Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Apologetics Against "The Da Vinci Code"

This is a short apologetic response to some of the more egregious errors of The Da Vinci Code, which will be made into a movie sometime next year. The fact that so many took Dan Brown's factual claims serously is stunning and disheartening. We have much work to do. Maybe someone should create a tract that can be handed at showings of the film, as was done with "The Last Temptation of Christ."

Dan Brown. The Da Vinci Code. New York: Doubleday, 2003. Reviewed by Douglas Groothuis, Professor of Philosophy, Denver Seminary.

Dan Brown has a knack for mystery and excitement. That is one reason why this book is a huge bestseller and will soon be made into a movie. Another reason for its success is that Brown’s New Age worldview is held by so many Americans. They resonate with his baseless assertions as they are carried along by the adventure that briskly unfolds. However, in terms of literary value, none of the characters are developed in any psychological depth. They are little more than fast-moving cardboard figures spouting mostly nonsense.

This book claims to be an historical novel (although that term is not used), because the first page says, It claims that, "All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate." When an author claims that Jesus was married, that his wife was considered a Goddess, that the Gospels are mere political creations, and so on, the author owns the burden of proof. But the burden of proof crushes Dan Brown into a pancake. I will list 12 of his claims that are manifestly false. For the details, see Ben Witherington, The Gospel Code (InterVarsity Press, 2004). I will not take up the other errors regarding art and architecture, but will stick to claims related to Christianity. This is a but partial list. Brown's claims are in italics. My responses follow.

1. The canonical gospels do not depict an "earthly Jesus." This is manifestly false. In the most theological of the four Gospels, John, declares "The Word became flesh and lived among us." See the entire first chapter of John.

2. The Gnostic documents that mention Jesus emphasize an "earthly Jesus." Just the opposite is true! They denounce the physical as evil and promote the spiritual. That is the essence of Gnosticism. Those who "know" flee the material realm.

3. The Nag Hammadhi texts are scrolls. No, they are codices (books).

4. There were 80 gospels available at the Council of Nicea to choose from for inclusion in the canon. This is a howler, as the British say. There were at most about two dozen accounts of the life of Christ. Our four canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) were already well established as authoritative in the ancient churches. Moreover, Nicea did not decide the contents of the canon. Rather, it addressed the question of the relation of the Son to the Father. Agreeing with the ancient texts (the canonical Gospels), it affirmed that Jesus was truly God, one substance with the Father. See John 1:1-3, for example.

5. Constantine controlled the outcome of Nicea. This is simply untrue. The bishops decided matters for themselves according to solid hermeneutical and theological principles.

6. The Dead Sea Scrolls speak of Jesus. No scholar believes this. They address matters related to a Jewish sect group, probably the Essenes. They say exactly nothing about Jesus.

7. There is a "sacred feminine" concept in Judaism. By no means is this true. God is neither male nor female. Gender is applicable only to creation; it does not apply to God. No Jew, living in terms of God's covenant, would worship the earth as a goddess. God alone, who created the heavens and the earth, is to be worshipped. See the First of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20).

8. The Bible cannot be verified. This is false. The Bible touches space-time history, which can be investigated rationally. There is no need to take a blind leap into the void. That, in fact, is what Brown wants you to do concerning his "accurate" claims.

9. Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. The only support for this comes from the idea that Jewish males at that time had to be married, and that third-century Gnostic documents make the claim. Both ideas are false. Most Jewish males were married, but not all. John the Baptist was not married. There is no internal evidence in the canonical Gospels (all written in the first century) that Jesus was married. In Matthew 19:10-12, Jesus speaks of those who do not marry for the sake of God's Kingdom. He was one of them. The Gnostic documents are third- century fabrications; moreover, even they do not claim Jesus married Mary Magdalene, only that they had a close relationship.

10. The true woman-honoring religion encompasses both goddess worship and Gnosticism. But these two religions contradict each other. Gnostics did not highly honor women. See the last statement in the Gospel of Thomas on that! Women are associated with reproduction and the earth. The Gnostics hated both. There is no earth goddess in Gnosticism.

11. Nothing in Christianity is original; it merely borrowed from paganism, such as Mythraism. This is an old charge and often refuted. Mythraism was probably later than the New Testament documents, was limited mostly to soldiers, and in fact is quite different from the claims of Jesus and the Apostles. See Ronald Nash, God and the Greeks.

12. Sexual desire is viewed as devilish in orthodox Christianity. In no way is this true. God created sexuality for (a) the marriage relationship in itself and for (b) child bearing. Sex within heterosexual monogamy is good, according to the Bible. See Genesis chapters 1-2.

So much more could be argued against Brown’s claims. Suffice it to say that one should not read this book to find any reliable information on the Bible or Church history (or art history, for that matter; but that is another story). Let the reader beware.


Susan said...

This is a useful review! Many people in my workplace have read this book and ask questions about it.

Jeffrey J. Stables said...

You are linked over at my blog. Thank you for your insight!

Jeff Burton said...

I also have linked to and blogged about this entry here

Jody Harrington said...

Great brief refutation of Dan Brown's book. He has done lots of damage claiming that his assertions in the book are fact and not fiction. I'll had this to the articles I collected for a recent Sunday School series on this subject.

Russell Smith said...

Thanks so much for the article. When the book came out, our church did a two session class debunking the book by looking at the testimony of the early church fathers.

The handouts from that class are located at this web address

Thanks for this post -- Now I'd like to see you take on Harry Potter!

Frank Walton said...

Great blog! I made a website on Dan Brown's book:

stc said...

I posted a refutation on my blog, too, after reading that 1.7 million Canadians believe, because of the Da Vinci Code, that Jesus fathered children.

Re your comment, There were at most about two dozen accounts of the life of Christ. That really doesn't address the problem, that there were alternative accounts of Christ's life. The claim is that the Church "suppressed" these alternative accounts. I hear this claim routinely from those who are sceptical about Christianity, and there's some merit to it.

As a liberal — i.e., someone who accepts the merits of critical scholarship — I reject the apocryphal gospels on historical critical grounds. I believe that the earliest of the canonical gospels (Mark) was written at least fifty years earlier than the earliest of the apocryphal gospels (Thomas). But the matter isn't so simple for evangelicals, who reject most of the findings of historical criticism.

In point 8, you say Brown is mistaken when he asserts that the Bible cannot be verified. But in fact there are legitimate grounds for scepticism about the gospels: even on something as straightforward as the identity of the twelve apostles, for example.

I would certainly be interested in a follow-up post which discusses the apocryphal gospels in greater detail, as well as your claim that biblical history is verifiable.

nancy said...

Concise and powerful! You mentioned Witherington's book, "The Gospel Code". After teaching on this subject several times and reading about a half-dozen debunking books, his is the best. I just received "The Da Vinci Hoax" and look forward to reading it as it addresses some of the other lies (actually I'm can only think of one claim in the book that is actually true) related to the templars, priory, art etc.

Dan Brown's website once had an interview with Charlie Gibson. Brown was asked whether he would change anything if he were writing non-fiction and he said "No." Interestingly NBC had a special about a week or so ago in which they exposed the lie about the Priory of Scion.

One of Brown's key sources is Margaret Starbird. She gets her mug on all of the TV shows as some expert. She's read by many of my fellow suburban soccer moms. Her theories are bizarre and unsupported, yet she is adored by many. She is not a Biblical scholar (she holds an MA in comparative literature or medieval studies). In the special last week, NBC chose to air her comments and theory about Mary "clinging" to Jesus (she claims this is the embrace of a wife to her husband) instead of Dr. Ben Witherington's insightful understanding of the Biblical text. Witherington is a Biblical Scholar. Though NBC did include clips from Witherington, they neglected his comments on this passage of Scripture.

So alas, in ignorance, people buy into this stuff. But hopefully by May, Brown (and his suposedly non-fiction sources) will be relegated back to the Fiction section where they belong!

Jeffrey J. Stables said...

Q - Thanks for the comment and I hope we can continue this discussion.

Curmudgeon - Please do post more on the apocryphal gospels, if that topic is still within the realm of your "Culture Watch." I'd be interested in the dialogue generated there, especially with Q.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

Thanks for the detailed comments by Nancy (who happens to be one of my stellar students) on "The Da Vinci Crock" (I mean code).

I address the question of the reliability of the canonical gospels and their superiority to other accounts of Jesus' life in my book, "Jesus in an Age of Controversy" (Wipf and Stock reprint). For a more technical treatment, see my colleague's work, "The Historical Reliability of the Gospels" (IVP, 1986) by Craig Blomberg.

In a nutshell, the other documents are much older and lack clear connection to an apostle. Q is a hypothetical document posited to explain some of the synoptic material. This gets quite complicated. However, the existence of Q poses no threat to a conservative view of Scripture. It may have been a source drawn upon by the canonical writers. They did historical research and were guided by the Holy Spirit in so doing. The problem lies with excessive liberal speculation about sources and their redaction. I still find C.S. Lewis essay on this quite telling: "Modern Biblical Criticism," in "Christian Reflections."

I believe the synoptics were all written before 70 AD. For my reasons, see "Jesus in an Age of Controversy." I deal with the reliability of canonical gospels briefly in "On Jesus" (Wadsworth, 2003) as well.

stc said...

the other documents are much older and lack clear connection to an apostle.

I think you mean, the other documents (i.e., the apocryphal gospels) are much later (further removed from the actual lifetime of Jesus). And I agree.

As for the lack of a "clear connection" to an apostle, that is also true of the canonical gospels. The earliest testimony, as I'm sure you know, is that of Papias. Papias said, c. AD 140, that Mark was the interpreter of Peter.

This is the strongest tradition connecting any of the gospels to an apostle. And it is pretty impressive, although it acknowledges that Mark was only indirectly the work of an apostle. Papias also says that Mark wrote accurately but wasn't able to place events in their proper chronological order.

Papias also mentions Matthew: "Matthew collected the oracles in the Hebrew language, and each interpreted them as best he could". Clearly this does not correspond to the Gospel of Matthew as we have it. (Matthew is a Greek work, and it contains not only "oracles" but also considerable narrative material.)

The first author to attribute our Gospel of Matthew to the apostle is Iraneus, writing c. AD 180 — more than 100 years after it was written, on your dating. And the link to an apostle is even weaker with respect to the other Gospels, Luke and John.

E.P. Sanders ("Studying the Synoptic Gospels") comments that the Gospels "were quoted before they were named." This suggests that the Gospels circulated anonymously, apparently for decades, before they were attributed to an apostle (Matthew, John) or someone associated with an apostle (Mark, Luke).

nancy said...

q (and curmudgeon) -

It seems that curmudgeon's statement "the other documents are much older and lack clear connection to an apostle." still stands.

Clearly the content of the 4 gospels was well into circulation and quoted by Polycarp, Ignatious and Clement by around 100 A.D. (please forgive my lack of precise dates as I am on vacation and only packed a few books). The other gospels were not quoted in this fashion by the church fathers.

On dating the gnostic gospels the only one that comes close to the dating of the canonical gospels is Thomas (150 A.D.). Most of the others are clearly of a later origin.

Additionally Thomas does not belong to the same literary category as the Gospels. It is a collection of sayings with no historical context to assist in interpretation. Compare that to the language of Luke 1:1-4. Those who have the luxury of reading comparable ancient literature state that his style throughout the text is that of a scientist presenting facts.

You should read "Jesus in an Age of Controversy" as the two chapters on the gnostic texts illustrate how a saying of Jesus that is in Thomas has additions and twists that were added onto the more original saying in the canonical gospel. If you really have time on your hands and want to dig into the layers of Q and layers of Thomas, pick up Philip Jenkins "Hidden Gospels - How the Search for Jesus Lost it's way." Additionally reasearch on this topic is not complete without reading Blomberg. His recent "Making Sense of the New Testament" is sprinkled with increadible insights.

Bruce Metzger's "The Canon of the New Testament" thoroughly deals with the canonization process. Eusebius in the early 300s mentions the Gospel of the Hebrews as useful reading - though not on par with the big 4. He refers to Thomas as heretical. There is no evidence that other gospels ever vied for the status of "scripture"

Witherington reminds us that the earliest Christians were Jewish. Gnosticism exibits a disdain for creation. This contradicts OT theology which holds that God's creation, though fallen, is good! Other attributes of gnostic theology such as its androdgenous strains (see Thomas 114) would also grate against the sensibilities of the earliest Christins.

BTW Norman Geisler gives 15 strong evidences for dating Luke (and subsequently Mark) before the destruction of the temple.

stc said...


I agree that the apocryphal gospels are later documents. I was only disagreeing with the other remark, that the canonical gospels have a "clear connection" to an apostle.

However, in discussing this subject, people should be mindful of the introduction to Luke's Gospel. Luke says that "many" had written an account of Jesus' ministry before he wrote his Gospel.

The statement lends biblical support to the idea that there were other "gospels", or at least documentary sources, that have been lost to us. In my view, this likely includes "Q".

nancy said...

Thanks for the clarification. I'm curious about your interest in Q. Are you expecting new informtion? Do you think Q is written or oral? I do recommend both Jenkins and Witherington. Jenkins notes that the high level of interest in Q is predominately a North American fad though he does acknowledge that it could be writting. Additionally Blomberg sheds light on the ancient oral tradition.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

What I meant to say was that the noncanonical gospels are much further removed or in time from the canonical Gospels. They were written later. The canonical gospels are older. I don't think I can go back and change a response to post the way I can change an original post. (I'm pretty knew to blogging.)

The oldest Christian tradition we have connects the Gospels to an Apostle. Moreover, Mark's presentation of material resembles the speeches of Peter in Acts. That is internal evidence of a connection to Peter, as noted by C.H. Dodd. We have no evidence connecting the Gospels to any other writers than Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. Thus, the burden of proof is on those who deny them as authors.

Nancy, that was an excellent fact-filled, book-filled post. This soccer Mom loves to study and write and think!

stc said...


Despite my blogger name, I don't place a great deal of emphasis on "Q". The name is more of a joke for my private amusement; on any other site, people assume it's a reference to a Star Trek character.

I could say more about the potential significance of "Q", but I fear we're now way off topic.

Dave said...

When is the gospel of Philip written?

I find your comments below very helpful as I prepare for two sessions of 'preparing Christians' in malaysia for the movie next summer :) Thanks for your dedication to a life of scholarship!

"If truth is not a matter of majority vote, neither is it a matter of minority dissent.

It may be true that "the winners write history," but that doesn't
necessarily make them bad or dishonest historians. If it does, we should hunt down Nazi historians to give us the real picture of Hitler's Germany and relegate all opposing views to that of dogmatic apologists who just happened to be on the winning side."