Deconstructing The Da Vinci Code

“Everybody loves a conspiracy.”

by Chris Lang

The Da Vinci Code is everywhere. It has prompted an hour-long ABC Primetime special, garnered the cover of Newsweek, is the subject of book clubs across the country and will soon be a motion picture. It also has sparked controversy and doubt. Many reading the book reconfirm their suspicions that the Bible is not a trustworthy and reliable document, while some Christians have even been led to doubt the reliability of the Bible, and in turn, their faith which is based upon it.

How is it that a single novel—a fictional account—can generate such a strong response?

If you haven’t read this book, you should. From a literary perspective, it’s a fast-paced, page turner that tantalizes the reader with fascinating digressions into the history of art, explanations of pagan cultic practices, insights into secret societies and it unfolds like a murder mystery that spans some 2,000 years.

It is also an unrelenting attack on the Catholic Church in specific, and Christianity in general. It is a book that attacks what some feel to be the soft underbelly of the Christian faith—namely, the biblical canon, the list of books accepted by the church for centuries as inspired by God.

The basic premise of the book is similar to that of the Gnostic Gospels, written by Elaine Pagels. In fact, it seems clear that Dan Brown, the author of The Da Vinci Code, is very familiar with Pagels’ book. Both books argue that there is an alternate history of Christianity, and of Jesus himself, which the church has suppressed, hidden and sought to destroy for nearly 2,000 years.

The history that we in the West have inherited is not the real history, but rather, that recounted by the winners: white, patriarchal, Christian, men. Dan Brown merely puts the thesis in a form that is accessible and interesting to the modern reader.   

Pagels and Brown both use as the cornerstone of their intellectual edifice, a set of documents discovered in Nag Hammadi, Egypt , in 1945, often referred to as the Gnostic gospels.   These so-called gospels paint the picture of a Jesus who is a sage or a prophet, an incarnation of deity, but not a suffering Messiah dying for sin of mankind. Brown uses these documents as the jumping off point for his creative imagination.

One of the most insidious aspects of this book is that it clothes itself in the mantle of history. The main character of the book is a historian who consistently spouts conjecture, theory and gross historical inaccuracies, as though they were well-known and well-accepted historical facts.

The effect of this literary device is to give an air of credibility to a piece of writing that would otherwise be in-credible. Had this book been written as a paper and submitted to a history journal, it would have been rejected outright for its numerous fallacies and blatant historical errors.

Let’s look at a few of the major fallacies propounded by this book. I’ll quote from The Da Vinci Code and follow the quote with some facts.

Fallacy : “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 Judean desert” (p. 234).

Fact : The first cache of the DSS was discovered in 1947 with more caves discovered in the following decade. None of these caves held any “gospels” or any other kind of Christian manuscripts.

Fallacy : “Christianity honored the Jewish Sabbath of Saturday, but Constantine shifted it to coincide with the pagan’s veneration day of the sun” (p. 232-233).

Fact : The earliest Christians were Jewish and did celebrate the Sabbath on Saturday, but “the Lord’s day” has always been Sunday to commemorate the resurrection. Consider the words of Justin Martyr, fully 200 years prior to Constantine, “On the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits.”

Fallacy : “ 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” (p. 234).

Fact : Constantine did in fact commission 50 copies of the Bible around 325 AD. Due to the exorbitant cost of hand copying such a large document on parchment, only an emperor could afford to do this.

Constantine ’s Bible is a reflection, not of his ideology, but of the prevailing view of churches at that time, many of which possessed originals or copies of the apostles’ writings. The sectarian (lit. heretical) writings that Brown alludes to were widely rejected by the churches of Constantine ’s day.

Fallacy : “More than eighty gospels were considered for the New Testament, and yet only a relative few were chosen for inclusion…The Bible as we know it today was collated by the pagan Roman Emperor Constantine the Great (p. 231).

Fact : There are not some 80 gospels in existence. Actually, maybe half that many are known to have existed loosely as Gnostic “scriptures.” The vast majority of these are not stories of the life of Jesus, but rather explanations of the Gnostic worldview.

Fallacy : The New Testament was “chosen” or selected by an individual or group.

Fact : Churches around the Mediterranean world operated on an ad-hoc basis collecting documents known to have been written by the apostles. These collections would circulate among different churches and new letters would be added as they were written and copied. See Paul’s words in Colossians 4:16 , 1 Thessalonians 5:27 and 2 Timothy 4:13 where he instructs the churches to copy and circulate these letters. In fact, no official church pronouncement was made on the canon for nearly 400 years after Jesus’ day quite simply because none was needed. The vast majority of the churches during this period knew what the biblical canon was and had roughly the same documents in their collections.

The historical inaccuracies in The Da Vinci Code are far too many to enumerate here, but it would be wise for us to consider where we can agree with Brown. This book has proved enormously popular and is a great jumping off point for discussion with friends. Here are a few points we can agree on:

The history of the church has often been discriminatory toward women. Brown states, “Jesus was the original feminist” (p. 248). Indeed, Jesus is the original feminist, as he makes clear in his discussion with Mary and Martha about where a woman belongs (Luke 10:40ff), namely with the men learning at the feet of Jesus. Paul echoes Jesus’ position on women when he says that “there is neither male nor female but all are one in Christ” (Galatians 3:28 ).  

The Gnostics, on the other hand, were not feminists, and held a view of women that was no better than the culture in which they lived. It is in fact disingenuous of Brown to argue that the Sacred Feminine somehow elevated women within pagan cultures. He goes so far as to infer that the egregious practice of temple prostitution, in which young girls were sold into slavery, was a way of honoring women in pagan culture. This is an outlandish claim that no reasonable person, let alone any feminist, should countenance.

Consider this passage from the so called Gospel of Thomas, “Simon Peter said to them, `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 ’” (114).

It’s no wonder that Brown does not quote these documents. Their tenor, for the most part, does not sustain the Brown’s thesis of a merely mortal Jesus with feminist sympathies. Nor does this quote lend credence to his thesis that Jesus and Mary were actually intimate.

Much of what Brown reacts to in his novel is an overly authoritarian church. He is right that the church has often misrepresented Jesus.

There is nothing wrong or frightening about reading some of the Gnostic writings on Jesus. The discerning reader will quickly see that the Jesus in these writings is nothing more than a mouthpiece used to promote a peculiar vision of the world and that they are not historically reliable documents.

But who is a reliable witness to the events that transpired in Palestine early in the first century? Pagels and Brown put much emphasis on the Gnostic documents, as though they were a credible witness to the events of Jesus’ life.

Their claim is that the Gnostic voice was squelched by the leaders of the early church, and that the historical Jesus is someone very different from the picture given to us by the New Testament.

Could this be true? Is there a reliable tradition about Jesus that is outside of the New Testament?

The key word here is “reliable.” Gnosticism is considered by the vast majority of scholars to be something foreign to the time of Jesus and Christian Gnosticism a second-century invention.

The Gnostics had a bad habit of placing their teachings in the mouth of a credible historical figure in order to lend authority to their teachings. We have writings from the second and third centuries that claim to be written by apostles and famous figures in the early church that could not possibly have been written by them.

Most of the Gnostic documents found in Nag Hammadi were in fact written in the third and fourth centuries after Jesus, around 350 A.D., in a language known as Coptic which Jesus did not speak. The Gospel of Thomas is among the earliest of these documents and may date back at the very earliest to 140 A.D., clearly too late for Thomas to have written it.

Not only is the historical evidence for these writings poor, but the manuscript evidence is also poor. We have only a handful of Gnostic writings, most of them dating hundreds of years after Jesus’ life. By comparison, we possess over a hundred Greek manuscripts of the New Testament books and tens of thousands of quotes from early church leaders of those same books that date prior to the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. The earliest of our New Testament manuscripts dates to 125 A.D. a mere 20-30 years after it was written. How can the traditions possibly be compared?

It is clearly disingenuous of Pagels and Brown to argue that these documents are a reliable witness to the events. Rather, I think what we see is a historical recreation in service to an ideology—exactly the problem we see with Gnosticism itself. Gnostics unashamedly hijacked historical figures of an earlier period and reinvented them in service to their peculiar philosophy.

Pagels and Brown are doing the same in our own day.