Decoding Da Vinci

Several people have contacted freelance theology and asked questions about international bestseller The Da Vinci Code, written by Dan Brown. So, for them, here’s freelance theology’s brief look at some of the issues raised.

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, if you believe the hype, is a publishing phenomenon. It has ruffled a few feathers in the Christian publishing trade as well –the religious section of Borders Bookshop in Union Square, San Francisco has six books disproving The Da Vinci Code on display. So, why all the fuss about a work of fiction?

Well, for one thing, Dan Brown states rather a lot of the fiction as absolute fact. Scholars have been quick to pick up on the obvious discrepancies in his book (lumping the Dead Sea Scrolls in with early Christian non-canonical ‘gospels’ on page 317 being a good example). But the real outcry has come over the central theme of the story – that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and belonged to a fertility-cult that worshipped the ‘sacred feminine’ or fertility-goddess, that they had a child and subsequent generations of the Messiah’s blood-line, coded as the ‘holy grail’, have been protected by secret society ever since.

What Brown has done quite well is take some of the frankly wacky ideas from the fringes of scholarly research and try and work them into a coherent whole. He dresses much of it up in ‘symbology’ – revolving around imagery in Leonardo Da Vinci’s paintings, much of which has been covered in quasi-historical New Age literature before. What he has not done is critique the ‘hidden meanings’, disregarding the fact that, as in Michael Drosnin’s The Bible Code, if you look hard enough for something that you know must be there, then you will probably find it.

The Da Vinci Code could be dismissed as nothing more than a poorly-researched thriller, but the fact remains that there are people who will use this book as a basis from which to critique Christianity. By selectively promoting a fringe view and by omitting key aspects of the ‘mainstream’ story, Brown cleverly manipulates any readers without an understanding of early Christianity into thinking that somehow they have been misled.

Some errors and omissions
[This is not a complete list, just the most annoying and obvious ones]

Error #1
Brown repeats throughout the book that the Emperor Constantine’s new official church wanted to excise Mary Magdalene from the story. He alleges that a deliberate campaign was waged against proponents of the ‘truth’, so the followers of Magdalene went underground. The real truth can be found in the books that Constantine tried to ban: the ‘Gnostic’ gospels.

In fact, there are virtually no references to Mary Magdalene in the writings of the earliest Christians, Gnostic or not. Constantine only declared Christianity to be the official religion in 313, by which time there were several types of Christianity around, many sects outside the Roman Empire (e.g. Armenia, outside the Imperial borders was the first official ‘Christian country’). If Brown’s hypothesis about Mary Magdalene had ever been regarded as true, then it would have survived somewhere. For Christianity to be heterodox, yet there be no reference anywhere to the belief that Jesus and Mary produced a Messianic heir, is an indicator that it did not happen. It is not even listed as a heresy in ancient texts that list all the ‘false’ beliefs doing the rounds. Contrary to the exaggerated claim on page 316 there simply were not “thousands of books chronicling His life as a mortal man”.

Most of the ‘gospels’ that Brown quotes from are of doubtful provenance. Some even date from after the time of Constantine. Most of these Gnostic texts relate to hugely complicated belief-systems, whereby the divine spark that exists in all humans can be liberated from its fleshly material prison through secret knowledge ‘gnosis’. Very few of them have any concrete information about Jesus’ life.

On page 331, the best ‘alternative history’ that Brown can find, the ‘Gospel of Philip’, is introduced. In this ‘lost gospel’, Mary Magdalene is described as “the companion of the Saviour”, whom he kissed on the mouth. But what Brown leaves out is that the ‘Gospel of Philip’ was found in fragments. The word translated as ‘mouth’ is one that is missing and has been guessed at by interpreters – it might also be ‘head’. Brown’s characters go on to explain the text by saying that the Aramaic for ‘companion’ often meant ‘spouse’. That may be true but it is an utterly irrelevant point. The ‘Gospel of Philip’ was found in Nag Hammadi in Egypt and was written in Coptic, not Aramaic. There is no evidence that it was ever translated from an Aramaic original.

‘Several other passages’ are alluded to, but conveniently not quoted, before the ‘Gospel of Mary Magdalene’ is quoted on page 333. In this section Peter is criticising Mary and Levi sticks up for her, saying that Jesus might have told her secret stuff ‘because he loved her more than us.’ Two things need to be said about this. Firstly this passage has nothing to do with the ‘sacred feminine’; the complete passage is about complicated Gnostic cosmology that ‘Mary’ is presenting to the other disciples. Secondly, the conflict with ‘Peter’ may be an allusion to conflict with the Petrine tradition centred on Rome, but Levi vouching for Mary is about the authority of this gospel against the accepted canon, not about the real Mary Magdalene’s authority or otherwise in the post-resurrection Christian community.

Error #2
On page 315 of The Da Vinci Code, Brown has one of his characters reveal that it was only at the Council of Nicea in 325AD, that Jesus was declared “Son of God” and that his divine status was the result solely of the vote. Before that he was considered human.

Anybody who has ever studied the formation of the Christian creeds will know that the statements found on page 315 are ignorant in the extreme. The debate at Nicea was not about Jesus’ divinity compared to humanity at all. It was a debate between those who viewed Jesus as being the very same nature as God (‘homoousios’/ consubstantial/ literally: ‘of the same stuff’) and those who wanted to identify Jesus as the first created being, the ‘Logos’ or ‘Wisdom’, who in turn created the world. This slightly lesser form of divinity has been identified with Arius, and is thus called Arianism, although really it is a Christianising of Greek philosophical thought, merged with Gnostic ideas.

Jesus divinity was never questioned at Nicea. The debate was over the level of divinity that should be ascribed to him.

Error #3
In a couple of places, Brown hints that ‘Jehovah’, the Old Testament name of God, was formed by merging the names of pre-OT male and female deities (‘Jah’ and ‘Huvah’). Elsewhere, he refers to ‘Shekinah’ as a possible female consort of Jehovah, who was later edited out as the Jewish religion became monotheist.

‘Jehovah’ as a name for God was formed by merging two words, but not in the way Brown suggests. The four-letter name of God revealed to Moses, known as the Tetragrammaton, transliterates into English as YHWH (often referred to as Yahweh). Because the earliest Hebrew texts contain no vowel sounds the exact pronunciation is unknown. The revealed name of God was considered holy and saying it aloud was blasphemy under Jewish law (an over-literal interpretation of the third of the Ten Commandments). So a person reading out the Torah or other holy scriptures would say the word ‘adonai’ meaning ‘lord’. When vowel sounds were added to the Hebrew alphabet, in the form of dotted markings above the letters, the vowels for adonai (a,o,a) were added to YHWH, giving the word YaHoWaH. Because J and V are interchangeable with the Hebrew Yodh and Waw respectively, this became Jehovah in the early English translations of the Bible. ‘Jehovah’ does not exist as a word in the original Hebrew and it certainly did not come into existence by merging the names of two other Gods.

‘Shekinah’ is the Hebrew word for ‘Glory’, which does have an almost tangible nature to it in the Old Testament. ‘The Glory of the Lord’ affects people, is visible, overwhelms those who see it etc. Like the feminine-gendered Wisdom found in the book of Proverbs, ‘Shekinah’ is something that emanates from God. Referring to it as ‘she’ would be a mistake, because as in many languages, just because a thing has feminine gender does not mean it has personal status.

Omission #1
The central thrust of The Da Vinci Code is to assert the loss of the original ‘sacred feminine’. There is much truth in the list of pagan symbols and activities that were taken over and Christianised. However, the idea that Jesus was somehow actively promoting the religion of the Goddess is un-provable nonsense.

Jesus, as a first-century Jew, would have had nothing to do with paganism. What Brown fails to tell the reader is that Judaism was unflinching in its avoidance of syncretism and pagan notions of Goddess-worship would not be tolerated among Jews in first century Palestine. The reason there were moneychangers in the Temple courts was because the graven image of Caesar’s head on the reverse of Roman coins was considered idolatrously offensive to Yahweh and so could not be allowed in the Temple vaults. Worshippers had to excahnge their idolatrous coinage for ‘holy’ money – at inflated rates. The Old Testament history of Israel is one of Yahweh-worship in conflict with fertility cults (that’s why Baal had altars, but the goddess Asherah had ‘poles’ – think about it!). The suggestion that Yahweh worship was originally one of these fertility cults has no basis.

Omission #2
Given that The Da Vinci Code is about the survival of Goddess-worship/the ‘sacred feminine’, despite the persecutory attention of the Church, it seems very strange that no mention is made at all of the Roman Catholic cult of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Extreme proponents of Mariolotry as it’s sometimes called, refer to her as the Queen of Heaven (which, incidentally, is an ancient pagan term) and want to see her officially declared as co-redemptrix with Christ. So far the Pope has refused to do this. For Brown to fail to include even a passing reference to the Blessed Virgin indicates that whatever does not fit with the story has been conveniently placed to one side.

This sort of thing is not new. Every so often a different version of this idea will come out. It’s the theological version of the JFK conspiaracy theory. But now they say there were no shots fired from the grassy knoll and the official version of events may have been true after all. It seems that despite the weight of scholarship – from all wings of the church and even from people with no faith at all – there will still be those who believe ‘the truth’, even when it’s so obviously made up.

Moral Meals

From SM, United Kingdom

I was reading Genesis the other day and realised that in the creation God does not given man beasts to eat but only plants (Genesis chapter 1, verses 29-30). Does this mean that God intended us to eat a vegetarian diet and if so when did it all change and did Jesus eat meat during his life?

There are some Christians who would argue that meat was not eaten in Eden and therefore Christians should not eat meat. However, in terms of your question, if we follow the Genesis account, Abel sacrifices some of his flock in chapter 4 (and presumably if he “kept flocks”, then he did so because he ate meat). God formally gives Noah and his descendents the right to eat meat in Genesis chapter 9, verses 1–3.

Jesus would probably have eaten meat as it played an integral part in first century Jewish life, including the religious festivals. If the Last Supper was a Passover meal (hinted at in Luke chapter 22 verse 15 & 16), then Jesus would have eaten roasted lamb with his disciples. It would also seem that Jesus ate bread and fish with his disciples after his resurrection (John chapter 21 verse 13-15).

Thanks for your question SM.

Common ground between Christians and Muslims

Question from CM, United Kingdom

I have a friend who is a Muslim. He prays more often than I do and we agree on a lot of topics such as the state of the world, the insanity of terrorism, the depravity of modern culture etc. We can even both talk about Jesus in a positive way except that obviously Mohammed is held in higher regard. With so much in common, why do I feel such an eternal gulf between us and yet feel unable to criticise a faith, which is so similar on many levels and yet fundamentally will lead this friend into damnation?

In this post-modern world, it is very unfashionable to refer to the truth-claims of the different religions and yet those truth-claims are often a large factor in making a belief system. So, for example, without a claim to be God’s chosen people, Judaism becomes an interesting moral code. Without the superiority of the ‘ultimate revelation’ that is Qur’an, Islam becomes a hybrid development of primitive Christianity and Jewish legalism. Without the incredible claims surrounding the Incarnation, Christianity becomes following the example of a Jewish moral teacher.

The main difference between Islam and Christianity is found in the peculiarly Christian concept of the Trinitarian God. The claim that Jesus is the “Son of God” is unsettlingl to a Muslim, because the Qur’anic view of God is absolutely monotheistic. Allah is the one God, above everything, source of everything else that exists. The Christian conception of God is markedly different. For a start there is the paradoxical statement ‘one God in three persons’ and the essential Unity of the Triune Godhead is a theological enigma that has yet to be satisfactorily defined despite two thousand years spent trying.

But it is in this understanding of God that Christians and Muslims differ. ‘Islam’ means ‘submission’ – to submit to the will of Allah is thus the only moral claim on a human being’s life. There is no ‘good’ or ‘evil’ except for doing the will of God as revealed through the Qur’an and later interpretations of it. [This of course leads to the extremist tendency, which justifies terrorism as the ‘will of Allah’ and therefore ‘good’.] Salvation thus comes through submitting to the will of God and relying solely on God’s mercy to allow the individual into paradise.

In contrast, the Trinitarian view reveals God as relational. The ‘coinherence’ (in Greek ‘perichoresis’) of the three persons, shows God, not as a distant, unknowable God, but as one who knows and can be known. God is thus interested in saving humanity for a purpose – to have a relationship with human beings. God enters human history as a ‘Father’ sending his ‘Son’ in the power of the ‘Spirit’. Thus all three persons are involved in the Incarnation and the very nature of God is revealed through the human life of Jesus Christ. Those who are saved are promised eternal life in true relationship with God as opposed to the Muslim promise of immortal life in a pleasure-filled version of earth.

In many respects, given this crucial divergence in view, it is no wonder there is an ‘eternal gulf’ between Christians and Muslims. However, we must hold onto the hope that the God who seeks a restored relationship with all human beings will look favourably on those who try to live their lives in submission to him.

Thanks for your question, CM. .

All together now

Question from CF, location not given, but believed to be the USA

Jesus points to a spiritual way to heaven while clergy seem locked to Church tradition. Who can broaden our scope with an “Honor God Society” for a common bond among all whom have faith?

The very fact that we have so many religious traditions in this world seem to indicate two things: 1) human beings have an innate sense of something beyond the physically verifiable; and 2) few people agree on what that is.

A God-honouring society that encompasses all faiths seems like an excellent idea and many people have tried to put one together, usually to find that they have founded yet another new religion. The issue for anyone trying to adopt a pluralist approach is how do you take the common experience of religion and create something that is morally binding and yet redeeming in the life of the adherent.

To put this problem another way – it’s not enough to merely recognise the common ground between different traditions, there has to be a way of reconciling the uncommon ground as well. So, for example, how would we ‘honour God’? Would it be through prayer, particular worship patterns, offerings of food, sacrifices or something else? The questions of ‘ortho-praxis’ (correct action) are almost as complicated as those of ‘orthodoxy’ (correct belief).

On that note, many ‘clergy’ would argue that ‘Church tradition’ maintains, upholds and explains Jesus’ ‘spiritual way to heaven’. How would that viewpoint be accommodated in a pluralist movement?

The best that can be done in many respects is to agree to disagree, keep the doctrines and the dogmas open to discussion, answer people’s questions truthfully and respect the fact that other peoples’ beliefs may be different, which can be hard to do if you think those beliefs are pointless, daft or just plain wrong. From a Christian point of view, very few people are argued into the Kingdom of God, so telling them they are wrong about things seems to be a waste of time. Far better to honour the God who made all human beings through respecting his creatures, than to treat them with disdain and discourtesy, acting out of sinful arrogance and pride.

Global Warming and prophecies of ‘changing seasons’

Question from SL, United Kingdom

Some would say that we are seeing increasingly changeable weather not typical of the season. I believe there are references to events in both the Old and New Testaments. Can you supply a few of these and comment accordingly. Does global warming fit any of them?

There is an old saying that ‘the seasons will change’, although the modern translations of Scripture certainly do not seem to have a statement as bald as that. It has, however, become part of the late twentieth century pre-millennial eschatology that global warming or climate change are part of the ‘Last Days’.

The book of Daniel is one of the best-known Old Testament apocalyptic books, containing the visions of the prophet Daniel/Belteshazzar in Babylon around the time of the Jewish Exile. Daniel, and the genre of apocalyptic literature generally, is hard to translate to our modern mind-set. There is a tendency to over-literalise apocalyptic Scriptures and try and apply modern events to the fantastical visions of these ancient seers.

In Daniel chapter 2 verse 21, the prophet praises God, saying “He changes times and seasons…” Given the apocalyptic themes that run throughout Daniel, where even in the earlier chapters God’s judgement and the need for the faithful to stand firm under persecution are common elements, this verse could be the source of the inclusion of changing seasons in eschatological events. However, this verse could merely be stating that God is in ultimate control of earthly events – which is, of course, the defining element in apocalyptic literature.

In the ‘little apocalypse’ found in the gospel of Mark chapter 13, warnings of impending doom are followed by a quote lifted from Isaiah that in the last days “the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light” (verse 24 in Mark / Isaiah chapter 13, verse 10 and chapter 34, verse 4). In Revelation similar portents in the heavens occur regularly as a sign of the imminent end. Such changes in the natural order were widely regarded in Biblical times as having some meaning.

In using apocalyptic literature today, Christians generally fall into two camps: those who want to ‘interpret it’ in concrete terms by linking various apocalyptic events or figures with what is happening in the news or with certain persons; and those who regard it as having little or no relevance. Without wanting to get into a ‘Late, Great Planet Earth’ mindset, apocalyptic literature is important as much today as ever. It reminds Christians that the last days are real – and have been ever since the time of Christ, that God is in control of history, regardless of whether that is obvious and that Christians need to stand firm in the face of evil.

In terms of climate change, there are two apocalyptic viewpoints. One would be that the world is going to get burned up anyway, so what’s the point in worrying? The second (and more thoughtful viewpoint) would see the destruction of the planet through the wanton use of limited resources as going against the job description of human beings as stewards of this fragile globe. To recognise climate change as a result of human selfishness and propensity for squander and, therefore, as a physical symptom of spiritual evil, should encourage Christians to do what they can to prevent it.

Right here, righteous now?

Question from CM, United Kingdom.

The evangelical method of bringing people to Christ by imposing an immediate decision on an individual to choose their eternal destiny on the spot or risk going to hell seems to have held sway forever. But I recently read a book, which suggested that this approach only became popular in the Methodist movement under John Wesley. What pattern emerges from the Bible when God counts someone as “righteous” or “redeemed” and therefore fit to spend eternity with Him? Is this how God does it?

There are several instances in both testaments of people being given a one-off opportunity to claim some form of salvation. “Choose this day whom you will serve” (Joshua chapter 24 and verse 15) and similar injunctions to the people of Israel are mirrored by instances in the New Testament where those who hear the ‘good news’ are given clear instructions (e.g. Acts chapter 2 verse 38) that they have to follow.

However, the emphasis on human choice that Wesley prioritised stems from his belief that human free will was the deciding factor in an individual’s salvation. The Bible is less than clear regarding the question of free will (hence the long-running debate over predestination), but it is fair to say that humans have some sort of say in the matter. Jesus tells his disciples that “You did not choose me, but I chose you…” (John chapter 15, verse 16) and that seems to imply that sometimes the choice is out of our hands. In the history of Israel, many ‘righteous persons’ were chosen almost arbitrarily. Abraham and Noah were counted as righteous enough to found God’s chosen people and survive an apocalyptic flood respectively. Neither of them ever responded to an altar call.

Jesus often left people with a choice to make. The Rich Young Man, who’s story is told in Luke chapter 16, was faced with a choice in how he was going to live his life and what would be his priority from now on. Interestingly, he chose to walk away, much to Jesus’ sadness. Later in Christian history, John Calvin would argue that the only free will human beings had was to reject the offer of salvation.

So should Christians put other people ‘on the spot’? There has been a recent trend away from confrontational evangelism (door-knocking, street-preaching and the like) to relational evangelism. This comes at a far higher personal risk – rejection is harder to take when you actually know the person involved, but perhaps it is a more Biblical method. Christians are called to be ‘witnesses’ (Acts chapter 1 verse 8), living out the faith as an example to unbelievers. This gives people many opportunities to ‘choose life’ and it allows an unforced decision – a positive ‘yes’ rather than a reluctant commitment made out of the fear of hell.

And now, a new feature from freelance theology:
freelance theology’s pre-emptive answer:
‘What does ‘evangelism’ mean?’
It comes from the root word ‘evangel’, which is an Anglicisation (via the Latin) of ‘euangelion’, the Greek word meaning ‘Good News’ (or ‘Gospel’). Euangelistes is a New Testament word meaning ‘one who preaches the good news’ – hence ‘evangelist’.
Not to be confused with: ‘Evangelical’, which has the same root, but means ‘a person who bases their theology on Scripture (the Gospel)’.