De-constructing the DaVinci Code
New Testament Historian Scot McKnight on Feminism, Jesus, and the Earliest Days of Christianity
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Most people know by now that the historical details in Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code are wildly inaccurate. However, both book and movie raise dozens of fascinating questions. This creates an opportunity to gain powerful insights into New Testament and early church history.
Scot McKnight, who is Karl A. Olsson professor in religous studies at North Park University in Chicago, gave a talk at Vineyard in Oak Park, Illinois the weekend the movie opened. He is author of more than 20 books including The Jesus Creed and Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels.
Here, you can read or listen to Scot’s engaging presentation on Dan Brown’s book, little-known bizarre teachings of the gnostic gospels, and the drama of the early Christian church.
Announcer: Welcome, Scot McKnight.
Scot McKnight: Thank you. I’m happy to be with you. It’s been a long day. We were in Louisville this morning talking about the DaVinci Code. After tonight I hope I never have to talk about this again. It’s been two years. The movie was anticlimactic after talking about this book with my students on a constant basis.
Television people, radio people, and newspaper people are all interested in this. But actually I think the issues it brings up are really good issues for us all to talk about and so I can go a long time and I’ll just go until I think you are no longer with me and then we’ll stop.
I’m not much of a preacher. I preach but I don’t have any idea what I’m doing. So I just go from point to point with no transitions and we just see what happens. But I’m thankful to Perry and to Ian for inviting me.
I’m going to assume you know a little bit about this book, Robert Langdon, Sophie Neveu, and Leigh Teabing, who is a great character in the movie. The odd thing about the movie and really the book is it’s supposed to be feminist but there is too much about Tom Hanks in this movie and not enough about Sophie Neveu.
This book has been on the bestseller list for 160 weeks and more. That’s pretty good. Three hundred items on Amazon.com have DaVinci Code in the title. That’s a lot. This book has been translated into 44 languages and there is now the great discovery of The Diet Code , a revolutionary weight loss secret from the DaVinci Code book. I think this is impressive.
I’ve read the book, I’ve watched the movie, I didn’t hear one word about diets but some people know how to turn everything into their interest.
I’d like to begin by talking a little bit about the ingredients to this book’s popularity and then I want to expand that with a little bit different set of categories and just try to put as much on the table tonight as I can and see if we can generate questions that you might have.
As Christians I know we have some who say Christians shouldn’t buy the book and put money into Dan Brown’s hands or go to the movie. I think we have a responsibility to know, even if we just listen to someone else’s transcript of it all, so we can talk to people. Because I’m finding that on airplanes and in airports people want to talk about what is happening because of this movie.
I think the great theme of this book is the conspiracy that he says and announces early and often – that “this is the greatest cover-up in the history of the world.” That the Church has covered up the truth.
There’s mystery and intrigue in this book. I don’t think there is so much mystery and intrigue in the movie but the book you just keep wondering what is going to happen next.
It’s got short little chapters. I write books with 80-page chapters and there’s no question about what is going to happen next. People are going to fall asleep. And I read this and think, “There’s something going on here, if he can keep me interested all the time.”
There’s a tremendous interest in feminism in this book. In fact the level of feminism reaches the point of blasphemy. But this is how the book ends and the movie doesn’t quite come off for me the way the book did, the way I felt when I read the book.
“Like the murmurs of spirits into the darkness forgotten words echoed.” Now he’s back at the Louvre and he’s finding the Holy Grail. The quest for the Holy Grail is the quest to kneel before the bones of Mary Magdalene. A journey to pray at the feet of the outcast one.
“With a sudden upwelling of reverence Robert Langdon fell to his knees. For a moment he thought he heard a woman’s voice, the wisdom of the ages whispering up from the chasms of the earth.”
That’s pretty serious.
Pretty serious feminism there, if we are to worship the sacred feminine in order to come to terms with what religion and life are really all about.
Then there is also a revelation in this book and in the movie of the sordid lives of religious leaders which resonates with our culture because of what’s happened in public.
So we have in this movie and in this book a character names Silas who flagellates himself. And we have this other fellow, and I can’t ever pronounce his name, an Italian name, and it’s all about how corrupt these individuals are and making people think, “Is this really what goes on behind closed doors in churches? Are all religious leaders sordid? Are they all pedophiliacs? What is going on?”
This, I think, is something that our generation is listening to. There is a claim in this book to be factual. When my wife and I were coming home I made a remark today that I think this book’s response is completely unlike the response to James Frey’s book A Million Little Pieces.
We discovered that James Fry tampered with the facts, and Oprah Winfrey just jumped all over the guy. Now tell me, why are we not saying this about Dan Brown? You talk about playing with facts! Right up front, Dan Brown says that everything in the book is factual.
James Fry said 5% is made up, it’s a memoir, postmodern memoir and don’t have to tell the whole truth. But Dan Brown has claimed to be factual and people want to know if his story is true.
Then I think another element that draws people into this movie is the flagellation theme. This Silas beats his body and we’ve come off Mel Gibson and there are people who find something mesmerizing about physical torture.
That’s not what interests me in the book. It grosses me out. It grossed me out in the movie. But there are people who find this fascinating. Well Dan Brown has brought this all together and I think he’s giving us some challenges.
Now I’d like to know how many of you ever went to school? How many of you ever got a grade you didn’t think was quite right? From teachers. You know how we are. How many of you would like to grade papers of people who graded your papers?
I do this sometimes. I am writing a book and I have my students read it and they love to tell me where I made mistakes because I’ve told them these things.
Now here is what I’m going to ask us to do tonight. We’re going to grade Dan Brown’s work, grade it together. I could tell you how I would grade it but I want you to think as I try to make this presentation. You think of how you would grade his work.
So the first thing we are going to grade his book on tonight is how has he tapped into modern culture? How has he tapped in? What is the desirability of the DaVinci Code?
Here’s what I will suggest to you, eight things that I think he has done that we can grade him on.
Number one, he has driven to the heart of a suspicious generation with his theme of priestly scandals and church cover-up. He has gotten this element right, it resonates with people.
I see this all the time. I have students and they talk like this. They will say to me, “I love Jesus. I think the Church sucks.” I hear this a lot. They love Jesus.
Dan Kimball is writing two books with Zondervan right now, All for Jesus and Against the Church . He is tapping into a generation that feels this way.
Second, there is a general conviction that the Church has suppressed women. Of course, not at the Vineyard, but in other churches there has been suppression of women and Dan Brown taps into this theme and I have female students who tell me, “I really like that theme.”
I’ll say, “The worship of the sacred feminine?”
“Well, I just like to see women be given a chance.”
Third, the presentation of religious people as weird. There is not one Christian in this book that comes off looking like a normal person. We have Silas who is way out there. We have a nun who is a little off base. We have priests who are way off base. Every Christian comes off looking weird.
Fourth, he proposes an alternative story of the Christian history. A totally different story. He’s put it all together in a way you go, “Man, that could make sense.
“Constantine, Roman Emperor, he couldn’t have been a Christian. Maybe it is all a power play.” So he taps into that.
Fifth, there are surprising connections with symbols. Robert Langdon is a symbolologist. I don’t know that there is such a thing, but he’s a symbolologist and he finds in the Lord’s Supper an absolutely fascinating story. We know that artists do things.
I’ve tried to do things in my books that no one will ever pick up on just to see if one of my friends picks it up. Only two people in the world know that I did something weird here. I used the first word of a paragraph for three pages to say something to my wife or something like this. Pretty clever, you know. People do these things.
Artists have always done this. And now we have the DaVinci Code and we have a “v” in the middle. Whoever noticed the “v” before? No one noticed the “v,” but Dan Brown and his wife, who is the only artist historian in the world who is convinced that that John is a woman and we have a “v” there and a “v,” of course, is a chalice.
We know that. Or do we?
I didn’t know that. It’s a chalice and now all of a sudden you go, “Maybe this stuff is going on all around me and I don’t know about it.” And that’s what he did. Surprising connections.
Sixth, offering the idea that Constantine was a power broker who used power to establish an official orthodox religion. Brown is convincing everybody that Christianity’s orthodoxy was really only a minority party that now has dominance, and now we have to ask the question if orthodox Christianity is really the way it always was.
Seventh, this is clear: He caught the Church napping on Church history. How many of you, before this book, ever asked the question (and I won’t ask if you know the answers) on the rise of the doctrine of the Trinity in the early Church and really knew how it happened? And how many of you know how we collected the 27 books of the New Testament?
If someone asked you, could you actually say, “I think the Epistle of Barnabas should be in the New Testament” and you would say, “I know exactly how this took place and why it’s not.”
I think the answer to this question is, most of us don’t know the first 500 years of Church history. In fact, if we are Protestants we might not know much about 1500 years of Church history.
The first three quarters of the history of the Church is largely unknown to the Protestant world. This is a challenge of this book. Dan Brown caught the Protestant church and the regular lay person napping. And now all of a sudden he tosses out a new theory and people don’t have facts in their brains to be able to asses it.
So they can get pushed around like a cow on ice, which doesn’t have a whole lot of resistance, if you know what I mean. They don’t have spikes.
I think our response to this movie has to be two-fold. It has to be rational. I think we have to study history better, we need to respond to this. But there is another dimension to this movie that I think has tapped into a challenge for the Church that is going to last for generations, and that’s a relational dimension. It’s not just rational, it’s relational.
Here’s what I think Dan Brown has tapped into. The Church and its credibility can be challenged because the Church is not credible. That’s what Dan Brown believes. And the Church can become credible when the Church lives the way Jesus Christ calls it to live. And when it does, it’s credible and its arguments are even more credible.
I’ll give you a personal story. I eat with students. I eat with my honors class of Bible students. There’s about ten or 15 of them. They believe what I tell them because I eat lunch with them. They don’t believe because I’ve proven it. They believe me. They ask me questions and I tell them. “I believe that,” they say, because they like me and they trust me.
They don’t all like me. But they trust me because I have a relationship with them. Sometimes the Church thinks it can get by with rational arguments without a relational foundation and connection with people. And we are being challenged by this movie to be a more credible Church.
The whole Church has got to live in such a way that when someone says this about the Church people say, “No, I know those people. They are truth tellers. They would not lie about this.”
But right now this generation is not so sure it believes this.
What grade would you give Dan Brown on this part of his book? I’ll tell you what I’d give him: A+++. He figured it out.
I don’t think he sat back rationally and said, “Well, we have people who don’t believe in the Church.” He didn’t do it that way, but somehow at the visceral level he made these connections and he got everybody wondering.
How many copies have sold? Sixty million? Is that what it is? I get confused between Left Behind and the conspiracy of Dan Brown. Sixty million. That’s a lot of books! I’ve sold 30,000 Jesus Creeds and I’m really happy.
This is the way it works. He has figured out something about our culture and he’s really tapped into it. So I think we have to learn something here.
Now my second challenge for Dan Brown is this. What is this conspiracy he talks about? Behind Dan Brown’s book are a couple of scholars that I know personally, and they have constructed an entire theory of the rise of earliest Christianity that is totally at odds with everything you and I believe, if we’re close. And we need to know what this conspiracy is and I want to break it into six parts. Six quick points.
The first one is this: Dan Brown says Jesus and the early Christians were total pluralists. Now of course he doesn’t use that word but that’s the point. Here is Jesus’ basic line: “He who is not against us is for us.” And Dan Brown advocates the idea that He accepted everyone, He was inclusive. So when He had table of fellowship He didn’t care what people were like.
He didn’t ask anybody what they believed. If they wanted to be with Him that was fine and they would be in the kingdom of God . This is central to Dan Brown’s perception of these people.
Second, redemption was up to the individual. Everybody is made with a divine spark and if people will just allow the divine spark to become manifest in their lives they will find redemption themselves. Self- redemption is inherent to earliest Christianity according to Dan Brown.
Third, the divine or sacred feminine was a central element to ancient religions until Constantine . The sacred feminine was central so that there was both worship of a male side to God and a female.
The blade and the chalice, that’s what it’s all about. The blade is the male and the chalice is the female. They both have to be connected and when they are connected you have true faith and the true ancient religion and it transcends all the religions that use power today to exclude.
Fourth, Christian orthodoxy of the Fourth Century suppressed all of this early pluralism. They destroyed this sacred feminine and this individual redemption and said if you don’t believe these doctrines you are not in.
So he believes that when Constantine commissioned the Nicene Counsel, 325 A.D., they made decisions that suppressed all this other stuff. Now these are the dynamics of a culture that hates power. So they see with suspicion those in power.
Fifth, the Gnostic gospels actually witness to an entire different perception of Jesus, early on. Dan Brown says there were thousands of documents about Jesus, more than 80 gospels. I’ll get to this later, but he’s just making stuff up now.
We don’t have this stuff. Thousands of documents? We’d love to have those thousands of documents. In fact we have about ten, and that’s what we rely on for Jesus.
Sixth, the goal then of the book is to restore the Sacred Feminine. To restore pluralism and to trash the orthodox movement that tells us what true Christianity is.
We will find it out ourselves. That’s the faith of Dan Brown behind this book and that’s the conspiracy theory that animates his whole book. The Church has suppressed this part of the story, he says.
Now what grade would we give him on his ability to ask a question about conspiracy? Now as a professor I have to say that you either give a person like this an A or an F. A for imagination like Stephen King, or an F for historical work.
So I think that we have to look at this question and ask: is his theory credible on the basis of facts or is this a complete imagination and some of these critical scholars’ minds? That’s a big question.
Third question, third challenge, and I think this is the central one but it’s not as fun to talk about. We have to talk about it but we don’t get very far, but once this one is answered you cut everybody into whether they believe this book or not.
And this is the question: “Was Jesus married?”
Everything in the book and the movie rests on the fact that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and they had a baby named Sarah. And this Sarah developed a whole “line of blood” in France and that the Church has been trying to expose, find these people and kills them ever since.
Now if Jesus wasn’t married there is nothing left of this book. Just think about it. If Jesus wasn’t married there’s nothing at all left of the book. So we have to respond. I want to make ten points, some of which will be interesting. That’s what I tell my students.
• The first one is this. To disprove Dan Brown’s thesis that Jesus was married we need to ask Dan Brown to present his case that Jesus was married.
It’s pretty hard to falsify, to disprove a non-falsifiable assertion. So I think we first need to ask this question of anyone, “Why do you think Jesus was married?” So that’s the first point.
2. The second one I would say this is how it works. I was on TLN with Jerry Rhodes just two weeks ago with a guy named William Phipps who in the 1970s wrote a book, “Was Jesus Married?” And Bill Phipps got in all kinds of trouble because he said Jesus was married. He’s an old man now and I had a lot of conversations with him, some in the Green room and some on television, and here’s his basic thesis.
• Jesus was a Jew.
• All Jewish males were married.
• Therefore Jesus was married.
That’s his thesis. Now as a syllogism it’s absolutely perfect. So I said to him in the Green room, “Were there any Jewish males not married?”
He said, “Yeah.”
I said, “Then it’s over. Our argument is done.”
He said, “What do you mean?”
I said, “You said Jesus is a Jewish male. I’ll go for that. You said all Jewish males were married. I won’t go for that.
Now tell me how we get to the last point if not all Jewish males were married, how do we draw the conclusion, the inference, that Jesus was therefore married? Is there the possibility that Jewish males weren’t married?”
“Yes,” he said, “but it’s so rare that every time it happens we know about it.”
I said, “Bill, come on. We don’t know that about today! What do you mean? People run around telling their autobiographies in the Jewish world?”
So, then Dan Brown adds to this the thesis that all Jewish males were married. This is the kind of thing you have to pay attention to. As a New Testament person, when I saw this book, I didn’t even care about the story. I don’t care about Sophie. I don’t know how to pronounce her last name nor do I care.
I don’t care about Robert Langdon. I didn’t pay any attention to what he was doing. I only wanted to know what he got right with the Bible and didn’t. That’s all I cared about. And I know that’s very biased but that’s what I was interested in.
3. So I noticed that Dan Brown used this old argument of Bill Phipps, but then he used this other argument too: The Gnostic Gospels, which are early, thousands of these things, and they are the other side of Christianity that’s been suppressed, they teach that Jesus was married. That’s point number three.
4. Number four is that Mary Magdalene and Jesus were married. So now that’s his case. I’d like to respond now with six more points, which is how I came up with ten.
First I want to read something funny from a very critical scholar named John Dominic Crossan who is always on TV and radio and CNN. He gets on all the time. He is very critical. He doesn’t think the Gospels are very reliable at all.
He was a priest at one time. He abandoned the priesthood. But he wrote this statement, and I wish we could memorize this just to use it.
“There is an ancient and venerable principle for Biblical critics which states that if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it must be a camel.
“So let’s apply this,” he says, “to whether or not Jesus was married.
“There is no evidence that Jesus was married (looks like a duck), multiple indications that He was not married (walks like a duck), and there are no early texts suggesting that He had a wife or children, (quacks like a duck).
“So therefore He must be an incognito bridegroom. He’s a camel in disguise.”
Now this is the point, isn’t it? Here’s a critical scholar who says there’s no evidence for this so it must not be true. It must not be true because the evidence all points in the other directions. It points against us, so let’s come up with the other thesis.
So John Crossan has made that as a general statement. Here is what I would say.
The first point I would make is that Christians in the First century were not afraid of marriage.
This is a huge issue in this book because there is an attempt to scandalize Roman Catholics. Brown is saying that if Jesus was married the whole faith collapses because they believe that sex is fleshly.
I have Roman Catholics who get mad at me when I say this. I keep saying it because I believe it’s true, that in the old Roman Catholic tradition sex is devalued and a part of the sensuous life on this earth. And that’s why there is such a strong element of people becoming monks and giving up sex.
‘If Jesus was really spiritual He would not have engaged in sexual activity with a woman.’ That’s a tradition. But it is not Biblical. And I’m not saying that Jesus was married. What I’m saying is that the idea that sex is sensuous and therefore worldly and less spiritual, that is not a Biblical idea.
Jews believed in marriage and almost everybody was married. Even Bill Phipps will agree with that statement!
So most people were married. This was a part of Judaism.
But it was the Fourth Century when celibacy began to take over and Dan Brown capitalizes on a Fourth Century perception of sex. Now this gets me in trouble because it’s actually cross purposes to my contention that Jesus was not married.
But here’s the one thing I would say. I’ve written to my conservative evangelical professor friends, “Do you thing it’s okay theologically for Jesus to have been married. I know we don’t think He was , but do you think it would have been okay?”
They almost all say, “Yes. It would have been okay for Jesus to have been married.” He wasn’t, but it would have been okay if he had been. It would create grief for us theologically if He had children because with a divine Son and a normal woman, what happens to the baby? Is this baby sinful or not? That is a debate.
The second point I would make, probably our best argument, is this. When we would expect a wife to appear in the pages of the New Testament, a wife for Jesus, the wife does not appear.
At the crucifixion, and you know exactly what happened because you’ve seen it on Mel Gibson’s movie.
That’s the pieta in the Catholic art tradition. But Jesus from the cross asks John, his beloved disciple, to take care of His mother. Had he been married He would have asked him to take care of His wife as well. Either that, or He is a pretty unfeeling husband to care about His mother and not about His wife. So I think that is an argument.
I Corinthians 9:5 Paul says, “Do we not have the right, like Peter, to take our wives with us on our missionary trips?” Would it not have been a really good argument at that point for Paul to have said, “Wasn’t Jesus married?” Are they completely hiding this sort of thing?
So I think those two pieces of evidence suggest that had Jesus been married that’s when it would have shown up.
Third, Christians were not afraid to tell the truth about Jesus’ life. The Gospel writers are truth tellers. They aren’t afraid of embarrassing people. You cannot read the Gospel of Mark and come away thinking the disciples were really solid believers.
You run away thinking, “This is a little bit like dumb and dumber.” Every time they get a chance they stick their foot in their mouth.
Peter says, “You are the Messiah.” Jesus says, “I’m going to die.” Peter says, “Maybe you aren’t the Messiah.” And Jesus says, “Get behind me Satan.”
Now who tells stories like that about their favorite leader? Truth tellers.
So if they had anything to hide I think they would have told this story.
Fourth, these are passages that I think make best sense if we know that Jesus was celibate. Matthew chapter 19. Jesus talks about people who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom.
My college students all snicker when I say this. They think this is funny. But it doesn’t make sense for Jesus to think there are people more radically committed to the kingdom than He is if He’s the initiator of the kingdom.
Most people in the history of the Church have taken this to be an indication of what Jesus was like. He too, metaphorically, was a eunuch for the kingdom. And in Mark 9:42-48 Jesus talks about if your hand causes you offense, which in Rabbis was what males used to touch the male organ. If your foot, which was the male organ in rabbinic documents, causes offense and if your eye causes offense, cut them off.
This is the language of celibacy and the language of asceticism. (as·cet·ism n. Renouncing material comforts and leads a life of austere self-discipline, especially as an act of religious devotion.)
Scholars who know asceticism say Jesus knew what this experience was like and this is why He said what He did. He was appealing to celibates to be faithful, to be rigorous and rigid in their commitment to their discipline.
I think we have to turn this over. Is it likely that Jesus would call people to do something that He Himself was not practicing? I think it’s unlikely.
Fifth, on the Gnostic gospels and their indication that Jesus was married.
This is what we would call in history the technical term is hogwash . The Gnostic gospels are late, 150 A.D., at the earliest, and we are being kind. And they do not indicate that Jesus was married.
There is one text like this. What it says, in the Gospel of Philip, which is much later, that Mary Magdalene was the companion of Jesus, which Dan Brown tells us was originally in Aramaic and it meant wife.
This is unbelievable. This is what we call ‘historical howlers.’
The Gospel of Philip was not written in Aramaic. Get your facts straight! It was written in Coptic, which is an Egyptian dialect. Don’t say it was Aramaic if you don’t know. And the word behind it in Coptic indicates a word in Greek we call “ koinos ” and it means common. It would be a companion or a friend, used for a male or female with whom you are closely associated.
It is not the word for a wife. So when I read this I just thought, “Dan, this is ludicrous. I’ve really marked your paper down now, Dan. I have trouble with what you are telling us.”
Sixth, had Mary Magdalene been married to Jesus she would have never been called Mary Magdalene. She would have been called Mary wife of Jesus. Why is she called Magdalene? Because she’s not connected to a male.
If you say “Mary of Magdala,” that’s the city she’s from, you mean that’s how we connect her because normally we connect a Jewish female with their man. So Miriam bar Joseph, Miriam with Joseph.
So you connect them to their husband, to a male. Maybe their father. But to Magdala would be precisely the wrong person to choose for Dan Brown because that indicates that she was not connected to a male.
So I look at this on his central question, was Jesus married, and as I said in the beginning, until he gives me good evidence that she was, I don’t really have to contend with this… but we still have to contend with this because he’s raising the issue.
So I look at the basic arguments that I think fall apart and so on this question I would give Dan Brown an F.
This is bad historical work. Jesus was not married. Had He been married we would have known about this.
Then there’s the historical background to the novel. What about the history? Everybody is interested in this question and there are all kinds of points to make so I’m just going to start going through the things he talks about and how we respond.
The first thing I would say about Dan Brown is this. He has it right. History is really important to Christianity. So we need to ask about history. Let’s go to the evidence that we do have and see how it falls out.
One of his claims is that Constantine compiled the Bible at Nicaea , page 234. This is a howler. When we read this we just think, “What have you been reading?”
He says, eyeing Sophie, “ Constantine commissioned and financed a new Bible which omitted those Gospels which spoke of Christ’s human traits and embellished those Gospels that made Him God-like. The earlier Gospels were outlawed, gathered up and burned.”
Now when we read this as New Testament people we just go, “Woo! This is fun! Bring it on. We’ll be glad to challenge this one.” I’m serious. I think, “Come on Dan, you’re better than this.”
So that’s one claim. Another claim is that Constantine upgraded the status of Jesus. He says on the same page, the twist is this, that because Constantine upgraded Jesus’ status almost four centuries later? This, Dan Brown, is 325. Jesus died in about 30. This is not four centuries, this is three centuries. It’s easy math.
He says four centuries after Jesus’ death thousands of documents already existed chronicling His life as a mortal man. The previous page he tells us that prior to Constantine Jesus was just a prophet.
So he sees Constantine moving Jesus off the pages of mortality into deity. Constantine makes this move.
Fourth, he also said it was a close vote. I have to make just a brief comment about this. He said it was a close vote. There were 316 bishops invited to the Council at Nicaea . Two voted against the Nicene creed. Two, and they were exiled.
314 to two is not a close vote. (Except in Chicago where those three people amounted to 314 votes.) But he didn’t ever bring that up so I won’t give him the point, which is just amazing to me, the close vote.
There is some discussion if we are truly honest, there was debate by some of these bishops about which word to use. There was not a debate about whether Jesus Christ was God.
There was a debate with Arians as to how deified He would be. There wasn’t a question about whether He was God. There was a question about whether He was of the same nature as the Father. Homoousion is the Greek word, and some thought the right interpretation was “of a similar substance as the Father.” That’s the debate.
But there was never a debate in the early church about whether Jesus was just a human being. So that’s just amazing.
Fourth, Dan Brown argues that the Gnostic texts were actually more feminine and more pro-feminine. “This is a window,” he says, “into the feminine leadership and pro-feminism of the early church.”
Fifth, he says that Mary Magdalene was the leader of the earliest Christian faith and she was appointed by Jesus to be a leader of the early Christian faith instead of Peter.
Now how do we respond to this? I know we are running out of time but I’ll make four comments. First of all I know that this is a problem that many of you have. You don’t know how we got our New Testament. You just read it.
I don’t think many of you said, “I’ll be a Christian after I have verified that all 27 of these books are actually inspired texts.”
Do you know how we got the New Testament? The answer is this: No one ever voted on these books. No one ever voted on these books. No one commissioned a Bible, decided which books were in there and they got together and said, “Which books shall we keep?”
The text actually arose as a result of inspired oral memory. That’s how the text we have came into existence. The four Gospels were in play from the Second Century on and they’re the only Gospels that were ever considered authoritative by most Christians in the world. That’s the only four books that were ever there.
So his idea that Constantine compiled the Bible and got rid of other books is pure fabrication. It’s a howler, a historical howler.
Second, did Constantine deify Christ? I think the answer to that is in your Bible and in mine. It says this in John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word. The Word was with God and the Word was God.”
In Romans 9:5, Titus 2:13, I Timothy 2:13, here we have these texts in the very early church that indicate that at the time of Paul there were Christians who believed that Jesus Christ was God. This was not a debate in the Second, Third and Fourth Centuries as to whether Jesus was God.
Arius, a heretic, did debate this, but he debated on whether Jesus was eternally begotten or whether he was begotten. Even he never thought Jesus was a normal human being.
So what Dan Brown says here is really silly. But I’d like you to open your Bibles if you have them to a text that I think almost no one pays attention to that is a revelation of how earliest Christology, or the study of Christ, came into existence.
I Corinthians 8:6. Every Jew who was pious got up every morning and stopped in the middle of every day and ended every day by saying this: “ Shema , Israel , Adonai elohenu, Adnoai ehad.”
“Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, Adonai Elohim; the LORD our God is one, ehad.”
Every Jew knew that the LORD God of Israel was one. Now the minute these early Christians started talking about Jesus the way they did, Jews would have said, “No, you’ve got two gods; there’s an ehad God, one God.”
Now notice what the Apostle Paul does in I Corinthians 8:6, this is amazing: “But to us there is one God (ehad) who is the Father (God is Elohim), from whom all things exist; and there is one LORD (Adonai), even Jesus Christ, through whom all things exist.”
Now what Paul says is, “Yes, there’s Adonai, and yes, there’s Elohim. Adonai is Jesus Christ; Elohim is the Father, therefore there is one God.”
This is within the first 20 years of Christianity. At that time they already began to connect Jesus with the Shema, and when you do that, you believe Jesus is God. This is the earliest indication of the deity of Christ. It is so early that it would have happened two days after conversion.
Every Jew would have been asked this question, “Do you think Jesus is God?”
“And there’s one God? You’ve got two.”
And they would say, “Adonai is the Lord Jesus Christ; Elohim is the Father.”
Now this doesn’t quite prove a Christian doctrine of the Trinity, but it shows an early Christian awareness that they’ve got an issue they must squarely address, and this is within the first 20 years.
Did Constantine deify Christ? If anyone did, it’s Paul and those early Jewish Christians. No human being decided this. This was forced upon them by the evidence, and they had to square it with Scripture.
Third, were the early Gnostic texts pro-feminine and a window into early feminism?
I would like to read to you from the definitive Gnostic text about women, the Gospel of Thomas. And this is what it says in Saying 1:14. This is how the book ends; you tell me you great Dan Brown, whether you think the Gnostic gospels are pro feminine.
“Simon Peter said to all the other disciples, ‘Let Mary Magdalene go out from among us because women are not worthy of life.’”
That’s not really pro feminine, is it?
“Jesus said, ‘See, behold, I will lead her so that I can make her a male; so that she, too, by becoming a male can become a living spirit resembling you males. For every women who makes herself a male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven .’”
I rest my case. I mean come on, Dan Brown, let’s be fair. This is a Gnostic understanding of women. They did not look at women the way Dan Brown looks at women. This is a text that says that males are superior in beings to females, and if females want to find redemption they have to be male-ized.
Let’s go ahead with some questions.
Question: Can you explain the 80 lost gospels that Dan Brown talks about?
Scot: The Gospel of Thomas is one that he talks about and we have about six, not 80.
She asked if the Gospel of Thomas is one of the 80. It’s one of the 80 that Dan Brown talks about. There weren’t 80, but it’s one of his 80.
What do we know about Mary Magdalene? This is what we have to understand. Pope Leo messed us up on Mary Magdalene. Every piece of art about Mary Magdalene makes her a prostitute.
Here’s what the New Testament says, “Mary is from Magdala.” Now that doesn’t help us a whole lot. That’s like saying she’s from Indianapolis . What does that mean? I hope that she wouldn’t cheer for the Colts or anything other than the Bears and Cubs. Aren’t the Cubs fun? My son works for the Cubs.
She’s from Magdala. Luke 8:2 says she was demonized and exorcised. Seven demons were cast out of her. We know from Mel Gibson’s movie and the gospels that Mary was at the cross and the first to see Jesus raised from the dead.
That’s what we know about Mary Magdalene. That’s all that we know about Mary Magdalene. If we rely on the Gospel of Mary Magdalene from the Gnostic text, we will learn less about Mary, not more. They subtract what we do know about Mary.
So, what do you think about Dan Brown and his use of history? I know what grade I would give him. I would ask him to quit school and do something else.
Now here’s the issue. We know what historical fiction is and how it’s supposed to operate, and Dan Brown has played on this. Historical fiction takes fictional characters, Robert Langdon, Leigh Teabing, Sophie Neveu, and they put them in the foreground of the text, and behind them they surround them with historical facts. They weave these people in and out of those facts so that it becomes an imaginary use of history. Historical fact.
Dan Brown not only fictionalized the foreground but the background, so that the book becomes totally fictional, while claiming to be historical fact. This is serious stuff, really serious stuff. We have the question his integrity and his motive of what he’s doing.
The final point I would say is what about the reliability of the Gospels? If we can demonstrate that the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Judas, the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, these “proto Gnostic” gospels; if these gospels are probably not reliable, can we also demonstrate that the Gospels that we have would have been a reliable reporting of what Jesus said and did?
Here’s how I would approach that case, which has been my job for 30 years, to work on the Gospels and historical reliability. I get myself in trouble because I think some letters in the Gospels are pink and not red, but all I’ve done for 30 years is study this kind of stuff.
So here’s the way we start. Jesus lived, he spoke, and he did things. Let’s assume that that happened. If he did, in a Jewish world, would they reliably remember what he said and did? Remember, this is a pre-literate world. People didn’t sit there with their cel phones and take pictures of Jesus.
Here’s Jesus going down the street and I’m going to take a picture of him. And now we see him doing a miracle and it is right here and I’ll send it to all my friends. Put it on my blog and everybody can watch it.
That’s not how they operated. This is a pre-literate culture, and here’s what they did. When Jesus said things, they went and repeated them. When Jesus did things, they went and told other people and other people talked about it. And in the evening they did not watch the show Twenty-four and they did not watch The American Idol .
They watched The Jewish Idol , and his name was Jesus. It’s an icon; the perfect icon. They got together and told stories, and they could remember details like we never have the capacity to do because we live in a literate culture. We don’t even worry about details. We Google it; we find it; it’s written.
Here’s how the Jewish world did it. They listened and they remembered. Rabbi Meir got to Susa in Babylonia to a synagogue, discovered they didn’t have a copy of the book of Esther, so he wrote one out for them from his memory.
C.F.D. Mull, a New Testament scholar that I know who’s about 85 years old now, came to Trinity when I was teaching at Trinity, and we were showing him our fancy new program that can search the Greek New Testament syntax and grammar.
Here’s was C.F.D. Mull’s response, “Well, the New Testament Greek is not so long that one can’t put it to memory, is it?”
He’s from a different generation. We have trouble memorizing Bible verses. They had the whole Bible memorized.
These Jews knew the whole Book of Psalms. Do you know that nearly every Roman Catholic monk has the Psalms memorized in Latin? This is their job; they say it everyday. If this is all you have, this is all you know, and they know it. So when Jesus said things, they remembered.
We know this about oral cultures: They have a tremendous capacity to listen and watch and remember. Then they would reperform it in a new context, the way we tell jokes.
They might start the story a little differently and end it a little differently, but the guts of the story stay the same.
So read the Synoptic Gospels; compare Matthew, Mark, and Luke and you’ll notice this. They start a little differently, they end a little differently, but those sayings of Jesus are very close to one another in Greek. Even incomplete sentences are the same. To us, that’s weird. That means they’re copying and they’ve remembered these things.
Now, we also know that the Gospels are interconnected. Mark was probably the first Gospel written, and when Matthew wrote his Gospel, he copied Mark. That’s not called plagiarism, that’s called respect.
And when Luke wrote his Gospel, he copied Mark too. So this is why we have the Synoptic Gospels where we have sayings of Jesus, 85 words of which 83 are identical in Greek, and Jesus said these things in Aramaic and Hebrew.
They copied one another because the Gospel of Mark was connected to the Apostle Peter, and to have written a Gospel without connection to the Gospel of Mark would have been an act of rebellion.
So we have this reliability. I call it the Apostolic Blog. Mark published the sayings of Jesus and disseminated them through Matthew and Luke, and everybody picked it up on their blog lines and started reading it, and they all knew these things.
Plus, I would add to this, John 14:26 and John 16:13, where Jesus says that, “The Spirit of God (the paracleet), the Advocate will be upon you, and He will guide you into all truth; and He will give you the capacity for hyper-memory of everything I said and did.”
Now, if we believe in the Spirit of God attending or superintending the Apostles repetition of the sayings of Jesus, we have a Jewish world where reliable memory was already tremendously valued, also enabled the Holy Spirit.
We then are driven to ask the question, “Is it likely that the Gospels that came from the earliest time, like Mark, Matthew, and Luke, reliably report what Jesus said and did? Or is it more likely that a gospel that arose in a Gnostic environment that sounds like Gnosticism, doesn’t sound a bit like Judaism and hates earliest Christianity and the Apostles, is it likely that’s the gospel that got it right?
I think that’s the question that we have to ask about reliability. And when we ask that question, Dan Brown doesn’t get good grades. I can’t give him a good grade when it comes to his assessment of reliability. We know too much that goes against what Dan Brown believes about the reliability of the Gospels.
Now here’s my implication for you; here’s what I would say. I don’t believe most of you believe in the Gospels because you have rationally studied whether they are reliable or not. I don’t believe you have, and I don’t think you really care.
Because I believe when you study the Gospels you encounter Jesus and that’s what you were looking for in your life. I know that’s true of me. I love Jesus and I love to study about Jesus, but I think that that’s what we have to ask people to do; read the Gospels. Hand them the Gospel of Mark or John and say, “Here, tell me what you think of Jesus?”
People are willing to study about Jesus. They may not like your church. They may not like the Church. They may not like the church institution, but people are still interested in Jesus.
What is he like? Find out and ask that question.
Was Jesus just “a good teacher”?
I think what we find as we are driven to the question is that we are dealing with a person of extraordinary ego strength who either was the Lord, as C.S. Lewis said, or a Lunatic or a Liar. The idea that Jesus was a good teacher is a bunch of hogwash.
Good teachers don’t say, “I am the Way, if you don’t follow me you don’t make it. If you confess me before men, I will confess you before the Father. If you deny me before men, I will deny you before the Father.”
Normal people don’t talk like that. People who talk like that see my wife because she’s a psychologist. I’m serious. Either Jesus is the Lord who made extraordinary claims about Himself, or this really is crazy.
And I think that’s the question we encounter when we read the Gospels. Who was Jesus?
Now I’m done.
This was dangerous at Willow Creek when I did this. I got questions about things I don’t know a thing about.
Question: Can you talk about feminine depictions of God in the Bible?
Scot: Well, Dan Brown has this theory that is completely out to lunch that Jehovah comes from Ya and Hava, which is a male god and a female god.
Now let’s unpack this. Jehovah is a non-word to a Jew. YHWH is the Hebrew word. Because Jews did not pronounce YHWH, they inserted the vowels in the 10 th Century in the Masoretic text from Adonai, coming up with the hybrid word which, if said, you looked silly and all Jews laughed at you.
That’s the foundation of the idea the Jews had a feminine side to God. Impossible! The idea of women being worshipped in ancient Judaism is castigated because of the Ashtorot and the Ashera events in the Old Testament with the Philistines and the Canaanites.
So they despised the worship of the divine goddess. That was contrary to everything they knew to be true.
Question: My question is, and I hate to be the devil’s advocate…
Scot: It’s fun, isn’t it?
Question: My point is you’re right. Illiterate cultures even in Africa and parts of South America have a rich oral tradition of saying everything exactly.
The thing I’m questioning is whether the literate men who wanted to see the Church thrive and grow, why did they not do a nice job of expanding and pushing forward the oral history that they heard and expand it, so they created a different version of history?
In other words, the literate people of that time did they not take extremes with the ideas of Jesus passed on through the oral tradition.
Secondly, I think that one of the things you’ve got to understand is that Jesus was a revolutionary because only revolutionaries have that kind of idiosyncrasy that everybody else is wrong and they are right.
Lenin was the same way; Sheik Omera was the same way; Fidel Castro. They had this idea that everybody else was wrong and I’m right.
I’m not saying his ideas were bad. It just doesn’t fit the contemporary viewpoint of Jesus.
Question: He was a revolutionary?
Scot: I would say Jesus was a revolutionary. I’m quite happy with that. I think it’s true.
Jesus upset the applecart in about 50 directions, and I think that’s good.
On your other one, I think what you’re asking is were the early Christians fancy and footloose with the things of Jesus to make him say what they wanted him to say?
Question: Basically, that’s it.
Scot: I think what we have is the witness of three Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, that are all connected; that show that while they adjust and there’s a little flexibility, the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, and Luke is the same Jesus.
These are three different portraits by three different author/editors who put these Gospels together and they’re the same.
I will admit that the Gospel of John is different than Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but the Jesus of the Gospel of John is not at all unlike the Jesus of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
They are completely different Jesuses than the Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Philip.
Question: What are the locations and the time span between these various authors of the books? You and I know that even back then they had conferences, where they probably made their stories line up.
Scot: You mean collusion?
Question: That’s too harsh of a word.
Scot: Well, let’s call it collusion because we can deal with that.
But the resurrection accounts clearly prove that they didn’t collude. You can’t neatly put the facts together. Who was at the tomb; a male, an angel; two males, two angels?
When I used to collude with my sisters, when my parents were gone, about something we had done, we didn’t come away with four different stories. We had one story.
I don’t think they colluded. And this is the key thing. This is not about three or four different people being all by themselves deciding how to tell the story of Jesus.
This is an ongoing, apostolic blog. These are the sayings of Jesus that were repeated and carried on by various people. So when Mark turned it into writing, he didn’t have the freedom to say whatever he wanted. Everybody around could blow the gaff because they knew. “Hey, this is the way it’s always been told, Mark, don’t write it like that.”
This is what’s important about understand that it’s a preliterate, oral culture.
Question: Is the book of John a Gnostic gospel? It’s fairly different from Matthew, Mark and Luke.
Scot: This is a fair question, and I deal with this because my specialization and discipline is in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. I encounter crisis when I read John which he wants me to encounter because those are some of his favorite words: crisis, judgment.
Here’s the way I would look at this question. In John’s gospel, Jesus says things that are clearer than they are in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but there’s nothing in the Gospel of John that is incompatible with Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
Now, here’s to your question. Jesus says, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”
Or what about this statement, “If you do not confess Me before people, I will not confess you before My Father in heaven; if you confess Me, I will confess you.”
“Follow Me. He who does not follow the narrow path will not make it.”
That’s the same idea. So my answer to the first question is the Gospel of John is vehemently opposed to Gnostism in this statement, “The Word was God, the Word became flesh.”
That idea is a total abomination to Gnostism. Gnostism believes that God is way up there and He is so great that He could not be on planet earth. So there are these series of emanating creations, three or four hundred of them, before we finally got down to this lower world of the earth.
The Gospel of Judas says it perfectly at the end. Jesus says to Judas, “Would you please betray Me so I can be rid of this body and go back to God?”
That’s totally against the Gospel of John. I John says, “Anyone who denies that Jesus has come in the flesh is not of God, that’s the anti-Christ.”
So John is fighting against Gnostism in his own way. He’s using the language that they use and he’s turning it. And John 1:1-14 is a powerful Jewish attack of Gnostism. Jewish scholars say this. Christian scholars say this.
That’s how I’d respond to that.
Question: You’ve had an hour to cover this, but what would you say to someone who has a question about the DaVinci code and you’ve only got one minute to respond?
Scot: Good question; I like the question.
First thing, I would be a Christian. That’s the most important thing. Be a Christian around them. Make yourself and your faith credible.
Secondly, I would say this. I would encourage them to read the Gospels and say, “What do you see about Jesus here?”
Question: So I should point them back to Jesus?
Scot: Yeah, talk about Jesus all you can.
So be credible, secondly read the Gospels. Encourage them to read, say, the Gospel of Thomas and say, “Is that what you believe? Would you rather believe that book or the Gospel of Mark?”
I think you can get into a good conversation about that. Take it away from trying to convince them that they are wrong and that Dan Brown is wrong.
What do the Gospels say? Compare these two. The Gospel of Thomas, do you want to become a male? Do you think that is what Jesus was all about?
I’m telling you, the Gnostic gospels are so esoteric. Most people who read them say, “This stuff is weird.”
I’m serious. I don’t know anyone who reads it and says, “How edifying is that text.” It’s just constant. He’s ripped a couple lines out of context; Mary was his companion and we’ve got marriage. That’s the story.
Question: My question was kind of similar to hers. After I saw the movie I got into a heated discussion with my husband. He’s kind of believing this and just saying that he’s being open-minded.
How do you respond to that? I tried to tell him that my faith is based on facts and history. So how do you respond when people say, “You need to be open-minded about religious ideas?”
Scot: I would say first, be open-minded. Listen and see what’s being said.
But here’s something that I’m trying to make a big point on. I do not believe that people believe in Christianity for rational reasons. There are very few people like C.S. Lewis and Josh McDowell who come to Christ for primarily rational reasons.
Those guys are wonderful to listen to, but most people become Christians because of the credibility of the Christian faith in the life of people they love.
So I would say be open-minded, listen, offer alternatives, and say, “Let’s look up the Gospels. Let’s look at Matthew. Let’s see what he says. Now let’s look at the Gospel of Thomas. This is a fascinating text. Is that what you believe?”
But if you say, “No, that’s completely wrong,” people are going to dig in their heels. I deal with students, you know, and I think they like to think that I trust them. I don’t, but I tell them I do.
I say, “Sure, look at the Gospel of Thomas.” I’m sure what’s going to happen when they see some of this and they’ll go, “Wow! What is this? It’s nothing I’ve ever seen before.”
But I would say this; the Gnostic gospels are things like that group that was in California that were in space ships. It’s that bizarre at times. What was that called; Heaven’s Gate. It’s that bizarre, really. Not all of it, but a lot of it is that way.
Question: If this stuff is so historically inaccurate, why does Dan Brown say it’s true? Does he want it to be true?
Scot: That’s good. This is a good sign and you’ve raised a good question. I think that Dan Brown doesn’t want Christianity to be true because of the claim it makes on our life. If his theory is true, there is no claim. We all have our own claim on our own life.
The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John can make pretty heavy claims on our lives. That’s why I say it is relational, and what we have to do is be credible and make the faith credible by the way we live.
Question: At the end of the movie Robert Langdon is talking about how when he was a kid he was in a well and he almost drowned and he was going to die and he called out to Jesus and maybe Jesus helped him, right?
It’s as though in the fantasy world of the book maybe divinity does help you out and maybe you can pray. I’m trying to remember how he put this, but he said to Sophie something like, “Does Jesus have to be God for that to happen? No, so it could happen to you too.”
It was like he really seemed to be saying, “I’m god, you’re god, we’re all god.”
Isn’t that just like the original lie in the Garden of Eden?
Scot: That’s Dan Brown’s thesis about the sacred feminine and the divine spark.
Now here’s what’s interesting. He likes to get that divine spark out of the Gnostic gospels, but many of the Gnostic gospels make it very clear that there are only very few people who have the divine spark. Most people are just filled with musty flesh and they’re not going to make it.
It’s snobbish, it’s elitist, and it’s esoteric knowledge.
Question: One of the things I didn’t get was this: The movie seems to say that if the feminine is sacred then the whole Catholic church crumbles. But wait a minute, they’ve always had a special place for Mary the mother of Jesus so doesn’t that invalidate the premise of DaVinci anyway?
Scot: In other words, Brown’s appeal to feminism is in contrast to the way the Catholics have had a feminine dimension to their faith in Mary. That’s a good point and there’s a lot of what we would call inconsinities in Dan Brown’s argument.
But I think Dan Brown with the sacred feminine is appealing to a modern form of paganism and its view of femininity. He just runs this scheme through the whole book because he’s trying to get to a goal of the worship of the sacred feminine along with the traditional male god, or something like that.
I’ve always thought that movie ended so weird. You had this worship of Mary Magdalene and this chalice and the blade and you go, “Is this what he really believes?”
This is a totally weird religion, and I don’t know if he believes that. But I do believe that Catholics have done two things. They’ve elevated Mary, so there’s a feminine dimension to the faith. But they’ve allowed all of feminine dimension to faith or women in ministry to be turned into Mary to keep women out of the ministry.
There’s a deconstruction that takes place by understanding how Mary functions in Roman Catholicism. I don’t think it was intentional, but that’s what’s happened, I think. Women have no place of ministry other than as nuns, and they do exercise a lot in ministry, but they can never do the serious stuff that takes place at the Eucharist. So they can’t really do what’s important. They have a subordinate role and the presence of Mary almost offsets that.
I don’t know. In my own studies I’m working on Mary right now.
Question: But throughout history we know that women have, shall we say, been the power behind the thrones many times. Could women have the same power through manipulation of church leaders?
Scot: Now you’re in trouble. You’d get hooted in my class for that kind of comment.
I think that in the Bible, women have always exercised powerful gifts of leadership and speaking. There were limitations in Paul’s churches, but I’ve always said this, and I used to love to say it at Trinity Seminary where we had all the anti-women-in-ministry folks, I used to say Paul believed women could prophesy and he thought that was the greatest of gifts.
So let’s stick with that.
I believe that what Dan Brown has done is deconstruct his case by suggesting that the real feminine can be found in the Gnostic stuff and not in early orthodox Christianity. Whereas, if you study the proto-orthodox writings, Jesus allowed women to be a part of His entourage; women could stand up in churches and prophesy, and Paul had to tell them to be careful in public because people would think they’re a bunch of nuts.
Women were bursting from categories and boundaries and breaking things down in these early Christian churches. There’s nothing in any Gnostic gospel that’s similar to Galatians 3:28 that says, “in Christ there is neither male nor female.” In the Gnostic gospels, the female has got to become a male.
I’m for women’s ordination, so I might as well just tell you that and get it over with. I think that the earliest Christian representation of women in ministry is pretty spiritually powerful. I’ll leave it at that. Am I in trouble yet?
Thanks for coming tonight.