A biblical response
The Da Vinci Code: A Novel Idea?
By Ben Witherington
CBN.com Excerpt from The Gospel Code
Chapter One (part one)
On the surface of things, all seems well. You pick up a copy of Dan Brown’s bestseller The Da Vinci Code. What could be more fun than reading a real page turner? This books captures your attention and holds it as well as any John Grisham novel.
Yet for those who have been reading sensational claims about early Christianity over the years, there is something strangely familiar about this book. Wasn’t there a book very much like this one published some twenty years ago? Below is the editorial review from Amazon.com of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, which came out in 1982:
Michael Baigent, Henry Lincoln, and Richard Leigh, authors of The Messianic Legacy, spent over 10 years on their own kind of quest for the Holy Grail, into the secretive history of early France. What they found, researched with the tenacity and attention to detail that befits any great quest, is a tangled and intricate story of politics and faith that reads like a mystery novel. It is the story of the Knights Templar, and a behind-the-scenes society called the Prieure de Sion, and its involvement in reinstating descendants of the Merovingian bloodline into political power. Why? The authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail assert that their explorations into early history ultimately reveal that Jesus may not have died on the cross, but lived to marry and father children whose bloodline continues today. The authors’ point here is not to compromise or to demean Jesus, but to offer another, more complete perspective of Jesus as God’s incarnation in man. The power of this secret, which has been carefully guarded for hundreds of years, has sparked much controversy. For all the sensationalism and hoopla surrounding Holy Blood, Holy Grail and the alternate history that it outlines, the authors are careful to keep their perspective and sense of skepticism alive in its pages, explaining carefully and clearly how they came to draw such combustible conclusions. — Jodie Buller
And the inside-flap copy asks:
- Is the traditional, accepted view of the life of Christ in some way incomplete?
- Is it possible Christ did not die on the cross?
- Is it possible Jesus was married, a father, and that his bloodline still exists?
- Is it possible that parchments found in the South of France a century ago reveal one of the best-kept secrets of Christendom?
- Is it possible that these parchments contain the very heart of the mystery of the Holy Grail?
Or consider the 1993 book written by a woman who says that reading Holy Blood, Holy Grail changed her life—Margaret Starbird’s The Woman with the Alabaster Jar: Mary Magdalen and the Holy Grail. In this book Starbird is reacting to what she sees as the repression and exclusion of women in the Roman Catholic tradition. Unfortunately, what she offers us is a story of Mary Magdalene (who she wrongly identifies with Mary of Bethany, who anointed Jesus). According to Starbird, Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ wife, and she became the Holy Grail in the sense of bearing Jesus’ children and passing along the holy blood. Ultimately Starbird relies more on medieval lore and art, and she fails to take the Bible seriously.
There was a tendency in medieval exegesis, beginning with Gregory the Great, to identify Mary Magdalene with the sinful woman of Luke 7:36-50 and sometimes also with Mary of Bethany. We will deal with the former mistake shortly, but here it needs to be noted that a woman who is identified as from Magdala (Mary Magdalene) cannot be identified at the same time and in the same Gospel as from Bethany (see John 12:1-3 and John 19:25). Geographical designations were used in a fixed way to say where a person was from, not where they might be currently living. This was done because it was believed that a person’s origin said something definitive about (and sometimes even determined) who that person was or could be, hence Nathaniel’s question about whether anything good could come out of Nazareth (John 1:46). In that culture, geography, gender and generation (parentage) were thought to determine identity and personality.
In a culture where there were no last names, a geographical designation was one of the main ways to distinguish people with the same first name, and it appears the geographical designation was regularly used of those who never married, especially women who could not use the patronymic (“son of . . .”: as in Simon bar-Jonah, which means “Simon, the son of John”). In the Greek New Testament, for example, in Luke 8:1-3 Joanna is identified by the phrase “of Chuza,” which surely means “wife of Chuza,” but in the same list Mary is said to be “of Magdala.” Had Mary of Magdala been married to Jesus, she would have been identified in the same way as Joanna, not with the geographical designation.
Once Holy Blood, Holy Grail and The Woman with the Alabaster Jar are examined and we turn to The Da Vinci Code, we realize we’ve been down this road before—twice! Only now it’s being served up in a novel that purports to be based on the facts unearthed by Baigent, Lincoln, Leigh, Starbird and others. Lest we think that Dan Brown intends for his book to be seen as pure fiction, we are told on the very first page of his work titled FACT that not only is there a Priory of Sion and a Catholic sect known as Opus Dei, but “all descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.”
Our concern isn’t so much with Brown’s ability to describe art or architecture accurately (though we will question his interpretation of da Vinci’s famous painting of the Last Supper), but rather with his handling of ancient documents and his treatment of early Christian history. In these realms he is not merely out of his depth, he is also a purveyor of errors of both fact and interpretation, including some mistakes that even the most amateur student of religious history should never make.
He can’t hide behind the disclaimer that “this is fiction” because his very first page intends to give the impression that it is a novel grounded solidly in history. He presents his work as historical fiction: though the main characters and their drama are fictional, the materials they are seeking and studying are portrayed as facts or at least probably true. There should have been a caveat emptor—“let the buyer beware”—on page one.
When you read a compelling work of fiction and incongruities keep popping up, here a detail doesn’t ring true or there a fact seems to be in error, the apparent authenticity of the work is ruined. Brown didn’t have much to worry about since his readers are largely unattuned to religious and historical errors. Indeed, many of them apparently take at face value what the main characters in this work—Robert Langdon, the famous professor of religious symbols from Harvard, and Leigh Teabing, the historical expert and longtime quester after the Grail—say about Jesus and the history of early Christianity. It really doesn’t matter that because of his greed for the Grail, Teabing turns out to be a rogue and a scoundrel. Neither Langdon nor anyone else repudiates Teabing’s historical claims at the end of the novel. Indeed, the novel concludes at the Louvre with “proof” that what the book claims about Mary Magdalene is really true. After all, page one says, “all descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.” But is there really an artistic shrine or tomb of Mary Magdalene in the Louvre?
There is another factor at play in what appears to be fiction, another central character whose name, not coincidentally, is Sophie Neveu, and who, also not coincidentally, is an expert in cracking codes. Her name gives her identity away to anyone who knows Greek or early Jewish and Christian literature. Her name means “New Wisdom,” and as the novel progresses she receives enlightenment through the revelations unfolded by Teabing and Langdon. Sophie is a symbol for Brown’s audience of neophytes, eager to learn the secrets, crack the codes and have their collective religious consciousness raised. She represents the postmodern American public—who is in for the education of a lifetime. In the process she learns her own history and past, and how it fits into the Grail story itself. At the end of the novel we learn that Sophie is a descendent of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, the Holy Grail! The answer to the religious quest lies within herself, within her own bloodline.
Sophie Neveu represents the modern public seeking insider knowledge (gnosis) so she can understand the secret of her own identity. And not surprisingly, the quest leads ultimately within rather than outside the seeker. This is a very different vision of salvation than the apostle Paul’s, who says, “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). In Brown’s novel, salvation is a matter of getting to the bottom of our self to understand our own identity. In other words, the religious quest ultimately leads us back to our own self, an exercise in pure narcissism! The notion of Jesus’ being the Savior is repudiated. In the book he is just a great teacher and perhaps a prophet.
But this new insider knowledge, this new wisdom that Sophie embodies in name and nature, has a further dimension: the “sacred feminine.” Here Brown revives the old pagan fertility cult and goddess worship. Sophie Neveu is ripe and ready for romance with the dashing and erudite Robert Langdon. The irony is that the ancient Gnostics, whose books were found at Nag Hammadi, would have found this utterly repulsive. Gnosticism is a strongly ascetic religious tradition with a basic belief that spirit is good but matter, including the human body, is evil. The Gnostics of old would have denied the body and its pleasures. Brown’s unwitting mixture of Gnosticism and ancient goddess worship is a gumbo that none of the old Gnostics or the old pagan practitioners of fertility religion would have found palatable. Real students of history can only wince.
Ah, but we should suspend our disbelief, shouldn’t we? This is, after all, a novel! What’s all the fuss about? Unfortunately, just going along for the ride could be a dangerous thing, for all too often in a postmodern situation, the public (even the church-going public) is more likely to take a novel as the gospel than the Gospels themselves. Consider for a moment those other religious bestsellers of recent years—the Left Behind series by Timothy La Haye and Jerry B. Jenkins. Indeed they are novels, but they serve up a “novel” view of end times as if it were absolutely true rather than a minority opinion within both the world of biblical scholarship and the church at large. There is much the Left Behind series has left out. Sadly, since ours is primarily an entertainment culture, we must pay close attention to the messages encoded in the entertainment lest we too become beguiled.
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Related article: The 'Browning' of Christian History
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Read the preface to The Gospel Code
An interview with Ben Witherington
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Bible scholar Ben Witherington III is Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. A graduate of UNC, Chapel Hill, he went on to receive the M.Div. degree from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. from the University of Durham in England. He is now considered one of the top evangelical scholars in the world, and is an elected member of the prestigious SNTS, a society dedicated to New Testament studies. Witherington has written over thirty books, including The Jesus Quest and The Paul Quest, both of which were selected as top biblical studies works by Christianity Today. He also writes for many church and scholarly publications, and is a frequent contributor to the Beliefnet website.
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