In Dan Brown's best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code, villain Leigh Teabing explains to cryptologist Sophie Neveu that at the Council of Nicea (A.D. 325) "many aspects of Christianity were debated and voted upon," including the divinity of Jesus. "Until that moment," he says, "Jesus was viewed by His followers as a mortal prophet. … a great and powerful man, but a man nonetheless."
Neveu is shocked: "Not the Son of God?"
Teabing explains: "Jesus' establishment as 'the Son of God' was officially proposed and voted on by the Council of Nicea."
"Hold on. You're saying that Jesus' divinity was the result of a vote?"
"A relatively close one at that," Teabing says.
A little later, Teabing adds this speech: "Because Constantine upgraded Jesus' status almost four centuries after Jesus' death, thousands of documents already existed chronicling His life as a mortal man. To rewrite the history books, Constantine knew he would need a bold stroke…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 godlike. The earlier gospels were outlawed, gathered up, and burned."
Unfortunately, this passage of fiction has raised questions for many readers because it appears to be an accurate historical summary embedded in an otherwise fictitious account. It is anything but that.
The novel expresses in popular form what some scholars have been arguing or implying for years. Twenty years ago, Elaine Pagels wrote The Gnostic Gospels, a book that introduced the larger public to the other "Christian" writings that arose in the early centuries of the church. Regarding the books of the New Testament, Pagels asked, "Who made that selection, and for what reasons? Why were these other writings excluded and banned as 'heresy'?"
For Pagels this wasn't a rhetorical question, but one designed to get readers to question the very authority of the New Testament.
Other books—like The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle (2003) and The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament (1997)—have been similarly skeptical.
The issue of canon—what books constitute the final authority for Christians—is no small matter. If the critics are correct, then Christianity must indeed be radically reinterpreted, just as they suggest. If they are wrong, traditional Christians have their work cut out for them, because many seekers remain skeptical of claims to biblical authority.
Let us examine whether revisionist authors' claims stand up to the historical test.
'Heresy' In the Beginning
Pagels is a history of religions professor at Princeton University. Her book explores a number of ancient texts that teach Gnosticism—the collective name for many greatly varying sects that believed that matter is essentially evil and spirit good, and that God is infinitely divorced from the world.
Where Judaism and Christianity emphasize the role of faith and works in salvation, and salvation of both body and spirit, gnostics taught that the soul's salvation depended on the individual possessing quasi-intuitive knowledge (gnosis) of the mysteries of the universe and of magic formulas.
Pagels admits that the gnostic texts were rejected by the orthodox, but she claims that it wasn't until the period of great councils (325 and after) that "orthodoxy" was defined as opposed to "heresy." Thus fourth-century religious politics decided "orthodoxy." As one character in The Da Vinci Code puts it, "Anyone who chose the forbidden gospels over Constantine's version was deemed a heretic. The word heretic derives from that moment in history."