De auteurs van dit artikel, Carl Olson en Sandra Miesel, laten zien op
welke punten Brown's boek De Da Vinci Code een verborgen agenda bevat. De
belangrijkste punten zijn:
- het boek valt de schrijver de Rooms-katholieke Kerk aan over haar
geloof in Jezus Christus, de Bijbel en het leergezag van de kerk;
- Brown beweert ten onrechte accuraat te zijn en het boek te baseren op
- Brown herschrijft en interpreteert de (kerk)geschiedenis foutief;
- in het boek promoot de schrijver een radicaal feministische,
- de schrijver propageert een onverschillige, relativerende houding ten
opzichte van de waarheid en religie.
Zie ook het foor deze auteurs uitgegeven boek: The
Da Vinci Hoax
— CRACKING THE ANTI-CATHOLIC CODE —
Part One of a
Special Planet Envoy Critique of
The Da Vinci Code
Brought to you by Envoy Magazine
By Carl E. Olson, with Sandra Miesel
The following special
Planet Envoy is the first part of a critique and examination of the best-selling
The Da Vinci Code. In this opening edition, we examine the success of The Da Vinci
Code, the apparent agenda of its author, Dan Brown, the major flaws of the
novel, and the Gnostic background and neo-Gnostic beliefs the book relies upon so
heavily. Future editions of this critique will discuss Mary Magdalene, Constantine and the Council of
Nicaea, Brown’s Christology, the search for the Grail, the Knights of Templar, the Priory of Sion, witchcraft and the Middle
Ages, and Leonardo da Vinci and his artwork.
The Da Vinci Code Phenomenon
In April 2003, Doubleday published The Da Vinci Code, the fourth novel of Dan Brown. A combination of murder
mystery, thriller, conspiracy tale, romance novel, religious expose, and historical
revisionism, the novel had instant success. Glowing reviews from leading newspapers and magazines, combined with the buzz from Brown’s previous
Angels & Demons, helped The Da Vinci Code debut at #1 on the
New York Times bestseller list. As of mid-October, 2003, The Da Vinci Code has been on the
New York Times bestseller list for over twenty-eight weeks, and has been in the top two or three spots for most of that time. There are now nearly three million copies of the book in print and it is being translated into thirty
Described by New York Times as a "riddle-filled, code-breaking, exhilaratingly brainy thriller,"
The Da Vinci Code garnered effusive, even ebullient, praise from numerous
Library Journal raved, "This masterpiece should be mandatory reading"; the
Chicago Tribune marveled that the book contained "several doctorates’ worth of fascinating history and learned
Salon magazine described the novel as "an ingenious mixture of paranoid thriller, art history
lesson, chase story, religious symbology lecture and anti-clerical screed." Numerous critics noted how "smart," "intelligent," and well-researched the novel appeared to be
("His research is impeccable" stated
New York Daily News), a point that surely pleased the author, who insisted in interviews and on his website that his thriller is thoroughly researched and factual in all
respects. In addition, the novel features an opening page titled "Fact," which
states: "All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate."
Readers who have enthusiastically embraced the book point to historical,
artistic, religious, and theological details within it as central reasons for their fascination with the
best-seller. A reader on amazon.com states that
The Da Vinci Code is "one of the best books I have ever read–makes you see the world a little differently after reading
it!" Another gushes, "You will be amazed at the revelations that come forth in this
book." Another elaborates:
"The Da Vinci Code has to be one of the most remarkable books I've
read. It is a wonderful–and very effective–mix of history, mystery, action, puzzles and suspense. The pace is so
powerful, the book just wouldn't let go! The story line is almost to brilliant to
conceive, the sheer genius and fascinating craftsmanship that Dan Brown uses in his book are
breath-taking. The idea behind the story may seem controversial, but once you think about
it, it really does become quite real and even natural."
Another reader provides a more muted and relativistically-minded assessment:
"The historical events and people explored in the book are real. But no one knows the
Truth...nor will we ever, probably. I think that some things are meant to be a
mystery. With all the world's diverse religions and each individual's belief in what is Divine–the Truth would have to destroy the
beliefs, hopes and lives of many of the world's population. So, perhaps, in the divine scheme of
things, there are many more Truths than one. Don't take the book too seriously."
Despite the skepticism of some readers, The Da Vinci Code proved to be so
popular, so quickly, that within weeks of being published,
Columbia Pictures bought the film rights to the book (and to Angels & Demons as
well). Noted director Ron Howard is reportedly on board and Columbia plans to bring the book to cinematic life sometime in 2005.
Dan Brown’s Agenda and the Purpose of The Da Vinci Code
Over the summer, the Envoy office began to receive a number of e-mails and inquiries about
The Da Vinci Code. They all expressed concern that the book contains a number of overt attacks on the Catholic
Church, plus dubious assertions about topics including Mary Magdalene, the Council of
Nicaea, the New Testament canon, church architecture, and the murder of witches during medieval
times. Reading the novel confirmed that the concerns of Catholics and other Christians were
warranted; Brown’s thriller is less than thrilling when it comes to providing an accurate and fair portrayal of the Catholic
Church, Christian theology, and Church history.
In her glowing New York Times review of the novel, Janet Maslin
writes: "As in his
Angels and Demons, this author is drawn to the place where empirical evidence and religious faith
collide. And he creates a bracing exploration of this realm, one that is by no means
sacrilegious, though it sharply challenges Vatican policy."
("Spinning a Thriller From the Louvre" by Janet Maslin. New York
Times. March 17, 2003). Maslin apparently doesn’t know what "sacrilegious"
The Da Vinci Code is overtly sacrilegious (that is, it profanes sacred
beliefs), claiming that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and had children, Mary Magdalene–not Peter–was the head
apostle, the Catholic Church has kept these "facts" hidden through force and
terror, and that Jesus was not truly divine, but merely a good man "deified" by the Emperor Constantine in 325 A.D. In
addition, the novel is obsessed with radical feminist notions of the "sacred
feminine" and ancient goddess worship, all served up in a syrupy, breathless fashion reminiscent of romance
The major theme of Brown’s novel is the pressing need to recover the "sacred
feminine" and a revitalized worship of a goddess or goddesses. Brown states, in responding on his website to the question about his novel being
"empowering to women," that,
"Two thousand years ago, we lived in a world of Gods and Goddesses.
Today, we live in a world solely of Gods. Women in most cultures have been stripped of their spiritual power. The novel touches on questions of how and why this shift occurred…and on what lessons we might learn from it regarding our
In an interview with CNN (July 17, 2003), Brown emphasized this point more than
once, stating, "In the early days . . . we lived in a world of gods and
goddesses. . . . Every Mars had an Athena. The god of war had the goddess of beauty; in the Egyptian
tradition, Osiris and Isis. ... And now we live in a world solely of gods. The female counterpart has been
erased." He continues: "It’s interesting to note that the word ‘god’ conjures power and
awe, while the word ‘goddess’ sounds imaginary." Then, revealing his understanding of how his novel might affect "traditional"
Christians, he remarks, "There are some people in the church for whom this book is a little bit shocking. But the reaction from the vast majority of clergy and Christian scholars has been
positive." He adds: "Nuns, in particular, are exceptionally excited about the strong feminist message of the
It should be noted that when Brown, in interviews or in his novel, refers to "the
Church," or Christianity, he means the Catholic Church.
The Da Vinci Code betrays little awareness that there are non-Catholic Christians such as the Eastern Orthodox and Protestants; there is one brief, negative mention of the Church of England
(see page 346). Otherwise, all references are to the Catholic Church, often referred to as "the
Vatican," a term for which Brown seems to have a special affinity. However, he is not a
Catholic, nor does he appear to be a former Catholic. Asked, on his site, if he is a Christian, he replies with confident post-modern
"I am, although perhaps not in the most traditional sense of the word. If you ask three people what it means to be Christian, you will get three different
answers. Some feel being baptized is sufficient. Others feel you must accept the Bible as immutable historical
fact. Still others require a belief that all those who do not accept Christ as their personal savior are doomed to
hell. Faith is a continuum, and we each fall on that line where we may. By attempting to rigidly classify ethereal concepts like
faith, we end up debating semantics to the point where we entirely miss the obvious–that is, that we are all trying to decipher life's big mysteries, and we're each following our own paths of
enlightenment. I consider myself a student of many religions. The more I learn, the more questions I have. For me, the spiritual quest will be a life-long work in
This is echoed in a remark made by The Da Vinci Code’s main
character, Harvard "symbologist" Robert Langdon, "Every faith is based on
fabrication. That is the definition of faith–acceptance of that which we imagine to be
true, that which we cannot prove. Every religion describes God through metaphor,
allegory, and exaggeration, from the early Egyptians through modern Sunday school. Metaphors are a way to help our mind process the
unprocessible. The problems arise when we begin to believe literally in our own
metaphors. … Those who truly understand their faiths understand the stories are
metaphorical" (p. 341-2).
Ironically, The Da Vinci Code hinges upon Langdon having a profound–and apparently non-metaphorical–faith experience at the novel’s
conclusion, an experience bound up in the "sacred feminine" and Mary
Magdalene. Also interesting is how Brown continually questions any sort of
authority, especially that of the Catholic Church, but has such confidence in his personal research into a large number of complex areas of study–even areas where his lack of knowledge is obvious to the discerning reader. This is ironic in light of Brown’s overt relativism and his suspicious view of
history; in true deconstructionist style, he openly questions whether we can even know the truth about the past:
"Since the beginning of recorded time, history has been written by the "winners"
(those societies and belief systems that conquered and survived). Despite an obvious bias in this accounting
method, we still measure the ‘historical accuracy’ of a given concept by examining how well it concurs with our existing historical record. Many historians now believe (as do I) that in gauging the historical accuracy of a given concept, we should first ask ourselves a far deeper
question: How historically accurate is history itself?" (Dan Brown's personal website)
Brown undoubtedly hopes The Da Vinci Code will be more than just a
best-seller; he apparently wants it to radically change perceptions of history,
religion, and Western civilization. Asked if the novel might be considered
controversial, Brown again asserts his desire to promote the "sacred
feminine" and to challenge the commonly accepted understandings of Western culture and
"As I mentioned earlier, the secret I reveal is one that has been whispered for
centuries. It is not my own. Admittedly, this may be the first time the secret has been unveiled within the format of a popular thriller, but the information is anything but
new. My sincere hope is that
The Da Vinci Code, in addition to entertaining people, will serve as an open door for readers to begin their own
explorations." (Dan Brown's personal website)
As noted, this agenda has not been lost on readers, and many of them revel in the subversive agenda that Brown undertakes in his thriller. One mesmerized reader summarizes this fascination quite
"With his impeccable research, Mr. Brown introduces us to aspects and interpretations of Western history and Christianity that I, for
one, had never known existed . . . or even thought about. I found myself,
unwillingly, leaving the novel, and time and time again, going online to research Brown's research–only to find a new world of historic possibilities opening up for me."
As we will see, the "possibilities" opened up to readers are both dubious and
dangerous, and are rooted in ideas that are not only contrary to Catholic doctrine, but also contrary to historical
evidence, sound scholarship, and common sense.
What’s the Matter With the Code?
The immense success of The Da Vinci Code and its strong language about the Catholic Church has resulted in substantial controversy over many of the
"facts" within its pages. Not only is the novel influencing the views of non-Catholic readers, it is raising difficult questions in the minds of many
Catholics, some of whom are being asked about Brown’s interpretation of Church history and
theology. One Catholic reader wrote to Envoy, saying:
"I own a Catholic bookstore. We are getting bombarded daily by people who are buying into the garbage in this
book. You cannot believe how many people have been exposed to this book. . . . We even had an elderly aunt talking about Opus Dei tonight and yelling at us that the book is true or it couldn't be
Another reader, a convert from Lutheranism, openly admitted the doubts that The Da Vinci Code has raised in his
"Honestly, [reading the book] shook my whole faith. I realize that the book is
fiction, but much of what he wrote about seemed like it was based on historical facts aside from the
characters. Since I am not a Christian scholar I don't even know where to begin to refute these claims. As the Catholic Church holds much of the evidence that would refute the drivel in
The Da Vinci Code, I was wondering if you could point me in the right direction to a scholarly non-Christian book that might help me make better sense of the whole historical chain of
events. If Christianity is nothing more than a big accommodation, it becomes relegated to a lifestyle choice and not a
religion, which I do not want to believe."
We’ve heard many similar stories in recent months and expect to hear more, which is the main reason this critique has been
written. Just as the Left Behind books have been used to promote a Fundamentalist understanding of Scripture and the end
The Da Vinci Code has proven to be an effective tool for attacking Catholic doctrine and undermining faith in the divinity of Jesus
Christ, the authenticity of Scripture, and the authority of the Church.
"I queried several in the audience why they were there, and what their reaction was to the book and the
evenings' discussion. One woman told of her teenage son who was reluctant to go through the sacrament of
Confirmation, yet after reading the book found a more believable,
understandable, even human Jesus. That actually inspired him to continue the
path. Another person said that such material added to the mystery, and in doing so served to strengthen her
faith. For one it called into question the credibility of the teaching of the
Church, yet felt that faith needs to be challenged to be pursued. Others voiced the idea that this book reinforced a disenchantment with the
This group, and others like it, obviously emphasize opinion and "feelings" over careful and objective
study. Such an ambivalent approach to the claims of the novel are summarized well in Rotert’s remark:
"Fortunately the evenings participants did not come expecting Yes/No
answers." The same remark could be made about catechesis in many parishes
today, again highlighting the need for a more rigorous approach to popular works such as
The Da Vinci Code, especially when many people are garnering their views of Church history and beliefs from those
Fiction, especially best-selling pulp fiction such as The Da Vinci Code, has become a major means of
"educating" the masses about many, varied topics, but especially those issues that are controversial and can be easily
sensationalized. The belief that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, had
children, and was not divine in any way has existed for several decades in American pop culture. Yet
many, if not most, readers of Brown’s novel seem unaware of this–even though the novel provides the titles of several books written in the last two or three decades proposing such
beliefs, most notably
Holy Blood, Holy Grail (Dell, 1982) by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln.
Put succinctly, here are the major problems with The Da Vinci Code:
- It attacks the Catholic Church and her beliefs about Jesus Christ, the
Bible, and Church authority.
- It claims to be completely accurate and based in fact, but it is not.
- It rewrites and misrepresents Church and secular history.
- It promotes a radical feminist, neo-gnostic agenda.
- It propagates a relativistic, indifferent attitude towards truth and
In order to critique the novel thoroughly, we will have to go to the heart of Brown’s worldview and his beliefs about
Christianity. There we will find an obsession with the Gnostic, feminist notion of the
"sacred feminine," an idea that is not so much pro-woman, as it claims to
be, but anti-human and anti-Christian. We will also find that Brown’s understanding of early Church history is based on sources and books that are antagonistic to the Catholic Church and filled with
dubious, even disingenuous, statements about the Church, Scripture, and Gnostic
The "Magdalene" and the Sacred Feminine
Most of The Da Vinci Code’s story takes place in a period of about one
day, beginning with the murder of the curator of the Louvre. Robert Langdon, a Harvard symbologist (a word created by Brown to describe an expert in religious and esoteric
symbolism), is asked by the French police to help interpret a strange cipher left on the body of the
deceased. Langdon is joined in his investigation by an attractive young
cryptologist, Sophie Neveu. Soon they are suspects in the case and are fleeing from
authorities. In the course of trying to escape and solve the murder, they ally themselves with wealthy historian and
Holy Grail fanatic Leigh Teabing, an acquaintance of Langdon’s.
Chased by authorities and an albino "monk" who is a member of Opus Dei, this small band of iconoclasts and Grail enthusiasts travel from Paris to London. Woven throughout the narrative are a series of lectures by Langdon and Teabing on the identity of the Holy
Grail, the importance of Leonardo Da Vinci and The Last Supper, and the "truth" about Jesus and the Catholic
Church. After some obligatory twists and turns, the novel ends with a flat and not-so-rewarding
conclusion, with Langdon having a sort of epiphany at the supposed burial place of Mary
Magdalene: "With a sudden upswelling 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" (p. 454).
The main character of The Da Vinci Code is Mary Magdalene–the Mary Magdalene of
neo-Gnostic, feminist mythology. According to the novel, the "Magdalene" was the apostle of Jesus and is the Holy
Grail. As Sandra Miesel points out in
Crisis magazine, Brown’s "book is more than just the story of a quest for the Grail–he wholly reinterprets the Grail legend. In doing
so, Brown inverts the insight that a woman’s body is symbolically a container and makes a container symbolically a woman’s body. And that container has a name every Christian will
recognize, for Brown claims that the Holy Grail was actually Mary Magdalene. She was the vessel that held the blood of Jesus Christ in her womb while bearing his
("Dismantling The Da Vinci Code,"
Crisis, September 2003).
In a central section of The Da Vinci Code, Langdon and Teabing educate Sophie about this
premise. After explaining that the chalice of the Holy Grail is not a cup, but a symbol of "a woman’s
womb" that "communicates femininity, womanhood, and fertility," Langdon
"The Grail is literally the ancient symbol for womanhood, and the Holy Grail represents the sacred feminine and the
goddess, which of course has now been lost, virtually eliminated by the Church. The power of the female and her ability to produce life was once very
sacred, but it posed a threat to the rise of the predominantly male Church, and so the sacred feminine was demonized and called
unclean. It was man, not God, who created the concept of ‘original sin,’ whereby Eve tasted of the apple and caused the downfall of the human race.
Woman, once the sacred giver of life, was now the enemy" (p. 238).
He goes on to claim that "the Church," almost from the beginning, "had subjugated
women, banished the Goddess, burned nonbelievers, and forbidden the pagan reverence for the sacred
feminine" (p. 239). And then, a few pages later, Teabing states that "the marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene is part of the historical record"
(p. 245). At that point Teabing produces one of his sources, Elaine Pagels controversial
The Gnostic Gospels (1979). He then quotes from The Gospel of Philip, which describes Christ kissing Mary Magdalene
"on the mouth," offending and upsetting the disciples.
A bit later Teabing arrives at what is, it seems evident, Brown’s main point:
"Jesus was the original feminist. He intended for the future of His Church to be in the hands of Mary
Magdalene" (p. 248). Teabing proclaims that this, along with Jesus’ supposed marriage to Mary
Magdalene, is "the greatest cover-up in human history" (p. 249). He summarizes all of these sentiments by
saying, "The quest for the Holy Grail is literally the quest to kneel before the bones of Mary
Magdalene. A journey to pray at the feet of the outcast one, the lost sacred
feminine" (p. 257). As those who have read the novel know, that describes exactly how
The Da Vinci Code ends.
None of these claims are original with Brown, as he admits in the novel and on his website ("…but the information is anything but
new"). Brown’s depiction of Mary Magdalene as the embodiment of the
"sacred feminine" has been a common theme of recent neo-Gnostic, feminist works seeking to rewrite early Church history based upon Gnostic writings such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Mary, and a handful of
others. In addition to Pagel’s work and Holy Blood, Holy Grail, there are other esoteric histories making similar statements: The Templar
Revelation: Secret Guardians of the True Identity of Christ by Lynn Picknett and Clive
Prince; Goddess in the Gospels: Reclaiming the Sacred Feminine and The Woman with the Alabaster
Jar: Mary Magdalen and the Holy Grail, the latter two both by Margaret Starbird, a former Catholic who has been long associated with Matthew Fox. There are websites devoted to promoting these ideas about Mary
Magdalene. All of this activity is part of a rapidly growing interest in Gnosticism and
"alternative" forms of Christianity that are making overt appearances in popular media, including
novels, television, and movies. An example of the latter was the 1999 anti-Catholic
dud, Stigmata, which depicted the Catholic Church as furiously attempting to cover up subversive
"truths" located in Gnostics works such as the Gospel of Thomas. A much more successful effort was the hugely popular Matrix, which melded neo-Gnostic ideas with themes from Buddhism and other Eastern
The Rebirth of Gnosticism
The claims made through the fictional narrative of The Da Vinci Code cannot be understood without some knowledge of Brown’s reliance on a neo-Gnostic understanding of
Jesus, the early Church, and Christianity.
Gnosticism was the greatest challenge to the fledgling Christian faith of the second and third
centuries. Yet, despite its influence, it is a difficult movement to define precisely because of its
esoteric, decentralized, and eclectic nature. In general, Gnosticism is dualistic, focused on secret spiritual knowledge (gnosis), antagonistic towards or uninterested in time and
history, and distrustful–even hateful–towards the physical realm and the human body. Gnosticism seeks to escape the limits of time and
space, to transcend the physical and historical realm, and attempts to obtain salvation through
secretive, individualistic means (see James A. Herrick,
The Making of the New Spirituality: The Eclipse of the Western Religious Tradition
[Intervarsity, 2003], 179-203).
In his seminal study, The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and the Beginnings of
Christianity, Hans Jonas explains that the "radical dualism" of Gnosticism exists on many
levels: "God and the world, spirit and matter, soul and body, light and darkness, good and
evil, light and death"
(The Gnostic Religion [Beacon Hill: Boston, 1958, 1963], p. 31). Ancient Gnostics believed that the true God is not only beyond the world and the material
realm, He had nothing to do with the creation of material matter: "The world is the work of lowly powers which though they may mediately be descended from Him do know the true God and obstruct the knowledge of Him in the cosmos over which they
rule" (p. 42). Put simply, the material realm is evil and man must escape it. This can only be accomplished through gnosis, or secret
knowledge, of the true God.
This gnosis is rooted in the belief that humanity is not meant for this evil, material
world. Dr. Bart D. Ehrman, author of Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faith We Never Knew (Oxford, 2003), writes that according to this view, "we are trapped
here, imprisoned. And when we learn who we are and how we can escape, we can then return to our heavenly home." He notes how this concept resonates with modern readers,
"many of whom also feel alienated from this world, for whom this world does not make
sense, readers who realize, in some very deep and significant way, that they really don’t belong
here" (p. 114). It is also the case that the individualistic, relativistic, and syncretistic character of Gnosticism is also appealing to modern men and women who are distrustful of the
Church, believe Christianity to be anti-woman, and who have a generally negative view of any structure of
Elaine Pagels explains that some of the early Gnostics claimed "that humanity created God–and
so, from its own inner potential, discovered for itself the revelation of truth"
(The Gnostic Gospels, 122). Rather than being outside of–and separate from–humanity, God is a creation of mankind. Salvation is not about overcoming sin through and by God’s
assistance, but is the overcoming of ignorance through self-knowledge (p. 123-4). Ignorance insures
destruction, while self-knowledge provides liberation and escape from suffering. This means that the Jesus was not the God-man who came to save mankind from sin, as orthodox Christians
believe, but is a "teacher, revealer, and spiritual master" who is human
only. In Gnostic teaching, Jesus is not greater than the student, but he will help the student to transcend him in knowledge and
Another key concept embraced by many Gnostic groups was that of an androgynous God, a deity who is a perfect balance of feminine and
masculine. Pagels writes, "Some [Gnostic groups] insisted that the divine is to be considered masculofeminine–the ‘great male-female power.’ Others claimed that the terms were meant only as
metaphors, since, in reality, the divine is neither male nor female. A third group suggested that one can describe the primal Source in either masculine or feminine
terms, depending on which aspect one intends to stress." She adds: "Proponents of these diverse views agreed that the divine is to be understood in terms of a
harmonious, dynamic relationship of opposites–a concept that may be akin to the Eastern view of yin and yang, but remains alien to orthodox Judaism and
(The Gnostic Gospels, 51).
The Gnostic deity is both god and goddess, and the Gnostics despised the Christians for
"suppressing" the feminine nature of the godhead. In
The Da Vinci Code, Langdon lectures Sophie about this, telling her that "the Priory [of Sion] believes that Constantine and his male successors successfully converted the world from matriarchal paganism to patriarchal Christianity by waging a campaign of propaganda that demonized the sacred
feminine, obliterating the goddess from modern religion forever" (p. 124). This suppression
resulted, Brown’s novel tells readers, in a warped and unbalanced humanity, overly masculine and lacking in feminine
"The days of the goddess were over. The pendulum had swung. Mother Earth had become a man’s
world, and the gods of destruction and war were taking their toll. The male ego had spent two millennia running unchecked by its female counterpart. The Priory of Sion believed that it was this obliteration of the sacred feminine in modern life that had caused what the Hopi Native Americans called koyanisquatsi–‘life out of balance’–an unstable situation marked by testosterone-fueled wars, a plethora of misogynistic
societies, and a growing disrespect for Mother Earth" (pp. 125-6).
Many Gnostics not only believed the true God (beyond the god of this world, the demi-god falsely believed to be God by Jews and
Christians) was androgynous, but that humanity was also meant to be androgynous, or
"masculo-feminine." Some Gnostics interpreted Genesis 1:27 as saying God created
"male-female," not "male and female." This idea of an androgynous,
"whole" humanity makes an appearance in
The Da Vinci Code. In talking to Sophie about the Mona Lisa, Langdon
states, "Whatever Da Vinci was up to . . . his Mona Lisa was neither male nor
female. It carries a subtle message of androgyny. It is a fusing of both" (p. 120). This is wishful thinking on the part of Langdon (and Brown), since the majority of art historians agree the portrait has nothing to do with
androgyny, but is simply a masterful painting of an Italian lady, (most likely Mona Lisa
Gherardini, the wife of merchant Francesco di Bartolommeo di Zanobi del Giocondo).
However, the idea that Mona Lisa depicts an androgynous person does fit with the Gnostic beliefs that those who were enlightened by gnosis needed to be in pairs–male and female–forming a perfect
whole, or "syzygy." Thus, Jesus would require a female counterpart who would make him complete; in Gnostic writings that
woman, of course, was Jesus’ "consort," Mary Magdalen.
The interconnection between these ancient Gnostic notions and feminist attacks on Church teaching, especially upon the
male-priesthood, should be apparent. If the male and female genders are not unique in
vital, but equal, ways–as the Catholic Church teaches–but are the results of an incomplete
anthropology, then there is no reason to keep women from the priesthood or episcopal
authority. If there is no essential difference or distinction between men and
women, then the Church’s refusal to ordain women is simply a matter of
misogyny, not of theological, doctrinal truth. This connection is readily apparent in works of religious feminists intent on getting women ordained as Catholic priests
Finally, one difficulty in defining Gnosticism, whether ancient or modern, is its syncretistic nature. As Jonas
states, "the gnostic systems compounded everything–oriental mythologies, astrological doctrines, Iranian
theology, elements of Jewish tradition, whether Biblical, rabbinical, or occult, Christian
salvation-eschatology, Platonic terms and concepts"
(The Gnostic Religion, 25). Today there are numerous esoteric groups and movements that utilize Gnostic concepts and
writings: wiccans, New Agers, occultists, radical feminists, neo-pagans, and a host of
others. This is certainly the case with
The Da Vinci Code, which makes reference to a number of esoteric and occultic groups and
movements, but is especially enamored with a radical feminist interpretation of Church
The Neo-Gnostic Myth of the Feminist Early Church
The beliefs about the early Church, Gnosticism, and Mary Magdalen that are set forth in Brown’s novel date back to the nineteenth century and the advent of modern
feminism. Philip Jenkins points out, in
Hidden Gospels: How the Search For Jesus Lost Its Way (Oxford, 2001), that "late nineteenth-century activists saw Jesus and his first followers as
protofeminists, whose radical ideas were swamped by a patriarchal orthodoxy." In addition to
feminists, this "idea that the Gnostics retained the core truths of a lost Christianity was commonplace among occult and esoteric
writers, many of whom shared the contemporary excitement over women’s suffrage and other progressive
causes" (p. 125). These writers looked to heretical, Gnostic forms of early Christianity for material to bolster their belief that Jesus was really a radical feminist, the Church was initially founded as an egalitarian and non-dogmatic body, and women were among the first apostles–or
were, as in the case of Mary Magdalene, the primary apostles.
One of the first Gnostic texts used effectively by feminists was Pistis Sophia
("The Books of the Savior"), which was published in English in 1896. In
it, Mary Magdalene is depicted as the foremost apostle of Jesus, while the male disciples are frustrated by the lack of attention they received from
Jesus. But it was the discovery of numerous Gnostic texts in 1945 at Nag Hammadi,
Egypt, that provided even more ammunition for those looking to undermine Church authority and change the structures and theology of the Catholic
Church. Elaine Pagels, whose popularizing work in this area has been immense,
writes, "The Nag Hammadi sources, discovered at a time of contemporary social crises concerning sexual
roles, challenge us to reinterpret history–and to re-evaluate the present
(The Gnostic Gospels, p. 69).
As Pagels’ comment indicates, the timing of the Nag Hammadi discovery was fortuitous for those wishing to reinterpret Jesus in their own image and destroy traditional, orthodox understandings of
Christianity. "The hidden gospels have been used to provide scriptural warrant for sweeping new interpretations of
Jesus," Jenkins notes, "for interpreting theological statements in a purely symbolic and psychological
sense, and for challenging dogmatic or legal rules on the basis of the believer’s subjective moral
sense. Generally, the hidden gospels offer wonderful news for liberals,
feminists, and radicals within the churches, who challenge what they view as outdated institutions and
prejudices" (p. 16).
This perfectly describes the intent of The Da Vinci Code, which uses a fictional vehicle to promote the same agenda that a number of feminist and post-modern scholars have been working on since the 1960s. Those fans of Brown’s novel who think the author has somehow stumbled upon new and never seen information might be surprised to know how commonplace his views are within the realm of Gnostic and feminist studies. Jenkins’ depiction of the literature produced within that world could just as well describe
The Da Vinci Code:
"Over the last century, the literature on hidden gospels, genuine and
fraudulent, has been pervaded by conspiratorial speculations which suggest that some powerful body
(usually the Roman Catholic Church) is cynically plotting either to conceal the true gospel, or to plant bogus documents to deceive the
faithful. Such ideas run through the many novels and fictional presentations on this
them: in the Hollywood film Stigmata, the Vatican is shown desperately trying to suppress a
"Jesus Gospel," which is unmistakably modeled on the Gospel of Thomas" (p. 18).
It would take an entire book to address thoroughly all of these intertwining topics and answer each of the questions they raise
(Jenkins’ book is a good place to start; others are listed at the end of this
article). But here, in abbreviated form, are some important points about these issues, all of them central to
The Da Vinci Code.
The feminist idea that the early Church was an egalitarian body lead by both female and male bishops and priests is based on flimsy premises and lacks historical
evidence. This has even been admitted, in part, by Pagels, who stated in the 1998 PBS program
From Jesus to Christ, "I don’t see a picture of a golden age of egalitarianism back
there. I see a new, unformed, diverse, and threatened movement which allowed a lot more fluidity for women in certain roles for a
while, in some places and not in others" (quoted in Jenkins, p. 132). Feminist scholars speculating about the first few decades of the early Church usually treat the New Testament documents with
suspicion, claiming that they are the work of those men who finally gained control over the Church through the suppression of
women. Using a "hermeneutics of suspicion," these scholars must ignore early evidence that the Church was founded by Christ and its leadership on earth given to twelve men (Matt. 10:1ff; 19:28;
Lk. 22:25-30; Jn. 20:20-24) led by Peter (Matt. 16:15-19), and must instead insist upon using texts that were written anywhere from fifty to three hundred years after the New Testament
In addition, there is the misleading notion that the Gnostic writings are consistently
pro-woman, while the New Testament writings–and thereby the authors of those books–are
anti-woman. This idea also arises in
The Da Vinci Code. After quoting from the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, where Peter complains about Mary’s closeness to
Christ, Sir Leigh Teabing states: "I daresay Peter was something of a sexist."
(p. 248). He then remarks that "Jesus was the original feminist. He intended for the future of His Church to be in the hands of Mary
Magdalene" (p. 248).
But Brown never bothers to have his characters quote from the final verse of the Gospel of Thomas, the most famous of the Gnostic
texts. That verse states: "Simon Peter said to them: ‘Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of
life.’ Jesus said, "I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you
males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of
heaven" (v. 114). This passage and others like it do not fit well with the feminist view of the
Gnostics, just as the Church’s positive treatment of women throughout history does not compare well with the negative picture often depicted by feminist
One such group is the "Catholic" organization FutureChurch, which states in an online article that "the Montanist and Valentinian
Churches, which had both male and female leaders, were eventually suppressed. Scholars say that the Montanist and Valentinian communities were orthodox. They were suppressed not because their teachings were
heretical, but because women as well as men engaged in leadership." In fact, almost all scholars, including many feminists
writers, acknowledge that the Montanists and Valentinians were outside the Church and considered heretical for numerous
reasons, including attacks on the deity of Christ (Valentinians), the authority of the Church
(both groups), an obsession with prophetic utterances (Montanists), and dualist views
(Valentinians). Even Elaine Pagels states that "Valentinian gnosticism" was "the most influential and sophisticated form of gnostic teaching, and by far the most threatening to the
(The Gnostic Gospels, p. 31). Unfortunately, such misguided attempts to use
ancient, heretical movements for modern, heretical ends are becoming increasingly
The Dating Game
The dating of the New Testament writings and the Gnostic writings is essential to appreciating the serious errors found in
The Da Vinci Code and in the works of neo-Gnostic enthusiasts. If Gnostic works such as the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Thomas were written at the same time as the canonical Gospels, the Pauline corpus, and the other New Testament books
(which are dated from 50 to 100 AD, even by many "liberal" scholars), then the early Church resembles the picture painted by feminist scholars–one in which various groups existed
equally, at least for a while, within a democratic, theologically fluid era. According to this
premise, the hierarchical and male-dominated Church came much later, in the second and third
centuries, and Jesus was not deified as the God-man until the time of
Constantine. This is essentially the scenario depicted in
The Da Vinci Code (see p. 230ff).
However, if the Gnostic books weren’t written until several decades, or even
centuries, after the New Testament books, a different picture emerges. In it, the Gnostic writings are
reactionary, the result of the intense struggle of heretical sects against the established teachings of the Church and the
apostles. These struggles erupted in the second century, especially noticeable around 135 to 165
A.D., and continued for quite some time. The nature of this struggle can be seen in the writings of orthodox apologists such as
Irenaeus, who wrote his great polemic refuting Gnosticism (especially the
Against Heresies, around 180 A.D.
Put another way, Gnosticism began to infiltrate the Church in full force in the mid-second
century, many decades removed from the life of Christ, the apostles, and the formation of the Church–a distance in time similar to modern-day scholars looking back at the lives of Abraham Lincoln, or even George Washington. Gnosticism would have been a movement arising outside of
Christianity, even though some overlapping of language and concepts may have
existed, due in part to a shared culture and the Gnostic interest in the Old Testament. Some Gnostic proponents claim that a full-fledged Gnosticism is evident within the Church in the person of Simon Magus (Acts 8:9-13), but this view is speculative at best. Hans Jonas writes that Simon was
"not a dissident Christian, and if the Church Fathers cast him in the role of the
arch-heretic, they implicitly admitted that Gnosticism was not an inner-Christian
(The Gnostic Religion, p. 103).
An important characteristic of Gnostic writings is how much they vary in character from the canonical
writings: they are non-historical, or even anti-historical, in style and content and they contain little narrative or sense of
chronology. The Nag Hammadi documents, as highly touted as they are, have offered few, if
any, new or illuminating details about the life of Christ or events in the early
Church. This is due in part to the documents being written generations after the fact as well as the anti-historical bias of
Gnosticism, which scorns the belief that the true God would care about the
material, historical realm. In concluding his examination of the veracity of the Gospel of Mary and other Gnostic
texts, Jenkins writes, "These uncanonical texts were written at a time when the episcopal hierarchy was already well
established, when the early house churches were a distant memory, and when the canonical gospels were already widely known as the principle authorities for the life of
Jesus. Mary and its like come from a time when the church had already fixed its gospel canon at
four. Despite claims that Mary was excluded or omitted from that canon, presumably because of its subversive
feminism, the work was much too late a candidate even to be considered" (p. 141).
Jenkins’ conclusions are supported by the majority of biblical scholars. For
example, Dr. Bart Ehrman of the University of North Carolina, in his book
Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scriptures and the Faiths We Never Knew (Oxford, 2003), dates none of the Gnostic gospels before the
"early 2nd century." Many are dated in the third, fourth, and fifth century (pages
xi-xv). The introductions to the Gnostic works contained in
The Nag Hammadi Library (Harper, 1979, 1988), edited by James M. Robinson, acknowledge the same dates, even though they argue that the Gnostic writings should be considered just as authoritative as the Four Gospels. Even
Holy Blood, Holy Grail, which takes extreme liberties in its "scholarship"
(Teabing remarks, in
The Da Vinci Code, that "the authors [of Holy Blood, Holy Grail] made some dubious leaps of faith in their
analysis" [p. 254]–an amusing understatement), states, "Modern scholars have established that some if not most of the texts in the
[Nag Hammadi] scrolls date from no later than A.D. 150" (p. 380).
All of this flies in the face of Teabing’s assertion in The Da Vinci Code that "more than eighty gospels were considered for the New Testament, and yet only a relatively few were chosen for inclusion–Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John among
them." (p. 231). Far from there being "eighty gospels" considered for the canon at the time of Constantine in the early 300s, there were only five or six still being considered in the mid-second
century. By the late second century the early Church recognized the gospels of
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as the four inspired by the Holy Spirit and meant for the canon of the New Testament. As Jenkins shows, "the process of determining the canon was well under way long before Constantine became
emperor, and before the church had the slightest prospect of political power. The crucial phase occurred in the mid-second century . . ."
In fact, there was already a growing consensus about the entire New Testament canon by the middle of the
second-century, even though it would not be defined on an official (though not
universal) level until the late-300s and early-400s in a series of local synods. Justin
Martyr, writing around 150 A.D. and explaining the liturgy of the Christians to his non-Christian readers, speaks of the apostles and "the memoirs composed by
them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon
("The First Apology," 66). Tertullian, writing around the same time, defends the four Gospels, the Acts of the
Apostles, thirteen Pauline epistles, the epistle to the Hebrews, and 1 John and The Apocalypse against the Gnostic ideas of Marcion
("Five Books Against Marcion," 4.2, 4.5). A couple of decades later Irenaeus specifically refers to the four Gospels and their authors and implies that they are granted a unique status within the
Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the
Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke
also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him.
Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in
Asia. (Against Heresies, 3.1.1)
A bit further on, Irenaeus writes, "It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are" (3.11.8) and again prominently mentions
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, further proof that that the number of gospels recognized as authoritative within the Church was set at four at least 150 years prior to Constantine and the Council of
Part 2 of a
Special Planet Envoy Critique
of The Da Vinci Code
"Christ, the Early Church, Constantine, and the Council of Nicaea"
By Carl E. Olson and Sandra Miesel
In Part 1 of "Cracking the Anti-Catholic Code" we examined the background of The Da Vinci Code
phenomenon, focusing on the Gnostic ideas that author Dan Brown utilizes in his best-selling novel
(now at 4.5 million copies sold and still selling strong). This second part of Envoy magazine’s special Planet Envoy critique of the best-selling novel examines Brown’s depictions of early
Christianity, especially his claims about Jesus Christ, the Emperor Constantine, the supposed reliance of early Christianity on pagan beliefs and
rituals, and the Council of Nicaea. As we will see, Brown not only plays fast and loose with the
facts, he consistently makes statements that are inaccurate, baseless, and even completely contrary to historical
Constantine "Divinizes" Jesus?
Some of the most audacious and blatantly incorrect statements in The Da Vinci Code have to do with early Church history and the person of
Jesus. In the course of Sophie and Langdon’s lengthy conversation with Teabing at the English historian’s home, a dialogue takes place in which the following claims are made:
- The divinity of Jesus and his establishment as "the Son of God" were
created, proposed, and voted into existence (by a "relatively close
vote") at the Council of Nicaea in 325.
- Prior to this event, nobody–including Jesus’ followers–believed that he was anything more than "a mortal
- The Emperor Constantine established the divinity of Jesus for political reasons and used the Catholic Church as a means of solidifying his power. (The Da Vinci Code, 233)
Teabing does not personally reject the divinity of Jesus (many people do reject
it), or claim that certain modern day scholars deny that Jesus was divine (many scholars do deny
it), but states that the early followers of Jesus–the Christians of the first three centuries following Jesus’ time on earth–believed that he was not divine at all, but "a mortal"
only. This undermines the credibility of Teabing’s character, for any decent
historian, Christian or otherwise, knows that the early Christians believed that Jesus of Nazareth was somehow
divine, being the "Son of God" and the resurrected Christ. In fact, the central issue at the Council of Nicaea in 325 was not whether Jesus was merely human or something more, but how exactly his divinity–which even the heretic Arius acknowledged–was to be
understood: Was he fully divine? Was the Son equal to the Father? Was he a lesser god? What did it mean to say that the Son was
"begotten," as the Gospel of John states in several places (Jn 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18)?
The Testimony of the New Testament
There is plenty of evidence that the early Christians, dating back to Jesus’ time on
earth, believed that Jesus of Nazareth was divine. In his seminal study, Early Christian Doctrines, noted early Church scholar
J.N.D. Kelly writes that "the all but universal Christian conviction in the [centuries prior to the Council of
Nicaea] had been that Jesus Christ was divine as well as human. The most primitive confession had been ‘Jesus is Lord’
[Rom 10:9; Phil 2:11], and its import had been elaborated and deepened in the apostolic
age." (J.N.D. Kelly,
Early Christian Doctrines [San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1960; revised
edition, 1978], 138). Jesus was indeed a prophet, explains German theologian Karl Adam, but the Gospels depict him uniquely more:
"There can be no doubt: the Canonical Gospels see in the person of Jesus Jahve
[Yahweh = God] himself. According to them, Jesus thinks, feels, and acts in the clear consciousness that he is not simply one called like the rest of the
prophets, but rather the historical manifestations and revelation of God himself"
The Christ of Faith, [Pantheon Books: New York, 1957), 59).
Explicit and implicit evidence that Jesus and his followers believed he was more than a mere mortal is found throughout the New Testament. The infancy narrative in Matthew’s Gospel quotes from the Old Testament prophet
Isaiah: " ‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel’
(which means, God with us)" (Matt 1:23). In that same Gospel there is an account of the baptism of
Jesus; as Jesus comes up out of the water "the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove, and coming upon
Him, and behold, a voice out of the heavens, saying, ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am
well-pleased.’ " (Matt. 3:16-17).
John’s Gospel contains some of the strongest statements about the divinity of
Jesus. The densely theological prologue proclaims: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through
him, and without him was not anything made that was made" (Jn1:1-3); the Word is
Jesus, the incarnate Son: "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and
truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father"
(Jn 1:14). Later, after upsetting some of the Jewish authorities because of his activities on the
Sabbath, Jesus’ life is threatened, "because he not only broke the sabbath but also called God his
Father, making himself equal with God" (Jn 5:18).
The eighth chapter of John’s Gospel contains another firm affirmation of Jesus’
divinity. After having a debate about Abraham with some of the religious leaders, Jesus
declares: "Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad"
(Jn 8:56). Indignant, the leaders respond, "You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?"
(v. 57). "Truly, truly, I say to you," Jesus replies, "before Abraham was
born, I am" (v. 58). This is met with hostility; the crowd attempts to kill
Jesus, recognizing that he has applied to himself the name of God–"Yahweh," or "I AM"–revealed to Moses in the burning bush (Ex 3:14). After his crucifixion and
resurrection, Jesus appears to the disciples (Jn 20:19-23), but "Thomas, one of the
twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came" (Jn 19:24). Eight days later Jesus appears to the disciples
again; this time Thomas is among them. Upon seeing Jesus and touching his pierced hands and
side, "Thomas answered and said to Him, ‘My Lord and my God!’" (Jn 20:28). Many other examples from the four Gospels could be
given, including over forty passages where Jesus is called the "Son of God" (cf., Mt 11:27; Mk 12:6; 13:32; 14:61-62; Lk 10:22; 22:70; Jn 10:30; 14:9), is ascribed the power to forgive sins
(Mk 2:5-12; Lk 24:45-47), claims unity and oneness with the Father (Jn 10:30; 12:45; 14:8-10), and performs many
miracles, including raising Lazarus from the dead (Jn 11). Even if readers believe the disciples were mistaken or that Jesus was a charlatan, there’s little doubt that they believed he was divine and was far more than a mortal
Similar affirmations of Jesus divinity are found throughout the canonical writings of Paul and the other New Testament
authors. In his first letter to the church at Corinth, Paul declares that "no one can
say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit" (1 Cor 12:3). In his letter to the
Philippians, he writes that "though [the Son] was in the form of God, [he] did not count equality with God a thing to be
grasped" (Phil 2:6). The Son’s willingness to become man will,
paradoxically, lead to the universal confession "that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the
Father" (Phil 2:11). Paul’s first letter to his young son in the Christian
faith, Timothy, contains the emphatic declaration that the "Lord Jesus Christ . . . is the blessed and only
Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords; who alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable
light; whom no man has seen or can see. To Him be honor and eternal dominion! Amen" (1 Tim 6:15-16).
The final book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation (or The Apocalypse) presents Jesus as the
eternal, conquering, and resurrected King and Savior–another far cry from a "mortal
prophet." When John sees Jesus, he falls "as a dead man" at his feet. "And He laid His right hand upon me,
saying, "Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last" (Rev. 1:17). The title of "the First and the Last" is one of titles used in the Old Testament to describe
Yahweh, the one true God: "Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel And his
Redeemer, the LORD of hosts: I am the first and I am the last, And there is no God besides Me" (Isa 44:6; see Isa 41:4; 48:12). This title is applied to Jesus two more times in the Book of
Revelation, including 2:8 and 22:12-13. The latter passage, at the conclusion of the
book, identifies Jesus as "the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end"
(Rev 22:13). This is the same language used by the Lord God at the opening of the book
(Rev 1:8), making an overt and purposeful connection between God and the divinity of Jesus
The Testimony of Early Christian Writers
There is much testimony from numerous Christian writers between 100 A.D. and the fourth century to the Christian belief in Jesus’
divinity. In addition to proving what Christians really did believe about Jesus in the first three centuries of
Christianity, these writings also provide invaluable context to the theological issues and battles that would eventually be
addressed, at least in part, by the Council of Nicaea.
Ignatius of Antioch (c. 35-c.107) was the bishop of Antioch; it has been speculated that
he, just like the apostle Paul, may have been a persecutor of the Christians prior to his conversion
(The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church [Oxford: New York, 1997. Third
edition], 817). Captured by the Roman army and en route to Rome to be executed, he wrote a series of seven letters to churches at
Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, Rome, Philadelphia, and Smyrna, and one to Polycarp (c. 69-c. 155), the bishop of
Smyrna. In his letter to the Ephesians, he writes:
"There is one Physician who is possessed both of flesh and spirit; both made and not made; God existing in
flesh; true life in death; both of Mary and of God; first possible and then
impossible, even Jesus Christ our Lord." (Letter to the Ephesians, ch. 7).
Later, in the same letter, he tells his readers that they must "do everything as if he
[Jesus] were dwelling in us. Thus we shall be his temples and he will be within us as our God–as he actually is" (Letter to the
Ephesians, 15). He then states, "For our God, Jesus Christ, was, according to the appointment of God, conceived in the womb by Mary, of the seed of David, but by the Holy
Ghost. He was born and baptized, that by His passion He might purify the water"
(par. 18). Further, in his letter to the Smyrnaeans, Ignatius refers to Jesus as "the Christ God"
(Letter to the Smyrnaeans, 10).
Justin Martyr (c. 100-c.165) was born into a pagan family and became a Christian around the age of
thirty. He was a Christian philosopher who taught in Ephesus, then later in Rome, where he had a school. Justin was one of the leading apologists for the Christian faith in the second
century; he defended Christian teachings–including the belief that Jesus was divine–against pagan
philosophers. He and several of his disciples were arrested, beaten, and then beheaded by the Romans for their refusal to worship pagan
gods. In his First Apology, he writes, "Jesus Christ is the only proper Son who has been begotten by God, being His Word and
first-begotten, and power; and, becoming man according to His will, He taught us these things for the conversion and restoration of the human race . . ."
(First Apology of Justin Martyr, par. 23). In his Dialogue with
Trypho, Justin provides a lengthier defense of his belief that Jesus is God:
"But if you knew, Trypho," continued I, "who He is that is called at one time the Angel of great counsel, and a Man by
Ezekiel, and like the Son of man by Daniel, and a Child by Isaiah, and Christ and God to be worshipped by David, and Christ and a Stone by
many, and Wisdom by Solomon, and Joseph and Judah and a Star by Moses, and the East by
Zechariah, and the Suffering One and Jacob and Israel by Isaiah again, and a
Rod, and Flower, and Corner-Stone, and Son of God, you would not have blasphemer Him who has now
come, and been born, and suffered, and ascended to heaven; who shall also come
again, and then your twelve tribes shall mourn. For if you had understood what has been written by the
prophets, you would not have denied that He was God, Son of the only,
unbegotten, unutterable God." (Justin Martyr,
Dialogue with Trypho, ch. 126).
One of the most important of the pre-Nicaean Christian writers was Irenaeus (c. 130-c. 200), the bishop of Lyons and an ardent opponent of the Gnostic theologian Valentinus (d. c. 165). His major work was Adversus omnes
Haereses, commonly known as "Against Heresies." In arguing against the Gnostic dualism of the
Valentinians, Irenaeus explain and defends the Christian belief that Jesus is God. This includes lengthy statements such as this
one, which condemns those who believe that Jesus was a mortal only:
"But again, those who assert that He [Jesus] was simply a mere man, begotten by Joseph, remaining in the bondage of the old
disobedience, are in a state of death having been not as yet joined to the Word of God the
Father, nor receiving liberty through the Son . . . Now, the Scriptures would not have testified these things of
Him, if, like others, He had been a mere man. But that He had, beyond all
others, in Himself that pre-eminent birth which is from the Most High Father, and also experienced that pre-eminent generation which is from the Virgin, the divine Scriptures do in both respects testify of
Him: also, that He was a man without comeliness, and liable to suffering; that He sat upon the foal of an
ass; that He received for drink, vinegar and gall; that He was despised among the
people, and humbled Himself even to death and that He is the holy Lord, the
Wonderful, the Counsellor, the Beautiful in appearance, and the Mighty God, coming on the clouds as the Judge of all men;–all these things did the Scriptures prophesy of
(Against Heresies, book 3, ch. 29:1, 2)
Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-c. 215) was a Greek theologian and the author of several
"Exhortation to the Greeks." In that work he teaches that "He [Jesus] alone is both God and man, and the source of all our good
(Exhortation to the Greeks 1:7:1 [A.D. 190]); he also states: "Despised as to appearance but in reality
adored, [Jesus is] the expiator, the Savior, the soother, the divine Word, he that is quite evidently true God, he that is put on a level with the Lord of the universe because he was his Son"
(ibid., 10:110:1). Similar remarks were made by the great African Church father, Tertullian (c. 160-c. 225). He wrote that "God alone is without sin. The only man who is without sin is
Christ; for Christ is also God" (The Soul 41:3 [A.D. 210]). In another work he discusses the relationship of the divine and human natures of Jesus
Christ: "The origins of both his substances display him as man and as God: from the
one, born, and from the other, not born"
(The Flesh of Christ 5:6—7 [A.D. 210]). The Alexandrian scholar and theologian Origen (c.185-c.254), who authored hundreds of
books, stated around 225 that "although [the Son] was God, he took flesh; and having been made man, he remained what he was: God"
(The Fundamental Doctrines 1:0:4). Writing at nearly the same time, the theologian Hippolytus (c.170-c.236)
stated, "Only [God’s] Word is from himself and is therefore also God, becoming the substance of God"
(Refutation of All Heresies 10:33 [A.D. 228]).
The Gnostic Jesus
A serious question ignored by The Da Vinci Code is this: "Why should the writings of the Gnostics be considered be more dependable than the canonical
writings, especially when they were written some fifty to three hundred years later than the New Testament
writings?" It’s easy for writers such as Brown, who are sympathetic to the Gnostics
(or at least to some of their ideas), to criticize the canonical Gospels and call many of the stories and sayings contained in them into
question. But without the canonical Gospels there would be no historical Jesus at all, no meaningful narrative of his
life, and no decent sense of what he did, how he acted, and how he related to
As we pointed out in Part 1 of this critique, the "gnostic gospels" aren’t gospels at all in the sense of the four canonical Gospels, which are filled with
narrative, concrete details, historical figures, political activity, and details about social and religious
life. Contrary to the assertion that "the early Church literally stole Jesus" and shrouded his
"human message . . . in an impenetrable cloak of divinity, and using it to expand their own power," the Church was
intent, from the very beginning, of holding on to the humanity and divinity of Christ and of telling the story of his life on earth without washing away the
sorrow, pain, joy, and blood that so often accompanied it. "It was the orthodox Christian Church that . . . insisted on keeping the Christian religion rooted in historical
realities," writes Philip Jenkins, "rather than the random mythologies reinvented at the whim of each rising Gnostic sage. The church was struggling to retain the idea of Jesus as a historical human being who lived and died in a specific place and time, not in a timeless never-never land"
(Hidden Gospels [Oxford University Press, 2001], 211).
The Jesus of the Gnostic writings is rarely recognizable as a Jewish
carpenter, teacher, and prophet dwelling in first century Palestine; instead, he is often described as a phantom-like creature who lectures at length about the
"deficiency of aeons," "the mother," "the Arrogant One," and "the
archons"–all terms that only the Gnostic elite would comprehend, hence their gnostic (gnosis = secret
knowledge) character. One strain of Gnosticism, known as Docetism, held that Jesus only
seemed, or appeared, to be a man (Gr., doceo = "I seem"); adherents believed this because of their dislike for the physical body and the material
realm, a common trait among Gnostics. The tendency towards a docetist understanding of Jesus–if not a fully formed docetist Christology–existed in the first century and was addressed in some of the writings of Paul
(Colossians and the pastoral Epistles) and John (cf. 1 Jn 4:2; 5:6; 2 Jn 7). In the second
century, docetism became a formed theology and made appearance in various Gnostic
writings, including the Acts of John, written in the late second century:
"Sometimes when I would lay hold on him, I met with a material and solid body, and at other
times, again, when I felt him, the substance was immaterial and as if it existed not at all. And if at any time he were bidden by some one of the Pharisees and went to the bidding, we went with
him, and there was set before each one of us a loaf by them that had bidden us, and with us he also received
one; and his own he would bless and part it among us: and of that little every one was
filled, and our own loaves were saved whole, so that they which bade him were
amazed. And oftentimes when I walked with him, I desired to see the print of his
foot, whether it appeared on the earth; for I saw him as it were lifting himself up from the
earth: and I never saw it" (Acts of John, 93.)
If the material realm was evil, as so many Gnostic groups and movements
believed, why would a being such as Christ have anything to with it? And why should we be concerned at all with history and the common life of ordinary
people? The Gnostic Jesus is not interested in earthly, historical events. "In the second-century Gnosticism described by the
Father," writes Ronald Nash, "Christ was one of the higher aeons, or intermediary
beings, who descended to earth for the purpose of redeeming man. Christ came into the
world, not in order to suffer and die, but in order to release the divine spark of light imprisoned in matter. The Gnostic Jesus was not a
savior; he was a revealer"
(The Gospels and the Greeks [Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2003. 2nd
Gnosticism was exclusive, elitist, and esoteric, open only to a few.
Christianity, on the other hand, is inclusive, open to all, and exoteric, open to all those who acknowledge the beliefs of the Faith handed down by Jesus and enter into a life-giving relationship with
him. The Jesus of the canonical Gospels is a breathing, flesh-and-blood person; he gets
hungry, weeps, eats and drinks with common people, and dies. The Jesus of the Gnostic writings is a
phantom, a spirit who sometimes inhabits a body and sometimes doesn’t, and who talks in ways that very few could
understand. Once again,
The Da Vinci Code has it backwards.
The novel’s assertions about Jesus and his followers fail to make sense of some daunting
questions. If the first followers of Jesus never believed he was divine (and thus never rose again from the
dead), why did so many of them willingly die as martyrs? Is it reasonable to believe that thousands of people would face death by
lions, the sword, and fire for the sake of a "mortal prophet" who himself remained
dead? And why would these followers, who are so clearly confused and distraught when Jesus is taken away to be
executed, reemerge a few weeks later and begin proclaiming boldly a belief in their fallen leader? If Jesus had remained in the tomb where he was placed after his
death, couldn’t the authorities have shown his body and stopped once and for all the audacious teachings of the suddenly confident
Put simply, if Jesus were merely mortal and was not considered anything more until the fourth
century, then it is impossible to make any sense of Christianity and how it came into
existence. Historian Paul Johnson writes that "in order to explain Christianity we have to postulate an extraordinary Christ who did extraordinary
things. We have to think back from a collective phenomenon to its agent. Men and women began frantically and frenetically to preach Jesus’ gospel because they believed he had come back to them from the dead and given them the authority and the power to do
so." (Paul Johnson,
A History of Christianity [New York: Atheneum, 1976], 27).
An implicit assumption behind the remarks of Teabing and Langdon is that Christians–whether of the
first, fourth, or twenty-first centuries–are mindless drones who simply believe what they are told by their leaders.
Thus, Constantine deified a man who no one ever thought of as divine and none of the Christians were bothered by it. And so the same people who often suffered and died for their beliefs are now willing to accept a
radical, wholesale change in doctrine without so much as a peep? This is not only impossible to accept as
logical, it is contrary to history and fact.
Constantine’s Childhood and Conversion
Included in the lengthy lecture given to Sophie by Teabing and Langdon are several remarks about the Roman emperor Constantine the Great (d. 337). Most, if not all, of these statements are taken directly from
Holy Blood, Holy Grail (Dell Books, 1983. See pages 365-9); in some cases the phrases and order of ideas used are
Many of the claims made about Constantine are either falsehoods or half-truths based on conjecture and material taken out of context. Debate continues today in scholarly circles about
Constantine, his exact beliefs, his relationship with the Catholic Church, and his influence upon
Christianity. Most historians acknowledge that he was a complex man, a powerful and sometimes cruel emperor
(he executed a wife and a son under mysterious circumstances) whose apparent passion for Christianity was not always guided by theological knowledge or godly wisdom. There is also no doubt that the course of Christianity was influenced by
Constantine’s passion for religion was based, in part, "on his political intuition that the unity of the empire restored by him could be maintained only with the help of a Church united in belief and government and subordinated to the state" (Hugo
Church and State in Early Christianity [San Francisco: Ignatius, 1992], 41). But it would be incorrect to portray Constantine as simply a calculating leader who merely used the Church for his political
ends. Historian Hugo Rahner writes that "the real religious motives behind Constantine’s efforts to achieve effective control of the Church ran much
deeper. These can be reduced to one theme. Even before he became involved with the
Church, Constantine was obsessed with a superstitious religious conviction that revealed itself in his strange personal cult of the invincible
sun, in the worship, influenced by Stoicism and Platonism, of the supreme
Divinity, in a misty feeling that ‘Providence’ had bestowed on him a mission as its herald and miraculous instrument"
In 313, Constantine and his fellow-emperor Licinius issued the Edict of Milan, which recognized Christianity as a legal
religion. It stated that "Christians and all others should have the freedom to follow the kind of religion they
favored; so that the God who dwells in heaven might be propitious to us and to all under our
rule. . . . Moreover, concerning the Christians, we before gave orders with respect to the places set apart for their
worship. It is now our pleasure that all who have bought such places should restore them to the
Christians, without any demand for payment."
(Edict of Milan, March 313. Par. 3, 7). The Edict, Paul Johnson writes, "was one of the decisive events in world
history. Yet the story behind it is complicated and in some ways mysterious"
(A History of Christianity, 67).
Historians will likely never know for certain what happened at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312, where "a most incredible sign appeared to
[Constantine] from heaven" (Eusebius, quoted by Johnson, 67). Having seen the Cross of Christ in the
sky, Constantine underwent a conversion. But, as Johnson notes, "there is a conflict of evidence about the exact time, place and details of this
vision, and there is some doubt about the magnitude of Constantine’s change of
ideas. His father had been pro-Christian. He himself appears to have been a
sun-worshipper, one of a number of late-pagan cults which had observances in common with the
Christians." (p. 67). Here Johnson refers in part to the fact that the Christians had been celebrating their weekly liturgy on
Sunday, the first day of the week, since the time of Paul and the other apostles. Sunday was also the feast day of the Sol Invictus
(Invincible Sun) cult, whose worship of the pagan sun god had appeared in the Roman world around the middle of the second century and had been strongly supported by the Emperor Aurelian (270-5
A.D) (Chas S. Clifton,
Encyclopedia of Heresies and Heretics [New York: Barnes & Noble, 1992], 121). It should also be noted that Rome’s official religion was not sun
worship. "Rome's official religion" states Dr. Margaret Mitchell, Associate Professor of New Testament and Early Christian Literature in the Divinity School at the University of Chicago, "was the cult of Roma–the goddess–and of her deified
emperors, and the Capitoline trio Jupiter, Juno and Minerva."
In The Da Vinci Code, the historian Teabing states that Constantine "was a lifelong pagan who was baptized on his
deathbed, too weak to protest." He claims the official religion of Constantine’s time was
"sun worship–the cult of Sol Invictus, or the Invincible Sun–and Constantine was its head
priest." He adds that in 325, Constantine "decided to unify Rome under a single
religion. Christianity." (p. 232)
This is a mixture of truth and error, most of it again drawn from Holy Blood Holy Grail
(see pages 365-8), although that book’s account is more accurate than what is found in Brown’s
novel. The existing evidence indicates that Constantine did become a sincere and believing Christian and sought to renounce his former worship of pagan
gods. Yet it is also evident that he did struggle with reconciling his attachment to the Sol Invictus cult and his belief in the God of the
Christians. Part of this was due to his position as emperor, the fact that the majority of the population was
pagan, and likely his own inner decision to be a ruler before being a Christian.
It would be a gross oversimplification to think that Constantine could only benefit from becoming a Christian and publicly supporting the
Church. "The Christians were a tiny minority of the population," states
A.H.M. Jones in Constantine and the Conversion of Europe, "and they belonged for the most part to the classes of the population who were politically and socially of the least
importance, the middle and lower classes of the towns. The senatorial aristocracy of Rome were pagan almost to a man; the higher grades of the civil service were mainly
pagan; and above all the army officers and men, were predominantly pagan. The goodwill of the Christians was hardly worth
gaining, and for what it was worth it could be gained by merely granting them
toleration" (Jones, 73).
From Paganism to Christianity
Constantine’s move from paganism to Christianity was not immediate or always consistent. But over the course of several years he increased his support of the Church and implemented laws against certain pagan practices and
activities. Some scholars argue that the chasm between the monotheism of Christianity and the cult of Sol Invictus was not as wide as it might initially
appear. The cult of Sol Invictus was not polytheistic or even pantheistic, but
monotheistic; it was "the worship of the divine spirit by whom the whole universe was
ruled, the spirit whose symbol is the sun; a symbol in which this spirit in some way specially manifests
itself. . . . The whole cult is penetrated with the idea of an overruling divine
monarchy. Moreover, the cult was in harmony with a philosophical religion steadily
growing, in the high places of the administration, throughout this same [fourth]
century, the cult of Summus Deus–the God who is supreme" (Philip Hughes,
The Church in Crisis: A History of the General Councils, 325-1870 [New York: Image, 1964], 29-30).
For Constantine–a man without much concern for theological precision–there was probably
little, if any, distinction between the pagan and Christian notions of God (even though he surely recognized the differences in worship and
morality). "The transition from solar monotheism (the most popular form of contemporary
paganism) to Christianity was not difficult," writes historian Henry Chadwick. "In Old Testament prophecy Christ was entitled ‘the sun of righteousness’[Mal. 4:2]. Clement of Alexandria (c. A.D. 2000) speaks of Christ driving his chariot across the sky like a
Sun-god. . . . Tertullian says that many pagans imagined the Christians worshiped the sun because they met on Sundays and prayed towards the East" (Henry Chadwick,
The Early Church [Penguin Books, 1967, 1973], 126).
The Da Vinci Code implies that Constantine was baptized against his wishes.
Actually, the Emperor had desired to be baptized in the waters of the Jordan River, where Jesus had been
baptized, but it was not to be. Not long after the Easter of 337 he called together some
bishops, removed his purple robe, and put on the white garments of a catechumen, then was baptized by
Eusebius, the bishop of Nicomedia (Jones, 195-200). He died a few days later. It was common for Christians at the time to put off baptism until their
deathbed. Serious sins committed after baptism would require severe penance, so some considered it safer to wait until the end of life to be
baptized. (This practice was mentioned by Augustine in
Confessions (Book 1, ch. 10.17 ). This approach to baptism would have fit Constantine’s case since he undoubtedly understood that many of his actions were considered grave sins by the
Church: "It was common at this time (and continued so until about A.D. 400) to postpone baptism to the end of one’s
life, especially if one’s duty as an official included torture and execution of
criminals. Part of the reason for postponement lay in the seriousness with which the responsibilities were taken" (Chadwick,
The Early Church, 127).
Constantine did see Christianity as a unifying force–and he was correct in his assessment that
Christianity, not paganism, had the moral core and theological vision to change society for the
better. He was not a saint, but he didn’t make choices without any concern for moral
The Da Vinci Code portrays him. William Durant, hardly friendly to the
Church, writes, "His Christianity, beginning as policy, appears to have graduated into sincere
conviction. He became the most persistent preacher in his realm, persecuted heretics
faithfully, and took God into partnership at every step. Wiser than Diocletian, he gave new life to an aging Empire by associating it with a young
religion, a vigorous organization, a fresh morality" (Durant,
Christ and Caesar: The Story of Civilization, Part III [New York: Simon and
Schuster], 664). Nor was Constantine was not a life long pagan or a cynical manipulator. "[Dan] Brown has turned him into a cartoonish
villain," states Dr. Mitchell. "That Constantine the emperor had
(The Da Vinci Code, p. 234) is hardly news to anyone! The question is how religion and politics
(which cannot be separated in the ancient world) were interrelated in him."
Pagan Roots or Modern Myths?
According to Teabing, the Church allowed Constantine to take pagan symbols and create a
"hybrid religion." But according to Langdon, the Church never considered such a
concession, but sought to eliminate by force all vestiges of pagan worship and belief. So which was
it? Brown’s confusion is possibly due to the sloppiness of his research, or to a desire to have the best of both
worlds: accuse the Church of damning compromise and of equally damning
Neither account does justice to the complex and difficult relationship that Christianity had with the many varieties of paganism that existed in the third and fourth
centuries. One thing is clear: the early Christians had proven that they were not willing to compromise with
paganism, which is why so many of them were persecuted and killed by the Romans at various times in the first three centuries of the Church’s
history. Why would Christians who had suffered just a few years earlier under Diocletian for refusing to renounce their unique beliefs about God,
Jesus, and salvation, willingly compromise those same beliefs without so much as a
Brown is following the popular, but long discredited, argument developed in the late nineteenth-century by skeptics attempting to undermine the historical claims of
Christianity. As Ronald Nash explains, "During a period of time running roughly from about 1890 to 1940, scholars often alleged that primitive Christianity had been heavily influenced by
Platonism, Stoicism, the pagan mystery religions, or other movements in the Hellenistic
world." A number of scholarly books and papers were written rebutting those claims and
today, Nash notes, "most Bible scholars regard the question as a dead issue" (Ronald H. Nash,
The Gospel and the Greeks: Did the New Testament Borrow from Pagan Thought?
[Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2003. 2nd edition], 1).
Secondly, the depiction of a "hybrid religion" that mixed together Christian and pagan elements is a gross misrepresentation of how Christians took certain symbols and feast days and Christianized them–cleansing them of those elements not compatible with their doctrines and
practices, but keeping what could be used for good ends. It misrepresents the actual sources for Christian beliefs such as the Virgin
Birth, the deity of Christ, and the Passion and Resurrection. These beliefs are rooted in historical claims, not mythological
stories, and most–if not all–predate those pagan ideas that appear, at least
superficially, to have similar features.
The Da Vinci Code drags out several of the standard lines–many taken nearly verbatim from
Holy Blood, Holy Grail (see pages 367-8)–about how everything in Christianity was taken from pagan
sources. Langdon makes mention of "transmogrification" and insists that "the vestiges of pagan religion in Christian symbology are
undeniable." He states:
"Egyptian sun disks became the halos of Catholic saints. Pictograms of Isis nursing her miraculously conceived son Horus became the blueprint for our modern images of the Virgin Mary nursing Baby
Jesus. And virtually all the elements of the Catholic ritual–the miter, the
altar, the doxology, and communion, the act of ‘God-eating’–were taken directly from earlier pagan mystery
religions." (p. 232)
Teabing adds, "Nothing in Christianity is original" and claims that the ancient pre-Christian god Mithras was the inspiration for many of the details surrounding Jesus’ person and
life: the titles "Son of God" and "the Light of the World," his birth on December 25, his
death, his burial in a rocky tomb, and his resurrection three days later. "By the
way, December 25 is also the birthday of Osiris, Adonis, and Dionysus," the historian
remarks, "The newborn Krishna was presented with gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Even Christianity’s weekly holy day was stolen from the pagans."
There are a number of problems with these statements. Not only did the Christians not borrow ideology or
theology, there is little or no evidence that most pagan mystery religions such as Egyptian cult of Isis and Osiris or the cult of Mithras existed in the forms described by
The Da Vinci Code and Holy Blood, Holy Grail prior to the mid-first
century. This is a significant point, for much of the existing evidence indicates that the third and fourth-century beliefs and practices of certain pagan mystery religions are read back into the first-century beliefs of Christians–without support for such a presumptive act. Ronald Nash, whose book The Gospel and the Greeks refutes these claims in detail, explains that the methods used to arrive at the pagan-Christian connection are sloppy at best and severely biased at worst:
"It is not until we come to the third century A.D. that we find sufficient source material
(i.e., information about the mystery religions from the writings of the time) to permit a relatively complete reconstruction of their content. Far too many writers use this late source material
(after A.D. 200) to form reconstructions of the third-century mystery experience and then uncritically reason back to what they think must have been the earlier nature of the
cults. This practice is exceptionally bad scholarship and should not be allowed to stand without
challenge. Information about a cult that comes several hundred years after the close of the New Testament canon must not be read back into what is presumed to be the status of the cult during the first century A.D. The crucial question is not what possible influence the mysteries may have had on segments of Christendom after A.D. 400, but what effect the emerging mysteries may have had on the New Testament in the first
century." (Ronald Nash, "Was the New Testament Influenced by Pagan
Christian Research Journal, Winter 1994).
The answer to that latter question is simply, "None." In fact, there is strong evidence that many of the pagan mystery religions may have taken elements of Christian belief in the second and third centuries to use as their
own, especially as the strength and appeal of Christianity continued to grow.
"It must not be uncritically assumed," writes early Church historian Bruce
Metzger, "that the Mysteries always influenced Christianity, for it is not only possible but probable that in certain cases, the influence moved in the opposite
(Historical and Literary Studies: Pagan, Jewish, and Christian [Grand
Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), 11). The fact that many authors won’t even consider that there existed a two-way street indicates that they are less interested in truth than they are in attacking Christianity by any means
A host of scholars, including Nash, E.O. James, Bruce Metzger, Günter Wagner
(Pauline Baptism and the Pagan Mysteries), and Hugo Rahner (Greek Myths and Christian
Mystery), point out in detail that the pagan mystery religions were quite different from Christianity in significant
ways. Those religions were based on an annual vegetation cycle, they stressed esoteric
(hidden) knowledge, they emphasized emotional ecstasy over doctrine and dogma, and their central goal was mystical
experience. They were also very syncretistic, taking elements from other pagan movements and shedding beliefs with little regard for any established teaching or belief system–completely contrary to the apostolic tradition so intensely guarded by Christians (Nash,
The Gospel and the Greeks, 105-20). Perhaps most importantly, there is a sharp contrast between the mythological character of pagan mystery religions and the historical character of the Gospels and the New Testament
writings. "In the nature of the case a most profound difference between Christianity and the Mysteries was involved in the historical basis of the former and the mythological character of the
latter," writes Metzger in his classic study Historical and Literary Studies:
Pagan, Jewish, and Christian. "Unlike the deities of the Mysteries, who were nebulous figures of an imaginary past, the Divine Being whom the Christian worshipped as Lord was known as a real Person on earth only a short time before the earliest documents of the New Testament were
written. From the earliest times the Christian creed included the affirmation that Jesus ‘was crucified under Pontius
Pilate.’ On the other hand, Plutarch thinks it necessary to warn the priestess Clea against believing that ‘any of these tales
[concerning Isis and Osiris] actually happened in the manner in which they are
Historical and Literary Studies, 13).
With this mind, here is a brief examination of some of the pagan religions that
The Da Vinci Code claims Constantine and the Church borrowed or stole key beliefs from in the fourth
Walking The Mithraic Maze
The pagan religion of Mithraism was one of the most important of the ancient mystery
religions. Although there has been much scholarly dispute over the exact origins of the Mithraic
religion, it is generally agreed that Mithra was originally a Persian god who was depicted as a bucolic deity who watched over
cattle. Mithraism was not introduced to the West and the Mediterranean world until the first century at the
earliest, where it "emerged as one of the most striking religious syntheses in
antiquity: in the first four centuries of the Christian era it swept across the Roman
world, becoming the favoured religion of the Roman legions and several Roman
emperors" (Yuri Stoyanov,
The Other God: Dualist Religions from Antiquity to the Cathar Heresy [Yale University
Press, 2000], 75). This second form, contemporaneous with Christianity, was for males only–it has
"often been described as a type of Roman Freemasonry" (Stoyanov, 75). In the early third
century, this form would result in Mithras being elevated to the status Sol Invictus
(Invincible Sun). While scholars distinguish between the earlier Iranian Mithraism and the later Roman
Mithraism, those straining to connect Mithras to Jesus usually do not.
This failure (purposeful or not) to distinguish between the two often results in later beliefs being read back into the
earlier, pre-Christian form of Mithraism. But the Mithraic beliefs and practices that Christianity is accused of
"stealing" did not come into vogue until the end of the first century at the
earliest, far too late to shape the Gospels and their depiction of Jesus. Although there are numerous theories about how Mithraism moved from Persia to Rome and how it changed along the
way, the physical evidence indicates that "the flowering of [Roman] Mithraism occurred after the close of the New Testament canon, much too late for it to have influenced anything that appears in the New Testament.
Moreover, no monuments for the cult can be dated earlier than A.D. 90-100, and even this dating requires us to make some exceedingly generous
"Was the New Testament Influenced by Pagan Religions?"). David
Ulansey, author of
The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries (Oxford University Press, 1991), substantiates Nash’s
assessment: "The earliest physical remains of the cult date from around the end of the first century
A.D., and Mithraism reached its height of popularity in the third century"
("The Cosmic Mysteries of
Mithraism was highly syncretistic, absorbing and borrowing an eclectic range of beliefs and religious
ideas. By the time it became popular in the Roman Empire it had changed from a public religion for the many to a mystery religion meant for a few elite.
"Ultimately," Stoyanov writes, "the novel and composite form of Mithra-worship that developed and became widely diffused in the Roman world was virtually a new mystery
religion, in which the old Irano-Babylonian core seems to have been refashioned and recast into a Graeco-Roman mould tinged with astrological lore and Platonic
speculation" (Stoyanov, 77-8).
Many serious differences exist between the myth of Mithras and the Gospel accounts of Jesus’
life. In some accounts, Mithras is "born" by "being forced out of a rock as if by some hidden magic power. He is shown naked save for the Phrygian cap, holding dagger and torch in his uplifted hands"
(Abstracted from Mithras, the Secret God, M.J. Vermaseren [London, 1963]). In the Persian
legends, he was born of a virgin mother, Anahita (once worshipped as a fertility
goddess), who swam in Lake Hamun in the Persian province of Sistan where
Zoroaster/ Zarathustra had left sperm four hundred years earlier. Christians believe Jesus is born of a virgin Jewish
girl, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
The central feat of Mithras’ life on earth was the capturing and killing of a stolen bull at the command of the god
Apollo, symbolizing the annual spring renewal of life. While Mithras was subduing the
bull, other animals joined in the fray. After Mithras finished his appointed
task, he and Apollo quarreled, but eventually reconciled and feasted together (Peter Clark,
Zoroastrianism, An Introduction to an Ancient Faith, 157-158). The central accomplishments of Jesus’ life were his death and
resurrection, which Christians believe were historical events that took place in first century Palestine–not in a nebulous mythic
netherworld. Other key differences include the Gnostic-like dualism of the Mithraic belief system and a belief that the human soul has fallen from its heavenly home and must now
ascend, after a time of testing here on earth, back to heaven.
Mithraism did not originally have a concept of a god who died and was then resurrected (Nash,
The Gospel and the Greeks, 136-7; E.O. James, Comparative Religion [New York: University Paperbacks, 1961], 246-9). Despite the claims made in
The Da Vinci Code, there is no ancient account of Mithras dying, being buried "in a rock
tomb, and then resurrected in three days"
(The Da Vinci Code, 232). That assertion apparently is taken (either directly or from a second-generation
source) from Kersey Graves’ The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors (1875), a work of pseudo-scholarship and anti-Christian polemics that is so shoddy that even atheists and agnostics disavow it. Graves writes that several pagan
deities, including " ‘Mithra the Mediator’ of Persia did, according to their respective histories, rise from the dead after three
days' burial" (chapter 19). However, Graves provides no documentation (his common
practice). E.O. James, who was professor of history and philosophy of religion at the University of London, references an ancient work by Pseudo-Dionysus when he notes that "in contrast to the other Graeco-Oriental Mystery
divinities, the Persian saviour-god [Mithras] did not himself pass through death to
life, though by his sacrificial act [killing a bull] he was a life-giver" (E.O. James,
Comparative Religion [New York: University Paperbacks, 1961], 247). James later observes that Mithraism–which was a strong adversary of Christianity in the third and fourth centuries–was overcome by
Christianity, not by being absorbed, "but because the Church was able to meet its adversary on the sure ground of historical
fact." Christianity went far beyond "the ancient seasonal drama with its polytheistic background" and offered initiates a
"renewal of spiritual life and regeneration of outlook . . . to a degree unknown and unattainable in any rival system.
Therefore, Christianity ultimately prevailed because it provided a different gift of life from that bestowed in the pagan
Christmas Gifts, Halos, the Nursing Christ, and Other Details
The story of the Hindu deity Krishna's birth and the presents of gold,
frankincense, and myrrh also apparently comes from Graves and
The World's Sixteen Crucified Saviors. In the seventh chapter of that
work, Graves writes:
"Other Saviors at birth, we are told, were visited by both angels and
shepherds, also ‘wise men,’ at least great men. Chrishna, the eighth avatar of India (1200
B.C.) (so it is related by the ‘inspired penman’ of their pagan theocracy) was visited by angels, shepherds and prophets
(avatars). ‘Immediately after his birth he was visited by a chorus of devatas (angels), and surrounded by
shepherds, all of whom were impressed with the conviction of his future
greatness.’ We are informed further that ‘gold, frankincense and myrrh’ were presented to him as
offerings." (chapter 7)
Graves conveniently provides no sources or citations, which is one of many reasons his book has been long discredited by scholars working in the field of comparative
religion. But that doesn’t keep this popular idea from appearing on numerous websites–none providing sources or citations (and rarely mentioning Graves’
book). There’s good reason for this absence of evidence. The Bhagavad-Gita (first century
A.D.) doesn’t mention Krishna’s childhood, and the stories of Krishna’s childhood recorded in the Harivamsa Purana (c. 300
A.D.) and the Bhagavata Purana (c. 800-900 A.D.) don’t mention the gifts at all. Even if they
did, those works were written well after the birth of Christ, making such a claim absurd.
The halo, or nimbus, used in Christian art was used by a number of pre-Christian cultures, including Greek and Roman, to distinguish figures who were gods or demigods
Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church [Oxford University Press, Third
edition, 1997], 732]. Roman emperors, for example, were depicted on coins with radiant
heads. This is a good example of Christians gradually appropriating a cultural element and using it in a way totally in keeping with their theology and
practice. For Christians to take over this attribute is about as scandalous as later artists depicting Jesus in philosopher’s robes or in the clothing of a later historical
age. The use of a halo would have been a natural choice for Christian art since both Moses and Jesus are described in the Bible as having shining faces after significant
events. Moses face radiated light after he came down from Mount Sinai and the presence of God (Ex 34:29-35) and at the
Transfiguration, Jesus’ "face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as
light" (Matt 17:2). The use of halos in Christian iconography is simply a case of Christians recognizing the usefulness of an artistic motif and appropriating it for their specific
Langdon claims, "Pictograms of Isis nursing her miraculously conceived son Horus became the blueprint for our modern images of the Virgin Mary nursing Baby
Jesus." It’s a curious statement since any sensible person recognizes that the image of a nursing mother is hardly unique to one religion or culture. Christian artists undoubtedly copied the poses of figure depicted in pagan art, including mothers
(or goddesses) nursing children. One of the earliest renderings of Mary is a late
second-century/early third-century fresco found on a wall of the catacombs of Priscilla in Rome (Andre
La Premier Art Chretien [Gallimard Editions, 1996], p. 99. Figure 95.], mentioned by Pope John Paul II in a general audience on May 23, 1990. The Madonna and Child have been depicted in numerous ways throughout
history, often reflecting the culture of the respective painters and sculptors (see Herbert Haag, Caroline
Ebertshauser, Joe H. Kirchberger, Dorothee Solle, Peter Heinegg, Mary:
Art, Culture, and Religion Through the Ages [Crossroad/Herder & Herder, 1998]).
As Nash and others point out, the real issue is not of similarity, but of
dissimilarity. The Egyptian goddess Isis was part of a polytheistic fertility
cult. After her husband Osiris was assassinated and dismembered, Isis searches and finds all the parts of his body and then restores him–not to life on
earth, but to life in the underworld, as a "dead god" (E.O. James,
The Cult of the Mother-Goddess [New York: Barnes & Noble, 1994], 241ff).
Originally, Isis was one of several goddesses (e.g., Nut, Neith, etc.) and Horus, her
son, was one of the eight gods "of the Ennead" (James,
Cult of the Mother-Goddess, 57). Worship of Isis was established in Greece around the fourth century
B.C., where she remained a goddess of fertility, and became a popular deity whose temples were established in numerous
cities. In this Hellenistic form, the Isis cult was a pagan mystery religion in which adherents underwent
esoteric, occult rites [Nash,
The Gospel and the Greeks, 126-8. For more on Isis, see "Isis as Saviour
Goddess" by C.J. Bleeker, S.G.F. Brandon, ed., The Savior God: Comparative Studies in the Concept of Salvation [Manchester University
Press, 1963], 1-16).
Langdon claims that "the miter, the altar, the doxology, and communion, the act of ‘God-eating’–were taken directly from earlier pagan mystery
religions." First, it should again be noted that "mystery religions," strictly
speaking, did not come into existence until the end of the first century at the
earliest, making it impossible for the first Christians to take, borrow, or steal much of anything from
them. The word "miter," or "mitre," is derived from mitra, a Greek word meaning "turban" or
"headband." It is the liturgical head-dress and part of the insignia of the bishop
(Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 1096). It didn’t appear in the West until the middle of the tenth century and was not used by bishops in the East until after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. In the East it seems to have been derived the crowns worn by Byzantine
Emperors; in the West is appears to have been a variation of unofficial hat, the
camelaucum, worn by the Pope in processions. In both cases, the mitre has no connections with pagan mystery
Altars are a common element in most religions and there are over three hundred references to altars in the Old Testament.
Thus, the first Christians, who were all Jewish, would hardly be new to the concept of an
altar, especially when the altar in the Temple was a focal point of the Jewish
religion. Not surprisingly, there are several references to altars in the New Testament, including references in the Gospels to the altar in the Temple (Matt 5:23-24; 23:18-20; Lk 1:11) and references in The Apocalypse to the heavenly altar in the throne room of God
(Rev. 6:9; 8:3-5; 9:13; 11:1; 14:8; 16:7). There is also this passage in the epistle to the
Hebrews: "We have an altar, from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to
eat" (Heb 13:10). It is likely a reference to the Eucharistic table of the Christians and a similar use of language was common among the early Church
Fathers. For example, Ignatius of Antioch (d. c. 110), writing to the church at Philadelphia,
states, "Take care, then, to partake of one Eucharist; for, one is the Flesh of Our Lord Jesus
Christ, and one the cup to unite us with His Blood, and one altar, just as there is one bishop assisted by the presbytery and the
deacons, my fellow servants. Thus you will conform in all your actions to the will of God" (Letter to the
Philadelphians, par. 4). Other references to a Christian altar appear in the writings of Tertullian and
A doxology is simply a hymn or ascription of praise and glory (doxa = "glory"; logos = "word"). Almost all religions have statements about the glory and power of a
deity, reflecting the natural human desire to recognize what is sacred and Other.
Traditionally, in historic Christianity, there are three types of doxology: the Great
Doxology, the Less Doxology, and the Metrical Forms. Langdon is probably referring to the Great
Doxology, which begins with these statements of praise:
Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will to men.
We praise You; we bless You; we worship You; we glorify You; we thank You, for Your great
O Lord King, God in Heaven, the Father Almighty. O Lord, Only-Begotten Son, Jesus Christ and Holy Spirit.
O Lord God, Lamb of God, the Son of the Father, Who takes away the sin of the
world, have mercy on us; You, Who takes away the sins of the world;
Receive our prayers, You, Who sits at the right hand of the Father, and have mercy on us .
For You alone are Holy; You alone are the Lord, Jesus Christ, to the glory of God, the
All of this language is taken directly from passages in the New Testament; all of it reflects the unique beliefs of the
Christians. Such language did not, of course, come from pagans, who were mostly polytheistic and did not believe in the Trinity or the divinity of Jesus
Langdon’s reference to "God-eating" is likely an appeal to
Mithraism, for it was the only mystery religion that celebrated anything resembling Holy Communion (Nash,
The Gospel and the Greeks, 148-9); many of the mystery religions, such as the Orphic
cult, had no sacred meal at all. In his work on comparative religion, E.O. James writes that the Christian’s
"sacramental outlook differed from that of the pagan Mysteries in several important
respects. So far as we know, initiates in those cults were neither baptized into the name of the saviour-god or
goddess, nor were they the recipients of a pneumatic gift as a result of
lustration." Jones goes on to note that the Christian Eucharist was strongly connected to a life of holiness and
purity, while "normally in a Mystery cult initiation was an end itself irrespective of any ethical
Comparative Religion, 239. See Metzger, Historical and Literary Studies, 14).
In the myth of Mithras, the god does not even die, but is a savior-god by virtue of killing a
bull. Initiates into the Mithraic cult would dramatize this mythical event and the blood of a slain bull would be ceremoniously poured over
initiates. At the higher stages of the cult members participated in a sacred meal of bread and water
(or wine, but that detail is still a matter of debate); there is no indication that those participating believed they were engaging in
"God-eating." Little is known of that meal, so a fuller comparison with Christian communion is difficult to
Regardless, the Jewish character and context of the Passover Meal, the Last
Supper, and the Christian Eucharist are the essential elements that shape the Christian sacrament and ritual–not pagan rites. "[O]n almost any view of this matter," Metzger
writes, "the Jewishness of the setting, character, and piety expressed in the rite is overwhelmingly pervasive in all the accounts of the origin of the
Supper" (p. 16). The Jewish character is explored by Jean Danielou in his important
The Bible and the Liturgy (University of Notre Dame Press, 1956), where he
"[T]he Eucharist is the fulfillment of the meal of Jewish worship; It
signifies, then, as did these [Jewish communal] meals, participation in the blessings of the
Covenant. . . . In fact, the meal in the course of which Christ instituted the Eucharist seems to have been a ritual
meal, a chaboura, such as was customarily celebrated by the Jewish communities. . . It was,
then, in this framework of a sacred Jewish meal that Christ instituted the meal of the New
Covenant, as it as in the framework of the Jewish commemoration of the Pasch that He died on the Cross."
(p. 160; see 142-190).
Sunday and Christmas Day
Teabing states, "Even Christianity’s weekly holy day was stolen from the pagans."
(The Da Vinci Code, 232). This is false. Equally false is Langdon’s declaration that originally Christians worshipped on the Jewish Sabbath
(Saturday), but changed to Sunday under Constantine’s influence so that it would
"coincide with the pagan’s veneration day of the sun" (p. 232-3).
The implication here is that for nearly three hundred years, until the time of
Constantine, the Christians worshipped on Saturday. But the Christians of the New Testament era were already worshipping on
Sunday, or the "day of the Lord," as it is described in Revelation 1:10. This was to honor the day that Jesus rose from the
dead; having been crucified on a Friday, his resurrection occurred on the third day
(cf. Mk 16:2)–the day after Sabbath, or Sunday (Sabbath was the only day of the week named by
Jews; the other day were simply numbered: "first day," "second
day," etc.). This practice is referred to in Acts 20:7: "And on the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break
bread, Paul began talking to them, intending to depart the next day, and he prolonged his message until
midnight." The Apostle Paul mentions in his first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 16:2) that tithes and offering should be set aside on the first day of the week, another indication that the early Christians viewed the day after the Jewish Sabbath as the most important day of the week.
There are numerous references by the early Church Fathers to Christians worshipping on "the day of the Lord"
(or Dies Dominica, as it came to be known in the West). Ignatius of Antioch writes around 110 ,
"How, then, shall we be able to live apart from Him, seeing that the prophets were His disciples in the Spirit and expected Him as their
Master, and that many who were brought up in the old order have come to the newness of hope? They no longer observe the Jewish
Sabbaths, but keep holy the Lord's day, on which, through Him and through His
death, our life arose" (Epistle to the Magnesians, ch. 9). The Epistle of Barnabas, which was probably written before the end of the first
century, states, "This is why we also observe the eighth day with rejoicing, on which Jesus also rose from the
dead, and having shown himself ascended to heaven" (Epistle of Barnabas, ch. 15). There are many references to the
"eighth day" in the writings of the Church Fathers, as Danielou details in The Bible and the Liturgy
(see chapter 15, "The Lord’s Day," [242-261] and chapter 16, "The Eighth
Day" [262-286]). Danielou also flatly states that "the Lord’s Day is a purely Christian
institution; its origin is to be found solely in the fact of the Resurrection of Christ on the day after the
Sabbath" (p. 242). Another early, non-canonical reference to the Lord’s Day is found in The
Didache: "And on the Lord's Day, after you have come together, break bread and offer the
Eucharist, having first confessed your offences, so that your sacrifice may be pure" (14.1). Justin
Martyr, writing in the middle of the second century, makes the first known reference by a Christian author to
"Sunday"; all prior references had been to the day of the Lord.
Brown apparently thinks that since the observance of Sunday as a day of rest wasn’t sanctioned by civil authorities until the fourth century than it must not been observed prior to that time. But over one hundred years
earlier, around 200, Tertullian writes about Sunday as a day of rest: "We, however
(just as tradition has taught us), on the day of the Lord's Resurrection ought to guard not only against
kneeling, but every posture and office of solicitude, deferring even our businesses lest we give any place to the
devil" (De orat., xxiii; cf. Ad nation., I, xiii; Apolog., xvi). The Council of
Elvira, a local Spanish council that convened around 303, decreed that Sunday was to be a special day of worship and rest,
stating, "If anyone in the city neglects to come to church for three
Sundays, let him be excommunicated for a short time so that he may be corrected" (Canon
xxi). Two decades later, in 321., Constantine officially declared Sunday a day of rest in the Roman Empire,
"commanding abstention from work, including legal business, for townspeople, though permitting farm
(Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 1558). Since Christians considered Jesus to be the "Sun of
Righteousness" (Mal 4:2) spoken of in the Old Testament and "the light of the
world" (Jn 812; 9:5) in the New Testament, they thought it fitting that the true God would supercede the old Roman
Sun-god. St Jerome (c. 345-420) wrote, "The Lord's day, the day of Resurrection, the day of
Christians, is our day. It is called the Lord’s day because on it the Lord rose victorious to the
Father. If pagans call it the ‘day of the sun,’ we willingly agree, for today the light of the world is
raised, today is revealed the sun of justice with healing in his rays" [St.
Jerome, Pasch.: CCL 78, 550. Quoted in
Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 1166].
Did Christians take December 25, the "birthday of Osiris, Adonis, and
Dionysus," a use it for their celebration of the birth of Jesus? Many Christians have essentially agreed with this statement and have argued that the Christians appropriated this important pagan holy day as a way of showing the superiority of the true
God-man, Jesus. Recently, however, some scholars have argued that December 25 was not taken from pagans by
Christians, but vice-versa.
In an article in Touchstone magazine titled "Calculating Christmas"
(Touchstone, December 2003), William J. Tighe, the Associate Professor of History at Muhlenberg College,
explains, "The idea that the date was taken from the pagans goes back to two scholars from the late seventeenth and early eighteenth
centuries. Paul Ernst Jablonski, a German Protestant, wished to show that the celebration of Christ’s birth on December 25th was one of the many ‘pagan-izations’ of Christianity that the Church of the fourth century
embraced, as one of many ‘degenerations’ that transformed pure apostolic Christianity into
Catholicism. Dom Jean Hardouin, a Benedictine monk, tried to show that the Catholic Church adopted pagan festivals for Christian purposes without paganizing the gospel."
Tighe points out that none of the Roman cults had major celebrations on December 25. It was the Emperor Aurelian (270-5
A.D.) who "appears to have promoted the establishment of the festival of the ‘Birth of the Unconquered Sun’ as a device to unify the various pagan cults of the Roman Empire around a commemoration of the annual ‘rebirth’ of the
sun. . . . . In creating the new feast, he intended the beginning of the lengthening of the
daylight, and the arresting of the lengthening of darkness, on December 25th to be a symbol of the hoped-for ‘rebirth,’ or perpetual
rejuvenation, of the Roman Empire, resulting from the maintenance of the worship of the gods whose tutelage (the Romans
thought) had brought Rome to greatness and world-rule."
Once Christianity had separated from Judaism (especially after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70
A.D.) and emerged as a unique religion, it sought to calculate the exact day of Jesus’
death. There was much confusion due to different calendars; after much debate and
difficulty, the Eastern Christians chose April 6 and the Western Christians chose March 25 as the date of Jesus’
crucifixion. At this point the ancient and obscure notion of an "integral
age" comes into play; this was the belief that the Old Testament prophets died either on the same date of their birth or
conception. Most Christians accepted April 6 or March 25 as the date of Jesus’
conception, thus arriving at January 6 (in the East) and December 25 (in the West) as the date of his
birth. Although these dates would not be made "official" until the late fourth
century, they were held long before both Aurelian and Constantine. Thus, Tighe
states, "the pagan feast which the Emperor Aurelian instituted on that date in the year 274 was not only an effort to use the winter solstice to make a political statement, but also almost certainly an attempt to give a pagan significance to a date already of importance to Roman
Christians. The Christians, in turn, could at a later date re-appropriate the pagan ‘Birth of the Unconquered Sun’ to
refer, on the occasion of the birth of Christ, to the rising of the ‘Sun of Salvation’ or the ‘Sun of
There’s no doubt that early Christians, who lived in a pagan culture, were influenced by paganism and sometimes used the same terms and motifs as their pagan neighbors in describing their
beliefs. But the success of the Christian faith was impossible for pagans to
ignore, and some of them sought to borrow Christian ideas, or at least
terminology, in their rituals and practices. Dr. Margaret Mitchell writes:
"It is absolutely true that "The vestiges of pagan religion in Christian symbology are
undeniable" (p.232). But the conclusion drawn from that –"Nothing in Christianity is
original"– is not, and, from the point of view of the history of
religions, an old, long-disqualified claim. Even new arrangements of existing materials are
"original"! (and the Christian movements represent more than just
that). Current scholarship recognizes that the relationship between the Christian cult and the world around
it, and the ways in which it was culturally embedded in that world – sometimes
unreflectively, sometimes reflexively, sometimes in deliberate accommodation, sometimes in deliberate cooptation – are far more complicated than noted
here. Conspiracy theories sell books, but they do not explain complex human phenomena which are both local and more wide-spread – and hardly could have been instituted as a
wide-spread, Stalinesque program of cultural totalitarianism as Brown has conjured up for
Constantine." (Dr. Mitchell, LakeMagazine.com)
What Really Happened at the Council of Nicaea?
Brown makes several misleading statements about the Council of Nicaea, including the assertion (made by the historian
Teabing, who apparently never studied ancient or Church history) that it was where Jesus was first declared
divine. A full history and background to the Council of Nicaea, which convened in 325, is impossible
here; there are a number of popular and scholarly works that provide that information (Philip
The Church in Crisis: A History of the General Councils, 325-1870 [Image, 1964];
Constantine and the Conversion of Europe [University of Toronto Press, 1978]). But a brief overview of the basic facts will show how egregious are the claims made in
The Da Vinci Code.
The Council of Nicaea was the first ecumenical of the Church, made possible by the patronage of Constantine and his desire to end the disunity and controversy being caused by the Arian
heresy. Arius (b. c. 260-80; d. 336) was a priest from Alexandria who was noted for his preaching and ascetic
lifestyle. Around 319 or so he began to gain attention for his teaching that Jesus was not fully
divine, but was lesser than the Father. Arius held that the Son had not existed for all of eternity past, but was a created being begotten by the Father as an instrument of,
first, creation and the, later, salvation. Put another way, Arius believed that
Jesus, the Son of God, was not God by nature, but instead was a lesser god.
This belief was condemned by the bishop Alexander at a local synod held in Alexandria around 320, with ninety-eight of a hundred bishops voting against Arius’s views. But the priest’s teachings attracted interest and spread
quickly, partially due to Arius’s clever use of catchy songs proclaiming his doctrinal beliefs and also due to the patronage of
Eusebius, the bishop of Caesarea and one of the greatest scholars of his time. Arius’s beliefs were proving so popular and disruptive that Constantine decided to bring together the bishops and put an end to the
controversy; his interest was most likely in unity over theological clarity, but he realized the former would defend in large part upon the
On May 20, 325, a number of bishops, the vast majority of them from the East, convened at Nicaea (modern day
Iznik, north of Constantinople); the council lasted until July 25 of the same
year. The number of bishops in attendance has traditionally been listed as 318, likely a symbolic number
(cf., Gen. 14:14); the actual number was probably around 220 to 250
(Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 1144). Due to poor health, the Pope did not
attend, but sent two deacons to represent him. "The great bulk of the Council came from the Greek-speaking provinces of the Empire," writes
A.H.M. Jones, "The bulk of the gathering were simple pastors, who would naturally resent any innovation on the faith which they had learned and would have little sympathy with the intellectual paradoxes of
Arius. Many could boast of the proud title of confessor, having endured
imprisonment, torture, and penal servitude for the sake of their faith" ( Jones, 131).
This rugged and tried character of most of the bishops is completely contrary to
The Da Vinci Code’s implication that the bishops meekly accepted whatever the Emperor told
them. Many of the bishops at Nicaea were veterans of the persecution of
Diocletian. Is it reasonable to think that they would quietly allow Constantine to change the faith for which they had already suffered and were willing to die?
Constantine, while actively involved in the Council, knew that his place was not to be a theologian or
scholar, but to help facilitate as structured and productive gathering as
possible. After all, one of the strengths of Roman culture was organization; the
Greeks, on the other hand, were more attuned to theological nuance and detail.
In The Da Vinci Code, Teabing states that at the Council of Nicaea Jesus was established as "the Son of God"
(p. 233). This is false; it is also taken from
Holy Blood, Holy Grail, which states, "Most important of all, the Council of Nicaea
decided, by vote, that Jesus was a god, not a mortal prophet"
(Holy Blood, Holy Grail, 368. The irony is that Arius believed that Jesus was a god, but not fully God). As already
noted, the Gospels alone refer to Jesus as the "Son of God" over forty times and this description is used often by the early Church
fathers. Thus, the Council of Nicaea actually ratified, even more clearly and
definitively, the consistent belief of the Church. As we have already seen, the belief in Jesus’ divinity and Godhead goes back to the earliest days of
Christianity. The Council of Nicaea focused on clarifying the unique relationship between the Father and the Son and condemning those ideas of Arius that would
imply, or assert outright, that the Son was lesser than the Father, was a created
being, and was a lesser god. The Catechism of the Catholic Church ably summarizes the basic issue: "The first ecumenical council of Nicaea in 325 confessed in its Creed that the Son of God is ‘begotten, not made, of the same substance
(homoousios) as the Father’, and condemned Arius, who had affirmed that the Son of God ‘came to be from things that were not’ and that he was ‘from another substance’ than that of the
Father" (CCC 465).
As for the "relatively close vote," it is a figment of Teabing and Brown’s
imaginations. Only two bishops out of some 250 voted in favor of Arius’s position–over 99% of the bishops upheld the belief that the Son was equal with the Father and of the same
Holy Blood, Holy Grail, which apparently provided much of Brown’s material for his comments on this topic, gets it right, acknowledging in a terse
footnote: "218 for, 2 against"
(Holy Blood, Holy Grail, 473. It also adds, "The Son was then pronounced identical with the
Father." Not quite. He was pronounced "one in substance"; he is a separate
Person). Once again, Brown’s embellished version of the facts is not only incorrect, it is completely contrary to the
Teabing also states that at the Council there were "many aspects of
Christianity" that were "debated and voted" upon. The wording implies that these
"aspects" were somehow new and unique; they are listed as "the date of
Easter, the role of the bishops, the administration of sacraments, and, of
course, the divinity of Jesus." [p. 233; see
Holy Blood, Holy Grail, 368]. The twenty canons–or laws–of the Council were actually rather mundane and
were, "in great part, a repetition of measures enacted eleven years earlier in the Latin council held at Arles, in
Gaul" (Philip Hughes,
The Church in Crisis: A History of the General Councils, 325-1870 [New York: Image
Books, 1964], 36]. Five of the canons addressed the sensitive subject of those Christians who had fallen away from the Church during the recent
persecutions, providing guidelines for penance, readmission to Holy Communion, and other
directives. Two other canons dealt with the readmission of heretical schismatics: the Novatians and the followers of Pal of
Samosata, the former bishop of Anitoch who had been deposed in 268 for criminal actions and teaching
heresy. Some ten canons addressed issues having to do with the clergy: "No one is to be ordained who has had himself
castrated, nor anyone only recently admitted to the faith. . . . No clerics–bishops,
priests, or deacons–are to move from one diocese to another. Clerics are forbidden to take interest for money
loans, and for this offence they must be deposed" (Hughes,
The Church in Crisis, 38). Other canons involved matters of jurisdiction pertaining to the three most famous sees of the ancient
Church: Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem.
The issue of Easter and its dating was quite complicated–it was addressed at the Council because of the Emperor’s desire for unity in matters of religious
observance. At the time, churches in different regions celebrated Easter on different
days; the confusion was partially the result of the lunar calendar of Jews and of the antagonism of some Christians towards the Jews–they refused to celebrate Easter on the same day as the Jewish Passover
[for more detailed history, see the
Catholic Encyclopedia's article on the topic). The Council sought to enforce a uniform date, but the results were mixed and the controversy would continue on for many
centuries. In this instance, and in the instances of the canons, there were no issues of dogma
addressed; all were matters of discipline, made necessary by the real life issues and concrete pastoral problems faced by the Church in the midst of
confusion, rapidly changing conditions, and cultural shifts.
As we have researched and written these critiques, we are continually amazed by the audacity of Brown’s incorrect and often completely false claims about nearly every historical event and figure he writes
about. It is not an exaggeration to say that finding a correct remark about any of these topics is surprising–and quite rare. Although some might wonder why anybody would be concerned by a work of
fiction, Brown’s insistence that his novel is based on meticulous research and historical
fact, coupled with the overwhelming praise and positive response
The Da Vinci Code has received, makes such a rebuttal necessary. This is especially the case since so many
people, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, are confused by the novel’s representation of Church history and many admit that their faith has been shaken by reading the
The next edition of "Cracking the Anti-Catholic Code" will examine
The Da Vinci Code’s claims about Mary Magdalen, the Templar Knights, the Priory of Sion, and Leonardo Da Vinci. Comments or questions about this critique can be sent to
Envoy magazine editor, Carl Olson.