by Keith Huey
May – June, 2006
Lots of people have been trashing Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code because of its historical blunders. I’ve read the book, and I, too, have scoffed at his fictional scholars, Robert Langdon and Sir Leigh Teabing. Some of their errors are really flagrant, and, for me at least, they undermine a very enjoyable novel.
Nonetheless, the book exposes a truth that Christians must acknowledge: our doctrine has a history. Moreover, the book is correct to suggest that our history might be complicated, and could reveal some stories we didn’t want to hear. None of these revelations can truly threaten the Christian faith, but they will surely challenge some of our traditional assumptions. My purpose, here, is to describe the shape of that challenge, because it can’t be debunked as easily as the rest of Dan Brown’s story.
According to Teabing, the historic Christian faith was a fourth-century invention, and it was largely established by the political interests of the emperor Constantine. This theory can be easily overturned. Many Christians, however, have claimed that our doctrines, practices, and authorities were fully secured in the first century – that, too, is incorrect, and cannot withstand much scrutiny. Consider, for instance, our doctrines about the Trinity, the humanity of Jesus, and the Lord’s Supper: they have always been rooted in first-century testimonies, but they were defined in subsequent centuries, through discussion, debate, and politics.
We have been particularly naïve about the origins of the Bible. Leigh Teabing speaks to this issue when he says:
“The Bible did not arrive by fax from heaven … The Bible did not fall magically from the clouds.”1
Nobody has ever dared to claim that the Bible fell “magically from the clouds,” but Christians frequently act as if it did. We say, quite correctly, that the Bible comes from God, but very few of us can explain how it was delivered. Many people would be surprised to know that our scriptures were copied and collected by human hands, in the midst of controversy, over the course of many years.
For the moment, let us focus on the history of the New Testament canon.2 In The Da Vinci Code, Teabing contends that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene – in his quest to prove this theory, he cites from the Gospel of Philip and the Gospel of Mary, two actual texts from the second or third centuries. In truth, those texts say nothing about our Savior’s marital status; their mere existence, however, bears witness to a competing (and ancient) version of Christian faith. The fictional Sophie Neveu is correct to ask:
“Who chose which gospels to include?”2
This is a difficult question to answer, because our gospels weren’t chosen by any particular person at any specific time. The issue was forced in the mid-second century, when certain prominent Christians began to claim special revelations from God. According to their own testimony, their “special knowledge” (or gnosis) had not been disclosed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John; hence, these enlightened individuals composed alternative texts. Among these were the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Judas, and many others. These documents are classified as “Gnostic” because they were inspired by gnosis, and they paint a new and curious picture of Jesus.
Here is some information you won’t find in The Da Vinci Code: Gnostics rejected the physical order of things. They believed that all of creation (including our fleshly bodies) is weak, temporary, inferior, and to some extent evil. For this reason, they also rejected the God of the Old Testament, who was complicit in the creation of a weak and inferior realm. Here are some lines from the Gospel of Philip:
The world came about through a mistake. For he who created it wanted to create it imperishable and immortal. He fell short of attaining his desire. For the world never was imperishable, nor, for that matter, was he who made the world.
Having demoted Jehovah to amateur status, the Gnostics described Jesus as the revelation of a superior deity. For obvious reasons, they could not tolerate the concept of “incarnation” – that is, they could not believe that God “became flesh and lived among us.” They denied Christ’s fleshly birth, his suffering, and his death.
Whatever happened to the Gnostics? Well … they were matched, at the end of the second century, by formidable teachers such as Tertullian of Carthage and Irenaeus of Lyons. These men did not kill the Gnostic teachers or burn the Gnostic books, but they appealed to the authority of apostolic scripture and apostolic tradition, and they gave exclusive status to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Largely due to their influence, the Gnostic vision was rejected as a “heresy,” and the Gnostic gospels were shoved to the sidelines.
According to the assertions of Langdon and Teabing, these gospels were suppressed in the fourth century by the emperor Constantine. Constantine, of course, had nothing to do with the process, but we cannot deny that selections (and exclusions) were made. Moreover, these were serious choices with far-reaching ramifications, and it is fair to ask questions about their legitimacy. What shall we say about the suppression of Gnostic perspectives, and the establishment of orthodoxy (“right thinking”)? Was this the benevolent hand of Providence, defending the purity of a doctrinal tradition – or was it the heavy hand of chauvinism, distorting the generosity of a diverse and broad-minded movement?
This question is not unique to fictional and badly-taught characters. It has been asked by real and insightful people like Elaine Pagels, who regrets the restrictions of traditional Christian orthodoxy. In a book called Beyond Belief, she advocates the alternative spirituality of the Gospel of Thomas – in so doing, she does not seek to “add” Thomas to the biblical canon, but rethinks the concept of canon itself. She is unwilling to define Christianity “with a single, authorized set of beliefs.”4
This, I think, is the truest challenge of The Da Vinci Code. Christians have frequently wondered about the boundaries of doctrine and fellowship, but we have typically measured those questions against the standards of tradition and scripture. As our culture becomes increasingly pluralistic, we will need to be able to justify the standards themselves, and that is a daunting task. We are sadly mistaken, if we think we can banish Robert Langdon and Leigh Teabing by recounting their factual blunders.
So, where should we start? How should we speak to a world that is hesitant about religious standards, where people are suspicious toward the Bible and cynical toward tradition? What can we do to make the story of Jesus resonate, to make it seem real and substantial? I do not pretend to have a complete solution, but I hate to leave those questions hanging. Here is my own proposal, briefly stated:
We can begin with historical facts and rational proofs. We can show, for instance, that the historic Christian standards are less restrictive than many people think. Orthodoxy has its limits, but there are very few insights that are truly missing from the rich tapestry of the Christian tradition. For example, Leigh Teabing seeks feminist resources in the Gospel of Mary5, but he could surely do better in the Gospel of Luke, or in the mystical writings of St. Teresa. We can also challenge the cloud of suspicion that our canonical gospels have been forced to endure. On what grounds should we abandon the oldest testimonies available, and embrace something else? The real attraction of “lost gospels,” I think, is the way they short-circuit the “establishment,” and empower individual people to build their own shallow canons. We could surely be testing that ethos.
In the end, though, these arguments will not really answer the question, and we will need to appeal to something more powerful. The clinching response will be the very thing that the Gnostics renounced: incarnation. If we want the story of Jesus to resonate with our neighbors, we must behave as the body of Christ. As it says in 1 John 1:1:
We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life.
People rarely deny what they can see, and they rarely accept what cannot be seen. Ultimately, then, I’m not particularly worried about the Gospel of Judas, the Gospel of Philip, or the Gospel of Mary – I’m much more concerned about the Gospel of Keith.
I want to be a gospel worth reading.
1 Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code (New York: Doubleday, 2003), 231.
2 By “canon,” I mean to refer to the authoritative collection of 27 books.
3 Brown, Da Vinci Code, 231.
4 Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (New York: Random House, 2003), 29.
5 Brown, Da Vinci Code, 247-48.
Keith Huey is the chair of the Department of Religion and Bible at Rochester College in Rochester Hills, Michigan, where he serves as an Associate Professor of Religion. Keith received his PhD in Church History from Marquette University in 2000, and has been with Rochester for five years. This month he will celebrate 20 years of marriage to Barbara, and they are the parents of three daughters.