by Doug Ward

OXFORD, OHIO--I found myself chuckling recently when I ran across the following parenthetical remark in a theology periodical: "A novel on the intrigues of Nicea and Chalcedon will not likely topple [Left Behind coauthor Tim] LaHaye from the bestseller list any time soon."


"Little did we know!" I thought. The article I was reading1 appeared in 2001, two years before The DaVinci Code burst upon the scene.


Since the publication of Dan Brown's novel, which reportedly has sold some sixty million copies worldwide, there is now tremendous public interest in esoteric subjects like Gnosticism, apocryphal gospels, and the canonization of the New Testament. A book on New Testament textual criticism (Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus) has been a recent bestseller. Why not "a novel on the intrigues of Nicea and Chalcedon"?


It may seem strange that a work of fiction has generated interest in ecclesiastical history and biblical studies. But The DaVinci Code is a novel that takes itself extremely seriously.2 Dan Brown includes in his book a number of provocative assertions about history, presenting them as accepted facts. It turns out, though, that many of those assertions can readily be refuted.


The novel's numerous errors have provoked a spate of "DaVinci Code debunking" books, now numbering at least a dozen. Some of their authors have become celebrities of a sort, members of the fraternity of "talking heads" that appear in television documentaries.


One of the leading DaVinci Code debunkers is Dr. Darrell L. Bock of Dallas Theological Seminary. Bock is a noted conservative New Testament scholar, an expert on Jesus and the Gospels who is known for his massive two-volume commentary on the Gospel of Luke and his research on the trial of Jesus. In the fall of 2003, Bock started receiving unusual questions about Jesus from phone interviewers and in day-to-day conversation. Then came an interview for the ABC News special "Jesus, Mary, and DaVinci" and a request from Thomas Nelson Publishers to write a book exposing some of the false claims in the novel.


The publisher asked that he complete the book as quickly as possible, so Bock wrote Breaking the DaVinci Code in five days during his Thanksgiving vacation in 2003. (He was covering familiar ground, material that he had taught to many students over the years.) Since the appearance of the book in April 2004, he has had a steady stream of interviews and speaking engagements.


On April 22, 2006, Bock visited Miami University to give the inaugural lecture in a new annual lecture series established in honor of Dr. Edwin A. Yamauchi. Dr. Yamauchi, a leading evangelical scholar3, is retiring after a distinguished career as a history professor at Miami, and the lectures are intended to help continue his example of high quality scholarship and strong Christian witness.


In his presentation Bock discussed some of the main errors in The DaVinci Code. This was an especially fitting topic for the first Yamauchi lecture, since a number of the novel's claims involve the Gnostic Gospels. (One of Prof. Yamauchi's main research interests has been the origins and teachings of Gnosticism, an early Christian heresy.4)


Jesus and Mary Magdalene

The DaVinci Code makes the assertion that Jesus Christ married one of his female disciples, Mary Magdalene, and had children with her. According to the novel's scenario, Christianity has covered up the marriage to protect belief in the deity of Jesus, but Leonardo DaVinci included Mary in his painting "The Last Supper" as a clue to this "secret."


Was Mary Magdalene the wife of Jesus? The canonical gospels certainly mention no such marriage, although they do picture Mary as a special disciple of Jesus. In Luke 8:1-3, Mary is mentioned first among a group of female disciples who traveled with Jesus and helped support his ministry. She was also one of a group of women who witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus (Matt. 27:55-56), as well as the first person to see the resurrected Jesus (Mark 16:1,9; John 20:11-18). But in a time when women were customarily identified by their connections to husbands and children (e.g., Mark 15:40; Luke 8:3; John 19:25), Mary was identified instead by her hometown (Magdala).


In his lecture at Miami, Prof. Bock explained that the alleged evidence for a marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene comes from two later noncanonical gospels. In the Gospel of Philip, a Gnostic source from the second half of the third century A.D., one fragmentary passage (63:32-64:10) mentions Mary Magdalene as the "companion" of someone--presumably Jesus--and also says something about Mary being kissed.


Although we do not know exactly what this passage says, it does not seem to be talking about a marriage relationship. The word for "companion" in the Coptic text is koinonos, a loan word from Greek that carries no connotation of marriage and is not the usual word for "wife".5 A few chapters earlier in the manuscript (58:34-59:4) there is another reference to kissing between believers, apparently as an expression of spiritual fellowship.


Another Gnostic source, the Gospel of Mary, portrays Mary as the recipient of special revelation from Jesus. (Gnostics greatly valued such revelation as a key to salvation.) Again, however, nothing is said about a marriage between Jesus and Mary. In fact, there is nothing in the vast corpus of Christian patristic literature suggesting that Jesus was married to anyone, let alone Mary Magdalene.


Prof. Bock pointed out that in 2003, the website asked both him and liberal New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan to write short articles addressing Jesus' marital status. The two agreed that Jesus never married. When scholars on opposite ends of the theological spectrum agree on something, Bock observed, their consensus more than likely reflects the truth.


There are a number of reasons why scholars agree that Jesus remained single, as detailed by Bock in Breaking the DaVinci Code. First, it should be noted that if Jesus had been married, no problems would be caused for Christian theology. The canonical gospels portray Jesus as fully human, and orthodox theology affirms both the humanity and deity of Jesus. So there would have been no reason for Christianity to cover up a marriage of Jesus had there been one.


Second, Jesus himself taught that some people would choose celibacy for the sake of God's kingdom (Matt. 19:12), making it likely that he was an example of such a person. Jesus chose the difficult life of an itinerant teacher (Matt. 8:20) and anticipated that he would soon be put to death for his teaching (Matt. 16:21). Carrying out his divinely-appointed mission simply made marriage unwise and impractical.


Third, if Jesus had been married, there are places in the New Testament where we would expect this marriage to have been mentioned. For instance, the Gospel of John records that Jesus made provision just before his death for the future care of his mother (John 19:25-27), but nothing is said about a widow. And when the apostle Paul argued for the right of a Christian teacher to be married, he cited Jesus' brothers and Peter as examples (I Cor. 9:5). If Jesus had been married, it would have been to Paul's advantage to mention Jesus here too. Although arguments from silence are not conclusive, the thunderous silence of the New Testament and the patristic literature on this subject is surely significant.


A Nicene Conspiracy?

The DaVinci Code makes a number of other outrageous assertions about Christian history. For example, it states that the deity of Jesus was established by a "close vote" in 325 A.D. at the Council of Nicea. After that, the novel alleges, the Roman Emperor Constantine suppressed many gospels in order to back up the Council's decision, favoring gospels that taught Jesus' deity.


In his lecture, Prof. Bock sorted out this jumbled scenario. For one thing, there was no "close vote" at Nicea. Approval of the Nicene Creed was almost unanimous, with only two dissenting delegates.


Bock explained that the deity of Jesus had been accepted by most Christians long before the fourth century. The apostle Paul, in epistles written in the 50s and 60s A.D., quoted early Christian confessional statements that affirmed the deity of Jesus (e.g., I Cor. 8:5-6; Phil. 2:6-11).6 The canonical gospels, also written in the first century A.D., record that Jesus said he would sit at God's right hand and would come again "with the clouds of heaven" (Mark 14:62). In the Hebrew Scriptures, only God is pictured as riding in the clouds (e.g., Ps. 18:10-11; 104:3).


Bock also corrected the novel's errors with regard to the canonization of the New Testament. Although the New Testament canon was not established fully until the late fourth century A.D., most of its contents, including the gospels, were accepted much earlier. Sources from the late second century-e.g., the Diatessaron (the first "harmony of the gospels"), Irenaeus' Against Heresies, and the Muratorian Canon-show that by that point, exactly four gospels were considered to be authoritative.


As for other gospels being suppressed in order to support the teaching of Jesus' deity, here the novel has things entirely backwards. It is the four canonical gospels that give the clearest picture of the humanity of Jesus. Other gospels emphasize Jesus as a divine figure. For example, the Gospel of Thomas, the most publicized noncanonical gospel, pictures Jesus as "unutterable" (Logion 13) and has Jesus saying, "I am the light that is over all things. I am all: from me all came forth, and to me all attained. Split a piece of wood; I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there" (Logion 77).


Another error in the novel is its claim that gospels were suppressed for their feminist leanings. As evidence against this claim Bock quoted the final logion (number 114) in the Gospel of Thomas, in which Peter says to Jesus, "Make Mary leave us, for females don't deserve life." Jesus responds, "Look, I will guide her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of Heaven." Bock observed that whatever this saying means, it is not pro-women.


The Real Issues

The DaVinci Code combines wild conspiracy theories with garbled versions of teachings currently in vogue in the academic religious studies community. It is these latter teachings that most concern Bock.


In American higher education today, "diversity" is the thing most highly valued. The dogma of diversity holds that there is no one truth, and one person's opinion is as good as another's. On the other hand, Christianity makes unique truth claims, teaching, for example, that the only way to salvation is through Jesus the Messiah. Such claims are definitely "politically incorrect" today.


In the interests of diversity, some liberal scholars have invented their own story of early Christian history, one with a merely human Jesus who is a great teacher but made no claims to deity. According to this story some perfectly valid early expressions of Christianity were arbitrarily suppressed by those in power. In particular, these scholars champion Gnosticism as a liberating and pro-feminist alternative to orthodox Christianity.


However, this version of early Christian history never actually occurred, as Bock has indicated in Breaking the DaVinci Code. In particular, the "neo-Gnostic" scholars have quoted Gnostic sources very selectively in order to fabricate a politically correct Gnosticism in their own image, conveniently omitting the evidence that Gnosticism was elitist, anti-Jewish, life-denying, and most certainly not protofeminist.


Prof. Bock did not set out to become a DaVinci celebrity, but he has been taking advantage of the current public interest in religious issues to set the record straight on Christian history. His efforts in pointing out the errors in The DaVinci Code have helped communicate the message that this bestseller really is entirely fictional. He has recently completed a second popular book, entitled The Missing Gospels: Unearthing the Truth behind Alternative Christianities. A third book is in the works for 2007.


1Stephen J. Nichols, "Prophecy Makes Strange Bedfellows:  On the History of Identifying the Antichrist,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 44 (2001), p. 84.


2One of the main criticisms of the movie version is that it takes itself too seriously to be very entertaining.


3In 2006, Dr. Yamauchi is serving as President of the Evangelical Theological Society.


4See for example his book Pre-Christian Gnosticism: A Survey of the Proposed Evidences, Eerdmans, 1973.


5The Greek word koinonia is the word used in the New Testament for Christian fellowship-e.g., in Acts 2:42.


6For a thorough discussion of the "high christology" of the New Testament church, see the article "The Christological Monotheism of the First Christians" in Issue 19 of Grace & Knowledge.

Issue 22


File translated from TEX by TTH, version 3.66.
On 19 Jul 2006, 19:25.