May 1, 2006

Historical Propaganda

6 Min Read

Dan Brown’s blockbuster novel, The Da Vinci Code, represents an undeniable publishing phenomenon. Sadly, it also represents a direct attack upon the central truths of the Christian faith — and a misrepresentation of historical fact. Indeed, the novel is really a work of historical fiction, but many readers are deceived by Brown’s all-too-clever recasting of history.

Brown uses the novel’s plot and dialogue as the means of “uncovering” what he presents as long-lost truths about the transformation of Christianity. The Da Vinci Code becomes a literary vehicle for denying the deity of Christ, the reliability of the New Testament, and the essence of the Gospel. In so doing, Brown is not subtle.

The book claims that Jesus Christ was married to Mary Magdalene, and that a child was born of this marriage. One character explains that Jesus — “the original feminist” — had intended for Mary Magdalene to lead the church after His death, but “Peter had a problem with that.” So after the crucifixion, Mary and her child fled to Gaul, where they established the Merovingian line of European royalty.

Heard this all before? The main contours of this plot have been found in many books published in occultic literature. Holy Blood, Holy Grail, for example, by Michael Baigent, Henry Lincoln, and Richard Leigh (1983), made the same claims, but in what purported to be a non-fiction exposé, not a suspense novel.

None of these theories is credible. When one examines the sources, there can be no serious question about the marital status of Jesus. The canonical Gospels, (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) preclude any option of understanding Jesus as married. He operates as an unmarried teacher with a band of devoted disciples. He is not the head of a household, but builds a household of faith — the church. At the crucifixion, he assigns John responsibility for caring for Mary, his mother. There is no mention of any wife, and certainly no mention of children.

So how can Brown promote such an unfounded theory? Very easily — he simply asserts that the marital status of Jesus was hidden by Christian leaders by means of a vast conspiracy. This conspiracy, we are told, explains the absence of any mention of Jesus’ marriage in the New Testament and the church’s denial of any such suggestion throughout its history.

Devotees of suspense novels read for the sheer pleasure of the intellectual engagement — not so much with the philosophical ideas, but with the conspiratorial theories. In that category, The Da Vinci Code delivers spectacularly, resting as it does on a conspiracy theory involving virtually everyone even remotely connected with Christianity throughout the last two thousand years. One of the central arguments found in The Da Vinci Code is that certain leading figures have always known the truth — including the Knights Templar, the Masons, the Roman Catholic Church, and even Interpol. The “Priory of Sion,” asserted to be a secret cabal of the illuminated ones, is central to Brown’s plot and is claimed to have included as Grand Masters no less than Sandro Boticelli, Isaac Newton, and, of course, Leonardo Da Vinci.

According to Brown’s thesis, Da Vinci hid hints of Jesus’ marriage in works of art such as his famous masterpiece, The Last Supper. Brown argues that one of the figures in the fresco standing next to Jesus isn’t a man at all, but Mary Magdalene. Jack Wasserman, however, a prominent art historian at Temple University, however, rejects that argument. Once we understand the artistic style of the era, Wasserman countered, it becomes clear that the figure does not even begin to look like a woman.

The fact is, art historians have poked holes in most of Dan Brown’s interpretations found in The Da Vinci Code. Of course, if you are promoting a conspiracy theory, you simply fold all this into the conspiracy. When an ABC News reporter asked Dan Brown why so many art historians dismiss his theories “as absolutely bizarre and crazy,” Brown explained: “I think it’s because we see what we’ve been told we see.”

Even more problematic than his dubious art criticism is that Brown has to lay the groundwork for his conspiracy by having his main characters deny the inspiration and authority of the biblical text, replacing Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John with a set of Gnostic gospels discovered at Nag Hammadi just after World War II.

He calls these Gnostic texts the “unaltered gospels,” and he dismisses the New Testament texts as mere propaganda. The New Testament, Brown argues, is simply the result of a male-dominated church leadership inventing Christianity in order to control the Roman empire and subsequent world history, and then to oppress women and repress goddess-worship.

In Brown’s mind, the heretics are the heroes, and the apostles are un-indicted co-conspirators. The greatest villain of all is perhaps the Emperor Constantine, who, Brown claims, never even became a Christian, but knew a useful fiction when he saw it. According to The Da Vinci Code, Constantine called the Council of Nicea in 325 to invent the idea of Christ’s divinity (and celibacy) and then turn out the heretics, thus burying the real story of Jesus and Mary Magdalene forever. “It’s all about power,” one character explains. That is why Constantine “upgraded Jesus’ status.”

And the Council of Nicea? There, The Da Vinci Code reveals, the Emperor led the bishops to declare Jesus as the Son of God by a vote — “a relatively close vote at that,” the text elaborates.

For anyone with a real interest in the identity of Jesus and the history of the church, such heresies are easily dismissed. The Nag Hammadi texts are easily identifiable as Gnostic literature, spurious writings of which early Christians were most certainly aware, and which they rightly rejected as sub-biblical and erroneous. Thus, calling them “unaltered” gospels is like reading the official Soviet histories as objective fact — complete with leading figures airbrushed out of the photos. Moreover, the early church did not establish the canon (the official set of New Testament writings) at Nicea, for a general consensus was already evident at that gathering. The New Testament writings were recognized and set apart because of their authorship by one of the apostles and by their clearly orthodox content — in harmony with the other New Testament writings as recognized by the churches spread throughout the Greco-Roman world.

The Da Vinci Code weaves fact and fiction with such recklessness that the average reader will assume all its claims to be factual. There was in fact an ecumenical council at Nicea, but Brown’s account of it is preposterous. The real Council of Nicea adopted a creed in order to reject the heretical teachings of one Arius, who taught that Jesus was not of the same substance as the Father. The council did not “invent” the divinity of Jesus. This was already the declaration of the church, claimed by Jesus Himself as well as by the apostles. The council boldly claimed this as the faith of the church, naming Arianism as a heresy and Arians as heretics. A close vote? Only two out of more than three hundred bishops failed to sign the creed. Not exactly a cliff-hanger.

Much more could be considered, but the main issue is this: How plausible is such a conspiracy? The threshold of credibility for this conspiracy requires us to believe that the entire structure of Christian theology is a sinister plot to fool the masses. Further, we must believe that the leaders of this conspiracy knew that Jesus was not the Son of God, but were willing to die for this cause by the millions. As C. S. Lewis once argued, people might be willing to be martyred for a lie if they are innocently deceived, but very few will die for what they know to be a lie. What is more, it requires one to believe that the truth, known by millions, has been kept secret from the world until now. Specifically, until the release of The Da Vinci Code. Those who want to believe the heresies of The Da Vinci Code will hold to them tenaciously — whatever the evidence. Clearly, the book attacks the Scriptures, the Christian faith, and the Gospel itself, but the truth is unshaken. G. K. Chesterton reminded us that orthodoxy is not only true; it is infinitely more interesting than heresy. It is alive and compelling and life-changing. Heresies come and go by fashion. The truth is unchanged and unchangeable. Caveat emptor, “let the buyer beware.”