The Flap Over 'The Code'
By: Rubel Shelly

Some Christians are reacting to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code with strong denunciations. The book has sold well over 40 million copies in hardback, and the movie is expected to get a correspondingly huge reception at the box office when it opens May 19. Sony has sunk both star power (Tom Hanks) and proven directorial skills (Ron Howard) into making it a summer blockbuster.

Officials at the Vatican have called for Roman Catholic faithful to boycott the movie. Various Protestant churches have joined to denounce both the book and the film. Some Christians plan to picket theaters on the Friday the film is released.

So what’s all the fuss? Is this film going to expose and falsify the Christian religion? Prove we have a corrupted or “wrong” Bible? Destroy the Roman Catholic Church? Show that the deity of Jesus is a fourth-century doctrine the earliest church never believed or promulgated?

My personal view is that the book and movie are great teaching moments. And while God may call some of his people to debunk and boycott, I sense instead the call to play off the book to teach the neglected (and sometimes boring!) facts about the history and theology referenced in The Da Vinci Code.

Constantine. Many of The Code’s errors of fact center on the Roman Emperor Constantine. It claims, for example, that he convened the Council of Nicea in 325 C.E. to establish the doctrine of Jesus’ deity (passed by a very narrow vote!), move the day of Christian worship from Saturday to Sunday, settle the choice of four Gospels (i.e., Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) for the New Testament, and suppress the many older Gospels that described the human aspects of Jesus.

The only fact about Constantine in the paragraph above is that he called church leaders together for the Council of Nicea in 325. The deity of Jesus had been affirmed in the earliest writings in the New Testament – the letters written by Paul in mid-first century (cf. Philippians 2:5-11); Nicea discussed how the divine and human natures of Jesus were related to each other and took no “vote” on his deity. Sunday was the primary day of Christian worship from the start (Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:2); Constantine had proclaimed Sunday a state holiday four years before Nicea.

Which books to include in what became the New Testament was not a topic of discussion at the church’s first ecumenical council; Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John had been accepted as authoritative accounts of Jesus’ life for well over 150 years by that time. There is no historical evidence of any book burning or Gospel suppression as a result of Nicea; the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are clear about the human (e.g., tears, pain, hunger, etc.) as well as divine (e.g., insights, miracles, resurrection, etc.) natures of Jesus.

The Bible. The Da Vinci Code explains that the New Testament we have today is unreliable as an account of the life and mission of Jesus. An older and more faithful account is known to scholars from the discovery in the 1950s of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Nag Hammadi documents. But the Vatican has suppressed public awareness of these valuable works.

All these assertions are false. The Dead Sea Scrolls – found in 1947, by the way – contain no Christian documents and never once mention Jesus; it is a library of Jewish literature hidden away by a first-century Jewish sect of Essenes. The 46 Nag Hammadi documents are Gnostic works, include none of our canonical Gospels, and contain no reference to an alternate “grail” story. The Vatican has never controlled or had any desire to conceal either collection of documents.

Jesus. The book and movie make much of an alternate account of Jesus’ marriage to Mary Magdalene as “a matter of historical record.” The affirmation is that a married Jesus “makes more sense” in light of the Jewish social customs of that time which “virtually forbid a Jewish man to be unmarried” and specifically “condemned” celibacy.

In the first place, marriage is honorable and holy throughout Scripture. I know of no reason Christ could not have married, if that had been his choice. The fact is, however, that there is not a single document from antiquity – biblical, Nag Hammadi text, or any other – that claims he was married. It is certainly untrue that celibacy was “condemned” by Jewish culture in Jesus’ time. Does anybody remember John the Baptist? Paul? The Essenes of Dead Sea Scroll fame?

The “argument” in Brown’s novel that the Aramaic word koinonos in The Gospel of Philip actually means “spouse” – and thus does make a claim that Jesus was married – would cause any biblical or linguistic scholar to laugh. For one thing, Philip is known to us only in Coptic and not Aramaic. For another, the word koinonos means “associate” or “friend” – a status our canonical Gospels affirm not only for Mary Magdalene but for several other women of that time.

The Sacred Feminine. The Code has the Priory of Sion perpetuating goddess worship because the group knows a secret hidden from the masses by the Roman Catholic Church. That secret is that “early Jewish tradition involved ritualistic sex” in the Jerusalem Temple, where “Shekinah” was housed as the powerful female consort of the male Yahweh.

“Shekinah” is not the name of a female deity but the term used to describe the brilliant glory that attends the presence of Yahweh. And Yahweh – who, by the way, is neither male nor female – is never referred to in any documentation from ancient times in terms of sexual rituals at the Jerusalem Temple. If Catholics are offended by the insulting misuse of “historical fiction” – it would more correctly be called “fictional history” – so are Jews by so outrageous a claim as this one.

The biblical record has Yahweh creating both male and female to bear the divine image and likeness (Genesis 1:27), giving laws unique to antiquity that were meant to protect women from common abuses (e.g., divorce certificates), and honoring their role in Israel’s history (e.g., Sarah, Ruth, Deborah). Women figure prominently in the ministries of both Jesus and Paul.

It is church history rather than Constantine or the abolition of a “sacred feminine” that reflects the shameful exclusion and exploitation of females in the church. Both Catholic and Protestant actions have too often reflected patriarchal culture over divine ideals. Such Gnostic literature as The Gospel of Thomas demeans women and holds out the salvific ideal of their being transformed into males.

The garbled representations of The Da Vinci Code just might prompt many of us who suffer from a growing biblical illiteracy to dust off some old documents. And then the flap will have been a good thing.