After church on Easter Sunday, my wife and I hosted our second annual "Easter Musicians Meltdown" for a few exhausted organists and choir directors. One guest told me that his congregation was in an uproar over The Da Vinci Code. People who had joined the church the previous Easter were already talking about leaving it because of what they had "learned" in Dan Brown's bestseller. When the novel was published in April 2003, most Christian leaders dismissed the book's fabrications, because it was, after all, fiction. But as stories like the one above started circulating, scholars and pastors began to feel the need to reassure the rattled.

A front-page article in the April 27 New York Times announced that 10 books were being released "with titles that promise to break, crack, unlock or decode 'The Da Vinci Code.' " Pre-publication copies of four of those books have come across my desk (two with requests for endorsements).

The Da Vinci Code is full of fabrications, ranging from silly interpretations of Leonardo Da Vinci's paintings to unsupported charges that Constantine brutally repressed competing gospels. (Read Ben Witherington's "Why the 'Lost Gospels' Lost Out" on page 26 for the details on that claim.) In addition, Brown's book alleges that:

  • Mary Magdalene and Jesus got married and had a daughter, and that they settled in the south of France and became the progenitors of the Merovingian kings;
  • The real Holy Grail that bore Jesus' blood was not a chalice but Mary Magdalene's womb;
  • The Catholic church has harshly suppressed this truth that would en-danger ecclesiastical power by proving that Jesus was merely human;
  • A secret organization called the Priory of Sion guarded the truth about the Magdalene and the evidence to prove it (documents once thought to prove the Priory's existence are now known to be forgeries);
  • The church suppressed "the divine feminine" in order to keep sex dirty and the church masculine.

The Antidote Brown's calumnies against Christianity are toxic, and the history and theology in these new books can serve as an antidote to the novel's poison.

Leading the pack in generating publicity is Dallas Seminary's Darrell Bock, whose book weathered a pre-publication legal challenge from The Da Vinci Code's publisher. Bock has also garnered publicity in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, where John J. Miller called his book "the best of the bunch" and concluded, "Mr. Bock shows that Mr. Brown's central contentions are based on evidence so thin that calling them conjecture would be a compliment."

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Bock gives careful consideration to Jesus' supposed marriage to Mary Magdalene. Although he concludes that Jesus was not married, Bock makes the important point that marriage would not have posed a theological problem. Brown claims that marriage would prove Jesus was human. But that is indeed orthodox teaching. Jesus was not, as the Docetists taught, a spirit being who only appeared to be human. His humanity was full and complete, as was his divinity.

Curiously, Brown seems also to think that the (allegedly suppressed) Gnostic texts would have favored a sexy Jesus. But Gnosticism consistently devalued bodily existence and stressed the inherently evil nature of material creation.

Bock reveals the agenda Brown and revisionist scholars promote with the Gnostic gospels: "The real secret … behind The Da Vinci Code … is nothing less than a conscious effort to obscure the uniqueness and vitality of the Christian faith and message."

Those who promote the Gnostic gospels as an alternative among a chorus of varied voices in early Christianity play on hypermodern cultural themes of diversity and subjectivism. Brown and his friends, however, cannot have it both ways: they cannot argue that the canonical Gospels were wrong and the Gnostic message was right, while also promoting the essential equality of all points of view. Such is the inner contradiction of the gospel of diversity.

Breaking the Da Vinci Code focuses on the issues closest to a New Testament scholar's heart: Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and the formation of the canon. Of the four books, Bock's deals most systematically with those themes. Ben Witherington's The Gospel Code (to be released in July) covers much the same territory but with less focus and a more personal and playful tone.

Like Bock, Witherington is baffled by the contradictions. In the name of diversity, champions of Gnosticism promote an elitist movement. And in the name of feminism, they promote a Jesus who saves females by making them males (Gospel of Thomas 114). These texts are hardly an appropriate vehicle for the "sacred feminine."

Witherington also reviews the development of the idea of God as Father. He concludes that there was no "suppression of the divine feminine" in ancient Israel, because God was imagined as spirit and not as either male or female. Christian language for God as Father derives, not from patriarchy or pagan influence, but instead from the intimate relationship between the divine Son and the one who has begotten him.

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For Witherington, the fundamental danger of the new Gnosticism is the focus on the self. "The problem with the advice 'be yourself' or 'be your own person,' " he writes, "is that none of us are ourselves, we all have sinned and fallen short of God's glory, and we need the redemption Christ offers us, not another self-help program."

Pastoral polemic Cracking Da Vinci's Code, by James L. Garlow and Peter Jones, is a pastoral polemic. Together they have written an entertaining attack on The Da Vinci Code that will be easily understood by average churchgoers.

Garlow and Jones focus much more on the sexual aspects of The Da Vinci Code than do the other books. Dan Brown, in making claims about Jesus, Mary Magdalene, the New Testament, and the church, promotes a sexual agenda. Modern sexual libertinism is blended with themes from ancient fertility cults to argue that everyone has access through sex to a direct, unmediated experience of the divine. The church, possessive about access to God, suppressed this so-called truth.

Ecstasy and transcendence have indeed been associated with sex for centuries. Several years ago, I visited the site in Turkey of an ancient temple to Cybele, the great mother goddess whose worship promised fecundity. It is one thing to read about such cults in scholarly texts, and quite another to visit a site like this. My aha moment came when the senior archaeologist excavating the site pointed to niches in the wall behind the altar, places where male worshipers who had emasculated themselves in an ecstatic frenzy would deposit their testicles as an offering. Of course, that is not what today's sexual and spiritual left want us to remember about goddess worship.

Garlow and Jones give their own account of how sex makes us god-like, and they offer a helpful, though quick, review of how Christianity has ennobled and enabled women who were bound by pagan cultures.

As pastors and polemicists, Garlow and Jones cast their message in culture-war terms, but like good evangelists, they cap their argument with an appeal for a decision.

Erwin Lutzer's The Da Vinci Deception also proceeds from an evangelist's heart. Thus Lutzer, pastor of Chicago's Moody Memorial Church, begins his book with Jesus' question, "Who do you say that I am?" and ends with an altar call: "As I close this book, I invite you to bow before Christ."

But Lutzer is widely known as a teaching pastor. Packed between his evangelistic bookends is a solid series of reality checks, comparing The Da Vinci Code's claims against the clear record of history.

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Not surprisingly, Lutzer's book covers much the same ground as the others. His salient theme, however, is reasons for belief: "Why would anyone accept the Gnostic gospels rather than the verifiable account of the canonical Scriptures?" he asks. "The answer can only be found in the spirit of the times: the desire for doctrinal diversity, the pressure of feminism, and the dogged insistence that we can have our own direct experience of God without the mediation of Christ. Only this desire to be 'trendier than thou' can explain the mindless rush … "

The Da Vinci Code offers churches an unprecedented educational opportunity. Pastors now have a reason to teach the story of how the New Testament came to be. Churches now have a reason to examine the real Mary Magdalene—not a prostitute, but a disciple for whom the Lord showed special regard and who under Providence became the first witness to the resurrection. We also have a new reason to talk about how marital sex can be holy and allow us to participate in God's ongoing act of creation. Each in its own way, these books can equip congregations to build up the faithful.

Related Elsewhere:

Darrell Bock's Breaking the Da Vinci Code, Ben Witherington III's The Gospel Code, James L. Garlow & Peter Jones's Cracking Da Vinci's Code, and Erwin W. Lutzer's The Da Vinci Deception are this month's selection for CT's Editor's Bookshelf. The titles are available from and other book retailers.

Also on our site today:

Speaking in Code | A roundup of the many anti-Da Vinci Code books from Christian publishers. Compiled by Ted Olsen
Parody: The Da Vinci Rejects | What other publishers could have done to respond to Dan Brown's bestseller. By Ted Olsen

Other articles on our site related to the Da Vinci Code include:

Why the 'Lost Gospels' Lost Out | Recent gadfly theories about church council conspiracies that manipulated the New Testament into existence are bad-really bad-history. (May 21, 2004)
Weblog: Time Goes Gnostic (Dec. 16, 2003)
Breaking The Da Vinci Code | So the divine Jesus and infallible Word emerged out of a fourth-century power-play? Get real. (Nov. 07, 2003)
Thanks, Da Vinci Code | Tbe book sends us back to Christianity's "founding fathers"—and the Bible we share with them (Nov. 14, 2003)
The Good News of Da Vinci | How a ludicrous book can become an opportunity to engage the culture. (Jan. 05, 2004)
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Leading with Conclusions | Much of Jesus scholarship is about neither the historical Jesus nor good scholarship. (April 29, 2002)
Historical Hogwash | Two books—one new, one newly reissued—debunk false claims about the "real" Jesus. (July 13, 2001)
No More Hollow Jesus | In focusing so intently on Jesus the man, Peter Jennings' report missed the big picture. (July 3, 2000)
Jennings on Jesus | ABC anchorman Peter Jennings discusses what moved him as he filmed a special on the life of Christ. (June 26, 2000)
Rightly Dividing Biblical History | A journalist makes a case for Scripture's reliability. (May 30, 2000)
Liberator of the West | Aside from stumbling over John, Thomas Cahill's assessment of the historical Jesus is surprisingly sane. (Apr. 3, 2000)
The New Theologians | N. T. Wright is making scholarship a tool for the church. (Feb. 8, 1999)
The Jesus I'd Prefer to Know | Searching for the historical Jesus and finding oneself instead. (Dec. 7, 1998)
Doubting Thomas's Gospel (June 15, 1998)
Reconstructing Jesus | The rewards of N. T. Wright's historical recovery of Jesus are great—but he raises more questions than he answers. (Apr. 27, 1998)
Grave Matters | Take away the Resurrection and the center of Christianity collapses. (Apr. 6, 1998)
Where Have They Laid My Lord? | A pilgrim's tale of two tombs. (Mar. 3, 1997)
Who Killed Jesus? | After centuries of censure, Jews have been relieved of general responsibility for the death of Jesus. Now who gets the blame? (Apr. 9, 1990)

Our sister publication, Christian History & Biography, compiled a special section on the Da Vinci Code.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Editor's Bookshelf
David Neff
David Neff was editor in chief of Christianity Today, where he worked from 1985 until his retirement in 2013. He is also the former editor in chief of Christian History magazine, and continues to explore the intersection of history and current events in his bimonthly column, "Past Imperfect." His earlier column, "Editor's Bookshelf," ran from 2002 to 2004 and paired Neff's reviews of thought-provoking books and interviews with the authors.
Previous Editor's Bookshelf Columns:

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