I know there are many resources for people who want to explore / debunk the claims laid out in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. If you have only time to read one article before the movie opens next weekend, I would recommend the following talk given in Rome by Fr. Joseph Carola, SJ, who teaches at the Pontifical Gregorian University.
I had the pleasure of meeting Fr. Carola during my pilgrimage in Rome last January, thanks to the Roamin’ Roman who arranged for us to meet at the Greg for coffee (or tea… or maybe it was something else… unfortunately, I seem to have Dan Brown’s grasp of history, not Fr. Carola’s). I used to talk smack about the Jesuits, but after meeting Fr. Carola I retract such gross generalizations. There is nothing finer than a Jesuit true to the charism of Saint Ignatius.
In a talk given back in February, Fr. Carola responded with precision, depth, and charity to the outlandish claims of The Da Vinci Code. It’s a great primer in early Church history… maybe the finest I’ve ever seen assembled in one place.
My favorite passage in the whole talk has to do with the origins of apostolic tradition, which is, Fr. Carola notes, grounded in the experience of friendship with Jesus.
I encourage you to read the whole text below, which had been posted on the Cathedral of St. Paul’s website, but is no longer available there. Thanks, Mary, for giving me the opportunity to repost it here.
[Fr. Carola gave this talk at the University of St. Thomas’ Bernardi Campus in Rome on February 22nd, 2006]
A. M. D. G.
IRENAEUS AGAINST THE LATEST HERESY: THE DA VINCI CODE DISARMED
Dan Brown’s suspense-thriller, The Da Vinci Code, hardly needs a word of introduction. Since the novel first appeared on the literary scene in 2003, it has become an international best-seller. With the imminent release of its film adaption, its audience is bound to increase exponentially. The novel has generated, by some accounts, a two-billion-dollar industry. Numerous books and articles debunk, decode and detail the plot’s every twist and turn. As these works attest, the early Church takes an immense beating in Dan Brown’s revisionist history, having allegedly engaged in a massive cover-up to suppress the knowledge that Jesus, a mere man, sired a daughter by Mary Magdalene. But given the chance, the ancient Church is, in fact, quite capable of defending herself. The second-century Martyr-Bishop St. Irenaeus of Lyons—no stranger to controversy he—effectively debunked Dan Brown centuries before the rest.
The novel’s pseudo-history and neo-gnostic theology are—to put it quite simply—rubbish. No Christian need fear its foolishness. Church history weathers its attacks without fail. On this account, The Da Vinci Code challenge is a battle easily won once engaged. But for those unfamiliar with the Church’s past, the novel’s gross manipulation of historical fact may prove difficult to perceive. Therefore, with some help from Irenaeus, we venture to set the record straight in four fundamental areas: the Christian Tradition, the canonization of Scripture, the development of doctrine and the role of Mary Magdalene. In the end we shall see that the Church’s faith in Jesus is duly credible. What will prove utterly outlandish is Dan Brown’s tale.
Fact or Fiction?
Common sense wisely dictates that before signing onto anything one should read the fine print. Anyone reading The Da Vinci Code would do well to do the same. Read the fine print. Where is it to be found? Have a look at the copyright page: “In this work of fiction, the characters, places and events are either the product of the author’s imagination or they are used entirely fictitiously.” The Da Vinci Code is a work of fiction. It’s a page-turning thriller—which ends in a bust, any fan of thriller-novels will frankly have to admit. To call it anything other than fiction would be grossly misleading. Dan Brown certainly has a highly active imagination, and what he himself doesn’t make up, he uses in an entirely fictitious manner. As long as one realizes that he is reading a novel in which various historical and geographical elements are used entirely fictitiously, Dan Brown won’t succeed in deceiving him. But the tragedy is that Dan Brown has succeeded in deceiving many of his readers because they overlook the fine print which applies as much to the so-called ‘Fact’ page as it does to the some 500 pages which follow.
The ‘Fact’ page makes three basic claims: (1) “The Priory of Sion—a European secret society founded in 1099—is a real organization”, (2) “The Vatican prelature known as Opus Dei is a deeply devout Catholic sect”, and (3) “All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.” Now, recall the fine print: “In this work of fiction, the characters, places and events are either the product of the author’s imagination or they are used entirely fictitiously.” What, then, are the facts?
Well, the so-called Priory of Sion is a twentieth-century fabrication created by a French con-artist named Pierre Plantard who before his death in 2000 had to testify under oath that Les Dossiers Secrets, which list the Priory’s Grand Masters, were a fraud. Originally, Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln, the authors of the 1982 nonfiction book Holy Blood, Holy Grail, had accepted Plantard’s farce at face value. But they eventually recognized the sham. A 1996 BBC documentary helped to clear the waters, which unfortunately Dan Brown, drawing heavily upon Holy Blood, Holy Grail, has muddied yet once again.
As for Opus Dei, it is hardly a ‘Catholic sect’. Rather it is an ecclesiastical institute founded in 1928 by St. Josemaria Escriva and established as a Personal (not Vatican) Prelature by Pope John Paul II in 1982. Referring to its founder in his penultimate book, John Paul II noted: “In October 2002 I had the joy of canonizing Josemaria Escriva Balaguer, the founder of Opus Dei, a zealous priest, and an apostle to the laity in modern times” (Pope John Paul II, Rise, Let Us Be On Our Way, 117)—not the words a Roman Pontiff would use to describe the founder of a ‘Catholic sect’. Opus Dei functions like a non-territorial diocese in the Catholic Church, whose members personally rather than geographically belong to the prelature in contrast to the members of the Archdiocese of New York, Sydney or Westminster who live within its physical boundaries. Opus Dei, moreover, has no monks among its membership, and certainly no albino monk named Silas who gallivants across western Europe, leaving in his wake a trial of victims à la James Bond’s sometime nemesis Jaws. By the end of the novel, after more than 500 pages of calumny against the Catholic Church, the reader learns that “both the Vatican and Opus Dei…[turn] out to be completely innocent” (559). But the damage is already done.
The most deceptive statement on the ‘Fact’ page is the last. Dan Brown assures his readers, as he has assured the viewers of his televised interviews, that “[a]ll descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.” Well, no serious art historian would accept the notion that the admittedly effeminate figure to Jesus’ right in Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper is Mary Magdalene. It is a young male whose youth dictated to Leonardo an effeminate rather than strongly virile depiction. The only hint of a bosom, moreover, is to be found in Dan Brown’s highly active imagination. As for questions of architecture, one example will suffice. Employing a literary past tense to describe a present reality, Brown writes of Castelgandolfo: “In addition to being the Pope’s summer vacation home, the sixteenth-century citadel housed the Specula Vaticana—the Vatican Observatory—one of the most advanced astronomical observatories in Europe” (207). That’s hardly the case. Yes, Castelgandolfo is the site of the papal summer palace (it is as much a ‘vacation home’ as is Windsor Castle!), but on account of interference from air pollution and the Roman city lights glowing in the distance, the Jesuit astronomers, who staff the Vatican Observatory, no longer use the telescopes at Castelgandolfo for any serious star-gazing. The Vatican does, in fact, have a first-class observatory, but it sits atop a dark mountain in the desert outside Tucson, Arizona! So much for accurate descriptions of European architecture. Finally, Dan Brown may well describe with particular accuracy the secret rituals found in the novel. But given that they are the secret rituals of a non-existent society, one can conclude that he depicts them with the same accuracy as J. R. R. Tolkein describes the customs of wood elves in Middle Earth.
Are there any facts on the ‘Fact’ page? Well, Opus Dei does have a big building in New York. As for the rest of the novel, I am willing to grant that the Louvre is in Paris and Westminister Abbey in London. Officials at the Abbey, by the way, refused to allow any filming of the movie adaption on their premises because they could not “commend or endorse the contentious and wayward religious and historic suggestions made in the book.” So much for the ‘facts’.
In Defense of the Tradition
The Da Vinci Code’s pseudo-history directly attacks the historical truth of Christianity. The tiresome academic Sir Leigh Teabing declares that “[a]lmost everything our fathers taught us about Christ is false” (318). He later queries about ‘scientific evidence’ which proves that “the Church’s version of the Christ story is inaccurate…the greatest story ever told is, in fact, the greatest story ever sold” (356). If anything, it is Teabing’s literary creator who knows a thing or two about selling a story! Finally, we learn from Robert Langdon, the novel’s hero, that the so-called Priory of Sion’s aim has been to present “to the world thousands of ancient documents as scientific evidence that the New Testament is false testimony” (451). We are told that faith is a matter of fabrication, imagination, metaphor, allegory and exaggeration. Believers willingly allow themselves to be deceived in order to cope with reality and to live better lives—as if living a lie were superior to living the truth. The problem arises, Langdon insists, when one begins to take his faith literally. The truth of the matter is that the problem arises when one begins to take the outrageous accusations of a piece of fiction as if they were the gospel truth. Brown would have us smoke what Karl Marx thought religious leaders regularly peddled.
How do we know Jesus? How has the Christian faith come down to us? Is Dan Brown’s fictional scholar correct? Has the New Testament hindered rather than enabled centuries of Christians from knowing the truth about Christ? The First Letter of John and the apostolic witness which it records provide us with an initial response:
What was from the beginning,
what we have heard,
what we have seen with our eyes,
what we looked upon
and touched with our hands
concerns the Word of life—
for the life was made visible;
we have seen it and testify to it
and proclaim now to you,
so that you too may have fellowship with us;
for our fellowship is with the Father
and with his Son, Jesus Christ.
We are writing this so that our joy may be complete.
~1 John 1:1-4
An experience of friendship grounds the Christian faith. A group of friends, that is, Jesus’ disciples—those who knew him, walked with him, listened to him, saw him and touched him with their own hands—communicated at first orally to others what they themselves had experienced. This is the apostolic witness, the concrete historical fact out of which the Christian faith arises. The Christian faith is not, on this account, some highly imaginative fabrication shrouded in metaphor. The disciples personally knew the Word of Life, Jesus Christ. After initially proclaiming aloud what they had experienced, they eventually wrote down their testimony for the sake of those who would come after them. In this fashion the truth about Jesus has come down to us from the Apostles. Hence, we speak of our faith as apostolic. St. Irenaeus explained in the middle of the second century (that is, not much more than a hundred years after Jesus’ death) that “[w]e have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith” (Against the Heresies III.1.1). “Since, therefore,” St. Irenaeus concludes, “the tradition from the apostles does thus exist in the Church, and is permanent among us, let us revert to the Scriptural proof furnished by those apostles who did also write the Gospel, in which they record the doctrine regarding God, pointing out that our Lord Jesus Christ is the truth, and that no lie is in Him” (Against the Heresies III.5.1).
Such is the Christian Tradition, or the handing on of the Christian faith. It begins in a friendship whose story is passed on by word of mouth and then by the written word. From this community of disciples, that is, from the Church, come the Scriptures. To assure that the message of Jesus would not be corrupted along the way, the Apostles appointed bishops in the Churches which they had founded. To these men did the Apostles entrust particular care for the accurate transmission of their own personal experiences of Jesus. In other words, they entrusted to them the Gospel in its fulness and commissioned them to oversee its authentic, uncompromised proclamation. The Bishops of the Church today in union with the Bishop of Rome continue to fulfill this same sacred function. Together they form the Church’s Magisterium. Thus the Apostolic Succession of Bishops guarantees the faithful transmission of the Tradition which assures Christian believers in the twenty-first century that what our fathers have taught us about Christ over two millennia is true.
The early Christian centuries, however, were not completely free of doctrinal disputes. St. Irenaeus, for example, had to contend with the Gnostics, effectively second-century New Agers who attempted to supplant the apostolic faith with their own private esoteric beliefs in Christian guise. The Da Vinci Code is, in fact, a prime example of twenty-first-century neo-gnosticism. Irenaeus’ second-century response to this perennial threat remains valid today. Referring to doctrinal questions, he asks: “Suppose there arise a dispute relative to some important question among us, should we not have recourse to the most ancient Churches with which the apostles held constant intercourse, and learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present question?” (Against the Heresies III.4.1). Why turn to the Apostolic Churches—to the Churches of Rome, Alexandria, Antioch and Ephesus among others—to resolve a dispute? Because in these communities the Apostles’ voices continue to echo. These communities recognize answers in harmony with the teaching which they received directly from the Apostles. In this regard St. Irenaeus looks especially to Rome. He turns towards “that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul….For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the apostolical tradition has been preserved continuously by those faithful men who exist everywhere” (Against the Heresies III.3.2). It is little wonder, therefore, that in Dan Brown’s polemic a malevolent Vatican looms behind all mischief in his neo-gnostic tale. For from her foundation, the Church of Rome has stood as the bulwark of truth against error and the most formidable enemy of all those who would deceive the Christian faithful.
The Canonical Scriptures
St. Irenaeus’ gnostic opponents preached outlandish accounts of Jesus foreign to all that was publicly known of him. They claimed that theirs was a secret revelation which Jesus had communicated only to a select few. This elite transmitted their message secretly, creating a private tradition. Gnosticism, both ancient and modern, appeals to that perennial human tendency which desires to know the ‘inside story’, to be privy to information which others lack—especially when it is a matter of getting ahead, or in religious terms, of being saved. Think here of The Da Vinci Code’s Priory of Sion, a secret brotherhood quietly passing on from generation to generation secret information regarding the location of the Holy Grail.
Against the Gnostics, Irenaeus retorted that the Christian faith was a public faith. Jesus had preached openly in the Temple precincts. His disciples proclaimed publicly all that they had experienced. The Apostles appointed as bishops men known in the community, and it was to these men and not some darkly mysterious gnostic figures that the Apostles entrusted the faith which they had received from Christ. “For if the apostles had known hidden mysteries,” Irenaeus convincingly explains, “which they were in the habit of imparting to the ‘perfect’ apart and privily from the rest, they would have delivered them especially to those to whom they were also committing the Churches themselves” (Against the Heresies III.3.1). There is nothing private, secret nor exclusive in the Christian faith. By Irenaeus’ day in the second century, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were universally known in the Great Church (cf. Against the Heresies III.1.1). These were the Scriptures which the Gnostics set out to discredit either by means of manipulation or substitution in order to further their own esoteric cause. The Martyr-Bishop of Lyons knew their tactic well: “When…they are confuted from the Scriptures, they turn round and accuse these same Scriptures, as if they were not correct, nor of authority, and assert that they are ambiguous, and that the truth cannot be extracted from them by those who are ignorant of tradition. For they allege that the truth was not delivered by means of written documents, but viva voce” (Against the Heresies III.2.1). In this regard, St. Irenaeus anticipated Dan Brown’s ploy by 1800 years. Indeed, as Qoheleth says, “There is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).
In order to propagate its own distorted image of Jesus, The Da Vinci Code must first discredit the canonical Scriptures, in particular the four Gospels which the ancient pre-Constantinian Church had embraced as the authentic, life-giving message of Jesus. Thus the pseudo-scholar Teabing lectures the novel’s heroine, the religiously unsophisticated Sophia: “The Bible is a product of man, my dear. Not of God. The Bible did not fall magically from the clouds. Man created it as a historical record of tumultuous times, and it has evolved through countless translations, additions and revisions. History has never had a definitive version of the book” (312-313). “The Bible, as we know it today,” he continues, “was collated by the pagan Roman emperor Constantine the Great” (313). Apparently hopeless our heroine still has need of further explanation, so Teabing drones on: “The modern Bible was complied and edited by men who possessed a political agenda—to promote the divinity of the man Jesus Christ and use His influence to solidify their own power base” (317). Reading Brown one gets the impression that Christians believe the Bible to have appeared on the scene in a manner similar to the Book of Mormon whose golden plates, according to Mormon belief, Joseph Smith received from the hands of an angel. But nothing could be further from the truth. Acknowledging God as the principal author of the Scriptures, Christians likewise recognize that God made use of human authors. The Catholic Bishops gathered at the Second Vatican Council put it quite succinctly: “To compose the sacred books, God chose certain men who, all the while he employed them in this task, made full use of their powers and faculties so that, though he acted in them and by them, it was as true authors that they consigned to writing whatever he wanted written, and no more” (Dei Verbum 11). It serves Dan Brown’s purposes, however, to insist that the Emperor Constantine imposed a New Testament of strictly human confection upon the Church in the fourth century in order to suppress Jesus’ true identity. But the canonical Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—date from the first century. Written within decades after Jesus’ death, they relate the earliest portraits of Christ. As St. Irenaeus’ witness attests, these Gospels were known and received as early as the second century. So much for Constantine’s fourth-century political agenda and scripturally buttressed power base.
How did the twenty-seven books of the New Testament come to constitute the Christians’ Scriptures? Why those twenty-seven books and no others? The Gnostics eventually recorded their ‘private revelations’ in a series of apocryphal gospels, acts, letters and apocalypses. Why were these works excluded from the New Testament Canon? These questions are significant not only for an informed response to The Da Vinci Code, but also for an informed faith on the part of any mature believer.
In the first Christians centuries, there existed a certain fluidity in the books which were read in the liturgical assembly during what we would call today the Liturgy of the Word at Mass. For example, in the Church at Corinth, the Corinthians read St. Clement of Rome’s highly treasured letter which he had written to them in the closing years of the first century—that is, at approximately the same time that the Second Letter of Peter, the last book of the New Testament, was composed. At Rome Christians gathered for the Eucharist read the second-century apocalypse, the Shepherd of Hermas, which dealt specifically with challenges facing the Roman Church after a particularly devastating persecution. Neither of these texts would eventually be received into the New Testament Canon. On the other hand, other books, which are in the New Testament, were not immediately received throughout the Great Church because their apostolic origins were questioned. The West only accepted the Letter to the Hebrews when it could be assured of its Pauline authorship, and the East was reluctant to receive the Book of Revelation whose Johannie authorship the third-century Patriarch of Alexandria, Dionysius, had called into question. The eventual impetus to arrive at a common understanding of what Scriptures were to be received and read in the Great Church came from a radical attempt to limit the books universally accepted.
At Rome in the 140’s, Marcion, the son of a bishop in Asia Minor, claimed ten letters of St. Paul and the Gospel of Luke excised of all Jewish elements as the only Scriptures worthy of Christian devotion. The Great Church quickly rejected this ancient form of anti-Semitism, and Marcion and his followers ended in schism. But Marcion’s drastic measure motivated the Church to arrive at a necessary clarity about which books she held sacred. In addition to Marcion, the growing threat of gnostic literature likewise demanded an authoritative response.
Before we proceed any further, a word about Gnosticism is in order. Ancient Gnosticism predates Christianity. It is effectively an esoteric collection of Eastern religious philosophies which are parasitic and dualistic in nature. It invaded other religious systems and exploited their symbols to its own end. So, even though a Gnostic in Christian circles might speak of Jesus, he would use the historical figure of Christ to convey his own mythological agenda. In its widely various mythological forms, Gnosticism espouses a pantheon of divine beings anywhere from two to thirty. Its basic myth attributes the creation of the material world to a lesser, evil god or demiurge while Jesus’ heavenly father is the good god beyond all knowledge. Matter, on this account, is evil, and along with it, the human body as well. In man’s creation a “spark of divinity” (cf. The Da Vinci Code 413) got trapped in some human bodies. Salvation consists in liberating this divine spark from its material prison, and the only path to salvation is secret knowledge of the gnostic myth imparted to an elect. In this system Jesus could not have really become man because such an incarnation would imply that a good divine being mixed with evil matter. Therefore, he only appeared to be human. The ancients called this theological approach to Christ doceticism—a question simply of appearance, not reality.
Whereas Dan Brown will insist that the canonical Scriptures try to divinize Jesus to the complete detriment of his humanity, the opposite is true. The canonical Scriptures portray a very human Jesus who hungers, thirsts, suffers temptation and weeps. The gnostic gospels, on the other hand, depict a superhuman or even phantomlike Jesus—that is, when they depict the life of Jesus at all. For the gnostic gospels generally lack historical narrative. They are often a compilation of abstract sayings. It is little wonder that they appeal to the adherents of contemporary New Age philosophies. Two examples from the gnostic gospels should suffice to demonstrate our point. The first comes from the Infancy Gospel According to Thomas:
After that again [Jesus] went through the village, and a child ran and dashed again his shoulder. And Jesus was provoked and said to him: You shall not finish your course. And immediately he fell down and died. But some when they saw what had happened said: Where was this young child born, for that every word of his is an accomplished work? And the parents of the one who died came to Joseph, and blamed him, saying: You who have such a child cannot dwell with us in the village: or rather teach him to bless and not to curse: for he slays our children.
And Joseph called the young child apart and admonished him, saying: Why do you do such things, that these [people] suffer and hate us and persecute us? But Jesus said: I know that these your words are not yours: nevertheless, for your sake I will hold my peace: but they shall bear their punishment. And straightaway those who accused him were struck blind (M. R. James, The Apocryphal New Testament, 49 [slightly modified]).
In his work Against the Heresies, Irenaeus relates the gnostic Basilides’ version of the Passion:
[Jesus] appeared, then, on earth as a man, to the nations of these powers, and wrought miracles. Wherefore he did not himself suffer death, but Simon, a certain man of Cyrene, being compelled, bore the cross in his stead; so that this latter being transfigured by him, that he might be thought to be Jesus, was crucified, through ignorance and error, while Jesus himself received the form of Simon, and, standing by, laughed at them (Against the Heresies I.24.2).
It is enough to read these passages to understand why the ancient Church rejected them. They directly contradict the public revelation of Christ who came among us to heal and save, not to blind and slay. They turn the compassionate Christ into a morbid comic. The works quoted above are among the many apocryphal gospels which, according to Dan Brown, the ‘Vatican’ in cahoots with Constantine allegedly spirited away in the fourth century and which the ‘Vatican’ to this very day does not want revealed. But the truth of the matter is that one can find them for sale in the religion section of any local bookstore.
How, then, did the Church finally arrive at the twenty-seven books of her New Testament and no others? It was a centuries-long process overseen by the Church’s bishops scattered throughout the Mediterranean world. The canonization process effectively followed three criteria. Firstly, the book had to be of apostolic origin, that is, known to have been written by an Apostle or the disciple of an Apostle. Secondly, it had to be read in the great Apostolic Churches and in particular at Rome. And thirdly, its content had to be in harmony with the orthodox rule of faith.
Regarding the first criterion, contemporary scripture scholarship tells us that although a New Testament book may bear the name of an Apostle or his disciple he may not be the direct author of the work. Nonetheless, it accurately reports that individual’s apostolic witness. The canonical Gospels quickly circulated in the Church at a time when there was still living memory of the Apostles’ preaching and perhaps even of Jesus himself. Had those who read them recognized anything foreign to the living Gospel which they had orally received, they would have been quick to reject the written text. But instead they recognized its authenticity. St. Irenaeus attests to this harmonious resonance in his recollections of St. Polycarp, the Martyr-Bishop of Smyrna: “I remember how he spoke of his intercourse with John and with the others who had seen the Lord; how he repeated their words from memory; and how the things that he had heard them say about the Lord, His miracles and His teaching, things that he had heard direct from the eye-witnesses of the Word of Life, were proclaimed by Polycarp in complete harmony with Scripture” (Eusebius, The History of the Church 5.20.5-6). Although gnostic gospels will also bear the names of Apostles, they come late onto the scene and can make no justifiable claims to apostolic origin. Secondly, Irenaeus had pointed out that the Apostolic Churches and above all Rome proved a sure criterion for the orthodox faith. The question, what are they reading at Rome these days, played a crucial role in the process of canonization. Finally, canonical reception demanded orthodox content. Did the book acknowledge that the Creator God and the Father of Jesus Christ are one and the same, and that God’s Son truly become man? If not, the pre-Constantinian Christian community knew to reject it. Gnostic content struck a dissonant chord.
From around the year 200 A.D., we have documentary evidence—the Muratori fragment—which lists twenty-two of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament, among which are the four canonical Gospels. The canonization process, therefore, began to produce concrete results at least 125 years prior to The Da Vinci Code’s estimation. The historical evidence is clear. The Emperor Constantine did not impose the New Testament Canon upon the Church in the fourth century.
The Development of Doctrine
The tiresome Teabing spouts the ultimate absurdity when he insists that Jesus’ divinity resulted from a vote. Allegedly it was a close vote at that. In his pseudo-historical rendition—indeed, perversion—of the Council of Nicaea, he claims that “Constantine turned Jesus into a deity who existed beyond the scope of the human world, an entity whose power was unchallengeable” (315). He informs us that “the early Church literally stole Jesus from His original followers, hijacking His human message, shrouding it in an impenetrable cloak of divinity, and using it to expand their own power” (316). Finally, he relates that “the early Church needed to convince the world that the mortal prophet Jesus was a divine being. Therefore, any gospels that described earthly aspects of Jesus’ life had to be omitted from the Bible” (329). But as we have already demonstrated, one finds the more earthly, that is, human, depiction of Jesus not in the gnostic gospels but rather in the canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The Jesus of the gnostic texts, which Constantine allegedly supplanted, is more often than not a phantomlike figure—hardly the human prophet whom Teabing defends. Teabing—and Dan Brown, for that matter—have got it backwards. What, in fact, happened at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D., and why are the Council’s deliberations crucial for the Church’s faith?
At the beginning of the fourth century, a priest named Arius in the port city of Alexandria in Egypt denied the Son’s full divinity. In his attempts to reconcile belief in One God with Jesus’ revelation concerning the Father, himself as Son and the Holy Spirit, Arius argued that the Son of God is not really one with God the Father, the Creator of all things. Rather the Son stands on the side of creation. He is the most exalted of all creatures through whom the Creator fabricated everything else. The Son is divine only in a secondary or derived sense. Arius’ proposition met with stern opposition because it directly challenged the Church’s centuries-old faith in Jesus’ divinity. To resolve the issue the Emperor Constantine convoked a council of the Church’s bishops to be held in the city of Nicaea not far from the imperial capital of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). The task before these bishops was not to decide whether or not Jesus was divine, but rather to articulate in theological terms the Church’s centuries-old faith in Christ’s divinity. The Council Fathers gave to the Church the Creed which we profess at Mass every Sunday: “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, one in Being with the Father.” Of the some 250 bishops in attendance at the Council, only two cast dissenting votes—hardly a close call!
This authoritative fourth-century articulation of the even more ancient Trinitarian faith demonstrates an important dynamic operative in the Christian faith: the development of doctrine. Jesus revealed once and for all the faith in its fulness, but it takes time for the Church to comprehend the infinite depths of his divine revelation. The human mind grasps ideas in a developmental fashion. An adult, for example, can comprehend the intricacies of calculus in a way that a child cannot. Such is the case with the Church and her comprehension of all that Jesus has revealed. Jesus himself understood this human dimension. To that end he instructed: “I have told you this while I am with you. The Advocate, the holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name—he will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you (John 14:26). “When he comes,” Jesus continued, “the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth” (John 16:13).
From the beginning the Church enjoys the fulness of faith which Christ has revealed, but only over time under the guidance of the Holy Spirit does she theologically articulate her faith. More often than not the motivation to make explicit what she already believes arises from challenges to the faith, which we call heresies. In defending her faith through further doctrinal articulation, the Church comes to understand more fully what she has always believed. Like the acorn which becomes a majestic oak, Christ’s seminal revelation manifests its infinite depths in the Church’s ongoing process of doctrinal elaboration. In sum the development of doctrine involves an unfolding of faith in direct continuity with Christ’s revelation. Contrary to what Dan Brown’s fictional character Teabing would have us believe, it is not a matter of human fabrication breaking radically with past belief.
What evidence, then, do we have that the pre-Constantinian Church’s professed Jesus God? When St. Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians in the mid-50’s, he quoted a hymn which predated his own work and therefore may well come from the 40’s, the decade immediately following Jesus’ death upon the cross. “Though he was in the form of God,” the hymn exclaims, “Jesus did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at. Rather he emptied himself and took the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:6-7). The hymn concludes: “Jesus Christ is Lord!” ‘Lord’ is a divine title, and Christians within a decade of Jesus’ death did not hesitate to apply it to him. They knew him to be God—the God who emptied himself to come among us in human form. One finds this confession of Jesus’ Lordship repeated elsewhere in St. Paul’s letters (cf. Romans 10:9 and I Corinthians 12:3), which date from the mid-first century. Before the end of that century, St. John made it quite clear that “the Word was God…and the Word became flesh” (John 1:1, 14). The Evangelist reports, moreover, that on the octave of Easter St. Thomas the Apostle proclaimed the Risen Christ “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28). In 213 A.D., over a century before the Council of Nicaea met, the North African ecclesiastical writer Tertullian explained in reference to Christ that “we see a double condition, not confused but conjoined in one person, Jesus who is God and man” (Adversus Praxean 27.11). Recently, archeologists have discovered in the northern Israeli town of Meggido a third-century church dedicated to the memory “of the God, Jesus Christ”. The evidence from the first three centuries is, in fact, manifold. For the moment, reporting it in any greater detail would take us too far afield. We can, nonetheless, safely conclude that pre-Nicene Christians professed belief in the man Jesus’ divinity. Nicaea deified no mortal. Rather, it affirmed and indeed defended the centuries-old faith that Jesus is Lord.
Mary Magdalene, the Wife of Jesus?
Finally, was St. Mary Magdalene Jesus’ spouse? The question comes from Teabing’s tendentious reading of a passage from the gnostic Gospel of Philip:
And the companion of the Savior is Mary Magdalene. Christ loved her more than all the disciples and used to kiss her often on her mouth. The rest of the disciples were offended by it and expressed disapproval. They said to him, “Why do you love her more than all of us?”
Teabing ‘demonstrates’ to Sophia that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a romantic relationship by means of which Jesus planted his seed within her. Thus Mary Magdalene is herself the Holy Grail, “the female womb that carried Jesus’ royal bloodline” (335). But Teabing’s pseudo-scholarship proves false.
In his 1996 work, The Woman Jesus Loved, Antti Marjanen closely examines this gnostic passage on its own terms. The English word ‘companion’ translates the Greek word koinonos which has a wide range of meaning: (1) marriage partner, (2) a companion of faith, (3) a co-worker in proclaiming the Gospel, (4) a business associate, or (5) someone engaged in a common enterprise. Accordingly, Mary could be either Jesus’ spouse or someone who without any reference to marriage at all simply enjoys a close relationship with him. In fact, the gospel’s gnostic author depicts Mary as a spiritual consort—as the beloved disciple among Jesus’ male disciples. In gnostic texts, moreover, the act of kissing does not connote sexual love, but rather functions as a metaphor for transmitting a special spiritual power. Marjanen notes that “the question of the disciples shows that the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene is viewed in such terms that also male disciples can be jealous of the position of Mary” (The Woman Jesus Loved 156). It is, therefore, hardly a question of marriage. The passage which Teabing has Sophia read, when taken on its own terms and not Teabing’s, does not support the notion that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ spouse with whom he had relations. It does suggest, however, that Mary enjoyed a privileged position among Jesus’ disciples—a position which included special spiritual knowledge. This vision of the Magdalene suits the Gnostics’ anti-institutional agenda, for it presents Mary as a charismatic figure in opposition to the Apostles. That agenda proves to be Dan Brown’s as well, among whose aims, it seems, is to undermine the Catholic Church.
The truth of the matter is that Mary Magdalene is an outstanding figure in the Christian Tradition. It is she, along with Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and John, who stands at the foot of Jesus’ Cross. She keeps vigil outside his tomb, and on Easter morning she experiences before all others the Good News of his Resurrection. Thus do the canonical Gospels depict her. The Church Fathers name her the ‘apostle to the Apostles’ because she announces to the disciples the Lord’s Resurrection from the dead. Since the eleventh century her relics have been venerated at the magnificent medieval basilica dedicated to her honor at Vézelay in France—a far more worthy monument than that inverted glass pyramid in the Louvre under which The Da Vinci Code would consign her.
A Final Word
The Da Vinci Code does not spare the Roman clergy, of which I am a member. We are told that “the Vatican is made up of deeply pious men who truly believe these contrary documents [that is, the Priory of Sion’s stash of gnostic texts] could only be false testimony” (317). “Yes,” Teabing expounds, “the clergy in Rome are blessed with potent faith, and because of this, their beliefs can weather any storm, including documents that contradict everything they hold dear” (356). Blind piety? Hardly. Years, and indeed decades, of scholarly research have led to the above conclusions.
What can we say about Dan Brown? Perhaps the cautionary word, which New York editor Jonas Faukmann offers Robert Langdon about his latest manuscript, may suggest a possible response: “You’re a Harvard historian, for God’s sake, not a pop schlokmeister looking for a quick buck” (224). Well, no one could ever accuse Dan Brown of being a Harvard historian. As for the latter, let the reader decide.
Father Joseph Carola, S.J.
Pontificia Universitas Gregoriana