When Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code first caused a stir, White Horse Inn co-host Michael Horton interviewed Paul L. Maier, who coauthored The Da Vinci Code: Fact or Fiction? with Hank Hanegraaff. As their discussion is relevant to this issue on canon formation, we are providing it here for our readers. Dr. Maier is professor of ancient history at Western Michigan University and a much-published author of both scholarly and popular works.
I would like to touch on some of the claims Dan Brown makes in The Da Vinci Code and get your take as an opportunity to get into the larger faith and history question. First of all, Brown writes, "History is always written by the winners. When two cultures clash, the loser is obliterated and the winner writes the history books–books which glorify their own cause and disparage the conquered foe; as Napoleon once said, 'What is history but a fable agreed upon?' By its very nature history is always a one-sided account." And out of that he says, "Almost everything our fathers taught us about Christ is false. The Bible is a product of man, my dear, not of God. The Bible did not fall magically from the clouds. Man created it as a historical record of tumultuous times and it has evolved through countless translations, editions and revisions." He says, "More than 80 gospels were considered for the New Testament and yet only a relative few were chosen for inclusion, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John among them." Brown claims that it was a pagan emperor, Constantine the Great, who was responsible for compiling what we call the New Testament canon. How do we respond to those most basic claims?
Here you have an example of the methodology of Dan Brown. He gives 10 percent truth, luring the reader into thinking everything else is credible, and then he goes on to 90 percent falsehood.
First of all, the premise that history is always written by the victor is not true. Sometimes losers write history. For example, the great Peloponnesian War in Ancient Greece: Athens lost and Thucydides, who's an Athenian, writes the history of the war.
The idea that the Bible evolved through time and that Constantine edited it is also totally wrong. The New Testament canon was pretty well fixed about 150 years before Constantine. We do not have the Bible evolving; rather, the whole trend of modern scholarship is indeed the reverse of that. Because of good textual scholarship, we're trying to get further back as close to the original as possible. And there were not 80 gospels considered. There are about 37 apocryphal writings, not all of them gospels; and they never made the final cut for obvious reasons: they're fanciful, they're derivative, and they're second and third century under Gnostic editorship. There's no semblance of truth to Brown's statement. Instead, we just have falsehood piled upon distortion.
He says that during this fusion of religions, "Constantine needed the strength of the new Christian tradition and held a famous ecumenical gathering known as the Council of Nicea. At this gathering, many aspects of Christianity were debated and voted upon: the date of Easter, the role of the bishops, the administration of the sacraments, and of course, the divinity of Jesus. Until that moment in history Jesus was viewed by his followers as a mortal prophet. A great and powerful man, but a man nonetheless; a mortal. You're saying Jesus' divinity was the result of a vote? A relatively close vote, at that." Is that more like the Jesus Seminar?
Notice he begins with fact: Constantine did preside at the great ecumenical Council of Nicea in 325. At that point, the truth ceases. His claim that Jesus was regarded only as a mortal man before that is totally false. His divine nature was certainly recognized by the earliest of the church fathers.
I'm doubly furious at The Da Vinci Code for two reasons: one, as a Christian, of course, I don't like this kind of unjustified attack; but I'm even angrier as a professor of ancient history to see how Dan Brown absolutely warps and distorts the facts. People who are not savvy to what happened two thousand years ago are taken in by it. They assume that if something is in print, then it must be true. And it isn't.
A lot of people on the popular level have read this book–I believe it sold some 7 million copies–and now they seem to be experts on the Nicene Creed.
Exactly. Now I don't mind people calling attention to the origins of Christianity–that could have a good purpose. But, unfortunately, we have so many who are not sufficiently skilled in the Christian faith who think this is great revealing information their pastor never told them, which is damaging.
How about this quote: "Many scholars claim," says Brown, "that the early church literally stole Jesus from his original followers, hijacking his human message, shrouding it in an impenetrable cloak of divinity and using it to expand their own power. Nobody's saying that Christ was a fraud or denying that he walked the earth and inspired millions to better lives. All we're saying is that Constantine took great advantage of Christ's substantial influence and importance. Because he upgraded Jesus' status almost four centuries after Jesus' death, thousands of documents already existed chronicling his life as a mortal man. To re-write the history books, Constantine commissioned and financed a new Bible which omitted those gospels that spoke of Christ's human traits and embellished those gospels that made him god-like. The other gospels were outlawed, gathered up and burned."
The Council of Nicea in general, and Constantine in particular, had absolutely nothing to do with the Gospels that were included in the canon–absolutely nothing at all–and the Council of Nicea didn't decide whether Jesus was God or not. It was trying to answer the question: Was he co-eternal with the father? That's the only thing they took up there. So, again, you have just a parade of lies.
Was it a close vote, as he suggests?
This is the comical thing. The vote was 305-2. I don't consider that close, if I know my arithmetic.
What do we make of the outlawing of books? It looks like Constantine is really the most orthodox fellow in the empire, when in actual fact Constantine himself often supported the semi-Arian cause.
That's right that later on he had some inclinations in that respect, but I don't recall him being any kind of a book-burner. It does turn out that he tried to keep peace in the empire; and if the Council of Nicea decided, as it did, on the familiar cadences of the Nicene Creed, then he wanted the Christians to unite behind it. But he did not harry people who didn't agree with it. Again, he had absolutely nothing to do with the compilation of the New Testament. This is a claim that Brown makes again and again, and he simply doesn't know what he's talking about.
He refers quite a bit of this scholarship to the Nag Hammadi discovery in 1945: the Dead Sea scrolls and the Egyptian scrolls. He says the scrolls highlight glaring historical discrepancies and fabrications, clearly confirming that the modern Bible was compiled and edited by men who possessed a political agenda to promote the divinity of the man Jesus.
That's totally wrong. The Dead Sea scrolls, for example–which Brown claims were discovered in the early 1950s when they were discovered in 1947 (he doesn't even have his years straight)–have nothing to do with Christianity per se. They're very congenial to Christianity because they show the accuracy of the textual transmissions, for example, of the book of the prophet Isaiah. It gave scholars a wonderful opportunity to see how faithfully the manuscripts were transmitted, because the Isaiah scroll was two hundred years old in Jesus' day; the oldest text they had before that was a Masoretic text from A.D. 1006. This gave scholars a chance to check twelve hundred years' worth of manuscript transmission of Isaiah, which was 99.9 percent the same. It's very important to remember that. If you ever dialogue with Muslims, Islam's one big argument against Christianity is that our Scriptures are no longer reliable because of the copious errors. Not true.
With Dan Brown and the more nuanced arguments of people such as John Dominic Crossan and others associated with the Jesus Seminar, what should we make of what New Testament scholars and Ancient Near Eastern scholars have pointed out are older documents; that is, the Gnostic texts, especially the Gospel of Thomas, and so forth? What kind of agenda is at work here that says these later texts should determine the authenticity of the earlier texts–as if the earliest Christian community were Gnostic?
There's simply a reverse historical methodology. They desperately try to demonstrate that these Gnostic gospels are earlier than the four Gospels, which is not true at all. The Gnostic gospels are all derivative, they're second or third century, they're full of clashing, bizarre images of Jesus, and statements that simply have no correlation whatever with Jesus' message in the New Testament.
There has been a big ballyhoo about the Gospel of Thomas, and the Jesus Seminar some years back had the audacity to publish a book called The Five Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Thomas. The rule for canonicity is that the gospels have to be written by eyewitnesses and their material must be coherent with the rest of the Christian message. Then there's the Gospel of Thomas with Saying 112: The disciples bring Mary Magdalene to Jesus, and they say, Lord, we have a problem. Mary Magdalene is a woman and, of course, women cannot inherit the kingdom of God. How do you like that for a premise? And Jesus says, don't worry, I'll turn her into a man and then she can make it. This is simply ludicrous! For people like Helmut Koester of Harvard or Elaine Pagels and others to trump up the Gnostic gospels, I simply find it bewildering.
My impression of the Gospel of Thomas is that we walk away from it thinking that Jesus is far more of a magician and less of a human being than we find in the Gospel of John.
It's a terribly unconvincing portrait of Jesus, and it's not really a gospel at all–it's a collection of Jesus' sayings. For a gospel, you have to have both his sayings and the narrative context.
What is the positive evidence for early dating of the New Testament documents?
There's a distinct trend now toward an earlier dating for the Gospels. In the last century, it was high scholarly fashion to suggest that these are all very late–the synoptic Gospels maybe after the fall of Jerusalem. The Tübingen School said the Gospel of John was probably written around A.D. 175, which would remove it from any eyewitness credentials. But then they discovered the Rylands Library Papyrus, which is a fragment of the Gospel of John from around A.D. 105. That proves John was also written within the first century. Then we have the universal testimony of Eusebius and other early church historians who certainly say that in the latter part of the first century the gospels were all commissioned, all written down.
The other point is this: you have the prophecy fulfillment couplets in Matthew all over the place. Matthew was addressing his Gospel to the Jewish people, and therefore he's relying on the Old Testament and showing how, time and again, Jesus is fulfilling the parameters of Old Testament prophecy. Matthew writes that Jesus dragged the cross to Calvary and warned about the coming destruction of Jerusalem. Do you think wild horses could have prevented Matthew from saying, "Then was fulfilled when our Lord predicted…" and so forth? He's always doing prophecy fulfillment couplets. The only reason I think he didn't say that is because Matthew was written before the fall of Jerusalem. A lot of scholars are coming to that agreement today, which was not the case previously.
Before the Gospel of John, do we have a clear witness in the synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke to Jesus himself claiming to be God or his followers regarding him as divine?
We have Matthew's statement about Peter at Caesarea Philippi: "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God." There are many other inscriptions of divinity to Jesus during his earthly ministry, plus things that only God could do in terms of the miracles. Jesus doesn't blunt any of those statements; as a matter of fact, he rewards Peter and says, "You're right." So it's not just John that brings out Jesus' divinity; it's all the way through.
In The Da Vinci Code, what's Brown's basis for the suggestion that Jesus was not divine and that he was actually married to Mary Magdalene?
This is a laugh and, by the way, not original. Dan Brown didn't suddenly invent this idea of Jesus as a happy husband. For the last four or five decades, we've had caricatures of Jesus where the Christ disappears and the caricature shows up; they've always tried to recreate Jesus in their own image or whatever. Jesus as the happy husband showed up twenty years ago when Baigent, Leigh, and Lincoln wrote a book called Holy Blood, Holy Grail. Quite frankly, Brown gets most of his plot from that book. I'm surprised they haven't sued. There's not one scrap of evidence in any document that Jesus married Mary Magdalene–or that he ever got married–or that they had a daughter named Sarah who escaped to France.
Dan Brown speaks of thousands of documents chronicling Jesus' life and his marriage. The thousands got narrowed down to two: they are the Gospel of Mary Magdalene and the Gospel of Philip. These are very late (probably third century), they're apocryphal, they're Gnostic, and they're riddled with errors and exaggerations. Even in those two gospels, there's nothing that says Jesus married the woman. As a matter of fact, the context proves he didn't. One of the quotes Brown uses from the Gospel of Philip is where the disciples ask Jesus, "Lord, why do you prefer Mary Magdalene to us?" If Jesus had been married, he would have said, "She's my wife, that's why!" But he didn't say that. So even in this supposedly great proof-text, there's nothing to indicate that Jesus got married. As a matter of fact, we can pretty well prove he didn't because of Paul's statement in 1 Corinthians 9:5. Paul is working on the credentials of his apostleship and says, "Don't I have the right to have a wife along with me, as the brothers of the Lord do, and the apostles?" If Jesus would have been married, Paul would have said, "Don't I have the right to be married like our Lord and Savior, setting the example?" He didn't say that.
Why does any of this matter? Why can't we just go on saying–as The Da Vinci Code claims–that the Gospels are written by mere mortals about a mere mortal? If it works for you, that's great. If it makes you feel better, if it helps you raise your kids and keeps your marriage together, gives you self-esteem, Jesus is really good for that and I don't begrudge anybody for following him; but let's not get into debates or arguments over whether it really happened. Religion isn't about history.
Well, Christianity is. This is the big difference between Christianity and all other world religious systems, except for our parent, Judaism. Those are the only two religious systems totally concerned with history. This is what marks us as different, and this is a tremendous credibility factor in terms of the Old and New Testaments. All the other world religious systems are nebulous in this regard. All the other religious systems have a holy book in which you don't try to find points of correlation, tangencies; you can't build bridges from the secular into the sacred evidence there, and you don't want to, you don't need to. But in Christianity, you have a holy book in the Old and New Testament that is totally embedded in history; it's part of the warp and woof of history. That could have been very hazardous if that holy book were chock-full of discrepancies and errors. Boldly, you have the patriarchs and prophets in the Old Testament, and boldly you have the evangelists and the apostles in the New Testament casting this against the background of total fact. The nativity begins with Caesar Augustus. Jesus' public ministry begins in the reign of Tiberius Caesar. This is real and that's the difference. I don't really think that Christians celebrate that difference enough. They overlook even things like the geographical proofs that the Scriptures are dealing with reality. The holy books of other world religious systems are very nebulous when it comes to geographical place names and such. But in the case of the Old and New Testament, 95 percent of the place names have been identified, and some have been dug. This is real! This is a tremendous difference, a tremendous advantage that Christianity has.
Isn't this the difference, too, between authentic Christianity of the New Testament and Gnosticism? The Gnosticism on which The Da Vinci Code rests is itself totally uninterested in what really happened in first-century Palestine.
That's right. In Gnosticism you have a theology that elevates the reader out of the practical world and leads him into echelons of divine beings and whatever else in their theological meanderings, so they're really not concerned with fact. That's the enormous difference and that really gives a lie to their claims.
But what a perfect religion for an American intellectual establishment that would really like not to have messy quarrels over history and just have therapeutic religious pluralism. We seem to get that if we go to the Gnostic texts instead of the New Testament.
That's right, and there's a tremendous difference there. I realize that what I've said about the superior credibility claims of the Bible is very politically incorrect today. All religions have their truth–what makes Christianity any different? I'll tell you what makes it different: We're dealing with fact here and not with fantasy or fiction.