Book Reviews

Erroneous claims about an age-old faith

Review of Darrell Bock's 'Breaking The Da Vinci Code'


by Robert Deyes

On a rainy May morning of 2005, a large gathering of people convened at Blackhawk Free Evangelical church in Madison to hear one of the foremost New Testament scholars, Ben Witherington III, give a talk about Dan Brown's book The Da Vinci Code. Many including myself turned up to listen to the arguments against the claims being made in Brown's fictional bestseller. Witherington's delivery of the facts was superb as he proceeded to systematically destroy the supposedly factual claims made by Brown. Later on that morning, spurred on by Witherington's brilliant refutation of Brown's historical inaccuracies, I picked up a copy of Breaking The Da Vinci Code by New Testament scholar Darrell Bock. Eager as I was to find out what I could about Mary Magdalene's true identity, particularly in regards to the claim that she was married to Jesus, and to discover whether there really had been a major suppression by the church of other books outside of the canonical biblical Gospels and the Pauline letters, I began to read Bock's account.

Bock begins his discussion of the facts by revealing to us the real identity of Mary and her relationship to Jesus. Otherwise known as Mary 'of Magdala' (her name still contains her town of origin rather than a marital affiliation suggesting that she was not married), Mary was part of a larger group of women who followed Jesus during His ministry. In Luke (Chapter 8) we see her specifically mentioned as one of the female followers of Christ the others being Susana and Joanna, the wife of Herod's business manager.  While it is admittedly odd that women would have been traveling with a man outside of wedlock, the argument that he must have been married because He was a rabbi is unsupported. As Bock points out Jesus was not technically a rabbi. Jesus' disciples called him by this title because he was a teacher to them. But he was certainly not recognized as one by the Jewish authorities. In fact we see in Mark (Chapter 11, vs 27) how Jesus' authority was severely challenged by the leaders of religious law.

No specific link is made to an exclusive relationship between Mary and Jesus. In fact a passage in the Gospel of John (Chapter 20, vs 11-18) provides the only documented encounter of Jesus and Mary alone. Mary's expression of surprise on seeing the resurrected Jesus is understandable given that she is not expecting him to be in any way 'alive'. But what we do see here is Mary as a witness to the cross and resurrection- 'an apostle to the apostles' as Bock refers to her, who was sent to reveal the resurrected Christ to the twelve disciples.

Would it have been in any way un-Jewish for Jesus to remain single? There is some evidence for celibacy in some parts of the Jewish community during Jesus' time. We now know for example that an ancient Jewish group of men called the Essenes thought of marriage as a way through which the sins of lust and adultery could set in. They therefore preferred not to be married, remaining pious to God through celibacy. Jesus even said that in certain cases it was better not to marry (Matthew Chapter 19, vs 10-12). It was therefore not un-Jewish not to be married. In one particular circumstance we even see Paul encouraging people to remain unmarried, as he himself was (1 Corinthians, Chapter 7, vs 8). There is no biblical or extra-biblical evidence that Jesus had a wife. There is no mention, for example, of a wife in the crucifixion accounts in any of the canonical Gospels. We also know that Jesus related to women in a way that fell outside the expected 'norms' of the culture (John Chapter 12, vs 1-8; Luke Chapter 7, vs 36-50). Since He did not fall into these expected norms, why would He necessarily be married?

Those eager to assert that Jesus was married to Mary bring their own evidence to bear. As Bock notes, the broken ancient texts of the Gospel of Phillip- a Gospel written a full 200 years after the time of Jesus- mention Jesus kissing Mary, although the location of kissing is never made clear. The same passage mentions Mary as 'companion' (translated from the Greek word 'Koinonos') although this can either mean 'wife' or 'religious companion'. There is also a passage in the even later Gospel of Mary that indicates that Mary was privy to special revelations from Jesus. But no indication of a familial relationship can be concluded. Since Mary, Jesus mother, was so heavily revered by the Catholic church, it seems unlikely that, had Jesus been married, His wife could have disappeared without a historical trace. In short, there is every reason to believe that Jesus was single.

So what about the claim made in The Da Vinci Code that there were over 80 gospels, outside of the four in the Bible, that were conveniently discarded by the early church? Brown's evidence in favor of this claim is based on the books contained in the Nag Hammadi library- a collection of books that, together with Gnostic scriptures, includes more than eighty texts. But Bock makes some very strong points against Brown noting in particular that most of the books in the Nag Hammadi collection are not Gospels at all. The dates of these books range from 2nd to 3rd century AD- a few generations removed from the, "foundations of the Christian faith".

Importantly, there were major differences between the Gnostic teachings and those of traditional Christianity. Gnostics believed, for example, that they had some special access to mysterious revelations about God- revelations that were only available to a select group of 'insiders'. For the Gnostics, only those 'insiders'- intellectuals with a special 'knosis' or understanding of God- could be saved. In contrast the biblical gospels told of no such special select group. Gnostics also had a 'dual existence' interpretation of God claiming that in addition to the supreme spiritual father of the heavens, there existed an evil maker of the physical world called the Demiurge. Gnostics saw God as, "too transcendent to get his hands dirty with humanity". God did not 'mix' with the material existence.

Even for Jesus the Gnostic teachings made a distinction between the earthly and spiritual Jesus. Gnosticism claimed that the real Jesus could not have suffered on the cross; that in fact the real Jesus was too pure to suffer. Biblical scripture in contrast tells of God becoming flesh and blood to suffer with humanity. The images of Mary Magdalene clinging onto Jesus after His resurrection, His later appearance to the disciples and then to Thomas (John Chapter 20) reveal the physical nature of the biblical Jesus.

Today there is a move by some to reconcile the Gnostic teachings with Christianity. Yet as already noted, both Gnosticism and Christianity are sufficiently different that they cannot be brought together under one faith. The church fathers were of the position that the canonical gospels of Mathew, Mark, Luke and John, with their teaching of sin, were the true gospels because they preceded the Gnostic texts by at least one century. Because Gnosticism did not acknowledge the existence of God in the physical world, the Gnostic teachings were considered heretical by the early church. Recent reviews of this tension cite the early church as being an oppressor, "afflicting believers with rigid creeds". Bock notes however that modern texts in support of the reconciliation of Gnosticism and traditional Christianity tend to be selective about the evidence they cite leaving out much of what is incompatible between them. In fact neither the church fathers nor the early Gnostics wanted to come together. They both recognized their differences in beliefs and did not desire a shared faith.

Bock makes a very strong case against one of the other key claims of The Da Vinci Code- that the emperor Constantine assembled and commissioned a new Bible that embellished Christ's Godly traits and omitted His human traits. One of Brown's principle characters Teabing for example specified how it was "to promote the divinity of Jesus that specific books in the Bible were chosen". The claim is made that the emperor Constantine and the council of Nicea ignored an entire 'swath of documents' by giving Jesus His greater divinity. In fact Constantine and the Nicene creed affirmed what had already been the established view for centuries before Nicea. The four Gospels were part of that view.

Jesus was considered as divine four centuries before the Nicene council convened. Even though the Gospels of Mark and Luke were not written by any of the twelve apostles they, together with Matthew and John, were written by authors who had direct contact with the apostles if not with Jesus. They were therefore considered more accurate representations of the Christian faith. But there were other reasons for choosing just four biblical Gospels. The 2nd Century Church father Irenaeus, for example, saw it fitting that there should be only four Gospels so as to match up with the four cherubim on the ark of the covenant. The number four also corresponded to the number of covenants given by God to humanity- to Adam, to Noah after the flood, to Moses and to man for spiritual renovation.

Reviewing the claims of The Da Vinci Code, we know that Jesus was not the feminist that the book portrays but the son of God who saw the value in every human being. Mary Magdalene was not, "the Holy Grail with a trail of royal descendants from Jesus" but 'an apostle to the apostles' who had seen the resurrected Christ. There is no reason to think that the church was trying to give women a lower status since Jesus' appearance to women affirms the value of women to God. Luke (Chapter 10, vs 38-42; Chapter 8, vs 1-3), Acts (Chapter 18, vs 24-26) and 1 Timothy (Chapter 3, vs 11), all show women playing important discipleship roles in the church.  Moreover these texts show no reluctance to document such roles.

Bock has done a tremendous job in exposing the historical inaccuracies of The Da Vinci Code in the eight chapters of his book corroborating much of the discussion that Ben Witherington III set out on that rainy May day.  He has systematically discredited the contentious material of Brown's fictional best seller.