Doubleday; First Thus edition, 2004, 480 pages
Reviewed by Ben Witherington, III
The runaway fictional bestseller The Da Vinci Code has clearly struck a nerve. As I write, the book has sat atop the New York Times bestseller list for some 40 weeks; it’s number one on amazon.com’s sales list; countless online chat groups have formed to discuss the book; and even churches are finding themselves having to present seminars on the book’s views on Jesus, Mary Magdalene, the history of the canon, the early church, the Holy Grail and a plethora of other subjects.
This might be surprising if the work was meant to be considered a work of pure fiction. However, the book begins with a page labeled “FACT,” which claims, among other things, that “all descriptions of … documents … in this novel are accurate.” This unfortunately is not true. And although this FACT page will surely give many readers the false impression that this novel is based on sound historical research, the truth is, it is based on all sorts of conjectures—some scholarly, some not. And although the book claims to be based on historical texts, especially the Gnostic Gospels,1 it is not based on history. The end result is closer to pure fiction than to historical fiction.
It is not surprising, however, that a powerful and well-written thriller, as good a page-turner as any John Grisham novel, could have such an impact in an age of widespread Biblical illiteracy and of ignorance of early Christian history. Come up with a conspiracy theory, implicate a major world organization like the Catholic Church, focus on long-held secrets, but withhold much of the evidence: Here you have the makings of a potent mix, especially in a culture that is already suspicious of powerful, large-scale institutions, be they governments, churches or something else.
What counts most in our postmodern culture is the power of your rhetoric, not the accuracy of your reporting or analysis. As one of the protagonists says towards the end of the novel: “It is the mystery and wonderment that serves our souls, not the Grail itself.” In other words, it is the thrill of the chase, not the thrill of the truth, that should satisfy us.
Robert Langdon, the hero of the book, himself stresses that “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 … The problems arise when we begin to believe literally in our own metaphors … Those who understand their faiths understand the stories are metaphorical.” Such philosophical claims undergird much of what we find in this novel, and it is not surprising that they lead to some clear errors of fact, as well as the misinterpretation of key historical matters. We will deal with this philosophical and religious mishmash in due course, but first a short tour of the historical errors of the book. I will skip the errors relating to the later Catholic Church, various popes, Leonardo da Vinci, the Priory of Sion, the Knights Templar, etc., and focus on the fundamental errors that have to do with Jesus, Mary and the canon of Scripture.
Error No. 1. The canonical Gospels are not the earliest Gospels, instead the suppressed Gnostic ones (such as the Gospel of Philip, or of Mary) are. This claim is made more than once by the book’s protagonists, Teabing and Langdon, who are both portrayed as scholars, and thus as credible witnesses on these matters. They also claim that the four canonical Gospels were selected from among some 80 early gospels, the rest of which were suppressed. In fact there were less than half that many documents that might rightly be called gospels (texts telling the story of Jesus’ life). Among the 35 or so extant noncanonical gospels are two Gnostic gospels that Dan Brown depends on most heavily in rewriting Jesus’ life: the Gospel of Philip and the Gospel of Mary. There is no credible evidence that either of these existed before late in the second century A.D. Indeed many scholars think they come from the third century A.D. By contrast, no scholars that I know, whatever their theological persuasion, think that the canonical Gospels are from any later than the last half of the first century or (in the case of the Gospel of John) the first few years of the second century A.D. Our earliest extant gospel fragment is a portion of a papyrus of John 18 dating to the early second century A.D.
It is no surprise that the Gospel of Philip and the Gospel of Mary did not arise earlier since they reflect the Gnostic thought that only came to the fore in the middle and later parts of the second century A.D. and was criticized by the church fathers Irenaeus, Hippolytus and Tertullian, who wrote in the latter half of the second century A.D. The New Testament contains no critique of Gnosticism simply because it was not an issue in New Testament times.
One of the key indicators that Gnosticism is a later development is that it depends on the canonical Gospels for its substance when it comes to the story of Jesus. Even more tellingly, the Gnostic texts try to de-Judaize the New Testament story. By this I mean Gnosticism reflects a belief about the material world that comports with neither the Old Testament nor the New Testament, both of which affirm the goodness of God’s creation, of the material universe, of human flesh, and indeed the goodness of being male or female and the goodness of sexual intercourse between the sexes. Gnosticism by contrast sees spirit as good and matter as inherently tainted and evil. The Nag Hammadi community that created the Gnostic Gospels existed on the fringes of Christianity and seems to have been quite ascetical, to judge from some of their documents.
Dan Brown seems to be oblivious to this fact as he confuses the theological perspective found in the Gnostic Gospels with paganism, a sort of paganism that affirms not merely the goodness but the sacredness of sex as a way to divinize oneself or get in touch with the Sacred Feminine. This is far from an accurate interpretation of the Gnostic Gospels. Yet the book’s protagonist calls these gospels “the unaltered Gospels.” As a rule of thumb, it may be said, the more esoteric and less Jewish a gospel, the less likely it reflects the earliest stages of the gospel tradition.
Error No. 2. Jesus is portrayed as simply a man or as a great prophet in the earliest historical sources, but was later divinized at the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. This is patently false. Jesus is called theos (God) some seven times in the New Testament, including in the Gospel of John, and he is called “Lord” in the divine sense numerous times. No historian I know of argues that these texts postdate the Nicean council. The Council of Nicea in the fourth century and the Council of Chalcedon in the fifth century merely formalized and clarified these first-century beliefs by making them part of the creeds.
Error No. 3. Constantine was the bad guy who suppressed the earlier (Gnostic) Gospels and imposed the canonical Gospels and the doctrine of the divinity of Christ on the church. In fact, long before the days of Constantine, and even before the Gnostic Gospels existed, the four canonical Gospels were circulating together as authoritative sources in the church. This may have occurred as early as 125 A.D. since Irenaeus knows of this; the Muratorian fragment—the earliest canon list,2 dating to the second or third century A.D.—lists the Four Gospels as authoritative for the church; in the second century, the heretic Marcion accepted the Gospel of Luke alone as the appropriate source for knowledge about the historical Jesus. By 325 A.D. the Alexandrian bishop Athanasius in the East and the papal see in the West recognized only the four canonical Gospels, and indeed only the 27 books we now know as the New Testament. It is simply not true that the Gnostic Gospels were suppressed prior to the formation of the canon: They just weren’t recognized as authoritative either by the eastern or western church. Lack of recognition is not the same as suppression.
Error No. 4. Jesus was married—and to Mary Magdalene at that. Since the New Testament is completely silent and does not support these ideas, of course one has to turn to other, later sources for them, in particular the Gospel of Philip, which was probably written sometime in the late third century A.D. Unfortunately the relevant portion of this text as it has come down to us has gaps. It reads, “And the companion of the … Mary Magdalene … her more than … the disciples … kiss her … on her …” (Gospel of Philip 63:33-36). A parallel passage in Gospel of Philip 58-59 seems to suggest that the kiss would have been on the mouth.
As Professor Karen King indicates in her work The Gospel of Mary Magdala, a chaste kiss of fellowship, the so-called holy kiss referred to in Paul’s own letters (see the end of 1 Corinthians 16), is in all likelihood meant here. What makes this especially likely is that this is a Gnostic document, where human sexual expression is the opposite of the spiritual; it is defiling.
Brown’s “scholarly” protagonist Teabing argues that the word “companion” in this passage means “spouse” because that’s what the Aramaic word really means. Unfortunately, this document was not written in Aramaic. Like the other Gnostic Gospels discovered at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, this document was written in Coptic! The word here for companion (koinonos) is actually a loan word from Greek and is neither a technical term nor a synonym for wife or spouse. It is true the term could be used to refer to a wife, since koinonos, like “companion,” is an umbrella term, but it does not specify this fact. There was another Greek word, gune, which would have made this clear. It is much more likely that koinonos here means “sister” in the spiritual sense since that is how it is used elsewhere in this sort of literature. In any case, this text does not clearly say or even suggest that Jesus was married, much less married to Mary Magdalene.
Error No. 5. Jesus must have been married because he was a Jew. This argument overlooks the fact that there were already exceptions to this sort of rule in early Judaism. The descriptions of the celibate Essenes in Josephus (Antiquities 184.108.40.206-21; Jewish War 2.8.2) and Philo (Hypothetica 11.14-17), and the paucity of female skeletons in the cemetery at Qumran, which many scholars identify as an Essene settlement, may all attest to the fact that some early Jews felt a calling to celibacy. There is no reason why Jesus could not have been one of them. In fact, it would appear that his cousin John the Baptist set such a precedent for his kin group,3 and there were earlier prophetic figures (Samuel, perhaps, and Hosea, until God commanded him to marry Gomer) who may also have remained single. Many scholars, probably rightly, see Matthew 19:10-12, which states that some have chosen to be eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom and presents this as a viable alternative to marriage, as Jesus’ own justification for remaining single. The Kingdom was coming and it was appropriate for him and his disciples to remain single and focus on their call to ministry. This conclusion is probably correct because otherwise it’s an odd teaching, which would have been objected to by ordinary Jews who thought to “be fruitful and multiply” was a commandment for every able-bodied Jew. If it is correct, then the house of cards of later medieval conjecture about Mary Magdalene as Jesus’ spouse and Jesus’ supposed descendants falls down.
Error No. 6. The Dead Sea Scrolls along with the Gnostic texts found at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, are the earliest Christian records. This one is a real howler, as any student who has taken an introductory course in the New Testament will recognize. The Dead Sea Scrolls are purely Jewish documents. There is nothing Christian about them. There is also no evidence that any of the Nag Hammadi documents were written before the late second century A.D.
Error No. 7. The Church suppressed the idea that Jesus was married and had children because of its ascetical piety and assumption that a divine person or even a truly holy person would not be involved in such activities.
So far we have dealt with historical errors in Dan Brown’s book; now let’s address some of its philosophical and theological underpinnings. Whatever one thinks of the theological beliefs of early Christians, it is an historical error to misrepresent those beliefs.
At one juncture in the book, hero Teabing argues that the church had to suppress the notion that Jesus was married because “a child of Jesus would undermine the crucial notion of Christ’s divinity and therefore the Christian Church.” Teabing seems to be suggesting that if Jesus had sexual relationships with a wife and sired offspring it would be defiling, or perhaps that as a divine being, Jesus couldn’t afford to be fully and truly human. This of course is not what the creeds suggest. They suggest Jesus was both fully human as well as fully divine.
A priori, there is no reason why Jesus could not have been married. Jesus did not teach that sex was defiling; indeed he speaks of it as the means by which the two become one flesh with each other as God intended (see Mark 10). There is thus no reason why a married Jesus could not have had sexual relationships and even offspring. Nor did the earliest Church have problems with the goodness of human sexuality. Thus, there is no good reason why the authors of the New Testament, who were all Jews, with perhaps the exception of Luke, would have suppressed the notion that Jesus was married. This would have just further affirmed his true humanity, not violated or annulled his divinity. After all, it was God who made us all sexual beings in the first place. It is only later (second or third century) ascetical piety (both Christian and Gnostic) that had problems with these things, not Jesus or the earliest church.
Brown’s book inconsistently suggests that historical truth doesn’t matter to faith (remember the hero’s declaration that every faith is “based on fabrication,” and that “the problems arise when we begin to believe literally in our own metaphors”)—except when it supports his agenda regarding Mary Magdalene or the Catholic Church. Brown seems to fail to grasp that early Christianity, like early Judaism, is not all about symbols and metaphors. It is about truths grounded in historical events, whether the Exodus, the reign of King David, or the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Of course sometimes these truths are expressed in symbols and metaphors, such as in the parables. But the gospel stories themselves are not mere allegories, or cleverly devised fables; they are ancient biographies written according to the historical and literary conventions of the time. They are based, as Luke 1:1-4 says, on the reports of eyewitnesses and early testifiers to these historical facts. Christian faith, like Jewish faith, is not a mere belief in something one imagines to be true. Christianity is based on certain irreducible historical events.
Brown also misunderstands the Biblical portrayal of God’s character. He keeps referring to the church’s repression of the Sacred Feminine—a female deity (or feminine aspect of God?) that he sees behind the Old Testament Shekinah, or Presence of God—the glory cloud that is the outward visible manifestation of God when God chooses to appear (a theophany). The problem with Brown’s reasoning is that there is a clear witness in the Bible that God is neither male nor female. Rather, the creator God is Spirit (see, for example, Genesis 1 and John 4:24). The Bible has not replaced ancient female deities with one or more male ones. Jews and later Christians were a tiny minority that insisted there was only one God who was Spirit. This God was not a mere participant in the cycle and circle of life, like the gods of the crops (Baal) or the fertility goddesses (Magna Mater); this God was the one God who created all life and indeed the whole material universe. Contrary to the The Da Vinci Code, one could not gain union with the God of the Bible through hieros gamos, or sacred sex. Indeed, no self-chosen human process, even intercourse, could divinize human beings. Eternal life was a gift of God to his people, not an achievement or a self-induced experience. Human beings were only created in the image of God, which meant they were created with a capacity for a full personal relationship with God that no other creature has. Being born is seen as a very good thing, being born again, even better, but the latter is not achieved by human sexual expression.
It is no accident that the heroine of this book is named Sophia Neveu—a rather transparent rendering of “new wisdom.” Brown apparently hopes to broker “new religious wisdom” about Christian origins in the form of a belief in the Sacred Feminine. In so doing, he not only demeans the goodness of the theology of creation and Creator found in the Bible; he also diminishes the process of salvation to an act of sexual expression.
In one of Shakespeare’s historical plays about King Henry, Prince Hal comes in from a night of revelry, thinking that he and his chums had redefined the meaning of revelry. The king rebukes him, telling him he has committed only “the oldest sins the newest kind of ways” (2 King Henry IV 4.5.127). The same might be said of the religious agenda underlying The Da Vinci Code. The book is simply a bad amalgam of old paganism and, strangely enough, old Gnosticism, brought to life by a masterful storyteller. It’s all quite entertaining, if it’s accepted for what it really is: not historical fiction, but pure fiction. And as thrilling as the book is, it can’t hold a candle to the thrill of discovering the historical truth about the events that have shaped the very contours of modern civilization.
1. The Gnostic Gospels are a diverse collection of documents, written by the early Christian sect known as the Gnostics, which bear little resemblance to the canonical Gospels, as they have little, and in some cases no, narrative and do not seek to present a biography of the historical Jesus. Their focus tends to be more on esoteric wisdom that the risen Jesus supposedly conveyed to the disciples after Easter.
2. See George Howard, “Canon: Choosing the Books of the New Testament” BR, October 1989.
3. See Otto Betz, “Was John the Baptist an Essene?” BR, December 1990.
Ben Witherington is professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary and on the doctoral faculty at St. Andrews University, Scotland.
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