Will The Da Vinci Code's "history" be taught in Sunday School?

From 'Da Vinci Code' rattles some Christians by Alexandra Alter, Contra Costa Times, Saturday April 22, 2006:

. . . The Da Vinci Code may be having an even more profound cultural impact. Resurrecting arguments that date to the second century, the novel has provoked a public debate about the origins of Christianity, clandestine schools of Christian mysticism and the role of women in the church.

Da Vinci fans argue Brown unearthed evidence that Christianity once took a variety of forms, including mystical practices involving goddess worship. Critics say such ideas were rightly disposed of in the second century as heresy.

"To see a global bestseller claiming that people of faith have got it all wrong is disconcerting, to say the least," Robert Hodgson, dean of the Nida Institute for Biblical Scholarship at the American Bible Society. "This book is ultimately a travesty for people of faith."

Christians today are suddenly seeing the foundations of their faith under fire. The classic version of the Good News has been challenged by newly translated texts such as "The Gospel of Judas" and ""The Jesus Papers,"" a new book that argues the crucifixion and resurrection were faked. Christian leaders are responding by organizing a massive campaign complete with pamphlets, DVDs, Web sites and study groups aimed at countering the book's claims.

Why such fuss over a work of fiction?

Christian leaders and theologians point to the "fact" page at the book's opening, where Brown notes that references to the Priory of Sion, a secret religious society, the Roman Catholic group Opus Dei, which has 85,000 lay and clergy members, and the descriptions of art, architecture and rituals are accurate.

According to the Barna Group, a Christian research and polling agency, 53 percent of adults who read The Da Vinci Code report that the book has helped their "personal spiritual growth and understanding."

"An amazing number of people were reading it as this exciting guide to church history," said Carl Olson, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in the Da Vinci Code. "A lot of Christians have been thrown by the novel."

Brown's plot-twister isn't close to outselling the Bible. But it has led scholars, theologians and lay people to ask questions that might sound familiar to anyone who attended the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D., when church leaders first codified the orthodox Christian creed. Among them: Was Jesus fully human or divine? Which gospels are the true gospels?

The Da Vinci Code has clearly touched a cultural nerve.

I have mixed emotions about this article. First, to a certain extent I find it unnerving that Christians should find The Da Vinci Code helpful to their spiritual growth and understanding. In many mainline churches where the truth of the Gospels seems to have been abandoned in favor of the all-encompassing view of God as the non-judgmental God of love, this is somewhat understandable. After all, if the Gospels are not trustworthy and contain only stories fabricated by the early church to make Jesus divine, then why not believe the Gospel of Judas as being equally accurate as Mark, Matthew, John and Luke? My concern is that I have had very committed Christians ask me if The Da Vinci Code is accurate history. I have tried to set them straight by pointing out that there is no reliable evidence that supports the idea that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, but the mere fact that I need to try to straighten this matter out is somewhat troubling.

But then, as a second emotion, I find myself saying, "Good! The church needs to have this discussion!" In other words, too many Christians are stumbling through life without any idea as to why we trust that the four Gospels are the four reliable accounts of the life of Jesus and why late-second century Gnostic writings like the Gospel of Judas are dismissed as "garbage" (as recently affirmed by the Archbishop of Santa Fe). Until Christians get a better understanding of the solidity of the Gospels as the accepted canon of the church from well before the Council of Nicea, we will continue to be surprised and unable to answer claims that the Council of Nicea picked and chose the books to be in the Gospel from a group of equally viable candidates. Let me counter that claim right here:

The notion that the Gospel of Judas or the Gospel of Thomas were equally accepted by Christians as inspired works prior to the Council of Nicea has no basis in fact whatsoever. The website The Development of the Canon of the New Testament has a very nice Cross Reference Table: Writings and Authorities which catalogues the opinions of the early church fathers on the various Gospels and Epistles. The table clearly shows that with the exception of two church fathers, Ignatius of Antioch and Marcion -- the latter of which had views that were widely rejected in the early church -- every church father viewed the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as being "accepted; true; scriptural; or quoted from very approvingly".

By comparison, how does the Gospel of Thomas fair with these early church fathers? The Gospel of Thomas is apparently not even mentioned until Origen and Eusebius -- both of whom wrote in the 3rd Century B.C. -- and both shared the view that the Gospel of Thomas was "false; heretical; heterodox; quoted from very disapprovingly".

While the Gospel of Judas is not listed on this chart, the earliest reference to it appears to be from Iraneus who wrote around 180 A.D. and made it clear that the Gospel of Judas was not accurate when he wrote that Gnostics "produce fictitious history of this kind, which they style the Gospel of Judas."

One could look at it this way: when the Council of Nicea got together, it was already settled that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were "accepted; true; scriptural" because no one voiced concerns to the contrary. It was the typical "no-brainer" whether to include them in the canon. It appears that there were no other Gospels that were seriously considered for inclusion in the New Testament canon because none of the other "gospels" had any type of widespread support from the early church. There may have been some individuals at the council who were making a case for one or more additional writings to be included, but it seems as the task of excluding works that were not consistent with the Christian teachings was made much easier by the fact that the vast core of the New Testament was already settled by the time the Council met (only James, II Peter, II and III John, Jude and Revelation appearing to have mixed support).

Do I think that The Da Vinci Code has anything "spiritual" to say? No, not at all. The sum of what is "of God" can be determined by comparing it to the teachings contained in the Bible which were "once for all delivered to the saints." (Jude 3) To the extent that the Brown novel suggests a different Jesus or a Jesus inconsistent with the Jesus described in the New Testament, then it is not "of God" and has no business in my Sunday School class -- except for teaching about heresies.


Thanks for the links to the web sites re: the canon of scripture.

The theories that Dan Brown embeds into the story line of The Da Vinci Code (DVC) ought to be taught in Sunday Schools ... not as truth, but as an example of misinformation being peddled as truth. Christians are not prepared to defend the reliability of scripture or the historicity of the resurrection.

There are plenty of resources out there rebutting the flimsy, recirculated theories of the DVC. There is no shortage of books poking holes in Brown's revisionist, postmodern view of history. The challenge is for teachers and leaders in the churches, Sunday schools and youth groups to pick up the ball and run with it.

Christians should not get unnerved by the DVC. However, they should not be apatheic either. The best response is leverage this moment in time when the cultural conversation will be focused right where we want it -- on history, Truth and on the One who revealed Himself in history.

Bring it on!
Darius said…
Can't say as I find anything particularly alarming about the discovery of the gnostic gospels. We're already aware of the apocrypha.

Personally, I just find it interesting. It increases our knowledge of the diversity of opinion that existed in the early church, at the time when the earliest writings about Jesus were being written. Of course, a few centuries later, when the church had become a larger institution, it officially sanctioned some of the early writings and rejected others. But I think it helps show that then, as now, there were a variety of understandings of what it means to be a Christian.
BK said…
DT, thanks. I agree one hundred percent with your thoughts. I am embarrassed how unprepared the church has become to defend historic Christianity, and I do think that while some may be deceived into believing some of the misinformation of the Da Vinci Code, overall the church will be strengthened as people come to grips with some of these questions.

Darius, I am a little less sure I agree with you. I certainly think there were differences of opinion, as Acts and the epistles point out, but I also think that that the problem is that people think that the diversity within the church extends to wild ideas such as are shown in the Gospel of Judas. Gnosticism was fought from the very beginning, and its ideas were seen from the earliest times as not being merely a diversity within the church. Thus, if you are suggesting that the gnostic gospels show that the early Christians could just as easily have adopted the ideas contained in those Gospels, I hardily disagree. But if you are saying that there were some disagreements about what it meant to follow Jesus while still acknowledging Jesus as the one and only Son of God, then I agree.
Layman said…
I would differ with BK somewhat. Gnosticism did not arrive until the second century. None of their "Christian" writings are from the first century.

What was present in the first century that caused friction in the church was the pressures of Greek culture, religion, and philosophy. These influences, such as belief that the material body was corrupt and best left behind after death, were combated by the early Christians. These are sometimes called proto-gnosticism or incipient gnostic thought because much of gnosticism owes a lot to the cultural assumptions of the Greeks and Romans.

The early Christians arrived in the first century. The gnostic Christians arrived in the second.

We win. :)
BK said…
Layman, I certainly agree that a full-blown system of Gnosticism was not in place at the time of the writing of the Gospels and the Epistles. However, as my NIV Study Bible notes, an early form of the heresy, not the intricately developed syste of the second and third centuries, was addressed in 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, 2 Peter, the Epistles of John and perhaps 1 Corinthians. If you don't agree, I would be interested to see you sometime blog on it. :)
Layman said…

I think 1 Corinthians is the clue here. Greek rejection of the value of the material world is apparent in (some) of their misunderstanding over the fact that resurrection was bodily. To Greeks, it made more sense that God would deliver us from the material world, not deliver the material world itself.

As more Greeks became exposed to more Christianity, such influences are what lead to gnosticism. This is a little oversimplified, but I think it helps explain the early forms of gnosticism to which that Paul and other early Christians were responding.
Layman said…
From Martin Hengel:

"It is time to stop talking about 'gnosticism in Corinth.' What happened in the community does not need to be explained by a competing gnostic mission. This never existed, except in the mind of some interpreters. What happened in Corinth can easily be explained in terms of the Hellenistic (and Jewish) milieu of this Greek port and metropolis."

Hengel, Crucifixion, page 18.
BillyWheaton said…
You wrote,
"But then, as a second emotion, I find myself saying, "Good! The church needs to have this discussion!" In other words, too many Christians are stumbling through life without any idea as to why we trust that the four Gospels are the four reliable accounts of the life of Jesus and why late-second century Gnostic writings like the Gospel of Judas are dismissed as "garbage"

You, like many Christians, strongly imply in this comment that the Church or 'mainline' christianity can handle this scrutiny and come out on top. This is likely not correct. but this does not matter, as virtually no church, and I'm confident your church included, invites honest dialogue and debate about any serious theological issue.

Good luck if you really try to defend your religion, you will need it!
Layman said…

It is obvious that either 1) you have not read The Da Vinci Code, or 2) you believe The Da Vinci Code's "history" and are therefore too uninformed and biased to be bothered by facts.

Defending Christianity from the accusations of TDC -- that Jesus married Mary M. and had children, that the Nicean Council voted on whether Jesus was divine (as opposed to the nature of his divinity), that the Dead Sea Scrolls discuss Jesus, etc. -- is perhaps the least intellectually challenging apologetics task I have ever undretaken. It is simply a matter of logistics: how do I get the truth accepted by Jewish, Secular, and Christian historians and scholars to the people who are so ignorant that they think The Da Vinci Code has something truthful to say about history.
BK said…
I would simply add that you are welcome to tell us where we are wrong. I invite that, but only within the limits of civility. So, please tell me where Christianity is wrong (but please make it good -- there is too much in the world to spend too much time treading over unproductive territory).
BillyWheaton said…
I'm not 'defending' TDC, but rather comment on the reality of living in an open pluralistic society. Namely, if one has a belief, especially one so fantastic as claiming to know God, then one has the BURDEN OF PROOF to show this to others. TDC I agree is fun fantasy, but I don't want you to think that distraction limits your BURDEN. Most Christian isolate themselves in their churches and DO NOT welcome open and vigorous debate. If you know one that does, let me know. Take care
Layman said…

Would you go to an ice cream parlor to order a hot dog? And once you got there would you complain to the owner that no hot dogs were available? That seems to be the argument you are making. Churches are not debating societies. Guilty as charged! They are places of worship and teaching about the Christian faith. To expect them to argue again and again everY Sunday the most basic elements of the faith is even more silly than demanding a hot dog from an ice cream parlor. It is to demand that churches be something that they were never intended to be and if they attempted to be such a thing it would defeat their primary purpose for being.

Does this mean Christians do not believe in debate? Far from it. The Christian religion is actually distinguished by the phenomenon of Christian Apologetics. How many Muslim Apologists are there in Saudi Arabia? None would be guess, but in America -- which has a predominantly Christian population -- Christian apologists are all over the place, with their websites, debates on college campuses, programs and departments at Christian colleges, and, oh yeah, blogs like this one. Do you not see the irony of coming to a Christian blog that is committed to responding to atheist arguments, which directly engages prominent atheists online, and who allows atheists to come to this site and argue with us and challenge us through the comments section, and then claiming that Christians do not believe in debate? In short, Christians do far more defending of their faith on many fronts than any other faith in history.

Do all Christians know enough about their faith or are as sophisticated in apologetics as William L. Craig? Admittedly not. A primary purpose of this site is to impart such knowledge to Christians as well as to encourage interest in such knowledge. But such is not the primary purpose of churches nor should it be. I engage in apologetics all week long and rather enjoy going to worship and fellowship with Christians for a change.

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