It's rare that we take a service and we devote it to a book, but this is no ordinary book. It's been on the top of The New York Times bestseller list and Amazon.com for 50 weeks. Not even the release of a new John Grisham novel could knock it off. It inspired a one-hour ABC News special. It's being developed as a major motion picture. At first glance when you look at this book you wonder What's creating the attention? Because at first glance the plot isn't anything that really stands out above normal mystery fare. It starts off with the murder of a curator at the Louvre in Paris, leads to a trail of clues found in the work of Leonardo Da Vinci, and the discovery of a centuries-old secret society. It's a page-turner. But that's not what has grabbed our attention. It's that the clues of Leonardo's work and the mission of the secret society revolve around the Holy Grail. This Holy Grail is not put forward as what we traditionally think of as the Holy Grailthe chalice that Jesus used during the Last Supper and that some feel was also taken to the cross and captured some of the blood from the crucifixion. The novel identifies the Holy Grail as the bloodline of Jesus. The book suggests that Mary Magdalene was the wife of Jesus and the mother of his child. And because she bore descendants, particularly a daughter by the name of Sarah, she is, in fact, the Holy Grail. After the crucifixion, she fled with their child to the south of France where they established the Merovingian line of European royalty, which then became the basis of a secret society to preserve that bloodline and to protect the secret until it was time to make it known to the wider world.
Along the way, Brown also suggests that the church invented the deity of Jesus and that it's all been covered up primarily by a secretive Catholic group known as Opus Dei.
This is a blend of fiction and historical assertion that suggests the entire foundation upon which Christianity is established is false and a lie. Look at some of the more radical claims made in this novel.
Were Jesus and Mary married?
First, consider the claims about Mary and Jesus. The Bible says that Mary was a devoted follower of Christ, liberated from a terrible torment by Jesus. She was deeply grateful for that and gave the rest of her life to serving him and his cause. She was present at his crucifixion and burial, and was the first person Jesus appeared to following his resurrection. She was charged to bring that good news to the rest of the disciples. She was a remarkable woman, prominently featured in the New Testament, honored throughout Christian history.
Dan Brown takes what the Bible says and adds to the tale significantly. He has a character in the novel state that Mary was married to Jesus and that the marriage is a matter of historical record. That's simply not true. There is no accepted historical record whatsoever to that effect. In fact, the leading historian who specializes on the life of Mary Magdalene, Karen King, a professor of history at Harvard University, says that's ridiculous. There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever of that kind of relationship between Mary and Jesus.
Where did Brown get this idea if it wasn't from history? He got it from a 1982 book called Holy Blood, Holy Grail. According to an editorial in The New York Times Book Review it's one of the all-time classic examples of pop pseudo history. It got its ideas largely from French legend and folklore.
What's really driving this? On his website, Dan Brown says that he has a desire to promote the idea of the sacred feminine, that is, goddess worship. In fact, one of the characters in the book says that the quest for the Holy Grail is literally the quest to kneel before the bones of Mary Magdalene.
Are the Gospels wrong?
This brings us to the second major claim that Brown makes, that all the Scriptures in the Bible are just wrong. He claims that the early church suppressed up to 80 alternate accounts of the life and teaching of Jesus and arbitrarily chose the four we have today in order to suppress accounts that elevated Mary as an apostle or perhaps a goddess. The area of my Ph.D. is in systematic theology at both Vanderbilt and Oxford. As a scholar in this area I can say that no biblical scholar I'm aware of has any knowledge of 80 alternate gospels floating around from the 1st century. The four gospels we have in the Bible are there because they were credible, both then and now. These four were universally affirmed as being authentic, eyewitness accounts of Jesus.
For example, one of the four biographers of Jesus, a physician named Luke, writes this at the start of his account. He said:
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
And other writers went out of their way to invite accountability by making sure that everybody knew that they were claiming to be eyewitnesses. The apostle John wrote in one of his contributions to the New Testament: "That which is from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched--this we proclaim concerning the Word of life."
What Brown wants to lift up are those documents that began to be circulated much later than the Gospels of the Bible, no earlier than mid-2nd century. Those include one that claimed to be the gospel of Mary Magdalene, in which the author writes that Mary was loved by Jesus above all women, that she was a leader among the apostles, that she had been given secret knowledge by Jesus, and that the other apostles, particularly Peter, were all threatened by her. No scholar of note buys that, neither does the textual historical evidence of their dating.
Is Mary pictured in TheLast Supper?
Brown doesn't just contend that there are secret scriptures but also hidden messages in art. This is the third claim that we should take note of, particularly the work by the man that gives the book its name, Leonardo Da Vinci. According to Brown, Da Vinci filled his work with signs and clues and hidden symbols all pointing to Mary being the wife of Jesus, carrying his child, and being the Holy Grail. The work he focused on is The Last Supper. Brown claims that in that work of art the apostle shown to the right of Jesus is Mary Magdalene. When you look at The Last Supper there is very little doubt that the person purported to be the Apostle John in this picture does look a bit feminine. But this is where Brown didn't do his art history homework.
First, it was very common for artists of that day to portray the Apostle John as young and fair and clean-shaven. In fact, when you examine paintings of the apostle John throughout the Renaissance period, you see that kind of representation over and over again from artist to artist to artist. Second, Da Vinci, more than most of those artists, had a tendency to portray all young men in his paintings in a feminine way. Some have alluded that this is because of Da Vinci's supposed homosexuality. We don't know, but we do know that no matter what young man he was drawing, he tended to draw them in a feminine way.
Those are facts of art history and about Da Vinci, but to claim that this is a woman and that it is Mary Magdalene has art historians pulling out their hair. They say this is not Mary Magdalene and never could have been intended as such. One of the reasons we know that categorically are the preliminary sketches Da Vinci made for this painting. When you go to Venice and study them, you see that Leonardo labeled each one of the figures he was painting; and he labeled this person John, never Mary.
Brown also makes much of this painting in that there's no chalice. He claims that Leonardo wanted Mary to be seen as the Holy Grail. But art historians have pointed out that Brown didn't do his research, because Da Vinci was not painting the moment where the bread and the wine were passed. The scene was not meant to capture the institution of the Eucharist or communion, which would have obviously featured the chalice and the bread. Da Vinci was painting the earlier moment when Jesus says, "One of you will betray me." That's why you see such emotional displays on all the apostles' faces, including that of Judas, who Da Vinci painted in shadow.
To read any other meaning into this painting is to deny the intent of the artist himself. In fact, Jack Wasserman, retired art history professor at Temple University, said, "When you read a book and so much of it is nonsense, I just couldn't get from page to page without throwing a fit."
What about the secret society that Da Vinci was supposedly a part of? Documents Brown mentions as being discovered in Paris in the 1970s attesting to the group are now believed by almost all experts to have been forged and planted there. The hoax was revealed in a 1996 BBC documentary.
Did the church invent Jesus' divinity?
Then there's Brown's claim about Jesus himself. Brown has one of his characters saying that almost everything our fathers taught us about Christ is false. Brown claimed that the idea of the deity of Jesus, that Jesus was God himself in human form, was something created out of thin air in a.d. 325 at the Council of Nicea. Brown argues that in this Council, church leaders wanted to consolidate their powerbase, create a divine Christ, and an infallible Scripture even though no one believed it up to that point in time. Brown is right about one thing. In the course of Christian history, few events are more significant than the Council of Nicea. The Roman Emperor Constantine recently had converted to the Christian faith, and he called bishops together from all around the world, but not to figure out what to believe but to affirm it. The Council was called to make an official statement of what was believed, was being taught, and what everyone knew to be true for the entire early Christian movement. What Christians believed, taught, and understood to be true was without debate. The Gospels were written within 25 years of Jesus' life. They were widely circulating, and they were already teaching that Jesus was divine.
For example, in John 10:36 Jesus is recorded to have said, "I am God's Son." In John 14:6 he said, "I am the way and the truth and the life." In Mark 14:61 the high priest asked him, "'Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?'" Jesus replied, 'I am.'" In John 14:9 Jesus said, "Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father."
The deity of Jesus wasn't some new teaching; it was present from day one. It was the heart of the Christian message, and it was what Jesus said about his own identity. It was never debated. It was never doubted. It was never questioned. But during the first few decades following Jesus, nobody put forward an official statement or creed about it other than the Scriptures that were already there, because they didn't have to. Everybody knew what Jesus said and taught about himself. It was still close enough to the events of Jesus life and teaching that people knew what he said and knew what he did. The Scriptures that recorded it all, including the Gospels in the Bible were widely available, widely referenced, widely known to be accurate and authentic.
So what happened? An Alexandrian scholar and theologian named Arius appeared on the scene, who suddenly started teaching that while Jesus was a good guy and a remarkable leader, all this God stuff was not true. Of course, the Christian teachers and leaders said, "What are you talking about? That is crazy."But Arius kept spreading his ideas, so Constantine said: Let's get all the bishops together and set forward what's always been taught and always been believed and affirm what the Gospel records say.
It resulted in what we know today as the Nicene Creed, a statement clearly affirming the Trinitarian nature of God and the divinity of Jesus. The language is ancient, even translated into English it reads awkwardly because of its age. This was written a.d. 325. Here is exactly what the official pronouncement of the Nicene Creed was:
We believe in one God the Father, all sovereign, Maker of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, only begotten, that is of the substance of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, True God of True God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father, through whom all things were made, things in heaven and things on the earth, who for us men and for our salvation came down and was made flesh and became Man, suffered, rose on the third day, ascended into heaven, is coming to judge living and dead.
And in the Holy Spirit. And those that say there was when he was not, and before he was begotten he was not and that he came into being from what is not, or those that allege that the Son of God is of another substance of essence or was created or changeable or alterable, these the catholic and apostolic church anathematizes.
The creed passed, and Brown acknowledges that, but he says it was by a close vote because Christianity was in turmoil and no one knew what they believed. That's not accurate either. It passed 298 to 2, and Arius was branded a fringe heretic. But in The Da Vinci Code Brown says Arius was the prime representative for Christian life and thought, that everybody believed like Arius up to that time, and the council of Nicea was a great big conspiracy. That is absolutely, historically inaccurate. Christians overwhelmingly from the beginning worshiped Jesus as Savior and Lord, and every major Christian writer and thinker leading up to Nicea from the earliest documents of the early church testifies to this. The Council of Nicea invented nothing. It merely affirmed the historic and standard Christian beliefs erecting a united front against the heresies of those who wanted to dilute, distort, and mangle the clear teachings of Jesus. Brown simply resurrects a fringe heresy, dusts it off, and presents it as something new.
Let me add a personal, pastoral word to you about this. When it comes to books like The DaVinci Code or any other medium that's out therea film, a website, a TV showgo to the sources. Read what the Bible really says. Look at the history of the early church. Check it out. If Christianity is true, it will stand up under any amount of intellectual or historical scrutiny. The problem is most people never check it out. So for countless numbers of people Christianity hasn't been investigated and found wanting, it's never been investigated.
Which is why when it comes to something like The DaVinci Code it's so dangerous, because when you do the work, you find out that it is filled with inaccuracies, half-truths, sloppy research, and tabloid journalism.
If it was just a fictional mystery it may not be a big deal, but when it pretends it's based on fact and attempts to undermine the person of Jesus, then it's serious. Fact and fiction are weaved together recklessly, and the stakes on this are so high.
The Bible warns spiritual seekers to be careful here. Look at the challenge that comes to us through the Apostle Paul. He says "Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned. I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ" (Galatians 1:78, 1112).
Somebody needs to break The DaVinci Code. It is a code that needs to be broken, but not for the reason the author argues, but because the truth that it distorts is so important to know, that this distortion desperately needs to be revealed.
James Emery Whiteis senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. His website serioustimes.com was launched in conjunction with his latest book, Serious Times (Intervarsity, 2004).
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James Emery White is founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, and is a consulting editor to Leadership Journal. He is author of Serious Times and A Search for the Spiritual, and blogs at churchandculture.org.