As many of you no doubt know, in modern times there has been a number of growing misconceptions about Jesus and early Christianity, thanks in no small part to author Dan Brown’s fictional best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code. Many cynics, skeptics and conspiracy theorist alike have all latched onto many of the fictitious claims asserted in this novel as if they were historical facts. One would think people today would be more discerning and less gullible, after all, the novel is a work of fiction. However, sadly for far too many people that is not the case. Perhaps the root of the matter stems from the fact that the author claims in his novel just prior to the prologue that “All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.” But are they? The reality is that virtually all historians, scholars and art experts alike will attest that the claims of The Da Vinci Code are most certainly NOT accurate. Now my intention for this post is not to respond to every false claim asserted in Dan Brown’s fictional novel. There have been countless books written in response to the novel’s numerous erroneous claims. Rather, I’ll provide a brief overview of some of the historical and factual errors of the novel. Then discuss in a little more detail a few of those errors that have generated some widespread misconceptions in the (secular) general public at large.
List of Factual Errors in The Da Vinci Code (not all inclusive):
- It is ABSOLUTELY FALSE that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, or anyone else for that matter. See my earlier two part post: Was Jesus Married?
- It is COMPLETELY FALSE that “Jewish decorum” forbid Jewish men to be unmarried. In fact, there were Jewish Sects in which celibacy was very common.
- The disciple depicted sitting next to Jesus in Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous painting of the Last Supper is NOT Mary Magdalene. Yes the disciple is depicted as feminine and without a beard. However, such characteristics were used in the art of the period to depict youthfulness. The figure in question is actually John, whom Church tradition holds as the youngest of the disciples. A fact the artist Leonardo Da Vinci himself attest to from his own notebook sketches on the masterpiece, which identify nine of the disciples in his notes, including the name John for the figure in question. Once more, even if the painting did depict Mary Magdalene … so what? It was painted by an artist over 1,400 years later. What would it prove? ABSOLUTELY NOTHING.
- The alleged “secret society” called Opus Dei has NOT been covering up a secret “marriage” and “blood line” of Jesus for centuries, nor is the order composed of “murderous” monks at the call of the Pope. It is a Catholic group composed of mostly lay people (no monks) that is neither secret, nor centuries old. It was founded in 1928 in Spain by a Priest named Josemaria Escrivia.
- The Dead Sea Scrolls were NOT found in the 1950s, but discovered in 1947. Once more, they were NOT among “the earliest Christian records” but are Jewish writings. There is nothing Christian about them. In fact, the Sect that produced them (the Essenes) was composed of largely celibate Jewish men — so much for the alleged “decorum” asserted by Dan Brown on marriage (item #2).
- It is NOT true that some eighty gospels were considered for the New Testament. This makes it sound as if there was some decision making contest. See my earlier post: From Jesus to the Canon.
- The Nag Hammadi documents do NOT provide the story of the Holy Grail, nor do they emphasize Jesus’ humanity. These were a collection of Gnostic writings, many of which were Docetic (the belief Jesus only appeared to be human). The Holy Grail is, in fact, a medieval legend concerning the chalice used by Christ at the Last Supper. It is NOT a “Holy Blood Line” nor a gnostic belief. See my earlier posts on Gnosticism.
- The “Gospel of Q” is NOT a surviving document or source that is being hidden by the Vatican (Catholic Church), nor was it written by Jesus himself. It is a hypothetical source supposedly available to both Matthew and Luke in the composition of their Gospels. There is nothing secret about it. See my earlier post: What is the Gospel of Q?
- The Emperor Constantine did NOT commission a “New Bible” that would eliminate references to Jesus’ humanity. For starters, he never commissioned a new Bible. Moreover, the books that were included are filled with references to Jesus’ humanity, i.e. Jesus gets tired, hungry, angry, etc.
- It is ABSOLUTELY FALSE that Jesus was not considered divine until the Council of Nicea, and that prior to the Council he was considered nothing more than a mere “mortal prophet”.
It is the latter fictitious claims that I would now like to discuss in a little more detail. I think it is fair to say that thanks to Dan Brown’s novel, many more people today know about the Council of Nicea than 15 years ago. Mainly, that there was such a thing as the Council of Nicea. But sadly, almost everything they know about it, or rather think they know, is completely wrong. According to Dan Brown’s fictional novel: we are told that Emperor Constantine called the Council at Nicea to “decide” if Jesus was divine or not, and that the Christian leaders took a vote on whether Jesus was simply a human “mortal prophet” or the divine “Son of God”, and according to the fictional “expert” depicted in the book, “it was a close vote at that.”
Fact Check: That assertion is absolutely and completely bogus.
As previously stated, it is absolutely false that before the time of Emperor Constantine and the Council of Nicea, that Christians understood Jesus to be a human prophet but not divine. In fact, the overwhelming majority of Christians believed Jesus was divine centuries before Constantine. The Apostle Paul, our earliest Christian source from antiquity and one who knew Jesus’ brother (James) and closest disciples (Peter & John), also clearly views Jesus as divine from his letters. As do the writings of the early Church Fathers, i.e. Justin Martyr, Clement of Rome, Ignatius and Tertullian — just to name a few. Therefore, it is a belief that can be traced back among Christians to the earliest followers of Jesus himself. So what then was the Council of Nicea really about?
The Truth about the Council of Nicea:
This council was called to resolve the theological issue of how one was to understand Jesus’ divinity – NOT to decide if he was divine or not. Everybody at the council agreed that Jesus was both divine and human, so there was NOT a question of whether he was divine or not divine. The question was: In what sense is Jesus (the Son of God) divine in relation to God (the Father)? The origin of the events that led up to this Council start with a man named Arius. Arius was opposed by Alexander, the Bishop at Alexandria, for his teaching that Jesus (the Word) was the first being created by God (The Father). He taught that Jesus (the Word) was a divine being created (begotten) by God, that Jesus was one with God The Father, and that through Jesus (the Word) the entire world was created, but that there was once a time when the Son (Word/Jesus) did not exist. After Arius was rebuked in Alexandria and excommunicated, he found a Bishop to champion his teaching and the Council of Nicea was subsequently called to address the issue. Specifically, at issue was whether Jesus (the Word) was a created being or whether he was co-eternal with God the Father. Therefore, both sides in the theological dispute believed Jesus was God incarnate, both human and divine, and the Word made flesh. The only issue was whether there was ever a time when the Word did not exist, and if the Son was equal to or subordinate to the Father. It is said that once the issue (teaching) was presented for discussion that the Council of Bishops almost erupted into a full riot. Using their sacred scriptures as arguments, the Council overwhelmingly agreed with the Bishop Alexander over Arius, that Jesus was, in fact, co-eternal and equal with God (the Father) and not a created being. Once more, it was NOT even a close call at that. Of the Christian Leaders throughout the known world who attended, estimated between two to three hundred, 198/298 affirmed this truth, only two dissented in favor of Arius’ teaching (later called Arianism).
So the Council of Nicea was NOT called to determine if Jesus was a human mortal prophet or the divine Son of God. The claim is pure fiction. Similarly, the novel also falsely asserts that Constantine used the Council at Nicea as a way of deciding which books to include in the New Testament, and only included those books that depicted Jesus as divine and excluded all others which were subsequently destroyed. This assertion is simply wrong on every point. First, it is simply NOT true that Constantine decided which books to include in the New Testament. He had absolutely nothing to do with it. Once more, the books of the New Testament have ample references to Jesus’ human traits, and those books that were excluded have plenty of references to his divinity. And as already discussed, the Council of Nicea had NOTHING to do with what books to include in the New Testament anyhow. In fact, most of our 27 canonical books were already accepted as scripture well over a century before the time of Constantine. Only the fringes of the canon remained unsettled at this time, and the canon was not closed until decades after Constantine’s death. Moreover, contrary to works of historical fiction such as The Da Vinci Code, and suggestions from other recent conspiracy literature (i.e. books, websites & “documentaries”) on early Christianity — there is little evidence of any mass burnings or destruction of “dangerous” books from antiquity. If books fell out of favor, they simply were no longer reproduced (copied).
And by the way, Dan Brown suggest in the novel that some of these excluded documents (the Nag Hammadi Library) were discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls. That too is absolutely false. The Dead Sea Scrolls do NOT say anything about Jesus.
So what is the difference between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi Library?
These are two completely different collections that have absolutely nothing in common with one another. First, the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) were discovered in 1947 in modern day Israel, west of the Dead Sea. The DSS are not Christian but Jewish writings, including copies of books from the Old Testament. It was composed by a Jewish apocalyptic sect (Essenes) awaiting the end of the world (God’s final judgment). Meanwhile, the Nag Hammadi Library (NHL) was discovered over a year earlier in Egypt near the Nile river. The NHL is a collection of Gnostic documents from various heretical sects that started emerging in the second century. They have always been known to those well versed in the history of the Church, mainly from the writings of the early Christian Church Fathers that wrote against them. However, with recent discoveries such as the NHL, we can now read what these groups actually thought and wrote in their own words.
The Nag Hammadi Library are indeed important documents for those wanting to understand what these later heretical groups believed and how they viewed Jesus, but they are otherwise worthless. More direct, they are NOT as valuable to historians (or anyone else for that matter) seeking to establish what Jesus was really like, as the much earlier New Testament Gospels are. To that end, the fallacy of the Gnostic “gospels” – well there are several fallacies – but the major fallacy is thinking that these later heretical documents somehow provide us with a more historically accurate view of Jesus than the New Testament Gospels. And I am not just saying this out of religious conviction, but the same holds true on strictly historical grounds, i.e. earlier sources are of much greater historical value and importance than later ones, and thus given more weight. All that said, these later heretical texts do not even say what Brown alleges in his novel anyhow.
But enough already, I have bloviated on this topic long enough. I hope this post has shed some light on the true facts behind the fiction that has generated so much misinformation about Jesus and early Christianity in recent years. Thank you for reading, I hope some may have found this post insightful.