By Mike Licona
What if the world’s greatest works of art held a secret that could change
the course of mankind forever? Dan Brown’s best-selling suspense novel, The
Da Vinci Code, tantalized readers with that very question. The
controversial story sparked debates about Christ and spawned dozens of books
and TV specials dedicated to breaking the code.
Now the much talked about book is coming to a theater near you. “The Da
Vinci Code,” directed by Ron Howard and produced by Columbia Pictures and
Imagine Entertainment will open in theaters May 19. If you haven’t read the
book, you might check it out from your library and give yourself a couple of
days. It’s a page turner. What makes his book so effective and, some would say,
dangerous is its ability to capture the imagination while making some
outrageous claims. And, it’s got that ambiguous claim in the front: “All
descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this
novel are accurate.” So Brown’s a historian, right? Actually, no. Imaginative?
Yes. Intriguing? Yes. Historically accurate and accepted by any balanced
scholars? No. Even the agnostic New Testament historian Bart Ehrman maintains
serious reservations regarding the claims of Brown’s work in Truth and
Fiction in The Da Vinci Code: “[Brown’s] a novelist, not a scholar of
history. . . . Even though he claims that his ‘descriptions of . . . documents
. . . are accurate,’ in fact they are not.”
The Da Vinci Code begins with a spectacular murder in the Louvre
museum. All clues point to a covert religious organization that will stop at
nothing to protect a secret that threatens to overturn 2,000 years of accepted
dogma. The book and now the film claim that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, had a
child with her, and a clandestine society once headed by Leonardo da Vinci has
protected the information for centuries against a threatened Catholic
If Ron Howard is successful in recreating this experience on the big screen,
then he could raise the same questions as Brown. But this is not cause for
Christians to get angry, boycott, or run and hide. In fact, this is a great
opportunity for Christ-followers to respond with the historical truth and the
Truth of the gospel. You might make this an opportunity to take your
non-believing friends and co-workers to a movie and then grab some coffee after
for a little Q and A. But first, let’s discuss how to respond to some of the
questions the movie might raise.
Is the New Testament really
Brown makes the claim that the New Testament has been through countless
translations, additions and revisions and is completely different from the
Fact check: Multiple checks
and balances safeguard the scriptures against varying significantly from the
original text. For example, according to Daniel Wallace who is an expert on the
ancient New Testament manuscripts, there are 5,745 manuscripts of the New
Testament alone in its original language of Greek. Around a dozen of these date
to the second century or within 150 years of when the New Testament writings
were first penned. Given the wealth of the New Testament manuscripts, anyone
calling into question the validity of a certain text could have reviewed it in
light of an abundance of other copies. Where there is an abundance of
manuscripts, there is sometimes an abundance of variances. However, by applying
the rules of textual criticism, one can arrive at a text which is remarkably
close to the original.
The Da Vinci Code also claims there were more than 80 Gospels from
which the early fathers chose the four New Testament Gospels.
FACT CHECK: There were fewer than 20 writings that were
considered for the Gospel canon. These apocryphal writings were written quite
some time after the New Testament Gospels making them questionable in their
reliability. The final four—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are the only ones that
are considered true biographies written by an apostle of Christ or someone with
a direct contact with the apostles.
Besides this fact, the Council of Nicea didn’t address the canon of
scripture, contrary to the claims in The Da Vinci Code. The purpose of
Nicea was to discuss whether Jesus was deity or created by God.
is jesus the son of god?
The Da Vinci Code claims that Jesus was never considered divine but
was voted as such at the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D.
Fact check: In the New
Testament we find references to Jesus’ claims to being one and the same with
God the Father. Christ’s apostles taught of His divinity. In the year 60, Paul
in his writings to the Romans declared Jesus the Son of God (Romans 1:3).
Did Christianity borrow from pagan
Fact check: There are examples
of pagan religions sharing some of the same doctrines as Christianity. For
example, a number of religions present dying and rising gods. However, the
consensus of today’s scholars has concluded that none of these predate
Christianity and, in fact, the earliest parallel postdates the New Testament
Gospels by at least half a century.
Was Jesus married to Mary
Fact check: There is no
accepted historical evidence that would point to this claim as being true. A
year ago I had a television dialogue with Princeton religion scholar Elaine
Pagels, who is an expert on the Gnostic Gospels. During a break, host Lee
Strobel asked us what we thought about the idea of Jesus being married. Pagels
spoke up and said that The Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown is probably
the only person holding such a belief. Brown’s claim is based on the 3rd
century Gospel of Phillip in which he has filled in some blanks that exist due
to holes in the manuscript. He also relies on a word for “spouse” that he
claims is Aramaic but turns out to be a Coptic word borrowed from Greek and
rarely means spouse. The New Testament not only portrays Jesus as single, he is
not mentioned as being married at a spot where citing a married Jesus would
have been of great advantage (1 Corinthians 9:5).
Where did Brown get these incredible
Fact check: We might not have
to look that far back. In Ben Witherington’s book The Gospel Code,
Witherington makes the astute connection that many of Brown’s claims come from
two previous works: Holy Blood, Holy Grail and The Woman with the
Alabaster Jar. Both attempt to paint Jesus as a man who married and
settled down to have children. However, much of what’s contained in these
texts, Witherington says, is derived from medieval lore and art and not
historical or biblical texts. So, Brown’s book does a masterful and accessible
job of taking these works, along with some other radical ideas, and creating an
experience that feels well researched but in fact is not.
But believers can use the movie as an opportunity to engage the controversy
with spirit and truth. This summer people are going to be talking around the
water cooler about the divinity of Christ. Now, that’s an opportunity! Armed
with the truth, we can watch the movie with friends and engage them in dialogue
as Christ would if present to answer Brown’s claims.
Make no mistake about it: Christians can make good use of “The Da Vinci
Code” movie for God’s glory if they are willing to engage in intelligent and
respectful dialogue concerning the claims raised in it.
Mike Licona is a New Testament historian and director of Apologetics
& Interfaith Evangelism at the North American Mission Board. He is the
author of Paul Meets Muhammad and co-author of the award-winning
The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus.
Breaking the Da Vinci Code (Nelson, 2004) by Darrell Bock and
The Gospel Code (IVP, 2004) by Ben Witherington III are investigations
into the historical evidence supporting the claims of The Da Vinci
Code. Discussing The Da Vinci Code (Zondervan, 2006) by Lee
Strobel and Garry
Poole is a DVD-driven group study curriculum that answers basic and in-depth
questions about The Da Vinci Code through interviews with experts. A
perfect resource for viewing with skeptics and for preparing believers for the
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