Truth Is Stranger than Fiction: The Da Vinci Code and Early Christianity
 Since its appearance in April of 2003, Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code has been a remarkable success.1 This fictional novel has won fans around the world, inspired a cottage industry in television shows, books and organized trips, and is presently being made into a major motion picture directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks to be released in May of 2006.
 The book plays upon a range of common themes and weaves them together into a single, highly engaging narrative. The story line is fundamentally a grail quest told as an action packed adventure tale filled with mysteries and hidden truths. The novel is replete with conspiracy theory in familiar forms, complete with the Templars and Freemasons, and of course seemingly sinister and misguided fanatics within the Catholic church. None of this is particularly unusual in a work of fiction or among conspiracy enthusiasts, and it is hard from these elements to understand why the work has been such a raging success. The memorable characters, no doubt, are part of what have so enthralled readers. It is not every story that can boast an albino monk haunting the midnight halls of the Louvre bent on murder out of his misguided fanatic devotion. Nor do Harvard professors often serve as major protagonists. The plot twists are remarkable and, towards the end of the book, quite well executed.
 None of this, though, explains why the book has been so successful, nor why I would be bothering to write a piece on it here in the Journal of Lutheran Ethics. The entirety of the novel and its plot are built upon what it presents as consensus scholarly views about early Christianity, particularly Jesus, Mary Magdalene and Constantine. The work offers as its core theme the importance of the 'sacred feminine' and its demise under nefarious forces within Christianity. All of this is set within a dramatic struggle between good and evil and cast as though the entirety of the church and the faith upon which it is founded would be destroyed were the truth to be revealed - a truth that is purportedly widely known by academic historians and hidden before our very eyes in artwork, architecture and literature.
 While the plot twists and rich characters make the novel a real page turner, it is these claims about the early church and the sacred feminine and the implications of those claims that provide the dramatic scope of the novel. These underlying elements are what drive the characters throughout the narrative in their actions for good or ill, and are what catch up the readers in this wonderful web of intrigue and mystery revealed. It is these claims that the villains and heroes are willing to kill for and to die to protect.
 My own concern is only partly with Dan Brown and the accuracy of the novel.2 After all, Dan Brown and his many fans can rightly proclaim that the novel is a work of fiction. My fundamental concern rather as both a historian of early Christianity and as a Lutheran is that Christians seem to be so poorly educated in the foundations of their tradition that many do not understand the differences between Brown's fictionalizing and the rich variety of early Christianity.
 Despite setting itself as a work of fiction, The Da Vinci Code actually works very hard to blur the lines between fact and fiction. In the front matter, the novel contains a page boldly entitled 'Fact:' with a listing of presumably verifiable facts. The statements about Opus Dei, and secret societies are outside of the scope of this article, and I will leave to the work of others. I would however take exception to the simple statement that 'all descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.' While the documents from early Christianity that he cites do indeed exist, the readings and summaries that are provided of them are highly misleading. Similarly, while the secret rituals described are theoretically possible, they are unlikely and again misleading in their description.3 Throughout the novel this blurring of fact and fiction is embodied in the leading protagonist Professor Robert Langdon. He is established in the work as a professor from Harvard specializing in Symbology.4 Professor Langdon together with the historian Leigh Teabing frequently throughout the story break into long-winded mini-lectures. These lectures, presenting information that is supposedly widely accepted by historians of early Christianity and the Holy Grail, establish necessary plot elements in the story. For the dramatic tension of the story to work many of these elements need to be accurate, or at least possible. The assessments in these lectures and the interpretation of documents upon which they are based are not presented as fiction. Rather they are put in the mouth of a Harvard professor and a royal historian to lend them added credibility and they are presented as clear fact to an uneducated audience, provided by Sophie Neveau and by extension the reader who is listening in on the conversation.
 So how accurate are these assessments? Before I critique Brown's work and popular reception of it, let me first emphasize that somewhat unusually for an academic, I am a fan of popular culture in its many forms. Popular culture is the common language of our day, and I try to see it as an expression of our society and also as a bridge to communicating with college students and others. Despite flurries of criticism, I found a great deal to work with in such diverse films as the Life of Brian, the Last Temptation of Christ, and the Passion. While each depiction certainly has its problems, I love the humorous presentations in the Life of Brian of the incredible variety in early Judaism and early Christianity. The 'blessed are the cheesemakers' scene provides an extremely entertaining take on the challenges of oral communication particularly to the large crowds described in the gospels. Similarly the Last Temptation has a wonderfully uncomfortable apocalyptic figure in John the Baptist. It also continues the work of its author Kazantzakis in exploring the tension of the coexistence of human and divine, albeit with less success than the novel. The Passion was a useful reminder, to a culture that has moved so far from it, of the sympathetic piety evoked by Jesus' suffering. It was a vivid presentation glorying in its gory detail and driving its audience to weep at the foot of the cross along with Mary. In short, it was a presentation that would have made any writer of the early martyr accounts proud. So it was, that cracking the cover of the Da Vinci Code and diving in, I was not looking for problems, but rather for opportunities to find an effective language to share some of the wondrous complexity of early Christianity.
 The most positive comment I could make about The Da Vinci Code in its presentation of early Christianity is that it exposes a broader audience to the existence of non-canonical literature and to the notion that what becomes 'orthodox' Christianity was not the only form. It also rightly suggests that the humanity and divinity of Jesus were subjects of important debate in the early period. Mary Magdalene is indeed a fascinating figure, and more complex than the received tradition of her often presents. Sexuality was indeed an important issue in early Christianity. And the feminine, both in terms of the divine and in terms of female leaders, is a topic well worth studying. Unfortunately, however, in all of these details the assessments that are provided by the novel are more misleading than helpful.
 Many of the problems with the accuracy of these presentations are discussed in detail in Bart Ehrman's useful book on Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code so I will keep my own comments brief.5 Early Christianity was incredibly varied as was the Judaism from which it arose, and the Greco-Roman world in which it found its home. There is indeed a rich literature that has been preserved and is not included in the canonical scriptures. In terms of the varieties of Judaism, this includes the bodies of literature known as the Pseudepigrapha and the Dead Sea Scrolls in addition to the extensive writings of Josephus and Philo.6 These writings provide important insights into the varieties of Judaism out of which Christianity came and many of the perspectives in them are not well represented either in what becomes the canonical Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament) or later Rabbinic Judaism. Varieties of early Christianity are similarly extant in a range of texts including the Nag Hammadi texts and the many scattered survivals of texts copied into the Medieval period.7 Added to these are the varieties we know about from hostile sources, particularly the anti-heresy writings of the early Church, and the histories of early Christianity starting as early as Eusebius. Making sense of this diverse literature, the communities that produced it, and reconstructing out of it an understanding of early Christianity is the lifelong pursuit of a rich array of scholars. It is amazing that supplied with such a rich variety of scholarship, Dan Brown manages to construct such a problematic and misleading presentation. Rather than presenting his vision of early Christianity as but one variety, for instance one group that saw itself as the true church, he instead presents an early Christian consensus more misleadingly monolithic than even Eusebius' ambitious attempts to construct an 'orthodox' Christianity as dominant from the very beginning. In other words, rather than correctly emphasizing an interesting variety in early Christianity, he has established a unified early church, merely one organized around a dogma opposite to that which 'orthodox' Christianity offers.
 More unfortunately, the dogma around which he organizes this monolithic Christianity is one of the hardest to support out of all of the rich variety that is present in early Christianity. The novel presents as the consensus of early Christians (in the form of brief mini-lectures) a firm belief in Jesus as a human prophet lacking in divinity and that this remained the dominant belief until a grand moment of irony when the pagan emperor Constantine enforced the idea of Jesus as divine at the Council of Nicaea. To appreciate this assessment, it is necessary to describe briefly the arguments within early Christianity about Christology (the theological term to describe issues of who Jesus was, particularly in terms of his humanity and divinity). Two extreme positions in the rich variety of early Christians are provided by what are labeled heretical beliefs: Adoptionism and Docetism. Groups that followed adoptionist (also sometimes referred to as dynamic monarchianist) interpretations emphasized that Jesus was fully human until his divine adoption by God, typically occurring at the moment of his baptism and often referencing the Lukan Gospel tradition.8 Docetists by contrast argued that Jesus only seemed (from the Greek word dokeo) to be human, but was in fact fully divine. These debates were not centered in the early 4th C. CE as presented by Dan Brown, but rather occurred from the end of the 1st C. CE through into the 3rd C. CE, though they do continue to resurface periodically. While there is rich diversity and debate in early Christianity, belief in the opposite extreme of a fully divine Jesus is easier to find in the early sources than belief in Jesus as a purely human prophet. The preoccupation with a more human than divine Jesus is more a fascination of our own culture than it was within the richly varied world and beliefs of early Christianity (possibly in part because the Greco-Roman world in which Christianity found its home had a highly fluid vision of divinity and semi-divine humans). The issues of the day with Constantine and the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE were not primarily ones of Christology but rather those of the trinity - the complex interrelationships of the three aspects of God.9 Nor did divisions of belief or 'heresy' end with Constantine or the Council. Arianism, most simply expressed as 'there being a time when Christ was not' (i.e. Jesus did not exist before creation as God did) was of central importance at the Council. This 'heresy' continued to be a powerful force within Christianity long after Constantine and very nearly won out in the western half of the Empire over what has become orthodox belief. Similarly in the eastern half of the Empire, Monophysite interpretations of Christianity retained great vitality even forming a rival church structure as late as the 6th C. CE.
 In addition to these fundamentally misguided assessments of Christianity, Dan Brown gets a remarkable number of historic details completely wrong. Heresy quite obviously did not end with Constantine. The Council of Nicaea was called primarily to discuss Trinitarian rather than Christological issues. Christians were not a majority in the empire when Constantine becomes emperor but rather a sizeable minority. Even the most hopeful scholar would be hard pressed to imagine eighty gospels, and Constantine did not organize a grand bonfire of all the Christian texts that he did not like. Nor was Constantine responsible for creating the canonical Christian New Testament, a process that precedes him and does not end until Athanasius and the latter half of the 4th C. CE at the earliest. Furthermore, while Constantine's Christianity and relation to paganism remains a lively debate among scholars, very few would attempt to argue that he was fully pagan throughout his life. Added to all of this is the misconception that Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire and that paganism ended swiftly when Constantine backed the right horse. In fact, the Edict of Milan in 313 CE, offered by Constantine together with his rival Licinius, makes Christianity one acceptable religion. Christianity could not be considered the official religion of the empire however until Theodosius, some eighty years later passes a series of laws limiting paganism. Nor did paganism disappear immediately. Scholars are increasingly arguing that paganism remained with some vitality at least into the 6th C. CE and the reign of Justinian, if not later.10
 Beyond wishing that Dan Brown had done a bit better research in writing the novel, I am struck by the popularity of the novel despite these inaccuracies and what this popularity implies. A brief analogy with more familiar events may help to clarify what I mean. Suppose that I wrote a novel in which I claimed that the Declaration of Independence successfully ended the tyrannical rule of England over the colonies and freed blacks from slavery. What if I furthermore hypothesized that the founding fathers were crypto-pagans, that they engaged in unusual and secretive sexual rituals with their wives. Added to all of this I asserted that women played a vital role in this early period of American independence, only to be reduced and subjugated ever after by nefarious forces within our government. Presumably my audience would have a hard time engaging my story, and if I built my novel on these claims they would be unlikely to read much further. The reason the story would fail is because the common readership, particularly in America, would know too much about this period to accept these highly problematic and inaccurate assertions. Yet the assessments offered about the early Church in The Da Vinci Code have about as much accuracy. The Declaration of Independence of course did not result in the separation of the colonies from English rule. Slavery, while a problematic issue from the beginning of American self-definition did not end until after the Civil War. The founding fathers, while many of them were Deists and had some different understandings about Christianity, were not crypto-pagan. And women, while prominent in cases like Abigail Adams, exercised their influence within largely traditional roles of the period. Similar corrections are necessary for much of what Dan Brown presents.
 What this tells me, is that unlike the stories and events surrounding the founding of this country, the general populace has very little knowledge of the period of early Christianity. If they did, they would find it hard to be very engaged by this novel. While more than seventy-five percent of the population in America claims to be Christian and many of these people know a great deal about the stories in the Bible, they know little of the debates over which early Christians in all of their variety lived and died and the rich literature that continues to guide the interpretation of the Bible.11 They know numerous stories about George Washington both real and fictional, but little about the emperor Constantine who changed forever the place of Christianity and set in motion the long struggle of relationship between the Church and State. How has modern Christianity lost heroes like Perpetua (very possibly the first autobiographical female writer of any tradition)?12 How is it possible that Christianity today freely recreates the early heresies, often with little understanding of what is at stake, or how many died and struggled along the way in shaping and preserving what became the 'orthodox' tradition? If Tertullian was right that the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church; today Christians so happily pick of its fruit with little sense of the roots that feed the life of this rich tradition or the other plants that so nearly choked it out.
 At the risk of following the example of Teabing and Langdon, let me put my thoughts again in terms of an academic trying to instruct. In teaching Religious Studies, often the hardest task is getting students to step outside of their own world, their own preconceptions and to encounter a religious tradition in its full and surprising complexity. Close reading of texts and encountering individual voices often provide the most effective means of beginning this process. Despite his occasional use of texts, what Dan Brown does is actually precisely the opposite. Presenting it as a great and shocking revelation, what he offers instead is an assessment that bears little resemblance to early Christianity, but is exactly what our current culture seems most eager to hear. I would suggest that the success of the book is largely because, in an engaging form and seemingly with evidence to back it up, it confirms what people are already most eager to believe.
 How often do we hear people proclaim 'I'm a Christian but uncomfortable with The Church.' Or, 'I am spiritual, just not Religious.' To a culture uncomfortable with organized religion intruding on individual belief, Dan Brown offers a wonderful villain and ready explanation in Constantine. In Constantine he can create an evil political figure unscrupulously attacking the heartfelt belief of individuals. What is lost though in this wonderful fantasy of an evil establishment and nefarious politicians are the rich stories of struggles for definition that actually occurred within the early Church. The 'orthodox' church and its beliefs, contrary to Brown's simple and convenient indictment of Constantine, are the products of such fascinating characters as Ignatius, Clement, Origen, Irenaeus, and Athanasius. An appreciation for these early church fathers though, as well as their rivals on the other side of the debates is far more complex and less comforting to modern sensibilities.
 Ours is also a culture often uncomfortable with 'orthodox'
Christology. How often do we hear people wishing to proclaim that
Jesus was a great human and prophet, but rejecting the rather
intrusive and transformative idea of God incarnate. Helpful here
are C.S. Lewis' insightful comments about Jesus and Christology
from Mere Christianity when responding to a very similar
notion that he was encountering in his own day. He notes that
people often say about Jesus that:
'I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept His claim to be God.' That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic - on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg - or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must take your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.13
What The Da Vinci Code offers is one more comfortable
reassurance to people uncomfortable with the transcendent Christ
that Jesus really was just a human teacher and prophet and that the
tradition has got it all wrong. How different this is than the
offense of the Gospel as Paul presents it, 'a stumbling block to
Jews and folly to gentiles' (1 Cor. 1:23). What Dan Brown has
offered is effectively a removal of the leap of faith. He has
removed the resurrection and the incarnation and the challenge they
provide to one's reason. How opposite this is from Luther's
wonderful sermon in 1533:
O, what a ridiculous thing, that the one true God, the high Majesty, should be made man; that here they should be joined, man and his Maker, in one Person. Reason opposes this with all its might. Here, then, those wise thoughts with which our reason soars up towards heaven to seek out God in His own Majesty, and to probe out how He reigns there on high, are taken from us. The goal is fixed elsewhere, so that I should run from all the corners of the world to Bethlehem, to that stable and that manger where the babe lies, or to the Virgin's lap. Yes, that subdues the reason.
 In a patriarchal tradition (both Judaism and Christianity) there is an understandable hunger for the feminine in God and women in the histories of the tradition. This has been one of the more fundamental and ongoing changes in our modern expressions of Christianity. What is offered again by The Da Vinci Code is a simplistic answer that miscasts history and the richness of the Christian tradition. Mary Magdalene was an incredibly important part of the early church, and one that a close reading of canonical and non-canonical sources makes clear is wondrously problematic. Legitimate questions of the received Christian tradition include: where for instance do we get the idea that the woman caught in adultery is in fact Mary Magdalene and why is this woman, who is so prominent from the cross to the tomb and even granted the first encounter with the resurrected Christ, so richly reviled. Rather than in a magnificent conspiracy, as Brown presents, the answer lies in the rather frustrating misogyny of the developing church. A misogyny that is often accorded to Paul, but shows up rather more dramatically with the Pastoral letters. Do we ever hear sermons or even lectures on the passage about women saved only through childbirth?
 Human sexuality is also a huge problem for modern Christianity. This too is a problem rooted in the early church, with its love for celibacy, celebration of virgins, spiritual marriages, and monastic mortifications of the flesh.14 These are balanced by the ongoing inclusion and at times celebration of marriage, and even by mystical descriptions of the yearning for God and love for Christ in highly passionate and even sexualized language. Here again, we are offered an easy out by Dan Brown, with a picture of religiously sanctioned and infused sex that is presented as resting at the heart of the true Christian tradition with the coming together of the male and female aspects of the divine. This vision of sexuality and of women's place is unfortunately an incredibly distorted invention. It bears far closer resemblance to modern neo-pagan suggestions of sexuality and the goddess than to anything reminiscent of Greco-Roman religious life, or early Christianity.
 What I find to be the greatest irony of all in this novel is its repeated statements of trying to reclaim the sacred feminine in Christianity. This would indeed be a noble, if challenging goal, and one that has engaged many theologians and historians. What is ironic though, is that the novel does not in fact elevate women, even as far as the problematic tradition of early Christianity. Consider for instance the character of Sophie Neveau. She is supposed to be a cryptographer and member of the French police force, as well as Jesus' remarkable blood descendant. From this assessment one might rightly assume that she would be the great hero of the story. Instead she is presented as weak and powerless needing constant protection and education by the men around her. Her character's ignorance (unlike all of those around her) is used as the plot device for the many digressions into mini-lectures to educate her and the readership, and despite being a cryptographer she is remarkably inept at solving any of the riddles they encounter. Now that her curator uncle is dead after a lifetime of trying to protect her from hidden forces, it is now the job of the Harvard professor Robert Langdon to protect her from those who would mean her physical harm. She is in short a passive object in constant need of physical protection, even by older men with no pretensions to any related skills, this despite her own youth and presumably rudimentary training as a police officer. Nor is the vision of sexuality particularly enlightened. Consider for example, that in a work which claims to elevate the sexual act and reintegrate it with the divine, that early in the novel the story pauses lovingly to describe Sophie's appearance through the eyes of Robert Langdon. The story concludes with the pretty young Sophie Neveau planning what is clearly to be an all-out sexual romp with her elder protector Professor Langdon. If this were not enough to raise eyebrows, think back to the foundation upon which this elevated vision of the divine is founded, Mary Magdalene. In his longest treatment of a single text, Dan Brown presents an extended portion of the Gospel of Mary. This text is one of many fascinating ones within the varieties of early Christianity, and one that I regularly assign to students. Dan Brown rightly notes that the text suggests the importance of Mary as an early disciple in some of the traditions, and even that she was particularly close to Jesus. However, the text is clearly intended to show Mary Magdalene's superior knowledge, or gnosis, that she received from Jesus, describing to the other interested disciples an ascent to heaven and the many layers through which one must pass. The textual emphasis is clearly upon Mary Magdalene's mind, perception, and closeness to a clearly divine Jesus. What Dan Brown concludes however is nowhere in the text. Namely, that the text is clear proof of Jesus' humanity and sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene. Consider further the great secret and proof of Mary's importance, that she bears Jesus' child.15 This should be eerily familiar. Taking a specific textual tradition that celebrates Mary's importance for her mind and perception, he has made her and women once more important only as objects and vessels to be saved by sexuality and particularly by child birth.
 In conclusion, Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code sadly offers very little useful material to teach people about early Christianity. Instead, what the novel and particularly its popularity lay bare is how little the public knows about early Christianity. Rather than evoking the rich stories or exposing a broader public to the fascinating problems in early Christianity, Dan Brown offers in the guise of a great challenge a highly comforting and misleading vision that confirms the preoccupations of our modern culture.
 The Da Vinci Code is also a useful reminder that
it is only a matter of time before non 'orthodox' aspects of early
Christianity become a prominent issue for the modern church. Dan
Brown's 'scholarship' was careless, but there are many very real
challenges that will occur as people encounter the full and
problematic variety and history of early Christianity. I have
witnessed these challenges many times first hand as a teacher,
watching and guiding students in their own studies, and aware of
the faith struggles that so often accompany them. In my experience,
popular culture seems to run roughly ten to twenty years behind
current academic scholarship in its exposure and questions. If
modern Christianity does not begin to take seriously the
inheritance of early Christianity, it will soon find its members
confronting very real challenges to their faith, with little to no
knowledge to find their way out the other side. In effect, by
failing to act in educating their parishioners and the broader
public, the churches are leaving it to modern scholars, and even
more disturbingly to authors of fiction like Dan Brown to define
their faith tradition and all that it is founded upon.
2 My own background strongly informs my reading of the novel. I have a B.A. in comparative religion from Harvard, an M.A. in Religious Studies from the University of Pennsylvania, and currently am completing my doctoral dissertation in Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. My specialization throughout my academic training has been primarily in early Christianity and Christian origins. I have taught for over ten years on early Christianity, the history of Christianity, Greek and Roman religions, and early Judaism to a range of academic and lay audiences. I am also an active member of the ELCA.
6 For the Pseudepigrapha see James Charlesworth, ed. The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha 2 Vols. (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1983). For the Dead Sea Scrolls see Geza Vermes, ed. The Dead Sea Scrolls in English (3rd ed. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1987). For general treatments of early Judaism Shaye Cohen From the Maccabbees to the Mishnah (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1987) and Robert Kraft and George Nicklesburg, eds. Early Judaism and its Modern Interpreters (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986).
7 Wilhelm Schneemelcher, New Testament Apocrypha 2 Vols. Ed. by R. Wilson. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1991) provides a rich array of the sources with excellent notes. For the Nag Hammadi texts see James Robinson, ed. The Nag Hammadi Library in English (3rd ed. New York: Harper and Row, 1988). In several edited volumes by Oxford, Bart Ehrman provides collections of the early Christian writings. The Complete Gospels ed. by Robert Miller (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1994) provides an inexpensive collection of the range of gospels, though I find some exception with the work of the Jesus Seminar and its methodology. Other useful sourcebooks that particularly include texts from the Greco-Roman world that connect with early Christianity include C.K. Barrett, ed. The New Testament Background: Selected Documents (2nd ed. New York: Harper and Row, 1989) and David Cartlidge and David Dungan, eds. Documents for the Study of the Gospels (2nd ed. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1994).
10 Robin Lane Fox Pagans and Christians (New York: Knopf, 1987); Frank Trombley, Hellenic Religion and Christianization 2 Vols. (Leiden: Brill 2nd ed. 1993), and Ramsay MacMullen Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to the Eighth Centuries (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999) are but a few of the scholars arguing for the late survival and vitality of paganism.
11 A study by the Pew Research Council in March 2002 found 82% of people declared their religious preference as Christian. The American Religious Identity Survey conducted with a much larger sample in 2001 found that 76.5% of people identified themselves as Christians.
13 C.S. Lewis Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, rev. ed. 1952), 41.
© November 2005
Journal of Lutheran Ethics (JLE)
Volume 5, Issue 11