Friday, May 19, 2006

The Code controversy

Some of you may not have heard about the controversy over the Da Vinci Code movie.

I mean, if for the last month you haven't watched TV, haven't gone within sight of any advertising kiosks or billboards, haven't looked at any city buses, haven't listened to Christian talk radio, read any newspapers, or surfed the Net to any news or religion sites - then you probably haven't heard about the controversy.

Given the amount of publicity, one thing nobody needs this blog to find is an article on the Da Vinci Code.

Still, I thought I would mention this one, which is more informative than the newspaper summaries I've seen but also very accessible:  A runaway bestseller that is far closer to pure fiction than to historical fiction by Ben Witherington III Biblical Archaeology Review May/June 2004. ( It references the book specifically rather than the film.)  Witherington comments on the amount of discussion in churches and religious groups that the book itself had provoked:

This might be surprising if the work was meant to be considered a work of pure fiction. However, the book begins with a page labeled “FACT,” which claims, among other things, that “all descriptions of ... documents ... in this novel are accurate.” This unfortunately is not true. And although this FACT page will surely give many readers the false impression that this novel is based on sound historical research, the truth is, it is based on all sorts of conjectures—some scholarly, some not. And although the book claims to be based on historical texts, especially the Gnostic Gospels, it is not based on history. The end result is closer to pure fiction than to historical fiction.

It is not surprising, however, that a powerful and well-written thriller, as good a page-turner as any John Grisham novel, could have such an impact in an age of widespread Biblical illiteracy and of ignorance of early Christian history. Come up with a conspiracy theory, implicate a major world organization like the Catholic Church, focus on long-held secrets, but withhold much of the evidence: Here you have the makings of a potent mix, especially in a culture that is already suspicious of powerful, large-scale institutions, be they governments, churches or something else.

What counts most in our postmodern culture is the power of your rhetoric, not the accuracy of your reporting or analysis. As one of the protagonists says towards the end of the novel: “It is the mystery and wonderment that serves our souls, not the Grail itself.” In other words, it is the thrill of the chase, not the thrill of the truth, that should satisfy us.

Christian fundamentalists are complaining about the film because it doesn't reflect a Christian fundamentalist view of Jesus.  No surprise there.  Witherington focuses more on how the story as presented departs from sound historical scholarship.

He points out that the canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) were actually earlier than the Gnostic Gospels, within the first century after Jesus' death.  The Gnostic heresy, as early Christians came to regard it, didn't arise until a few decades later.

Gnosticism has been the subject of a great deal of scholarly research the last fifty years, thanks in no small part to the discovery of Coptic Gnostic texts in the Nag Hammadi Library.  It was an early variation of the Christian religion which took a more mystical view of the faith than what came to be the mainstream tradition.  Some Gnostic groups seemed to have a more positive view of women than was normal in the Christian communities.  But by no means all of them did; some had a notably misogynistic tilt.

Witherington describes one way in which Dan Brown (the author of the novel) misread the history of Gnosticism:

One of the key indicators that Gnosticism is a later development is that it depends on the canonical Gospels for its substance when it comes to the story of Jesus. Even more tellingly, the Gnostic texts try to de-Judaize the New Testament story. By this I mean Gnosticism reflects a belief about the material world that comports with neither the Old Testament nor the New Testament, both of which affirm the goodness of God’s creation, of the material universe, of human flesh, and indeed the goodness of being male or female and the goodness of sexual intercourse between the sexes. Gnosticism by contrast sees spirit as good and matter as inherently tainted and evil. The Nag Hammadi community that created the Gnostic Gospels existed on the fringes of Christianity and seems to have been quite ascetical, to judge from some of their documents.

Dan Brown seems to be oblivious to this fact as he confuses the theological perspective found in the Gnostic Gospels with paganism, a sort of paganism that affirms not merely the goodness but the sacredness of sex as a way to divinize oneself or get in touch with the Sacred Feminine. This is far from an accurate interpretation of the Gnostic Gospels. Yet the book’s protagonist calls these gospels “the unaltered Gospels.” As a rule of thumb, it may be said, the more esoteric and less Jewish a gospel, the less likely it reflects the earliest stages of the gospel tradition.

Witherington also points out that Christians regarded Jesus as divine prior to the Council of Nicea (325 CE).  And that's correct.  He doesn't go into the various views of what that meant that were in play.  The mainstream Christian understanding of God as a Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit evolved over time, and didn't end with the Nicean Council.

Even today, the version of the basic Christian creed recognized by Western Christians and that of the Eastern Orthodox churches contains a difference in how the Trinity is described.  To Western Christianity, the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son; for the Eastern Church, the Spirit proceeds from the Father.  I can recall only one description that sounded like that distinction might mean something for how the faith is practiced, from the conservative Archbishop of Vienna.  (But please don't ask me to repeat it!)

The Emperor Constantine, Witherington also explains, was not the one who suppressed the non-canonical Gospels.  The canon was already fixed by the time of the Nicean Council.  He writes:

It is simply not true that the Gnostic Gospels were suppressed prior to the formation of the canon: They just weren’t recognized as authoritative either by the eastern or western church. Lack of recognition is not the same as suppression.

The key word there is "prior", because the Church and various States supporting it did suppress writings that it considered heretical.

Witherington has some very interesting things to say about the idea of Jesus being married, which gets into some comparisons of Christian and Gnostic views of sexuality.  He doubts Jesus was married because there would have been no reason for the Gospels to have hidden that fact.  It's more likely that Jesus was following a celebacy practice that was also found among some other Jewish groups of his time, like the Essenes.

He gets a chuckle out of the claim that the Nag Hammadi Library represents the earliest Christian literature found:

This one is a real howler, as any student who has taken an introductory course in the New Testament will recognize. The Dead Sea Scrolls are purely Jewish documents. There is nothing Christian about them. There is also no evidence that any of the Nag Hammadi documents were written before the late second century A.D.

Witherington's conclusion:

The book is simply a bad amalgam of old paganism and, strangely enough, old Gnosticism, brought to life by a masterful storyteller. It’s all quite entertaining, if it’s accepted for what it really is: not historical fiction, but pure fiction. And as thrilling as the book is, it can’t hold a candle to the thrill of discovering the historical truth about the events that have shaped the very contours of modern civilization.

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