Question: What do Dan Brown’s mega-selling thriller The Da Vinci Code, pluralism and my nine-year-old son Tomas Stephen Greene (of the Hertfordshire Greenes) have in common?

Answer: They all ask questions about the reliability of the New Testament documents.

And, in the last case, not surprisingly. If you are sitting in a classroom with Muslims who claim that their documents are accurate and that by implication yours aren’t, then the question arises naturally. How do we know? And how can I explain it to my nine year old who actually needs to know.

The same challenge obviously applies to adults living in a pluralistic society.

The question for Christians, however, is not merely: are our scriptures holy or divinely inspired – a claim that can be made for the writings of any religion – but rather are they historically and textually reliable? The distinction is vital because the New Testament documents, particularly the Gospels and Acts, do not claim to be creative presentations of meaning-laden myths but rather accurate accounts of actual historical events with, in each case, particular theological interpretations.

Furthermore, as, for example, FF Bruce noted, we are dependent on these documents for our picture of Jesus. If the documents are not reliable then it is unlikely that our understanding of Jesus will be. Textual historicity may seem like a technical question but it is an important one in an age when we are rightly suspicious about the veracity and reliability of the words and images served up to us by our ever so technologically advanced media.

And knowing why the New Testament documents are reliable is very important if we are to respond to the assertions in The Da Vinci Code - which topped the best seller charts in the US and UK, has sold over 6 million copies in a year and is currently being turned into a film - and may well result in people asking you questions like these:

  • Was Jesus married to Mary Magdalene?
  • Did they have a son or a daughter?
  • Are his heirs alive today?
  • Was the Holy Grail a woman?

Or perhaps you may be asked to respond to more technical questions like:

  • Is it true that Jesus’ divinity was simply the result of a bishops’ vote?
  • Is the reason for the patriarchalism of the church the deliberate suppression of the sacred feminine by the post- Constantine church?
  • Did the Gospel of Thomas and the Nag Hammadi scrolls antedate the New Testament? And would not this radically undermine the credibility of the chuavinistically selected canon we now have?

Not questions that many of us would be able to answer in the blink of an eye nor necessarily questions that we’d know where to go for answers. And this is the pernicious brilliance of Dan Brown’s book – a confident presentation of bogus scholarship with enough truth mixed in to create a convincing alternative account of the history of the world since the birth of Christ.

The Da Vinci Code is, however, first and foremost a superb thriller. A mysterious murder in the Louvre takes us on a highspeed chase for the murderer and his motives. On the road there are secret societies – ecclesiastical and pagan – twists and turns and double and pre-Christian crosses, car chases and conspiracies, hightech surveillance and medieval self-flagellation, an albino assassin and a burgundyhaired, green-eyed heroine, occult rites, suppressed truths, the search for the Holy Grail, the discovery of the surviving relatives of the union of Mary Magdalene and Jesus – it is a pinball table of a tale that does indeed grip from almost the first page to the last. Ole!

Into this high-octane mix, however, Brown cleverly and interestingly introduces us to a course in symbology, cryptology, art history, Egyptology, church history and paganism. There’s a lot to learn – and, we need to learn it in order to solve the mystery. Still, by the time you’ve taken in an assortment of quite uncontroversial and accurate facts the reader may well find themselves in quite a trusting frame of mind to hear and accept what Brown has to say about the life of Christ and the heart of the Gospel. So it is indeed interesting to discover that:

  • A crux gemmata is a cross bearing 13 gems that symbolises Christ and the 12 disciples
  • A pentacle is a pre-Christian symbol that relates to nature worship
  • The mathematical progression of numbers 1-1-2-3-5-8-13-21 is called the Fibonacci sequence
  • The Louvre has some 65,300 works of art.

Nevertheless, all this education serves one overall purpose: to undermine the credibility of the New Testament, the divinity of Christ and the witness of the Church.

“What I mean,” says Teabing, one of the Code’s academic experts, “is that almost everything our fathers taught about Christ is false.” (p318)

Brown picks the easy targets first, gaining credibility for his argument that the Church suppressed the ‘sacred feminine’ by using the evidence of the church’s historic suppression of women, the persecution and execution of witches, the paranoid presentation of woman as temptress and of sexual union as problematic. This is not a difficult case to make historically but Brown exaggerates wildly. So, for example, he claims that five million witches died in Europe – while most scholars put the number at 40,000 between 1450 to 1750. Still, a huge number. More importantly, Brown ignores the radical nature of Jesus and Paul’s teaching in relation to women, and indeed the whole Bible’s. What Christians have done to that teaching over the centuries, including this one, has not always been a source of pride, but this does not alter the Bible’s radical understanding of the essential equality of status and value of male and female: male and female he created them (Genesis 1:27); in Christ there is no male or female (Galatians 3;28) and so on.

Nevertheless, Brown does not view the chauvinism that has marred church history as the sinful failure to hear Christ’s word to the church, nor as the failure to see the extent to which church culture actually conformed to the patriarchal cultures of the surrounding societies, but rather as a way of suppressing the truth of paganism and its liberating emphasis on the divine goddess.

As such, the assault on the Church’s record in its treatment of women has two objectives. Firstly, to make the case for the paganism that Brown advances as its older, truer alternative. This paganism embraces the sacred feminine – the goddess. This goddess is not a personal being, to be sure, but rather an impersonal feminine principle necessary to bring life into being. She/it is required to balance the impersonal male principle in order to achieve a healthy union with the divine that is in all. This in turn leads to a healthy personal spirituality and a more ordered society. In sum, there is no personal god outside the created order, rather god is in all. The universe is one and everything shares the same essential nature – people, lizards, oak trees and granite.

The second reason for the assault on church in relation to women is because it gives Brown the credibility to undermine the reliability of the New Testament documents themselves and thereby Christianity itself. So, for example, one of the ‘scholars’ in the book states: “These are photocopies of the Nag Hammadi and Dead Sea Scrolls… The earliest Christian records. Troublingly, they do not match up with the gospels in the Bible…. The Gospel of Philip is always a good place to start.”

The problem with this assertion is that no scholar of any ideological persuasion believes that the Gospel of Philip was written before AD 150. Similarly, the Gospel of Thomas is usually dated at around the same time, though some do argue that it is based on an earlier document called ‘Q’, for which there is no archaeological or corollary textual evidence. By contrast, the bulk of the New Testament was committed to scrolls by AD 70 and all of it by AD 100.

In Cracking the Da Vinci’s Code, a very helpful riposte to Brown, authors Garlow and Jones make the point that Brown’s assertion that the Gospel of Thomas is the earliest Gospel is made even more unlikely by the fact that some of its theology is very close to the heretic Marcion’s. Marcion moved to Rome in AD 144 set up his own community, declared the Old Testament irrelevant, got rid of marriage, and only accepted the Gospel of Luke and 10 of Paul’s letters – though he purged them all of Old Testament references. If the Gospel of Thomas had been in circulation before Marcion it would have served his purposes very well but he never cited it.

Brown, however, does not just assert that the Gospel of Thomas is early, he claims that the canon was selected in order to serve Constantine’s political agenda:

“Constantine commissioned and financed a new Bible, which omitted those gospels that spoke of Christ’s human traits and embellished gospels that made him godlike. The earlier gospels were outlawed, gathered up, and burned.” (p317)

In reality, the Old Testament and most of the 27 books of the New Testament functioned as a canon long before they were declared as such in AD 367.

You can see this from the high number of quotations from the New Testament books in documents like the Epistle of Barnabas, the Didache (both dated circa AD 100) and the letter to the Corinthian Church written by Clement, bishop of Rome (dated circa AD 96), as well as in the writings of the 2nd century church fathers. Certainly, it’s true that some books – 1 & 2 Peter, the letters of John, Jude, James, Hebrew and Revelation – were not accepted by the churches in all regions in the second century but the 4th century declaration simply formalised what the Church had already discerned. (For a fuller treatment see FF Bruce,The New Testament Documents – Are they reliable, IVP).

Furthermore, it is important to note that the Nag Hammadi scrolls differ not only in detail from the canonical Gospels but hugely in their overall theology. These socalled Gnostic gospels do not recognise a divine creator, they “despise sexual distinctions, marriage and motherhood … there is no sin, the fall of Genesis 3 is liberation, and the serpent of the garden speaks wisdom. The gnostic Jesus comes with the same message – not to free us from our sin, but to free us from our ignorance. We do not know who we really are. He brings us gnosis: knowledge. The knowledge is this – we are divine.” (From Cracking Da Vinci’s Code)

As Langdon, the scholar-hero of the tale points out:

“It was man not God, who created the concept of … sin.”

And the real Jesus married Mary Magdalene.

All of this has, according to Brown, been suppressed by the Catholic Church but it’s a truth that many, from Da Vinci to some of Disney’s animators, have known and preserved in secret codes through the ages. Now that we have entered the Age of Aquarius, the truth will out. We can only pray that it will – and that those who don’t have the time or inclination to check Brown’s assertions will not be taken in by the brilliance of his story or the persuasive power of what seems like wilfully deceptive rhetoric.

The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown, Corgi, 2004, £6.99 ISBN 0552149514
Cracking Da Vinci’s Code, James L Garlow & Peter Jones, Victor, 2004 ISBN 078144165X
The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? FF Bruce, IVP, 2003, ISBN 0830827366