COMMENTARY

Book is intriguing, but oh, so flawed


Published: Saturday, January 24, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 23, 2004 at 10:39 p.m.
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Like the other 4.5 million readers, I picked up the book, "The Da Vinci Code" (Random House) and was immediately hooked. I found myself again in the famous French museum, the Louvre, racing through the streets of Paris, around the Eiffel Tower and out to Versailles.
Even though I was on a breathtaking trip to Alaska, riding the domed train, the McKinley Express, I had my head buried in this most engaging book.
The book begins with the curator of the Louvre being shot, but before he dies he leaves a most cryptic message that a professor of religious symbology from Harvard and a French cryptographer spend the rest of the book trying to decipher, while eluding the French police.
Their quest leads them to the Holy Grail, and a new interpretation of it that has to do with Jesus and his relationship with Mary Magdalene - all very intriguing.
The seductive thing about the book is that for the first 200 pages, the reader is very impressed with the author, Dan Brown's, intelligence, accuracy and attention to detail. One comes to believe in his insights and assertions. He's good; he builds trust.
And, then, at about page 230 he shifts from art, symbols and geography, what he seems to know a great deal about, to matters of theology, faith, early church history, what he knows so little about.
And what he says about these is so wrong. Only the discerning reader who had come to trust him in the first 200 pages will perceive his major misstatements in the next 200 pages.
Of course it is a novel, so one might not be concerned about inaccuracies, except in the beginning of the book, before the novel begins, Brown titles the page "FACT" and asserts several things to be true, the last of which is that "All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate." I know something about documents and most of what he says about them is simply not true.
On page 233, Brown refers to the Emperor, Constantine, who called together a church council at the town of Nicea, in what is modern day Turkey, in the year 325 AD. It was at that council, he says, that the divinity of Jesus was first proposed; "until that moment in history, Jesus was viewed by His followers as a mortal prophet, a great and powerful man, but a man nonetheless. A mortal."
It is a matter of historical record that the earliest New Testament documents date from around 45-60 AD and the latest at 90-100 AD, which is quite close to the time of Jesus' death and resurrection and 250 years earlier than the Council of Nicea. These documents are clear and consistent in affirming and announcing the divinity of Jesus. We also know that embodied within the New Testament writings are even earlier creeds, short, brief statements of faith that the NT writers built upon, for example: Philippians 2:5-11 is a creed that is earlier than the letter to the Philippians itself. This is also true of I Corinthians 15:3-8, and the little credo: Jesus is Lord. All of these date from very soon after Jesus' death. Here's the point: The divinity of Jesus was not a late, external imposition by a power hungry emperor, but the earliest belief and affirmation of the followers of Jesus.
Second, on page 234, Brown has his character assert that, "Constantine commissioned and financed a new Bible, which omitted those gospels that spoke of Christ's human traits and embellished those gospels that made Him godlike." Further, "Fortunately for historians, some of the gospels survived. The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in the 1950s hidden in a cave near Qumran in the Judean desert. And, of course, the Coptic Scrolls in 1945 at Nag Hammadi. The scrolls highlight glaring historical discrepancies and fabrications."
Any first year student of the Bible knows that all of this is wrong. One of the earliest heresies was docetism, which tried to deny the human side of Jesus and say that he was only divine, thus many statements in the four Canonical gospels assert the humanity of Jesus, rather than deny it, alongside his divinity. (Note: Thomas putting his hand into the wounds in Jesus' side and hands; also, the notion: "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us" in John's Gospel). Professor Margaret Mitchell, professor of Early Church History at the University of Chicago, Divinity School, confirms this position (U.S.News and World Report, Dec. 22, 2003, p. 48)
Further, Brown mentions the Dead Sea Scrolls that were found near Qumran. He says they speak of Jesus' ministry in very human terms. Well, that would be impossible since these documents predate Jesus by about a century.
He says also that the scrolls highlight glaring historical discrepancies and fabrications. For my Ph.D. dissertation at Princeton Theological Seminary, I wrote on the book of Isaiah, and one of the major Dead Sea Scrolls that was discovered is the Isaiah Scroll. I spent hours, days, weeks, much of my life, with this scroll. I can tell you that Brown is simply wrong in his assessment of the scrolls. Anyone who works with these scrolls carefully as I did comes away with a strong sense that extreme care was given to accuracy and fidelity to the finest points of the texts.
I don't know as much about the Nag Hammadi texts. At one time I had thought of working on them for my Ph.D. program, but just reading through them reveals that they are of a far inferior quality than the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The highly regarded NT scholar, Raymond Brown refers to them as "the rubbish of the second century." (Time, Dec. 22, 2003, p. 61).
One of the Da Vinci Code's claims is that Jesus was actually married to Mary Magdalene and that this is talked about in these other documents from Nag Hammadi. He states that it is a matter of historical record that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and that there are countless references to their union in these texts. This, too, is simply not true. Again, Prof. Mitchell: He bases this "claim on a shaky translation of a word in one of the noncanonical gospels. This word is usually translated as friend or companion." (p. 48).
Prof. Mitchell's conclusion is instructive that the book should have come with its own decoding device to assist readers in determining "which 'facts' are trustworthy and which patently not." (p.48).
Fascinating? Yes. Intriguing? Definitely. Flawed? Very.

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