A fully human, married Jesus. A historic conspiracy and a church willing to go to any lengths to protect a secret. The "Da Vinci Code" is certainly provocative, but does it go too far in telling a sensational story? We asked two scholars to debate this question over e-mail and to share the results with us.

Dr. Barbara Thiering is the author of "Jesus the Man" (1992), which was published in the U.S. as "Jesus and the Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls." She is a retired academic, with a long list of professional publications.

Dr. Robert Hodgson Jr. is the dean of the Nida Institute for Biblical Scholarship at the American Bible Society. He is the editor of "From One Medium to Another: Communicating the Bible Through Multimedia."

Round 1 Round 2
Robert Robert
Barbara Barbara

From: Dr. Robert Hodgson Jr.
To: Dr. Barbara Thiering
Date: May 15, 2006

Dear Dr. Thiering,

I am glad we have this chance to debate the question of whether "The Da Vinci Code" is anti-Christian. To me, the answer is plainly yes, it is anti-Christian. Let me expand on this idea, and then I am eager to hear your response.

The story challenges fundamental truths of the Christian faith--and of faith in general. It claims to be an accurate presentation of historical research, drawing on secret, suppressed knowledge, which reveals 2,000 years of Christian life and faith to be fundamentally wrong-headed--and in the process it caricatures people of faith.

This book has a subtext that goes far beyond merely offering a compelling fictional storyline. It asks us to believe in a massive conspiracy that had already begun in New Testament times and continues to the present. The co-conspirators include the first followers of Jesus, the authors of the New Testament writings, the early church fathers, the emperor Constantine and the Knights Templar. Together they are said to have suppressed the truth about Jesus and his relationship with Mary Magdalene, to have collected the 27 books of the New Testament as an exercise in power and suppression, and to have invented the notion of Jesus' divinity.

In other words, if "The Da Vinci Code" is correct, then 2,000 years of history are made of lies and legend. It's difficult for me to see how this sort of accusation can be seen as an innocent attempt at good storytelling; the story may be good but the accusations impugn my faith. We are asked to believe that--thanks to a modern novelist (with no credentials as a historian, philologist, theologian, or Bible scholar)--we are to relinquish this core fiber of our being.

My question is, why should we discount those 2,000 years of Christian history and tradition--what G.K. Chesterton called the "democracy of the dead"--in favor of a novelistic account of such history? Why do two millennia of "votes" count less than the one "vote" of Dan Brown?

According to "Da Vinci," early Christianity had a wide diversity of beliefs about Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and the nature of God himself. And that is true. But despite great diversity, all Christians shared--contrary to Dan Brown's assertion--a set of fundamental beliefs rooted in experience and history. These core beliefs existed as early as the 40s and 50s B.C.E., and are summarized by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3-11: "I passed on to you what I received, which is of the greatest importance: that Christ died for our sins... that he was buried and that he was raised to life three days later... that he appeared to Peter and then to all 12 apostles."

This core set of beliefs was used by the early Christians as a litmus test for organizing the canon of the New Testament books as well as a test for placing other books on the list of apocryphal writings, those that did not make it into the New Testament, including the Gospel of Mary, which is one of the sources for the legends about Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Their exclusion from the canon was not an attempt to suppress truth--quite the contrary.

Interestingly enough, the early church also rejected as too sensationalistic the Gospel of Peter, which was a documentary account of Jesus and the apostles marching in triumph and joy out of the empty tomb. In a conspiracy view like Dan Brown's, such writing would have surely made it into the canon.