IN The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown has written a novel, but he maintains that its underlying historical plot is true.
Giving courses on The Da Vinci Code in Adelaide to several hundreds of people, I have been met with those who want him to be right, those who want him to be wrong, those who are plainly confused.
What do I think about the novel and its claim to historical reliability?
I think that to substantiate his plot, Brown would need to prove the following assertions:
- There were 80 or so gospels in circulation prior to the time of Constantine and the emperor chose four of them for his own purposes.
- There is a Q Document that outlines the human ministry of Jesus, possibly in Jesus’ own words.
- At the Council of Nicaea there was a vote on the humanity versus the divinity of Jesus.
- The Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered from 1947 onwards, contain an alternative version of a human Jesus.
- The Nag Hammadi Codices, discovered in Egypt in 1945, contain an alternative version of a human Jesus.
- The Gospel of Philip substantiates the marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene.
- The Gospel of Mary (Magdalene) substantiates Jesus’ intention to make Mary Magdalene his successor, not Peter.
- The Roman Catholic Church has endeavoured to suppress the true history of Jesus – in modern times by the machinations of Opus Dei.
The Church has appointed a well known Italian cleric, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, to rebut The Da Vinci Code.
The cardinal has spoken to reporters about his reactions to the book and it is possible to reconstruct his argument.
- There were only four gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. They were written by eyewitness disciples with historical accuracy. Other gospels are imaginative.
- The Q Document relates to those sayings in the gospels of Matthew and Mark that overlap. No actual separate document has ever been found.
- The Council of Nicaea definitively explained how Jesus could be human and divine at the same time.
- The Dead Sea Scrolls contain Jewish texts. The texts of the Old Testament, mostly fragmentary, are the oldest ever known and confirm the reliability of the Hebrew text we have at present. The other texts relate to Jewish groups from before and around the time of Jesus.
- The Nag Hammadi Codices contain heretical writings. These gospels were never accepted by the Christian Church because they were recognised as being not historical, but containing figments of the human authors’ imagination.
- The Gospel of Philip is not historically reliable. Jesus did not marry anyone. He did not have children.
- The Gospel of Mary is not historically reliable. Jesus designated Peter as head of the group of apostles.
- Opus Dei is a religious order within the Roman Catholic Church, peopled by dedicated men and women.
Adjudicating between Bertone and Brown, and trying to be as even as possible, I would make the following comments on their confrontation.
By the 2nd century there were a number of gospels in circulation (Brown’s number of 80 would be a guess on the wild side).
The four gospels that were accepted from a very early period into the Roman canon were written from around 70 CE until 110 CE. They were not written by eyewitnesses.
The names of authors were not added until the 2nd century. The authors are unknown.
Which gospels were more historical?
As a historian I do not think any of them were primarily historical. They were statements of faith. They looked back to the inspiration of Jesus, whom they interpreted.
I think that by the time they were written, Jesus was long dead and very little detail remained about what he had specifically said or what he had specifically done.
The Q Document
During the 19th century, scholars searching for an authentic history of Christianity placed the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke (in their original Greek texts) side by side for the sake of comparison.
They were shocked to find that the three gospel writers were copied to some degree.
A good deal of Mark’s text had been reproduced in Matthew and Mark. Further, there were 250 verses of the sayings of Jesus reproduced in Matthew and Luke, but not contained in Mark.
For convenience, German scholars gave this collection of sayings the code name Quelle or “source”, Q for short.
It was hypothesised that there must have been a Q Document from which Matthew and Luke had copied. No trace of any such document has ever been found.
Brown’s conjectures that the Vatican knows where Q is hidden, that Q contains a human history of Jesus’ ministry, that Q might have been written by Jesus are all pure fantasy.
The Council of Nicaea
Brown blunders badly here.
There was no vote on the humanity versus the divinity of Jesus at Nicaea. There was a vote on how Jesus could be both human and divine.
Brown is right though in stating that Constantine used the council for his own political purposes.
The Dead Sea Scrolls
Brown has slipped up – he did not check the original texts and became confused. The more than 800 texts contained in the Dead Sea Scrolls say nothing about a human (or even a divine) Jesus. They are Jewish documents.
The Nag Hammadi Codices
Unlike the Dead Sea Scrolls, these texts do deal with Jesus, but not, as Brown maintains, a human Jesus.
The Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Philip is decidedly a Gnostic figure, a divine Jesus, who has the appearance of humanity and is incapable of death.
Mary Magdalene as wife of Jesus
The marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene and the birth of their daughter is crucial to the plot of The Da Vinci Code.
Christianity, according to Brown, was founded on the succession of Mary Magdalene and her offspring. It was intended to be a feminine thing.
But the Gospel of Philip is not a history book. It expressed the faith of early Christian Gnostics.
They did not even believe in sex and marriage and they certainly did not believe that Jesus would have married Mary Magdalene.
Mary Magdalene as successor to Jesus
Brown’s thesis that Mary Magdalene was the successor of Jesus was based on the Gospel of Mary.
Her importance there is due to the revelation she received from Jesus.
Certainly, Gnostic groups looked to her as the true successor of Jesus.
The Gospel of Mary relates not to history but to the confrontation of competing groups of Christians in the 2nd century, a Peter group and a Mary group.
History cannot decide who the “real” successor was or even if there was one single successor.
Opus Dei is an ultra-conservative sect within modern Roman Catholicism.
It embodies many of the practices, such as self-flagellation, once known in religious orders prior to the modernisation of the Catholic Church in the 1960s.
Its role in Brown’s book cannot, for all that, be substantiated.
Opus Dei does not have any mandate to conceal secrets – whether about the history of Jesus’ marriage and lineage, the Dead Sea Scrolls or whatever. It does not harbour murderous, albino monks. It is not harmless but it is not as bad as it is portrayed in The Da Vinci Code.
In conclusion, it should be said that neither Dan Brown nor Cardinal Bertone recognise the real diversity within early Christianity.
Detailing that diversity is another story for another day, but suffice to say that there were many forms of early Christianity in competition.
It was only after the time of Constantine that the Roman form was entrenched.
Dan Brown has raised valid and interesting questions, but he has supplied very mediocre and flawed answers.
Prof Robert Crotty is an emeritus professor specialising in religious studies at the University of South Australia.