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  • Exploring the Da Vinci Code

    This five-part series by Mike Licona first appeared in Baptist Press just before the release of the movie, "The Da Vinci Code."

    Who Selected the Writings in the New Testament? 
    Married Mary? Quite Contrary
    The Divinity of Jesus: Apostolic or Afterthought?
    Parallelmania in The Da Vinci Code
    Is the Bible we have today what was originally written?

    Who Selected the Writings in the New Testament?

    By Mike Licona

    "More than eighty gospels were considered for the New Testament, and yet only a relative few were chosen for inclusion—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John among them….The Bible, as we know it today, was collated by the pagan Roman emperor Constantine the Great [p. 231]….[who] omitted those gospels that spoke of Christ's human traits and embellished those gospels that made Him godlike.  The earlier [ital. mine] gospels were outlawed, gathered up, and burned" (p. 234).  Such is the claim of The Da Vinci Code.  Three debates took place two years ago during the presidential race between President Bush and Senator Kerry.  After each debate, a news reporter would appear on television and report the results of a fact check.  "President Bush claimed so-and-so.  But here are the facts.  And Senator Kerry claimed so-and-so.  But the facts say this."  In this article, we will do the same with Brown's claims pertaining to the selection of the New Testament books and letters.

    Were there more than eighty gospels as Brown claims?  Bart Ehrman is an atheist New Testament critic who specializes in the Gnostic writings.  In his book Lost Scriptures, Ehrman lists seventeen gospels not included in the New Testament.  When we add the recently revealed Gospel of Judas and the four New Testament Gospels, we come to a total of twenty-two, rather than the "more than eighty" stated in The Da Vinci Code.  We know of a few others such as the Gospel of Barnabas.  But these are much later than even the Gnostic Gospels.  For example, a Gospel of Barnabas may have circulated in the latter part of the fifth-century.  But we know nothing of it, except that it was rejected by the Church.  A Gospel of Barnabas appealed to by some Muslims appears to be a different text altogether and written around the fifteenth-century.

    This brings us to Brown's next claim: the Roman emperor Constantine was responsible for the approving of the writings we find in today's New Testament, since he omitted earlier Gospels which spoke of Jesus in human terms and embellished the four New Testament Gospels in order to make him divine.  Four major assertions are here made.  The first is that the Gnostic Gospels in the Nag Hammadi library are earlier than the four New Testament Gospels.  Except for a very few scholars on the far left who believe that the Gospel of Thomas may go back to the first century and only one of these believe that the Gospel of Peter is based on a source that is earlier than the four New Testament Gospels, nearly every scholar in the world holds that the four Gospels in the New Testament are the earliest Gospels and that the Gnostic Gospels in the Nag Hammadi library were written later.

    Brown also asserts that the Gnostic Gospels spoke of Jesus in far more human terms than the New Testament Gospels.  This, too, is inaccurate.  One of the major differences between Gnosticism and what Jesus taught is that Jesus said one could find the truth in Him and that He is the light.  Gnosticism taught that truth and light are found in oneself.  Accordingly, Gnosticism did not speak of Jesus in human terms, but rather spoke of Gnostic humans in divine terms.

    Brown's assertion that the four New Testament Gospels were embellished by Constantine to speak of Jesus' divinity is likewise mistaken.  A number of manuscripts which predate Constantine contain passages that clearly refer to the divinity of Jesus.  For example, a manuscript dated c. AD 200 (P46) contains at least four texts where Jesus is spoken of as divine: prayer to Jesus addressing him as divine Lord and asking him to come, maranatha (1 Cor 16:22); an early creed referring to Jesus as YHWH (Rom 10:9, 13); an ancient Christian hymn that says Jesus existed in God's form, was given the name/title above all names/titles, and applies to Jesus an Old Testament text (Is 45) which speaks of the only God to whom every knee bow and tongue confess (Phil 2:6-11); Jesus is referred to as "the exact representation" of God's nature (Heb 1:3).   What makes these passages all the more interesting is that all four come from letters which predate the four New Testament Gospels.  Therefore, even if Brown was correct on this point-and I challenge him to find a single bona fide scholar in agreement-we have Christian writings even earlier than the four New Testament Gospels that clearly speak of Jesus as divine. 

    The fourth and final major assertion of Brown is that Constantine selected the writings to be included in the New Testament.  Canonicity was a lengthy process that involved much debate and disagreement.  Always beyond dispute were the four Gospels we have today and all of Paul's letters.  It was not until more than forty years after the Council of Nicea in AD 367 that we find in the writings of Athenagorus a list of the 27 books and letters which are included in today's New Testament.  But there were debates even afterward.  For example, Martin Luther contended that the letter of James should not be included.  The last Council to rule officially on the matter was the Council of Trent, when in 1546 it reaffirmed the present 27 writings.  In short, the writings had to have apostolic authority and have received widespread and long-term acceptance from the universal Church.

    We have seen in this article that, contrary to the claims of The Da Vinci Code, the writings in the New Testament were selected after much reflection and debate over the course of hundreds of years and that the writings that made it are not only the earliest but also those which contain the original traditions about Jesus and the early Church.  Moreover, Jesus was thought of in divine terms from the earliest time in Christianity.  Nothing spoils the creative statements found in The Da Vinci Code like the facts.

    Married Mary?  Quite Contrary!

    In Dan Brown's book The Da Vinci Code, Jesus is said to have been married to Mary Magdalene.  Is it possible to know Jesus' marital status?  The historian will need to consider any evidence suggesting Jesus was married as well as evidence that he was single. 

    Evidence for a Married Jesus?  Brown provides two strands of evidence.  He first cites the Gospel of Phillip and notes a Jesus who loves Mary more than all the other disciples and kisses her often on her mouth.  He adds that the Gospel of Phillip refers to Mary as "the companion of the Saviour" and that every Aramaic scholar knows that the word companion means spouse.i   There are a number of problems with this claim.  First, the Gospel of Phillip is a Gnostic Gospel that is dated to the late second century at the earliest.  That is about a hundred years after the last of the New Testament Gospels had been written.  Moreover, the lone existing manuscript of the Gospel of Phillip is dated to the fourth-century and, due to a number of holes in it, words are missing.  In order to get a text that supports his thesis, Brown reconstructed the text adding words which are actually absent from the manuscript.  A second problem concerns the word companion.  The Gospel of Phillip was written in Coptic, not Aramaic.  And the Coptic's had borrowed the Greek word employed here for companion (koinonos), which usually meant "friend, colleague" rather than spouse. 

    The other strand of evidence Brown provides is Leonardo da Vinci's rendition of the Last Supper in which the person standing next to Jesus, usually thought to be the disciple John, is instead said to be Mary Magdalene and that Leonardo is clueing his viewers to the marital relationship between Jesus and Mary.  Numerous problems again plague admitting this as evidence for a married Jesus.  It is widely recognized that the disciple John is often portrayed during the Renaissance period with feminine characteristics, due to his youth.  Moreover, if the character standing next to Jesus is indeed Mary, we are left with one of the twelve disciples missing.  Furthermore, even if Leonardo believed Jesus had been married to Mary Magdalene, how much weight should a sober historian award to the unsupported belief of a Renaissance artist who lived more than fifteen hundred years after Jesus?  It certainly should not be preferred over historical reports written within a generation or two of Jesus.

    Evidence for a Single Jesus? Ancient documents make no specific statement that Jesus was single.  Is what is written about Jesus more consistent with a married or single Jesus?  Although Jesus is said to have a mother, father, brothers, sisters, a cousin (John the Baptist), and twelve disciples, he is never mentioned as having a wife.  Moreover, according to John, while on the cross Jesus entrusted the care of his mother to his beloved disciple.  But John also reports that Mary Magdalene was there, too.  However, no further plans were made for her care.  This would be very odd if she was Jesus' wife.  The most powerful evidence that Jesus was single comes from a deafening silence.  In 1 Corinthians 9:5 Paul writes, "Do we [i.e., Paul and Barnabas] not have a right to take along a believing wife, as do the rest of the apostles, the brothers of the Lord, and Peter?"  It appears that all of Jesus' disciples, all of his blood brothers, and even the lead apostle Peter were married.  If Jesus had been married to Mary, we would certainly expect for Paul to have mentioned it here, since it would have provided the ultimate example for his point.

    Conclusion: The sober historian must go where the evidence points.  When asked whether Jesus was married, we have seen that the data used to support the conclusion that Jesus was married is very poor.  We have likewise seen that the data are both consistent with and point strongly to Jesus the bachelor.  Therefore, when reconstructing a biography of Jesus, the historian is forced to write the following: Marital Status: Single.

    END NOTE:

    i The Da Vinci Code,245-46.

    The Divinity of Jesus: Apostolic or Afterthought?

    One of the more important claims in The Da Vinci Code is the position that Jesus was regarded by the early Christians as a mortal man who was a great prophet, but nothing more.  In fact, the book and movie claim that the belief that Jesus is the Son of God was not held by Christians until the early fourth century.  Shortly afterward it was brought up at the Council of Nicea and voted on.  The new belief that Jesus is the Son of God was adopted, having passed by a narrow margin.  At least, this is what Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown tells us.

    But history is quite clear on the matter and it weighs heavily against Brown's view.  The Gospel of John was written in the first-century and very clearly presents Jesus as the divine Son of God, even God himself (1:1, 18; 8:58; 20:28).  The Synoptic Gospels, which includes Matthew, Mark, and Luke, do not state this as clearly to the modern reader.  Nevertheless, the first century Jewish reader would have recognized Jesus' claims to divinity in the Synoptic Gospels.

    Jesus' favorite manner of referring to himself was as the Son of Man.  This term had three meanings in first-century Judaism.  It could be a synonym for human.  It could be a manner of referring to oneself.  And it could refer to a figure known to first-century Jews as the future Son of Man.  This figure is described in Daniel 7:13-14 as one who will come on the clouds of heaven, be given an everlasting kingdom, and all will serve him.  Although a number of Greek words are translated serve, this particular word is used more than 130 times in the Old and New Testaments.  With only one exception, it always refers to an act that is done to or for a deity.  Jesus was aware that God is the only one who should be served in this manner (Matt 4:10; Lk 4:8).  Thus, it is noteworthy that although Jesus used the term Son of Man in all three senses, he especially saw himself as this future Son of Man

    In his trial confession Jesus tells all present that he is not only the Messiah and the Son of God, but also the Son of Man described by Daniel (Mark 14:61-64).  Those present knew exactly what he was saying.  When asked if he was the Messiah and Son of God, the essence of Jesus' answer was "You bet I am, and you know the Son of Man in Daniel 7?  That's me!  And you will see my Father and I return on the clouds of heaven and he will vindicate me of your judgement.  And you will serve me with the same honors and respect to whom only God is worthy, because my Father and I are made of the same stuff!"  It becomes very clear why Jesus was charged by the Jewish leaders with blaspheming God.  He was claiming divinity.

    Jesus claimed to be the future Son of Man in all four Gospels, including Mark, which may be the earliest Gospel and composed around A.D. 70 or even earlier.  But we can go back to an even earlier time when Jesus was thought of as divine.  Most scholars believe that Paul's letters are the earliest Christian writings available to us.  Surprisingly, he presents the divinity of Jesus more clearly than anyone.  In his letter to the Philippians (2:6-11), he says that Jesus had the nature and role of God prior to taking the nature and role of a slave.  However, after his crucifixion, God exalted Jesus back to the place he held before.  Then he cites a passage where God asserts that to the only God every knee will bow and every tongue confess (Is 45), and applies it to Jesus.  And what they will confess is that "Jesus Christ is Lord."  Although the title "Lord" could be used merely as an honorific title, it almost always refers to YHWH in early Christian confessions such as we have here.  For example, we find an early confessional formula in Romans 10:9, which states that anyone who confesses that "Jesus is Lord" and believes that God raised him from the dead will be saved.  Just four verses later, Paul quotes Joel 2:32, which states that whoever calls on the name of YWHW will be saved.  Therefore, the confessional formula in Romans 10:9 is saying that one must confess that Jesus is YHWH in order to receive salvation.  In Philippians 2:11, the name or title given (or rather returned) to Jesus to which every tongue will confess is that Jesus Christ is YHWH!

    In this article we have observed that Brown's claim that Christians did not regard Jesus as the Son of God prior to the fourth-century is easily debunked.  All four New Testament Gospels were penned in the first-century and all refer to Jesus as divine.  In addition, Paul is clear in his letters that Jesus is divine and these date to AD 60 and even earlier. 

    Parallelmania in The Da Vinci Code

    In 1988 I recall reading of an ancient religion older than Christianity in which a pagan deity was said to have been crucified between two thieves, wore a crown of thorns while on the cross, regarded by his followers to be the Good Shepherd and Savior of the world, and then rose from the dead three days later.  The story shocked me.  The details were too similar to have been a coincidence.  Had Christianity copied from another religion?

    In The Da Vinci Code, Brown claims that Christianity borrowed extensively from pagan religions. 

    Nothing in Christianity is original.  The pre-Christian God Mithras—called the Son of God and the Light of the World—was born on December 25, died, was buried in a rock tomb, and then resurrected in three days.1

    Even Christianity's weekly holy day was stolen from the pagans….Originally," [Langdon said], "Christianity honored the Jewish Sabbath of Saturday, but Constantine shifted it to coincide with the pagan's veneration day of the sun."  He paused, grinning.  "To this day, most churchgoers attend services on Sunday morning with no idea that they are there on account of the pagan sun god's weekly tribute—Sunday."2

    Can we find any truth in what Brown claims?  Did Christianity borrow from other religions?  Let's take a look.

    In 1988 I discovered after further review that there is indeed claims of dying and rising gods in other religions, some of which are very similar to the Christian records.  What is of great interest is that every single one of those accounts postdate Jesus by more than one hundred years!  While in a number of instances the religion in which the dying and rising god appears predates Jesus, the account where we find the dying and rising god postdates Jesus.  It appears that it was these other religions that were influenced by Christianity rather than the other way around.  A prime example is Brown's mention of Mithras.  The religion of Mithras predates Christianity.  But we do not have an early report of Mithras with all of the details mentioned by Brown.  I am unaware of any account, even a late one, of a Mithras who dies, is buried in a rock tomb, then resurrected in three days.

    T.N.D. Mettinger is a senior Swedish scholar who has written what is perhaps the most recent academic treatment of dying and rising gods in antiquity.  He states that the scholarly consensus is that none of these pre-date Christianity and that the few who think differently are viewed as an "almost extinct species."3   Although Mettinger himself admits to going against the consensus, believing there are as many as five pre-Christian accounts of dying and rising gods, he admits that two of the five are uncertain.  Of the remaining three, one is said to live again but is never seen by anyone including the gods, while another appears in a report that is unclear.  According to Mettinger, only one clear account of a dying and rising god predates Christianity.  However, he adds that this account is so different from the Christian account that no parallel can be said to exist.  In summary, the consensus of today's scholars agree that there are no pre-Christian accounts of dying and rising gods and the most recent treatment of the subject is from a scholar who disagrees but adds that none are parallels to the resurrection of Jesus.

    What about the day for Christian worship—Sunday?  Was the change from the Jewish Sabbath of Saturday to the Christian day of worship on Sunday the result of Constantine?  This is quite impossible.  Constantine lived in the fourth century and Christian worship on Sunday started long before then.  For example, around AD 55 the apostle Paul mentioned meeting on the "first day of the week" (1 Cor 15:2).  Luke mentions a similar practice a few years later (Acts 20:7).  These were written more than 200 years prior to Constantine's birth!

    Brown's historical inaccuracy is stunning.  So apparent is this to scholars that even the atheist New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman concludes,

    [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.4

    Some of Brown's claims are easier than others for the layperson to answer.  Although this is one of the more difficult to answer without further study, the above has been provided for you.  And remember that your colleagues making the claim shoulder the responsibility of supporting it.  Accordingly, anyone claiming that Christianity borrowed its major doctrines from pagan religions of its day shoulders the responsibility of supporting it, not just with a claim to the effect as Brown has done, but also by supplying references to the pre-Christian ancient writings which would lead to such a conclusion.  Demand these references from your friend and take heart.  They do not exist.

    END NOTES:

    1The Da Vinci Code, 232.
    2Ibid., 232-33.
    3Tryggve N.D. Mettinger. The Riddle of Resurrection: "Dying and Rising Gods" in the Ancient Near East (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 2001), 7.
    4Bart D. Ehrman. Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code (Oxford, 2004), 189-90.

    Is the Bible we have today what was originally written?

    By Mike Licona

    In The Da Vinci Code, one of the main characters named Teabing comments, "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, additions, and revisions.  History has never had a more definitive version of the book."1

    Teabing's statement begs two questions: Is the Bible we have today what was originally written and how did the collection of authoritative Christian writings today we call the New Testament come to be chosen?  In this article we will concern ourselves with the first question.  Tomorrow we will look at the other.

    We have all played the game of telephone.  In this game, the teacher whispers a statement in the ear of three people on the first row, who then whisper the same statement to the person behind them, who in turn whisper to the person behind them.  By the time the person in the back of the room receives the message, it is quite different than what was originally communicated by the teacher.  A skeptic could say, "If such a disparity can occur within five minutes in a room, how much more can occur in the alterations of biblical stories when continents are crossed and languages are changed over a span of 2,000 years?"

    While this is an interesting question, it simply will not do.  Let us suppose that the teacher asks the three students to whom she originally whispered her message to leave the room with her, having asked a fellow teacher to come and attempt to recover her statement to the three students.  How would that fellow teacher proceed?  Perhaps the first thing she would do would be to ask the people in the second row what was said to them. This, of course, is important because those closest to the original source are much more likely to have gotten it right. Her second action would be to compare the various statements of students further back and in different rows in order to try to ascertain where mistakes in communication were made.  After a little work, there is a high likelihood that the second teacher will be able to reconstruct the first teacher's original statement with surprising accuracy.  

    Reconstructing the original writings of an ancient author works much in the same way.  The closer we can get to the originals, the better.  And greater numbers of manuscripts ensure greater accuracy.  Historians feel fairly secure with the writings of Herodotus and Thucydides, both of whom wrote in the fifth-century B.C. and are regarded as two of our most prized ancient sources.  This security is based on eight manuscripts for each of these authors.  In either case, the earliest manuscript is dated at least 1,300 years after the original was written.  In contrast, the New Testament has 5,745 Greek manuscripts (as of 9/05), more than 10,000 Latin manuscripts, thousands of manuscripts of early translations of the New Testament writings, and more than a million citations of the New Testament found in the writings of the Church fathers.  Moreover, the earliest manuscript is dated within only a few decades after the original was written.  Indeed, we have no less than nine manuscripts of New Testament writings within 150 years of the originals.  The writings of the New Testament, by far, enjoy the best manuscript evidence of any ancient writings.

    Of course with many manuscripts come many variations, especially when numerous Church fathers paraphrased or attempted to recall a verse from memory.  These variations fall into four categories.  The first category includes spelling and nonsense readings probably due to circumstances such as a tired scribe writing by candlelight.  Seventy percent or more of all manuscript variations fall in this category.  The second largest category includes synonyms but where the meaning is unchanged.   For example, "Jesus Christ" appears in the text instead of "Christ Jesus."  The third category includes variations in the text that affect meaning but are not found in manuscripts that carry much weight.  The fourth category, and by far the smallest, includes variations that affect meaning and are found in decent manuscripts.  This fourth category is at best only one percent and it is questionable whether any Christian doctrine or practice is affected.  However, scholars are still usually able to weigh that manuscript against other manuscripts that may be better.  Other guidelines are likewise employed in order to arrive at what was probably written in the original. In some cases confidence is not very high.  But remember that these instances are rare and it is questionable whether any of them change Christian doctrine or practice.2

    In the end, even many of today's skeptical scholars would agree that the text of the New Testament we have today is at least 99 percent exact to what was originally written.  Only one percent remains in question and it is questionable whether any Christian doctrine or practice is affected by the difference.  Therefore, today's Christian can have absolute confidence that the New Testament they read and revere can be relied on as much today as it was in the first-century.

    END NOTES:

    1Dan Brown. The Da Vinci Code, 231.
    2This is a summary of some of the findings of Daniel Wallace in the new book by Komoszewski, Sawyer, and Wallace, Reinventing Jesus (Kregel, 2006).  I strongly recommend the book.