Dan Brown’s fictional book The Da Vinci Code is a 40-million-copy, global bestseller and perhaps the Hollywood blockbuster of 2006, staring Tom Hanks. By now, if you haven’t read the book, you’ve probably seen the movie—or both.
The book kept me up most of one night, enjoying its plot twists, danger, romance and puzzles, but also laughing at its inaccuracies and fantasy. Brown’s fictional plot claims to uncover “the greatest cover-up in human history,” which includes:
- Jesus Christ was not God in human form but only a “mortal prophet”
- Mary Magdalene was divine and was married to Jesus. Their descendants include the French royal family and people alive today
- In 325 AD, Emperor Constantine and the church Council of Nicea upgraded Jesus to “god” status
- The Roman Catholic Church used terror tactics so as to silence those who knew the truth.
In respect to these wild claims, the website <catholic.com> gets right to the point: “If the book’s claims were true, then all forms of Christianity would be false (except perhaps for Gnostic/feminist versions focusing on Mary Magdalene instead of Jesus),” it says.
Similar theories has been promoted before, including the then fringe book Holy Blood, Holy Grail, by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln, in 1982. In fact two of its authors have sued Brown for plagiarism. Ironically, the two whose names inspired Brown’s fictional character Leigh Teabing (codebreakers: Teabing comes from rearranging the letters of Baigent). This alternative “history” has been debunked by more than a dozen authors, and not just Christians, so it’s important to read the categorising word on the book’s back cover, “Fiction.”
Evaluating the Claims:
In the novel, Teabing claims “the early church” hijacked Jesus Christ’s “human message, surrounding it in an impenetrable cloak of divinity.” He says Jesus existed, and 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.” But because “Constantine upgraded Jesus” from man to God almost four centuries after Jesus’ death, “thousands of documents already existed chronicling His life as a mortal man.” And so “Constantine 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 earlier gospels were outlawed, gathered up and burned.”1
- Teabing (or Brown) accepts that Jesus was a historical figure who walked the earth and inspired millions. Most serious historians agree.
- Teabing claims Jesus was human and mortal, but any gospels that described Christ’s human traits were omitted, outlawed, gathered up and burned.
Yet even a quick look over the biblical Gospels reveals many instances of Jesus’ humanity. They show Him tired, hungry, tempted, growing in understanding, crying at a funeral, suffering feelings of rejection—all human traits, which one wouldn’t usually associate with God. 2
So Jesus’ humanity is emphasised in the Gospels, which are recognised by every Christian tradition. These Gospels also clearly present Jesus as God incarnate. Christians since earliest times have found this apparent contradiction to be a mind-boggling “mystery” but also beautiful evidence of God’s sympathy with the human race.
- Teabing’s theory that gospels were burned has no historical support. Big imaginations is why we pay novelists big bucks, but this imagination is not to be taken as serious historical or religious statement.
“Fortunately for historians … some of the gospels that Constantine attempted to eradicate managed to survive. The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in the 1950s hidden in a cave near Qumran in the Judaean desert. And, of course, the Coptic Scrolls in 1945 at Nag Hammadi… . These documents speak of Christ’s ministry in very human terms. Of course, the Vatican, in keeping with their tradition of misinformation, tried very hard to suppress the release of these scrolls. And why wouldn’t they? The scrolls highlight glaring historical discrepancies and fabrications, clearly confirming that the modern Bible was compiled and edited by men who possessed a political agenda—to promote the divinity of the man Jesus Christ and use His influence to solidify their own power base.”
Look at the Claims
Brown lists the Dead Sea Scrolls as gospels, or biographies of Jesus.
Oops—embarrassing blunder. The Dead Sea Scrolls are Jewish books, not Christian. You can buy a copy at major bookshops, and you’ll see that what they contain is a copy of all the books of the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, except for the story of Esther, and some commentaries and other worship material. Teabing calls them “the earliest Christian records” (page 331), but they’re Jewish, and most date from at least 100 years before Christ. (And they were found in 1947, not the 1950s—but that’s just a smaller blunder.)
Strangely, Brown doesn’t correct these blunders in later interviews.
The ancient documents found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt actually do not mention the Grail—the “secrets” about Jesus—at all! Read them at http://gnosis.org/naghamm/nhl.html and you’ll see why serious questions have been raised about them.
They were written late: “The official translator of the Nag Hammadi library puts the date of the Gospel of Philip at 250 AD. The earliest date ever suggested is 175 AD.”3
This means they were not written by eyewitnesses, as with the biblical accounts, and they couldn’t have been written by the disciples whose names they bear. For example, the so-called Gospel of Thomas was written long after Thomas was dead.
These non-biblical gospels reveal a Jesus who does not blink or leave footprints—he only looks human. So much for Brown’s claim that they show Jesus in “very human terms.”
These Gnostic “gospels” were not Christian but Gnostic—a different religion in constant debate with Christianity. Brown uses them to prove female spirituality, but look how the Gospel of Thomas ends: “Simon Peter said, 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” (Saying 114).4
Nicky Gumbel put it this way: “The Nag Hammadi manuscripts are not really Gospels at all. The Gnostic gospels are nonhistorical, and even anti-historical, with little narrative or sense of chronology. They were written generations after the facts while claiming direct, secret knowledge about them.”5
Teabing claims that no-one before 325 AD believed Jesus was God. But the early church leaders said Jesus was God.
In about 110 AD, Ignatius of Antioch wrote: “For our God, Jesus Christ, was conceived by Mary in accord with God’s plan: of the seed of David, it is true, but also of the Holy Spirit.”6
The Bible’s New Testament, written before 99 AD, often calls Jesus God. Roman historians record that the first Christians believed Jesus was God in human form. For example, Plinius Secundus, who was the Roman governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor, in 112 AD, wrote to Emperor Trajan reporting that he had been killing Christians, including boys and girls. Obviously he was no friend of Christians and not biased in their favour. But those Christians would admit to only the following crime: “That they were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verse a hymn to Christ as to a God, and bound themselves to a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft, adultery, never to falsify their word.”7
Christians were meeting each week to worship Christ as God. That belief has not changed in 2000 years.
While Dan Brown certainly deserves an A+ for creative writing, he gets an F for history. So enjoy the fiction but, as the movie promo put it, “Seek the truth.”
On its history, Time magazine says, “Strictly speaking, the novel is heretical. It’s perhaps worth noting that one of the very few books to sell more copies than The Da Vinci Code in the past two years is the Bible.”8
Why a Bestseller?
Even though its history is dodgy, Brown’s novel is the best-selling adult fiction book of all time. And Time recently listed Dan Brown among the top 100 most influential people in the world. Why?
Well, in part, because it questions the establishment church, and that goes down well. I admit that many people have good reason to question the church in their own way. For example, James Rudin of Religious News Service writes of the “Roman Catholic Church, especially in the US and Ireland,” suffering “a continuing sexual abuse scandal involving priests. The staggering financial costs of payments to victims bankrupted some dioceses.”
Teabing claims people “look at Church scandals and ask, Who are these men who claim to speak the truth about Christ and yet lie to cover up the sexual abuse of children by their own priests?” (page 356). And that’s a fair question.
Christian apologist Greg Clarke says, “Christians are definitely guilty of some of the claims of this novel, and I for one am sorry about it.”9
Clark debunks Brown’s historical theories, but admits that “if the Church can hide such heinous sins within its ranks,” then he can understand why some people “would be attracted to the idea that the church was hiding a secret as big as the identity of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. When trust has been betrayed, then anything seems possible.”
He admits churches have acted like a “bully.” For example, legal tactics have been used to silence victims of sexual abuse, refusing to pay them more than token damages.
He balances this by saying most priests (and vicars and pastors) aren’t corrupt, and most people’s experience with church is positive, but he can see why “post-Christians” might doubt the church.10
Clarke also says sorry “for not presenting the truth as we understand it in an exciting, attractive and believable way… sorry for being boring… . Christians can make Christianity seem mundane, all about rules, or all about denying yourself pleasures. If we do, we present a distorted view of Christianity… . I can understand why The Da Vinci Code is such an attractive alternative: It makes you excited about spirituality again. It helps you think about the mysteries of life. It presents a very human portrait of Jesus and Mary. It debunks ‘hard’ traditional beliefs and gives you alternative forms of history, sexuality and theology. [It] offers a view of religion that can seem more human, more in contact with the real world, more about relationships and experiences and love and sex and celebration.”11
But Clarke argues that core Christianity is “nothing short of astounding. We think [Jesus] is the key to understanding the purpose of life. We think He opens up the opportunity for freedom, hope and mercy for all people who believe in him. And we believe that He rose from the grave and in doing so demonstrated His power over the things we fear most. We’re excited by these spiritual ideas.”12
Clarke is right. It’s a mistake to blame Jesus for the church’s mistakes. After all, Jesus was critical of organised religion in His time. He told priests 2000 years ago that prostitutes and tax collectors would go to heaven before they did (Matthew 21:31). He said anyone who hurt children would be better off “to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Matthew 18:6). He told a group of priests that their attitudes were slamming heaven’s door in people’s faces.
Imagine Jesus looking religious leaders in the eye and saying such things! No wonder they crucified Him. He told the truth about religious corruption in His day and age. I admit that there are many examples of religious organisations acting terribly while saying all the right words.
In fairness, churches also motivate the rich to help the poor. They run charities and soup kitchens and hospitals and educate the poor and contribute millions of hours of volunteer work each year to people who are poor, old, sick, lonely and marginalised. They serve because they are inspired by the life and words of Jesus Christ. But let’s not back away from the glaring examples of church greed, corruption and abuse from people who are preaching and talking down to others. Perhaps the church is God’s most serious image problem.
I can understand why some would like to wipe the smug smile off Christianity’s face by proving their whole story is myth! But Brown only manages to prove it to people who haven’t read real history.
Another reason Brown’s book has sold so well is that it promotes fashionable spirituality. Brown’s fictional hero, Robert Langdon, argues for a Christianity that is less hung up about sex and more respectful of women. Yet it ends up sounding more like New Age spirituality.
He has a point—some churches have kept women in second place. Yet when you read what Jesus actually said and did in that regard you see that He promoted equality and elevated women.
And Brown’s book sounds democratic about spiritual truth. Michael Green claims one cause of the novel’s popularity is “the current aversion to Christianity but hunger for spirituality.” Green believes a popular attitude is: “Down with the authoritarianism that has marked a male-dominated church. Let’s replace it with an all-inclusive neo-paganism, where the sacred feminine comes into its own, where nobody is told what to believe, where all religions are much the same, and where nature worship with full sexual permissiveness in on the agenda. All of this is very attractive in today’s society.”
Yet Green warns that “Brown’s claim to factual accuracy, playing on the contemporary tendency to confuse fact with fiction,” makes the book potentially deceptive, especially because most people know so little about original Christianity.13 We live in “a Jesus-haunted culture,” says Professor Ben Witherington, “but at the same time, it’s a biblically illiterate culture. When you have that odd combination, almost anything can pass for knowledge of the historical Jesus.”14