Friday, March 31, 2006

Errors and Facts About The Da Vinci Code

I was lying in bed in a hotel in Istanbul, Turkey, unable to put down Dan Brown’s best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code. I’d brought it with me in January and found it to be a good read. In his own words Brown sums up the story in this way: “A renowned Harvard symbologist is summoned to the Louvre Museum to examine a series of cryptic symbols relating to da Vinci's artwork. In decrypting the code, he uncovers the key to one of the greatest mysteries of all time…and he becomes a hunted man.”

The movie version opens on May 19. It’s creating a lot of controversy, especially for Christians. Why?

The answer is because Brown intends The Da Vinci Code to be a work of historical fiction. In the book he writes: “Fact: All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.” Brown himself, whether out of conviction or commercialism, has done everything possible to persuade readers that he does believe just what the book says. He has insisted on the accuracy and factual nature of his information and theories. On his website he writes: “Many historians now believe (as do I) that in gauging the historical accuracy of a given concept, we should first ask ourselves a far deeper question: How historically accurate is history itself?”

That is a good question. Here’s another one: How historically accurate is The Da Vinci Code? The answer is: not very. Here, for example, are five major historical errors.

Error #1: The 4 Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) are not the earliest gospels. The Gospel of Philip and the Gospel of Mary existed before or during the time the New Testament Gospels were written. Fact: There is no evidence for this. These two Gnostic gospels were written in the late second century or possibly even in the third century. No scholar thinks that the four biblical Gospels were written any later than the last half of the first century.

Error #2: Jesus is a “great man” or “prophet” in the earliest historical sources but was later proclaimed “divine” at the Council of Nicaea in the 4th century A.D. Fact: Jesus is called “God” (Greek theos) seven times in the New Testament, and he is called “Lord” (kyrios) in the divine sense many times as well. This means that in the oldest sources we have Jesus is considered to be divine. Since the New Testament documents were written well before the Council of Nicaea Brown’s claim is false.

Error #3: Emperor Constantine suppressed the “earlier” Gnostic Gospels and imposed the canonical Gospels and the doctrine of the divinity of Christ on the church. Fact: It is simply not true that the Gnostic Gospels were suppressed during the period when they arose. They were never recognized as authoritative in either the Eastern or the Western church. New Testament scholar Ben Witherington states that “lack of recognition is not the same as suppression. The four biblical Gospels were recognized as sacred and authoritative by A.D. 130. This was long before Constantine was born.”

Error #4: Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. Fact: The Gospel of Philip, which Brown uses to support this idea, is a Gnostic document from the second century. The Gnostics clearly taught that human sexual expression was defiling. Gnosticism was strongly ascetic. They would have discouraged marriage.

Error #5: The Dead Sea Scrolls along with the Nag Hammadi documents are the earliest Christian records. Fact: There is nothing in the Dead Sea Scrolls about either Jesus or Christianity. They are entirely Jewish documents. The Nag Hammadi documents did not exist before the late second century A.D., with the possible exception of the Gospel of Thomas (which is dated sometime in the second century A.D.). Clearly the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi documents are not the “earliest Christian documents.” This is one of the most laughable ideas in The Da Vinci Code.

In addition to such major errors there are a number of other lesser errors. For example, Brown spreads the “urban legend” that the I.M. Pei sculpture has “666” glass panes. He ignores art scholars when he says that Mary Magdalene is seated next to Jesus in da Vinci’s painting “The Last Supper.” His allusion to Walt Disney as one of the people who has promoted the Magdalene myth through movies like “The Little Mermaid” is sheer speculation. And Penn State University Professor Norris Lacy, in his essay “The Da Vinci Code: Dan Brown and The Grail That Never Was,” writes that Brown has the whole Grail legend wrong anyway. Lacy states: “The conclusion, it would seem, is unavoidable: Brown’s ideas are elaborate, fascinating, and wrong.”

Fact: there are so many errors of information and history in The Da Vinci Code that on the Internet it is now becoming a bit of a game to see how many of the multitude of errors you can find. N.T. Wright says that “details abound which make the first-century historian snort and want to throw the book into the fire. “
I bet the movie is going to be a good one. Ron Howard is a brilliant director, Tom Hanks is one of our best actors, and the story is a real page-turner. But, as N.T. Wright says, the idea that, in the words of one of Dan Brown’s characters, Jesus was “just a good man” who “walked the earth and inspired millions to live better lives” is a modern trivialization that, to do them justice, even the Nag Hammadi documents do not perpetrate.