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.

"The Da Vinci Code" makes terrific summer reading; the film will make great summer viewing. But readers and viewers need to approach the book and the film critically. They need to measure its truth claims in light of the 2,000-year-old deposit of faith enshrined in the New Testament and the creeds of the early church. Above all, they need to know that this "Code" is not an innocent one.

After all, the book has subtext and an agenda, and it is not an innocent one, despite the fact that it is presented as fiction. It is, in my mind, anti-Christian. I know you feel differently, and look forward to hearing your thoughts on this important issue.

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

Dear Dr. Hodgson,

You say that "The Da Vinci Code" is merely a story that aims to distort the truth and attack a 2,000-year-old faith. But the success of "The Da Vinci Code" cannot be accounted for simply because the book presents a compelling story that is being aggressively marketed. This level of interest from so many millions of people would not happen for a work of fiction that was simply a thriller on par with other adrenaline-pumping page-turners. This thriller differs from others in its daring assertion that Jesus had been married to Mary Magdalene and had a child.

Yes, this story is plainly fiction, a big part of which centers on the conspiracy theory that bothers you so deeply, which alleges that the Catholic Church is responsible for a repressive and often violent cover-up. But looking beyond that and examining the core claim of the novel--that Jesus was human--I believe that "The Da Vinci Code" has become the agent, even if unintentionally, of a social change, which is at least the equivalent of the Protestant Reformation.

The extraordinary success of "The Da Vinci Code" has come because millions of people were willing to be told that Jesus was no more than an ordinary human being, governed by sex and death like the rest of us. There could be no human Son of God. That is a very big change indeed. Western civilization has been laying the groundwork for this claim for more than two centuries, with the development of scientific thought. The 19th-century thinkers who denied the resurrection and miracles, who emphasized, as Albert Schweitzer did, that Jesus was simply a product of the culture of his own times, have now found such widespread acceptance that their thinking is standard in educated circles.

The belief that Jesus was divine is being seen as belonging to the past. Interest in him as a historical figure, and interest in the times in which he lived, are high on the agenda, approached by the methods of objective historical scholarship without religious presuppositions.

But no reformation of doctrine has ever brought the end of religious faith.

What has repeatedly come to be understood is that there is a big difference between belief and faith. Faith can operate without words, without verbal concepts. It is a sense of the presence of "God"--to use the word we have to use. That can be very different indeed from belief and beliefs. We live in a time--one of the factors behind the present religious revolution--when we have become aware, brutally aware, of the beliefs that can inspire other societies in other countries, giving an equal religious energy to that of Christianity.

A recovery of faith in opposition to dogma is far from unchristian. It has been a central emphasis in Protestantism to oppose faith to law. That was the insight of Martin Luther, to whom much of Protestant Christianity looks back.

While deploring Dan Brown's historical errors, and his idolatrous new cult of Mary Magdalene, I think that "The Da Vinci Code," in the palatable form of fiction, has made a substantial contribution to Christian theology.

From: Dr. Robert Hodgson Jr.

To: Dr. Barbara Thiering
Date: May 15, 2006

Dear Dr. Thiering,

In presenting a human Jesus and a church committed to nothing more than conspiracy and power, "The Da Vinci Code" reduces Christianity from a religion of revealed truth and mystery to the kind of watered-down "cultural Christianity" popular in 19th-century German liberalism, which sought to rationalize and explain the miraculous, revealed, and transcendent side of Christianity.

Dr. Thiering, you mention Albert Schweitzer: He famously said that Jesus wanted to make the world a better place to live and threw himself on the wheel of history to force social change, only to see the wheel of history crush him. Such reductionist approaches to Christian faith are very old, going back to the earliest polemics against the faith (for instance, see the letters of John in the New Testament and the writings of Irenaeus in the late second century).
Why should we care whether Jesus was divine or not? What's wrong with a heroic figure who threw himself on the wheel of history, got married, had children, sent his followers off to support humanitarian and charitable causes?
Here is what's wrong: It falsifies the historical and religious records that are the founding documents of the Christian faith. And not just those records. Secular Roman historians Tacitus and Suetonius comment on the death of Jesus. Did the alleged conspiracy to cover-up Jesus' humanity include these non-Christian writers, too?

Our earliest Christian records--the letters of Paul--report on the death of Jesus, his burial, his resurrection, his appearances. See Philippians 2:6-11 and 1 Corinthians 15:3-8. These records survived not because someone threw out conflicting documents but because the initial followers of Jesus recognized within them reliable and truthful accounts--inspired accounts--on the life of Jesus, his divine sonship, and his ongoing life as the risen Lord.

Christianity without a divine Christ is like the Red Cross without a supply of blood: Both can give you a cookie and a glass of milk, but cannot give you life.

Skeptics doubting Jesus' divinity, his resurrection, and other foundational insights into the life of Jesus surfaced within a few years after the first Easter. In Philippi, Paul writes, "He always had the nature of God" (2:6, Good News Bible). Famously, John's Gospel begins with, "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was God" (1:1). Bible experts connect this part of John's Gospel with an attack on the divinity of Jesus that arose from some disgruntled followers of the other religious leaders of the day.

Dr. Theiring, you claim the popularity of "The Da Vinci Code" goes beyond good marketing and good story-telling, and that readers, in effect, have sensed "truth." This is certainly one explanatory hypothesis for the success of the book, but one that would have to be tested. But another, equally valid hypothesis is that the book is a good read, serving up a delicious brew of murder, adventure, sexuality, romance, conspiracy, and religion. We also need to factor in the truth that the greatly diminished Bible literacy in the West makes easy targets out of readers who cannot accurately sort through truth claims about the Bible.

The notion that the "Da Vinci Code" book and film are major cultural events is credible. Why not? Both are works with artistic merit and cultural cachet. But so was Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." To position "Da Vinci" as Reformation-like is to diminish the importance of the Reformation and to inflate the power of a novel and a film.

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

Dear Dr. Hodgson,

I'm glad you raised the question of the resurrection, because that matter is far more important than whether Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. I think we are now in a situation where Christianity is faced with two alternatives:

1) Jesus was a normal human being, albeit a heroic one, who was governed by sex and death like the rest of us.

2) Jesus was a divine being, through whom Christianity was revealed, his divinity proved by the resurrection and supporting miracles. If these claims are not true, Christianity collapses.

The flood of new historical material that became available in the 20th century established a new fact--that from the beginning there were many Christianities. The single formulation on which you say Christianity depends was only one of the versions. You will say, of course, that it was the only true one, and all the others were rejected as false, which is why we hadn't heard about them. But I think that a historian using objective methods would have to conclude the following:

From the beginning, there was popular Christianity and there was learned Christianity. The New Testament itself makes the distinction. There were "babes" and there were those who were more mature. (1 Corinthians 3:1-2). Hebrews 5:11-6:8 is specific about the content. The writer exhorts Hebrews to leave behind "the elementary doctrine of Christ" and go on to maturity. The list of elementary doctrines includes "the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment" (6:2).

The famous passage 1 Corinthians 15 admits that some said from the earliest years that there is no resurrection of the dead, with the consequence that there was no resurrection of Christ. It is a passage that develops movingly the concept of resurrection, evoking powerful and constructive religious feeling. But its actual argument would not convince any critical mind: "If Christ is not raised, then your faith is in vain." It is an argument from consequences of a most transparent kind. The list of appearances that is offered in the chapter is equally open to the interpretation that Jesus had survived the crucifixion. That was perfectly possible, as Josephus shows (Life, 420), for crucifixion was chosen as a cruel method of punishment because it took days or even weeks to die:
I (Josephus) was sent... to Tekoa... and on my return saw many prisoners who had been crucified. I recognized three of my acquaintances among them. I was cut to the heart and came and told Titus (the Roman general) with tears what I had seen. He gave orders immediately that they should be taken down and receive the most careful treatment. Two of them died in the physicians' hands; the third survived.
The Dead Sea Scrolls have given us something very important: the theory of scripture that both the Essenes and early Christians relied on. For them, scripture had two levels: an outward form that was intended for ordinary readers, and a hidden level of meaning that could be recognized by those with specialized knowledge. The consequence may--in fact, should--be derived from this, that when the Christians set out to write a new scripture, they would set it up with the same two levels. This time the concealed level would be objectively present, available to all learned leaders.

This concealed historical layer, known in Hebrew as the pesher, gives the full story of what Jesus did, as a human historical figure who was a member of a party of Hellenized Diaspora Jews. They were already distinguishing between the divine figure whom they were deliberately offering to their "babes" and the learned leadership, secluded in monasteries, to whom Jesus belonged. The divine Jesus was a product of their political necessities. Is that the case now, when there is widespread learning available on a global scale? (For more on the pesher, click here.)

Dan Brown is an accidental Luther. He is certainly no theologian, and not even a competent historian. But the idea of a fully human Jesus that was already in circulation before he wrote has been transmitted through his fiction. It spoke to millions who were ready for it. It will, I believe, not go away.

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad