaughter, become involved in solving the riddles that take them back to Leonardo da Vinci, they discover that an arm of the Catholic church is involved in an attempt to protect a secret so significant as to undermine the very foundations of history and Christianity as we know it. That secret is that the ‘Holy Grail’ was not a cup as generally supposed, but rather Mary Magdalene herself, the wife of Jesus and mother of a child to him who established a ‘holy blood line’ (evidenced by secret ancient documents) that continues to this day. She is the ‘sacred feminine’ whose existence has been covered up by the Church over centuries. This (fictional) secret, if revealed to the world, will prove once and for all that ‘almost everything our fathers taught us about Christ is false’.
Given the impact of this novel, we have taken the uncommon step of devoting a whole edition of Interact to this astoundingly popular work. We have written with one hand extended to the serious enquirer who is interested in finding out more about its stunning claims, and the other extended to the Christian who seeks to understand more of what all the fuss is about, and how to interact in an informed way with some of its more significant challenges.
With these two audiences in mind, we have taken the book’s own language and central themes as the launch pad for examining key questions that its characters pose about matters of great spiritual and historical significance. In his personal website Brown says, ‘While it is my belief that some of the theories discussed by these characters may have merit, each individual reader must explore these characters’ viewpoints and come to his or her own interpretations. My hope in writing this novel was that the story would serve as a catalyst and a springboard for people to discuss the important topics of faith, religion, and history.’4
Brown is clearly right that these are critical questions that merit genuine consideration, as the worldviews and belief systems of whole past and future generations turn on whether the ‘truths’ revealed through The Da Vinci Code are the powerful revelations that they claim to be, or are simply part of an elaborately constructed fictional story that is enjoyable to read but has no relevance to genuine questions of faith.
The first page of the book begins with the heading ‘Fact’ and then lists various details about a secret society known as the Priory of Sion and about the Opus Dei ‘Catholic sect’. This page concludes with the statement that ‘All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate’. (p15) Many readers, having little background knowledge or training in these areas, appear to accept this statement and the ‘revelations’ within the book at face value.
In the website, however, Brown is much more forthright in his presentation of the work as one of fiction woven within a setting based in fact. He states that ‘If you read the FACT page, you will see it clearly states that the documents, rituals, organization, artwork, and architecture in the novel all exist. The FACT page makes no statement whatsoever about any of the ancient theories discussed by fictional characters. Interpreting those ideas is left to the reader.’ 5 Whilst this is stated on Brown’s website, however, this distinction is not at all obvious to the reader of the book, as the claim in the book that the descriptions are ‘accurate’ is rather more compelling than the substantially more modest claim in the website that the various things described merely exist.
And so, to our quest. Is The Da Vinci Code merely a work of fiction that has cleverly captured the imagination of millions around the world, or is it true, as one of the book’s central characters, Sir Leigh Teabing, confidently claims, that ‘the Church’s version of the greatest story ever told is in fact nothing more than the greatest story ever sold?’ (p267)
In order to answer this question we need to engage with some of the major assertions made by Robert Langdon and Sir Leigh Teibing (religious historians) who are the ones who reveal the ‘secret’ to Sophie.
Their claims, if true, lay waste to the Christian faith. Why is this so? Not because of the idea of Jesus being married or having a child per se, but rather because Teabing and Langdon’s thesis tears down two basic pillars of Christianity—first, that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine, and secondly, that the Bible is a faithful and reliable historical account of the events surrounding the life of Jesus and of his teachings (which do not include anything about the ‘secret’). Therefore, the credibility of their theory is of critical importance to any genuine enquirer about Jesus and Christianity.
As the source of all Christian belief is the Bible itself (being both a record of God’s relationship with humanity throughout the centuries, including the life of Jesus, and also God’s revelation of how he wants people to live) if Teabing and Langdon are correct in questioning its reliability then their other claims start to carry more weight. But just how solid a foundation do their claims actually rest on?
Part A: The Bible
Does the Bible exclude other books about Jesus that should be included?
Teabing: ‘The Bible is a product of man, my dear. Not of God. The Bible did not fall magically from the clouds. Man created it as a historical record of tumultuous times, and it has evolved through countless translations, additions and revisions. History has never had a definitive version of the book.’ (p231)
Central to Teibing and Langdon’s argument is the view that there are gospels (books that tell of Christ’s life) other than those that are included in the Bible. These other gospels are allegedly the earliest records of Christianity, telling the true story of Jesus and the early church. These ‘earlier gospels’ are known as the ‘Gnostic Gospels’, and were actually found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945 and translated into English in 1977. They include The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Phillip, The Gospel of Mary, The Gospel of Truth and The Gospel of The Egyptians.
Although there were around 80 Nag Hammadi documents, only these five were considered to be ‘gospels’ in that they were assumed to be telling the story of Jesus. Whilst Teabing claims that the Nag Hammadi documents and Dead Sea Scrolls are the earliest Christian records that tell the true story of Jesus and the early church (p245), even the earliest of these writings (the Gospels of Thomas and Phillip) date around 150AD or later 6, with the others being written much later. That of course means that despite the names given to these books, neither Thomas nor Phillip (who were disciples of Jesus), nor Mary Magdalene, could possibly have written them, because they would have been dead for at least 50 years before they were written.
Teibing also claims that the Dead Sea Scrolls indicate that the earliest form of Christianity was Gnosticism—an early school of religious thought that among other things denied the divinity of Christ. What neither Teibing nor Langdon tell Sophie, however, is that the Dead Sea Scrolls were in fact written many years before Christ, and therefore have nothing to do with him or the early church at all! What is of great relevance, however, in the context of our consideration of the reliability of the Bible, is that the Dead Sea Scrolls did support the authenticity and accuracy of the Old Testament because they contained various manuscripts and fragments of Old Testament books that were much older (by a thousand years) than any that had been found up until that date. (7)
Is the New Testament a carefully ‘doctored’ record that distorts the true nature of Jesus?
Teabing:‘ The pagan Roman emperor, Constantine the Great…commissioned and financed a new Bible, which omitted those gospels that spoke of Christ’s human traits and embellished those gospels that made Him godlike. The earliest gospels were outlawed, gathered up, and burned.’ (p234-235)
Teabing claims that Constantine’s motivation in doing this was to enable the Vatican and the church fathers to undermine the true Christian message, confer deity upon Jesus and destroy the matriarchal culture of the day that would alone lead us to true spiritual reality, thus gaining power for themselves through the imposition of patriarchal rule. (p238)
We will look at the issue of matriarchy later, but it is helpful to understand the serious historical and logistical problems that Teabing’s premise raises. First of all, there is no evidence to suggest that Constantine was anything other than a genuine convert to Christianity. Furthermore, ‘sacred documents’ in those days were carefully copied and sent to the various Christian churches throughout the then known world. Because they were considered sacred writings, they were greatly valued and fiercely protected by those who believed in them. Whilst this notion certainly has dramatic force for Brown as a fictional device, in practice it would not have been possible for Constantine to have implemented a decree to ‘gather up and burn’ such documents, even if they did exist. Travel in those days was a lengthy and arduous process, the command to destroy ‘the forbidden books’ would have taken considerable time to communicate, and it would have been a relatively easy matter for manuscripts to be hidden and later recovered.
By contrast however, if ever a book was going to be obliterated, it should have been the Bible. Even in the Roman world before Constantine, Christians were greatly persecuted and many lost their lives simply because of their faith. Having a copy of the Christian manuscripts even then could result in prison and death, and yet from the beginning of the church age, thousands of copies and fragments have survived. If people would not give up these Christian manuscripts, and endured such persecution before Constantine, why in 325 AD would they give up their copies of the Gnostic Gospels if they were truly sacred Scriptures—the true story of the early Church? How would Constantine have suddenly made this ‘gathering up and burning’ of the ‘earliest gospels’ work? Did people just meekly hand over all of their sacred writings to the authorities? This does not seem credible.
How then can we know that the New Testament contains the ‘right’ books and by what criteria is authenticity determined?
Teabing: ‘More than eighty gospels were considered for the New Testament, and yet only a relative few were chosen for inclusion—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John among them.’ ‘Who chose which gospels to include?’ Sophie asked. “Aha!’ Teabing burst in with enthusiasm. ‘The fundamental irony of Christianity! The Bible as we know it today was collated by the pagan Roman emperor Constantine the Great.’ (p231)
The books in the New Testament canon (the officially accepted list of books) were all written in the first century. The biblical gospels that tell the story of Jesus (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) were all written between 50-70 AD, within one generation of Christ’s death, some 100 years before the earliest Gnostic Gospels, and over 255 years before the Council of Nicaea (at which the Nicene Creed was agreed). Paul’s letters were also written around the same period as the gospels.
There are various Bible manuscripts still in existence today that predate the time when Constantine was supposed to have had the Bible rewritten. It is important to note that none of these earlier manuscripts differ from those that date after Constantine.
Rather than being ‘doctored’ by Constantine, the gospels included in the New Testament were not chosen by him at all, but by the early church. The Council of Nicaea organised by Constantine, to which Teabing refers, actually had nothing to do with choosing the canon of the New Testament at all. The New Testament manuscripts were not only already in existence by 325 AD, but had already been largely accepted by the church 200 years before the Council of Nicaea. Rather than create the canon of Scripture, the Council simply affirmed what the church had already accepted.
By the end of the first century, most of the current canon of Scripture was not only written but accepted by the church fathers, and this continued up to and beyond the time of Constantine. Church leaders like Justin Martyr (100-165), Irenaeus (150-200), Clement (155-220) and Origen (185-254) all affirmed the New Testament writings. (8)
Over the years I (Kel) have had numerous discussions with people who question the credibility and authenticity of Bible documents, but who have no reservations about other secular literature of antiquity. There are many examples, but let me list a few. No one questions Homer’s Iliad (900 BC), the earliest existing copy of which is 1500 years after the original was written and of which only 643 manuscripts still exist. Many high school history students have studied the works of Caesar (written 100- 44 BC). The oldest manuscript still in existence is dated 900 AD, with only 10 copies available. The writings of Aristotle (382-322 BC) are not called into question, even though there are only 49 copies in existence and the earliest copy available is dated 1400 years after the original was written. The earliest copies we have of Plato’s work (427-347 BC) are dated 1200 years after the original works, with only seven copies existing today. The authenticity of these ancient secular manuscripts is deemed to be beyond question. In Fact, a comparison of their credentials with those of biblical literature actually serves to add substantial credibility to the authenticity of the books that make up the New Testament. (9)
Bearing in mind that most of the New Testament documents can be dated from the first century, it is astounding that there are over 13 000 manuscript copies of the New Testament still in existence today, plus many portions of the Old Testament (24 000 manuscripts in all), the earliest of which are from John’s Gospel (130 AD), with many others dating from as early as 200 AD. In Chester Beatty Museum in Dublin there are papyri containing major portions of the New Testament dating from around 200 AD and in the British Museum there is a manuscript called Codex Vaticanus dated around 400 AD.
Noted historian FF Bruce says, ‘There is no body of ancient literature in the world that enjoys such a wealth of good textural attestation as the New Testament’. (10) When comparisons are made between biblical manuscripts and works such as those detailed above, in terms of their quality, numbers of manuscripts in existence and the time span between when the original and its copies were written, it is difficult not to agree with FF Bruce’s contention that if the New Testament documents were a collection of secular writings, their authenticity would be beyond doubt. (11)
In a similar vein, eminent academic Josh McDowell, who set out to disprove the validity of biblical literature, later wrote:
After trying to shatter the historicity and validity of the Scriptures, I came to the conclusion that they are historically trustworthy. If one discards the Bible as being unreliable, then he must disregard almost all literature of antiquity. One problem I constantly face is the desire on the part of many to apply one standard of test to secular literature and another to the Bible. One needs to apply the same test, whether the literature under investigation is secular or religious. (12)
We said earlier that the canon of Scripture was accepted by the church well before the Council of Nicaea in 325AD. The early church had simple criteria for evaluating the many writings that emerged as it grew and began to formulate its beliefs. Those who wrote had to have ‘apostolic’ endorsement, that is, they had to have been with Jesus or had links with those who had. In writing about the Christ of the gospel, John said in 1 John 1:1-4 that he was writing about what he had seen, heard and touched, in other words, he had personally engaged with Jesus and was writing out of that experience. The contrast here with the Gnostic Gospels— written by persons who never knew Jesus—is dramatic.
The writings also had to be in harmony with the already accepted canon of Scripture (the Old Testament, and other writings that were at that time considered to be inspired writings). Furthermore, the manuscripts had to be accepted by the church at large, and whilst this would have taken considerable time because of the difficulty of communication, nevertheless by the end of the first century the church had accepted almost all of the documents that make up our current New Testament.
Another requirement was that the writers had to be commended by the church as those who demonstrated the qualities of spirituality and leadership already expected of the followers of Jesus. It is noteworthy that the Gnostic writers did not measure up to this requirement, which is probably why most of their works did not survive; they were not seen by the church as sacred writings at all.
At the end of the day, the theories that Langdon and Teibing posit to Sophie about the Bible are merely fictional devices to enhance Brown’s story; on closer examination they simply do not withstand scrutiny. By contrast, a closer review supports what Christians have always believed—that God has revealed himself through his creation, his son Jesus and through his word the Bible.
There is a significant point in The Da Vinci Code when Langdon is seeking to convince Sophie of ‘proof’ to support the Gnostic position. Sophie questions Langdon’s statement that the New Testament is ‘based on fabrications’, to which Langdon responds, ‘Sophie, every faith in the world is based on fabrications. That is the nature of faith … Every religion describes God through metaphor, allegory and exaggeration … Those who truly understand their faith understand that the stories are metaphorical.’ (p342) That may be so of Gnosticism, but is certainly not the Christian view. We believe that the Bible provides an accurate historical account of the life and teachings of Christ. We also believe that the Bible is his sacred book and that he still speaks to us today through its pages.
But what about Dan Brown’s historical evidence?
Teabing: The Priory of Sion was founded in Jerusalem in 1099… the Priory learned of a stash of hidden documents… The Priory vowed that these documents must be recovered… (p157)
Sophie: ‘You’re saying the Knights Templar were founded by the Priory of Sion to retrieve a collection of secret documents?’(p158)
Teabing: The Sangreal documents simply tell the other side of the Christ story. Eye witness accounts… describe it as being carried in four enormous trunks…thousands of pages of unaltered pre-Constantine documents, written by the early followers of Jesus. Also rumoured to be part of the treasure is the legendary ‘Q’ Document …allegedly, it is a book of Jesus’ teachings, possibly written in His own hand. (p256)
The most effective way to propagate erroneous views is to link them with known facts. The Da Vinci Code depends upon the fact that most people have very little knowledge of history. Brown is therefore able to provide some factual information that is then distorted in order to support the theories espoused.
Much is made of the Priory of Sion. The real Priory of Sion was an order of Monks established in Jerusalem around 1100, linked to the monastery of Our Lady of Mt Zion. It ceased to exist when it was taken over by the Jesuits in 1617. There is no evidence of any link at all to the Knights Templar. Nothing more was heard of the Priory until Frenchman Pierre Plantard registered a second Priory of Sion in 1956! Interestingly, Plantard is now known for the time he spent in jail for fraud in 1953 (13) and for claiming that forged documents placed in public libraries were authentic. (14)
It is worthwhile at this point to quote from Hanegraaff and Maier:
The Priory’s role in this novel is supposedly ‘proven’ by a cache of documents that were discovered in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. These documents really do exist but they were planted there by … Plantard. In fact, one of Plantard’s henchmen admitted to assisting him in the fabrication of these materials, including the genealogical tables and lists of the Priory’s grandmasters—all trumpeted as truth in The Da Vinci Code. Plantard’s hoax was actually exposed in a series of French books and a BBC documentary in 1996, but this news—fortunately for Dan Brown—is reaching our shores only at glacial speed… The most important strand in The Da Vinci Code, then, is a total hoax.(15)
Once again, the introductory ‘Fact’ page in the book has been found wanting—unless we treat that page for what it actually is: part of the fiction of the book. Yet if these documents are not true, then what happens to the rest of Brown’s tale, for most of the story depends on there being an ongoing Priory that still keeps the secret of the ‘Sangreal’ documents?
There is no evidence that these documents exist. If they do, what happened to them? Although not even Dan Brown claims to have seen them, in the book we read that ‘eyewitness accounts of the Sangreal treasure describe it as being carried in four enormous trunks … the Purist documents.’ What are the eyewitness accounts of the Sangreal documents referred to? They are supposedly unaltered pre-Constantine documents written by the early followers of Jesus revering him as a human teacher and prophet. (p256)
These documents, however, are pure fabrication; they do not and never have existed. The same applies to the infamous Q document (p256), described by Teabing as ‘a book of Jesus’ teachings, possibly written in His own hand’. This claim is based on the hypothesis proposed by ‘scholars’ who reasoned that because Matthew and Luke’s gospels had some common material that does not appear in the other gospels, they must have gleaned the material from another source… Since the common material did not mention the death and resurrection of Jesus, earlier Christians must have had this manuscript. Yet this assumed manuscript has never been found, and there is no evidence that it ever did exist.
And what of another of Teabing’s critical documents—the Magdalene Diaries—allegedly Mary Magdalene’s personal account of her relationship with Christ, his crucifixion and her time in France’? (p256) As with the other documents, there is nothing at all to support their existence, which is at odds with Brown’s claim at the beginning of his book that ‘All descriptions of … documents … in this novel are accurate.’
Part B: Mary and the sacred feminine
An important dimension to Teabing and Langdon’s theory revolves around the claimed systematic removal of the ‘sacred feminine’ element, including the female ‘holy bloodline’ (the ‘sangreal’) from Christianity. It is to this aspect that we now turn.
Was Mary the foundation of the church?
The story of the Holy Grail has captivated the minds of people down through the ages. Legend has it that the Holy Grail was either the cup that Jesus used during the Last Supper or a cup that Joseph of Arimathea used to collect some of the blood of Jesus. Dan Brown however (through Teabing and Langdon) brings an entirely new slant to the legend by claiming the following:
Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married (p244).
Mary wrote her own gospel (p247) and was a powerful woman of the tribe of Benjamin. She was recast as a whore to erase evidence of her powerful family ties (p249).
It was to Mary his wife, not Peter his disciple, that Jesus gave instructions on how to build his church (p248).
Jesus had a royal bloodline —a child borne by Mary, attested to by a collection of sacred hidden documents known as the Sangreal documents. This is the secret of the Holy Grail, and the Holy Grail is a woman, the ‘sacred feminine’—Mary Magdalene (p249).
The church systematically removed the sacred feminine and the whole Mary/Holy Grail story from Christianity, including carrying out the crusade as a means of removing the evidence of the secret because the documents were supposedly hidden in the ruins of Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem (pp46, 124, 254, 406).
The secret has been kept by the secret society known as the Priory of Sion (especially through its Knights Templar) and has been embodied in the symbolism of da Vinci’s works (pp46, 158-162).
Da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper is crucial in Teabing’s presentation to Sophie, and indeed crucial to the whole story. Traditionally, the painting has been interpreted as portraying Jesus telling his disciples that one of them would betray him, hence the animated discussion evident in the painting. (16) But Teabing presents to Sophie a very different interpretation: the person sitting next to Jesus was not John, as tradition has led us to believe, but Mary Magdalene, and Jesus had just declared that she, not Peter, was to be the head of his church. Teabing then states that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were evidently ‘a pair’ and that she was ‘a woman who could …devastate the foundations of the church’. (p239-245)
The proof of this interpretation is said to be not only in the painting, but in both the Gnostic Gospels and the Sangreal documents and these, claims Teabing, have been ‘explored ad nauseam by modern historians’. But if Mary was also at the Last Supper, one of the disciples would have had to be missing! There were 12 disciples plus Jesus, making 13 in all, not 14, which would have been the case if Mary had been present. Surely if da Vinci had wanted to make such a point, he would have taken pains to include the 14—an aspect conveniently not mentioned by Teabing to Sophie.
The basis for Teabing’s claim that Jesus and Mary were married is the statement in the Gospel of Philip that the companion of the Saviour is Mary Magdalene. He then declares that ‘as any Aramaic scholar will tell you, the word “companion” in those days literally meant “spouse”.’ But in fact the Gospel of Philip was never written in Aramaic; rather it was written in Coptic (ancient Egyptian). In fact, no Aramaic or Hebrew word for ‘companion’ normally means spouse. (17) This particular quote is also from a page in the manuscript that is badly damaged; indeed much of it is unreadable, and Teabing’s ‘scholars’ have reconstructed it to read what they want to see. The truth is that nowhere in the Gospel of Philip, or for that matter in any of the other Gnostic Gospels, are we told that Mary was the wife of Jesus or that she was the mother of his child (18).
Significantly, the ‘modern historians’ on which Brown claims to have based his work, quoted on page 253 of the book, are really only journalists and theorists with an evident agenda to discredit the person of Jesus and promote the ‘sacred feminine’. In our research we found numerous sources that expressed amazement that these writers should be taken as serious historians, when they have neither the qualifications nor academic rigor normally associated with this title. When asked in an author roundtable to state his opinion of the books Brown cited as historical resources, Erwin Lutzer had this to say: ‘These are esoteric writings that do not deserve to be put on a history shelf. They are obviously agenda-driven, trying to root Christianity in paganism…These books make wild claims and try to connect dots that are unrelated to one another.’ (19)
There is no historical evidence to sustain the theory that Mary was ever married to Jesus, or that their royal bloodline established a dynasty in France that still exists today. Not only is there nothing to support this premise in the biblical records (written over 100 years before the Gospel of Philip), but there are no other early church records that even allude to it—none of the church fathers quoted above, none of the secular historians and certainly nothing in the evidence provided in Brown’s book. Even the Gnostic gospels are silent on this issue. However, the theory does suit the philosophy and agenda of the writers that Teabing quotes (p253) and that is why it is espoused.
What we do know about Mary is that she was delivered from seven demons through the ministry of Jesus (Luke 8:2), that she cared for the needs of Jesus and his disciples, was a witness to his crucifixion (Mark 15:40) and was one of the three women who came to the tomb on the resurrection morning (Mark 16:1). There is no evidence that she was from the tribe of Benjamin, and even if she were, it would not have made her royalty. Indeed, so were thousands of others and none were considered to have ‘holy blood’ in their veins. In seeking to link the Grail with Mary, Brown cleverly but arbitrarily breaks the medieval French term ‘sangreal’ (Holy Grail) into ‘sang’(blood) and ‘real’ (royal), linking it to Mary as the epitome of the holy and sacred feminine. Like many other themes in the book, the concept of the Holy Grail as a sacred lineage linked to the sacred feminine was taken from one of Brown’s ‘historians’, in this case from Holy Blood Holy Grail. The authors of this novel are actually now suing Brown for breach of copyright. (20)
Once more, whilst Teabing’s theory is intriguing from the point of the story, its absence of any creditable sources to support it confirm that the whole concept of Mary being married to Jesus and having a child by him is just another part of the story’s fiction.
Has the church systematically removed the sacred feminine?
Langdon (thinking to himself):
‘The Catholic Inquisition…indoctrinated the world to ‘the dangers of freethinking women’ and instructed the clergy how to locate, torture and destroy them…During three hundred years of witch hunts, the Church burned at the stake an astounding five million women.’ (p.125)
‘Women, once celebrated as an essential half of spiritual enlightenment, had been banished from the temples of the world. There were no female Orthodox rabbis, Catholic priests, nor Islamic clerics…The Priory of Sion believed that it was this obliteration of the sacred feminine in modern life that had caused…an unstable situation marked by testosterone-fuelled wars, a plethora of misogynistic societies and a growing disrespect for Mother Earth.’ (pp.125,126).
Dan Brown presents to the reader a picture of the modern church in which, whilst progress is gradually being made with respect to women’s rights, its deceitful and violent history has so seriously undermined the role and place of women that it is a distortion of Jesus’ original plans for the role of women.
Teibing and Langdon claim that Emperor Constantine, the Vatican, the Pope and the bishops systematically removed the sacred feminine, rejected the matriarchal paganism of the day and established a patriarchal Christianity. (p238) This presupposes that in Constantine’s time, matriarchal rule was actually common practice. But there is no evidence in any of the historical material at that time that there was any significant or powerful women’s movement. As Goldberg, Chair of the Department of Sociology at City College, New York states, ‘…there has never been a matriarchy … the findings of the past 50 years failed to include a single shred of evidence that such matriarchies ever existed.’ (21) To the contrary, women were generally considered to be just a step up from slaves. The culture of the day demanded that wives remain at home out of sight. In some cultures wives were considered the property of their husbands, having very little power or control, even over their own lives.
How then, if a matriarchal society never existed, was Constantine able to convert it to patriarchal rule? One way suggested by Teabing is that the church burnt to death 5 million women. Even a short search of the available historical research shows how grossly exaggerated and distorted this claim is. Robin Briggs, scholar at Oxford University, states that ‘Most reasonable modern estimates suggest perhaps 100 000 trials between 1450 and 1750 with between 40 000 and 50 000 executions, of which 20 to 25% were men.’ (22) Most of those executed were tried and condemned in secular courts. It must have been a truly dreadful time, when the accusation of a single enemy could land you in court to plead for your life. However the numbers of the accused were far from those claimed by Brown.
Furthermore, rather than coming from the church, most of the accusations that led to trials were made by women against women as they made claims against their female neighbours. (23) Many of those listed in The Da Vinci Code were not targets at all, e.g. midwives and herbalists. In fact, rather than being accused simply because they were women, those targeted came from all walks of life: artists, priests, nuns, transients, political enemies, rival neighbours etc. The claim that it was a plot by the church to eradicate the sacred feminine has no foundation whatsoever. (24)
Interestingly, Gibbons, a self-confessed pagan, in an article titled ‘Recent Developments in the Study of The Great European Witch Hunt’ states:
Many articles in Pagan magazines contain almost no accurate information about the ‘Burning Times’, primarily because we rely so heavily on outdated research … If your knowledge of the ‘Burning Times’ is based on popular or Pagan literature, nearly everything you know may be wrong … ‘We Neopagans now face a crisis. As new data appeared, historians altered their theories to account for it. We have not. Therefore an enormous gap has opened between the academic and the ‘average’ Pagan view of witchcraft … We avoid the somewhat dull academic texts that present solid research, preferring sensational writers who play to our emotions.’ (25)
What we find fascinating is that Gibbons wrote this nearly five years before The Da Vinci Code was published, and that as a non-Christian she is still concerned about writers using misleading information to cast the church in a negative light in reference to the Great Hunt.
Whilst we have already seen that the theory of the ‘sacred feminine’ and its postulated royal bloodline from Christ is an alluring theory without foundation, the issues of Jesus’ attitude towards women and the place of women in the church still remain important areas that need to be addressed.
Did Christianity undermine the status of women? It’s important for us to own the fact that the church has not had a good history in its treatment of women. Some of the early fathers, responding to the cultural view of their day, were known for their misogynist statements. Sadly, even in modern times the behaviour of some men in the church towards women is not only an embarrassment to many in the church but also hinders the sharing of Christianity with others.
As Christians, our view of both men and women is governed by the Bible. How does God see us? He does not treat the genders differently, but as equals. In Galatians we read that ‘In Christ there is neither male nor female.’ The attitude that Jesus demonstrated to women was in stark contrast to the attitude of his day. When the woman about to be stoned by the mob for her adultery was flung at the feet of Jesus, in order to demonstrate his deeper understanding of the spirit behind ‘the law’ (and no doubt also to challenge the patriarchal rule of the day), he simply stooped and began to write a list of sins in the dust, saying, ‘He that is without sin, let him cast the first stone.’ As the mob melted away Jesus said to the woman, ‘Go your way and sin no more’ (John 8:3).
Anyone reading the stories of Jesus in the Gospels will see how often he engaged with and cared for women, not the least those who needed forgiveness and understanding. Read the Old and New Testaments and see the lists of honoured women. The reality is that the message of Jesus is a liberating message to both men and women. It has lifted women to a place of special equality in their relationship with God and given men the highest possible responsibility in relation to them—to love them as Christ loved the church.
Part C: Jesus
Ultimately, the real challenge of The Da Vinci Code is to the person of Jesus. It is to him that we now turn.
Was Jesus just a human being?
‘Constantine held a famous ecumenical gathering known as the Council of Nicaea … Until that moment in history, Jesus was viewed by His followers as a mortal prophet … a great and powerful man, but a man nonetheless. A mortal.’
‘Not the Son of God?’
‘Right,’ Teabing said. ‘Jesus’ establishment as the Son of God was officially proposed and voted on by the Council of Nicaea.’
‘Hold on. You’re saying Jesus’ divinity was the result of a vote?’
‘A relatively close vote at that,’ Teabing added … ‘Many scholars claim that the early church literally stole Jesus from His original followers, hijacking His human message shrouding it in an impenetrable cloak of divinity, and using it to expand His power.’(p233,234)
Is it true that up until the Council of Nicaea the followers of Jesus considered him to be just a mortal prophet? Most people reading Teabing’s statements would have the same response that Sophie had. Having little knowledge of church history, they would be surprised to hear that such a major issue would be decided by a narrow margin. But yet again Brown demonstrates either a lack of serious research, or his willingness to embrace that expression sometimes applied to sensationalist journalism – never let the facts get in the way of a good story!
History records that the Council met in 325 AD and there were over 300 delegates—church leaders from most of the regions where churches had been established. One of the many items for discussion was the teaching of Arius from Alexandria that Jesus could not be God and man at the same time, and therefore must be a created being and not ‘the only begotten Son of God’.
The Bishop of Alexandria, opposing the teaching of Arius, declared him to be a heretic in a local council in 321 AD. After moving to Palestine, Arius persisted in his teaching, sending letters to a number of churches to promote his theological view. The debate simmered until Nicaea. It is important to know that the debate was not long and hard fought to a close vote, as Teabing suggests. There was no political agenda enacted at Nicaea and no change of position on the deity of Jesus. In fact the vote to affirm his deity was in excess of 300 to 2. (26) The Council simply affirmed what the church from its beginning had always believed and proclaimed, that Jesus is God. The Nicene Creed written by those at the Council (and still used by the church today) simply affirmed what the apostles and the early church had always believed to be true about Jesus.
What do the gospels say about Jesus?
There is no question that the writers of the biblical gospels truly believed that Jesus was God. John declared that Jesus was part of the Trinity (God the Father, God the Son (i.e. Jesus) and God the Holy Spirit) from the beginning of time, that all things were created by him and that he is the source of life and light (John 1:1-4). He also declared that Jesus became a human being and came to reveal God to humanity, making it possible for us to know him (John 1:14).
Before Jesus ever came into the world, devout people who knew the Old Testament promises anticipated his coming. There were hundreds of prophecies that spoke of one who would come and reveal to the world God and his love for humanity. Jesus’ birth, the nature of his death, his resurrection and its purpose were all clearly prophesied in the pages of the Old Testament. Some of these promises clearly spoke of Jesus as God in human form: ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel’ (Isa.7:14), which means ‘God with us’. Isaiah 9:6, speaking of this same child, said ‘He will be called Wonderful, Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.’ These are not names that could be given to anyone who was only a man.
What did Jesus claim about himself?
Jesus himself made some rather astounding claims. After healing a paralytic man one day, Jesus claimed to have the power to also forgive his sins! When the religious leaders challenged this, Jesus asked them, in effect, which is easier, to tell someone their sins are forgiven or to say get up and walk? … Then, so they would know his authority on earth to forgive sins, he said to the paralytic, ‘I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.’ We read in the story that the once paralysed man immediately did so (Mark 2:1-12).
Jesus also claimed to have been pre-existent. He said he had been with the Father before the world began (John 17:24) and that he was one with the Father (John 10:30).
One day when Jesus was with his disciples he calmly but deliberately predicted that he would be crucified and raised to life again on the third day (Matt. 16:21). He also said, ‘Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent’ (John 17:3).
The message of the disciples in the early church was that the crucifixion of Jesus was in the plan of God to make our forgiveness and reconciliation possible. They declared him the long-awaited ‘Messiah’(the promised one sent from God), proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ (Acts 2:22-39; 5:42). In fact, the very reason that the religious leaders of Jesus’ day were so affronted by him was precisely because they understood that he was claiming to be divine (Mark 14:61-64) and it was for this reason—his ‘blasphemy’—that they arranged for him to be killed.
Quite apart from the biblical gospels, the claims of Jesus about himself, the witness of the early church and the affirmation of the other New Testament manuscripts, the early church fathers from the earliest times right up to and beyond the Council at Nicaea consistently affirmed their belief in the deity of Jesus:
Ignatius: ‘God Himself was manifest in human form.’ (AD 105)
Clement: ‘It is fitting that you should think of Jesus Christ as God.’ (AD 150)
Tertullian: ‘Christ our God’ (AD 200)
Novatian: ‘He is not only man but God also …’ (AD 235)
Methodius: ‘He truly was and is … God.’ (AD 290)
It is noteworthy that many of the apostles and early church fathers were executed because they believed and taught that Jesus was God and was the only way to the Father, through his provision for us in his death and resurrection.
The question of who the real Jesus is has troubled people for centuries, and with good reason. When CS Lewis became disturbed at the growth of Christianity in his university, he decided that if he were to protect people from its influence he would need to show that the claims about the deity of Christ and his resurrection were false. After considerable research, Lewis made the statement that either Jesus was all he claimed to be or he was the greatest impostor that ever lived, or worse, an imbecile. History records that Lewis became convinced that Jesus was indeed God in human form and that the resurrection of Christ was an actual event that took place at a point of time in history. Lewis finally became a Christian and through his books and other writings became a significant influence throughout the world promoting the Christian message.
Ultimately, people who accept Langdon and Teibing’s present day Gnostic theories about Jesus being a purely good but thoroughly mortal man are unable to accommodate the historical Jesus, his sinless life, his sacrificial death or his miraculous resurrection. For this reason, they also do not see the need for humanity to find forgiveness and reconciliation with God. The tragedy is that the result for them is a whole bundle of ideas and philosophies that have no anchor, direction or certainty in terms of human meaning or destiny.
Part D: What is the relevance of all this for me?
All that we have covered so far would be little more than an intellectual exercise if we did not aim to answer the ‘So what?’ question in terms of the bigger issue of the perennial human search for meaning and purpose.
But if I’m sincere and thoughtful in my faith, won’t my journey still lead me to God?
Teabing: ‘Sophie, every faith in the world is based on fabrication. That is the definition of faith – acceptance of that which we imagine to be true, that which we cannot prove. Every religion describes God through metaphor, allegory and exaggeration, from the early Egyptians through modern Sunday school.’ (p341)
Langdon: ‘The Bible represents a fundamental guidepost for millions of people on the planet, in much the same way the Koran, Torah and Pali Canon offer guidance to people of other religions … Those who truly understand their faiths understand the stories are metaphorical … Religious allegory has become a part of the fabric of reality. And living in that reality helps millions of people cope and be better people. (pp341,342)
As we have seen, whilst the claims Teabing and Langdon make about the Bible, Jesus’ relationship with Mary and the sacred feminine are now generally recognised as part of the fiction of the book, there are other far more subtle messages about the church and Christianity that deserve further discussion.
In the key passages quoted above dealing with the nature of Christian (and other) religious belief, Teabing and Langdon actually present three key messages to Sophie as they seek to further disabuse her of the misconceptions of her traditional faith.
Firstly, they explain that faith is simply belief based on fabrication that we imagine to be true, supported by an array of stories, allegories and exaggerated myths that over the years have been taken to be literally true. When Sophie counters that if such stories (for example, the virgin birth of Jesus) are in fact not true, this is a gross deception, Langdon counters that it is a functional fiction, because it helps people cope and live better lives. This second key message is really a restatement of Karl Marx’s famous line that religion is the opiate of the masses. The third message, though more subtly presented, is that though all religions have their own particular stories, they all ultimately are different ways of describing the one God.
For the genuine seeker of God, how satisfactory is the answer that I need not concern myself with whether or not the faith I pursue is solidly grounded—that if it helps me get through life then it has served its purpose? Taking this logic to its inevitable conclusion, seekers would simply be wasting their time exploring the stories of their faith, as they will never be able to prove or disprove them, and what people believe is ultimately just a matter of personal opinion in any event.
Speaking personally, I (Bruce) find such an approach profoundly worrying. On the one hand, it leaves me wholly without the very genuineness of belief that the ‘all roads lead to God’ argument rests upon as the basis for acceptance before God. Furthermore, it gives me no certainty of what happens when I die. If my faith is merely an earthly coping mechanism, how secure can I be about my fate in eternity? The apostle Paul had a similar concern, having risked his reputation and very life on the veracity of Christ’s physical death and actual resurrection. Speaking to the believers in Corinth he puts it bluntly: ‘And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.’ (1 Cor.15:14).
Paul’s presentation of the nature of his faith is in fact more consistent with the teachings of all religious leaders, who contend that faith is ultimately of greatest importance for its eternal rather than earthly consequences. Therefore, the need to embark on the journey of exploration does have real significance; it is an endeavour worthy of our most serious attention.
An altogether preferable formulation of the nature of faith is that presented by Sheldon Vanauken—that faith is the decision to embrace God based on rational belief formed on the basis of credible evidence (but not ‘proof’ as such) that has become more difficult not to believe than believe. The decision to take the ‘leap’ of faith to actually believe is ultimately a gift from God, but one based on good reasons rather than pure inculcation through religious stories or ‘blind faith’. (27)
And yet in all faith there still remains that element of belief that is not based purely on substantiated reason, but is in fact based on trust in the person on whom the faith is based. In this sense, there can be no better description of faith than the one of men and women of faith found in Hebrews chapter 11, which begins with the words: ‘Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see’ (Heb.11:1). The key here, as one great story of faith after another is recounted in this chapter, is that people placed their faith in God because they knew he was totally trustworthy, had their best interests at heart and was a truly sovereign God who held their lives in his care.
Teabing’s thesis of many faith stories all leading to the one God is highly appealing in a modern culture that respects differences of opinion and frowns on those who hold views that are ‘exclusive’ of other genuinely held beliefs. However appealing, it nevertheless fails to withstand closer scrutiny. At its most basic, how can a faith path that denies the existence of God and teaches reincarnation after death (such as Buddhism) be consistent with a faith path that teaches that God is the creator of the world, that we live once only and that our death is the beginning of an eternal existence either with God in heaven or in permanent separation from him?
This is not in any way to impugn the morality or sincerity of those of non-Christian faith paths, who surely contribute much goodness to the world both at the level of personal conduct and in the service of others. The outpouring of love and care from people of all faiths around the world after the 2004 tsunami disaster is but one obvious example. It is simply to say that if we are not willing to invest effort to see which faith path ultimately makes most sense of this world, of the way we function, think and feel as humans, and of our reason for being, we are willingly choosing to place our eternal future into a lottery over whose outcome we have no control.
Even Teabing, in describing his ‘other side’ to the Christ story, concedes that ‘In the end, which side of the story you believe becomes a matter of faith and exploration …’ (256). But the exploration does need to be embarked upon.
Well, suppose you’re right, where would I begin?
‘What I mean’, Teabing countered, ‘is that almost everything our fathers taught us about Christ is false.’ (p235)
‘The vast majority of educated Christians know the history of their faith. Jesus was indeed a great and powerful man… Nobody is saying Christ was a fraud, or denying that He walked the earth and inspired millions to better lives.’ (Teabing, p234)
This is Teabing’s great contention: that Christ was good, but simply mortal. Now if we accept that the journey of faith exploration is one worth making, in the case of the Christian faith that journey begins and ends in the person of Jesus. This is because of all great world religions, Jesus is the only human person upon whom a religion is based who also claims to be divine. For Christianity then, the journey will begin with knowing more about Christ. We cannot here do more than open a window towards knowing him, but we can do at least this much.
Teabing is in fact half-right—Jesus was human; he did live a physical (and well-documented historical) human life. He had all the human attributes of physical existence; he ate and drank, slept, experienced joy and sorrow and hope and disappointment, he expressed love and compassion, anger and mercy, kindness and forgiveness. Yet if he was only human, then whilst he might merit our admiration, and indeed we might choose to emulate his good life, he will not be able to offer any hope or help to us in terms of our eternal future. And his claims to know God the Father’s mind and will, and how to live a life that is truly pleasing to God, will be no more than the posturing of a well-intentioned but misguided individual.
It is certainly true that for countless millions throughout history, they have lived better lives because of their faith in Jesus. Better because they have found a moral compass to guide them in the challenges of daily living—God’s word found in the Bible, including all of Jesus’ teaching. And better because they have found true solace and peace that satisfies and comforts life’s deepest aches in times of trouble by bringing their cares before God in prayer.
Yet these are the results of faith, not reasons for them. It is because people have placed their hopes, aspirations, life’s prayers and worries upon him, and found Jesus to be a worthy bearer of these, that Jesus’ claims to be more than a good man cannot be ignored. Certainly, Jesus performed numerous amazing miracles. For example, he calmed a raging storm by his mere command (Luke 8:22-25) and provided for the hungry by feeding 5 000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish (Mark 6:30-44).
Yet it is the miracle of Jesus’ physical death in order to bear the consequence of human sinfulness, accompanied by his resurrection back to life, that ultimately confirm his truly divine nature. This miracle demonstrates both his power over even death and his purpose of making real friendship with God possible again. It is on the basis of this event more than any other—the miracle of the cross—that countless people have found their exploration of Jesus’ claims about himself and about the nature of this world to be true. They have found the person, life and teachings of Jesus to be a solid foundation for faith of the most profound and life-changing kind, whose consequences extend beyond death into eternity itself.
Jesus makes true relationship with God possible, but not through the pitiful self-flagellation we find in the character of Silas (the tragically misguided monk with the spiked cilice), or the unflinching legalism of the fictional Bishop Aringarosa (the calculating leader of the Opus Dei). Instead it is through simply accepting who he is and what he has done, accepting the free and unconditional gift of forgiveness offered by God through Jesus, and expressing our thankfulness for this incredible gift by seeking to live a life that is pleasing to him.
If these promises resonate with your heart’s longings, if you desire not simply to be a seeker, but one who has certainty of what you hope for yet do not see, then we urge you to investigate further the claims Jesus makes about himself, and about his desire to have a relationship with you.
Well, I still love the book!
Let’s call a spade a spade here. The Da Vinci Code is a fabulously engrossing work of fiction—gripping, witty, intelligent, suspenseful and unpredictable. However, if you’ve journeyed honestly with us to this point, you’ll now appreciate that even though the book is a great work of suspense fiction, it is not in any way a ‘factual’ or ‘accurate’ representation of the nature or history of Christ, the church or faith.
Rather than almost everything the church has taught us about Jesus being false, closer to the mark is that almost everything Langdon and Teabing have taught Sophie about Jesus is false! There is, however, one sentence that has a resounding ring of truth to it, and that is the defiant words offered by Sister Sandrine as she faces the possibility of death at the hands of Silas: ‘Jesus had but one true message …’ (p136). This rings true because throughout the centuries, people have been willing to die for that message. Whilst we think immediately of the martyrs of the early church, including many of the disciples and Paul himself, and in more recent times people such as Rachel Scott who died in the Columbine massacre in America because she refused to deny Jesus’ claim on her life, (28) the person for whom the message was most costly was none other than Jesus himself, who died for the sake of all humanity.
His message then is the same today:
‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle in heart, and you will find rest for your souls’ (Matt. 11:28,29).
Our final words to you, then, whether you are someone who already knows Jesus, or one who is genuinely seeking to find a ‘code’ that gives meaning to life, are to come to the One with the one true message that unlocks every code ever written, and who holds the key to life as it was meant to be.
Note: All page references to The Da Vinci Code used in this article are from the Bantam Press 2003 edition.
For a previous Interact article ‘What’s a Christian to Do with Harry Potter?’ see Interact vol.14 no.1
http://info.boomerangbooks.com/news/intervews/onemillionth-da-vinci-co.shtml downloaded 23/07/05
Quote from Jeff Azbill of Davis-Kidd Booksellers on www.booksense.com, accessed 1 January 2005.
See www.danbrown.com – FAQ page.
JL Garlow & P Jones, Cracking Da Vinci’s Code, Victor, Colorado Springs (2004), 163.
J Mc Dowell, The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville (1999), 81.
FF Bruce, New Testament Documents, www.bible.ca/bnew-testament-documents-f-f-bruce-ch2.htm, downloaded 24/3/05. Note that FF Bruce’s book The New Testament Documents: Are they Reliable? is the best starting point for those wanting to investigate this area further.
J McDowell, op.cit.,68.
R Abanes, The Truth Behind the Da Vinci Code, Harvest House, Oregon (2004), 48
Pierre Plantard Profile, http://priory-of-sion.com/psp/id84.html, downloaded 3/04/05.
H Hanegraaff & P Maier, The Da Vinci Code: Fact or Fiction? Tyndale House Publishers, Wheaton, Illinois(2004), 12.
Leonardo da Vinci: The Last Supper, http://arthistory.about.com/cs/leonardo/a/last supper.htm, downloaded 3/04/05.
R Abanes, op.cit.,39.
The Da Vinci Code: Author Roundtable, www.faithfulreader.com/features/0405davinvi/davinci code-q11.asp, downloaded 03/04/05.
H Tunnah, The New Zealand Herald, 18.12.04, http://www.nzherald.co.nz/index.cfm?c id=1&ObjectID=9003822, downloaded 3/04/05.
Goldberg in J Garlow & P Jones, op. cit., 62.
R Briggs in R Abanes, op. cit., 36.
J Gibbons, in J Garlow and P Jones, op. cit., 64-67.
S Vanauken, A Severe Mercy, Hodder and Stoughton, London (1977), 98,99.
B Nimmo & D Scott, Rachel’s Tears: The Spiritual Journey of Colombine Martyr Rachel Scott, Thomas Nelson (2000).
Rev Kel Willis is the Director of Christian Growth Ministries Inc.
© Kel Willis (1 March 1999)