I CAME across two books in the National Library recently.
The first one is written by Joseph Atwill, a former businessman turned self-taught student of Christian origins. His book Caesar’s Messiah tries to argue that Christianity was invented by intellectuals serving the Flavian Roman emperors (Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian) who reigned from 69 – 96 AD. His thesis is that the New Testament Gospels were written during this period, and that they were the work of the emperors’ men who created a new faith as an antidote against restless forms of messianic Judaism.
Atwill claims that Jesus was a typological figure created to represent Emperor Titus, and that the account of the public ministry of Jesus was structured after Titus’ military campaign in Judea. He tries to show the parallels. The book is built on very shaky foundations though the author tries to use a lot of footnotes and references to make it appear respectable and scholarly. We can nevertheless dismiss the book, but it does have some glowing support from a few academics. And any Christian reading such a book could have his faith shaken if he did not know enough of the New Testament or early church history.
The second National Library book has stronger academic credentials – the author, Bart Ehrman, is a well-known professor at the University of North Carolina, and the book, Lost Christianities, was published by Oxford University Press.
Ehrman claims that there were many forms of Christianity in the first few centuries of church history, each competing against the others. One of the groups, a small but powerful group Ehrman calls the “proto-Orthodox”, eventually emerged victorious and suppressed the other groups. They apparently formed the New Testament Canon and made sure that only the books that supported their views were included in the New Testament. Other books were destroyed or rejected. The other forms of Christianities were branded as heresies by the victorious group. These claims of Ehrman have been convincingly challenged in academic circles by respected Bible scholars and historians. However, what has been a largely unknown discussion among some scholars has now exploded into popular imagination through a novel and film that borrows heavily from these ideas.
Dan Brown’s book The Da Vinci Code has been on the top of best-seller lists. Forty million copies of the book in more than 20 languages have been sold. The book has been made into a film and will be shown globally, not only as entertainment but as a challenge to Christianity. Brown takes some of the ideas mentioned earlier, mixes them with highly questionable conspiracy theories and wild speculations, and makes several spurious claims that question the origins of Christianity.
While Brown’s book is a novel, he also teases the reader, whispering that what is in the book is based on actual facts. Brown makes several sensational claims. For example, he asserts that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and that the descendents of Jesus can be traced in a line of European kings and luminaries, including the famous Leonardo da Vinci.
The book claims that the truth about Jesus — that he was just a man — was suppressed by some powerful bishops in the early church, working in collusion with Emperor Constantine. They apparently kept more original and authentic forms of Christianity suppressed, calling them heresies, and permanently enshrined their theological inventions by putting together the New Testament, leaving alternative Gospels out.
According to Brown, it was only in the Council of Nicaea, a gathering of bishops in 325 AD, that Jesus was declared to be God. Before that the Church considered him to be only a man. It was also in the 4th century that the New Testament was put together deliberately by some powerful leaders to authorise their own teachings. These are serious allegations, and any Christian, let alone non-Christian, who does not know enough about early church history, may have his or her faith shaken by doubts created by the book’s clever deceptions.
Brown is not alone in his mission. Whether it is Atwill, Ehrman, Brown, or several others, people are not only throwing stones at the doors and windows of Christianity; they are now trying to uproot Christianity by going for its very foundations. If they can convincingly show that the New Testament is an unreliable, politically-motivated compilation, and that Jesus’ divinity was a later invention by some power-hungry leaders in the Church, then they would have cracked Christianity’s foundations. I am convinced, however, that they will fail in their attempts.
Did not the Lord Jesus, after the apostle Peter had confessed that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God, say, “on this rock (of Peter’s confession) I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it”? (Mt. 16:18). Christianity and the Church are built on the solid foundations of the teachings of Jesus and His apostles (Eph. 3:20). This foundation cannot be shaken.
What I am concerned about, though, are individual Christians who do not know very much about early Christianity. They know little about how the New Testament Canon was formed, about the early heresies, about people like Marcion and Arius, and Church Fathers such as Athanasius and Ireneaus, and Church Councils, such as the Council of Nicaea. Without this knowledge, they may read The Da Vinci Code, and wonder whether there is some truth to what the book is saying.
It is thus important that as new attempts are made to challenge the origins of Christianity, the Church must open its treasure chest of doctrine, Christian tradition and history, and make these available to its members. Christians must become better educated and reasonably well-informed about their own faith and history so that they can handle these increasing challenges.
Take, for instance, The Da Vinci Code. Those who know the facts can easily refute the fallacies carried in the book and film. The New Testament was not the arbitrary and politically-motivated compilation of a few people in the 4th century. Even in the New Testament books, there was mutual recognition of their authority, eg. Peter of Paul’s epistles (2 Pet. 3:15-16), and Paul of Luke’s Gospel (1 Tim.5:18). Many of the New Testament books were recognised as Scripture by several Church Fathers in the 2nd century onwards. This resonated with similar recognition widely seen in the early Church. These books were publicly read in worship services in many parts of the widely-dispersed Church.
What happened in the 4th century is that the Church confirmed what it had already recognised for a long time – that the New Testament books as we know them today had authority as Scripture, thus completing what God had revealed through the Old Testament. God had indeed finally and perfectly spoken through His Son (Heb. 1:1-3).
This brings us to the question of Jesus. Who was He really? Contrary to what Brown and others claim, Jesus was considered as both fully human and fully divine by the Church from the beginning of its history. Brown is wrong in saying that the divinity of Jesus was a 4th century invention, that a few bishops came together at the Council of Nicaea to vote for the idea, and that it was a close call.
Jesus identified Himself as the divine Son of God (Jn. 8:54-58; 10:29-33). What He said of Himself was passed on to His disciples, the Apostles. The Apostles preached this message and passed on this truth down the centuries. This was preserved in the preaching, worship, and written texts of the Church in the early centuries. There is overwhelming evidence for this that clearly shows the obvious fallacies of the false claims in The Da Vinci Code. In the first few centuries, well before the 4th century, the Church knew and worshipped Jesus as God.
When the Council of Nicaea was held, the bishops confirmed what the Church had believed all along – that Jesus is God. Only two of the 318 bishops failed to sign the document that became the Nicene Creed. It was not a close call as Dan Brown would have people believe.
The discovery of heretic Gnostic texts in Egypt in 1945 has revived interest in Gnosticism, paganism and ancient heresies. Some of these texts claim to be Gospels, e.g. The Gospel of Thomas and The Gospel of Philip. Dan Brown relies heavily on these texts which were written much later than the New Testament Gospels. They are unreliable, poisoned by heretical Gnostic ideas, and contain speculative material. Even if we were to consider them seriously, we would find Brown’s reading of them even more slippery than the texts themselves. For example, Brown uses The Gospel of Philip to claim that Jesus was married. But a careful reading of the damaged text shows that it does not say so.
Brown also depends on other forged documents supplied by a French conman, who has confessed to this in court. He makes sensational claims on art pieces, church architecture, and religious symbols that cannot stand the scrutiny of scholarly examination or even common sense.
But why is The Da Vinci Code so popular? I suppose people love conspiracy theories, and here the theory is that the Church has suppressed the truth and built itself on a “lie”. There are also people, including academics, whose antipathy against the Church makes them try all kinds of things to discredit, insult, or ridicule the Church and its faith.
And then, there is the old serpent, the father of lies, whose specialty is to question the Word of God and to plant doubts in human minds. Remember the Serpent and Eve (Gen. 3:1-5)? The Serpent has not given up his game even though he knows he has lost. He continues to whisper lies and doubts into people’s ears. He knows how to whisper through popular global media, and people may find his silky-smooth voice very enticing or even convincing.
What then can we do about it? Firstly, we should educate Christians on our roots. Because many in the Church are not familiar with our roots or do not care much for them, the enemy knows our weakness. We must therefore open the treasure store of the Church that contains the family heirlooms of doctrine and church history — our family history, and let church members get acquainted with them. The more we do this, the more resilient we will be.
Secondly, we must see this as a great opportunity for us to share our faith and to give a reason for our hope. Non-Christians are being led to think about the Bible and Jesus. Should we not see this as a golden opportunity? The evangelists and apologists among us must get to work. And every Christian must make use of the opportunity to share and explain – at home, at the office, and other places.
Books like The Da Vinci Code may be seen as a threat and a vehicle of Satan’s seductive and deceptive whispers. But they also provide an opportunity for the Church to give its clear and convincing testimony about Jesus — the only Saviour of the world, the divine Son of God, and the faultless Foundation of the Church.
Bishop Dr Robert Solomon has just written a book debunking the lies and myths of The Da Vinci Code. His book is entitled Faith & Fiction: The Fallacy of The Da Vinci Code and the Facts of Christianity. Published by Armour Publishing, it is available at major Christian and general bookstores at $10 a copy.
What Christians can do about books such as The Da Vinci Code
OPEN OUR TREASURE STORE, SHARE AND EXPLAIN
◆ Educate Christians on our roots. We must open the treasure store of the Church that contains the family heirlooms of doctrine and church history — and let church members get acquainted with them. The more we do this, the more resilient we will be.
◆ We must see this as a great opportunity for us to share our faith. Non-Christians are being led to think about the Bible and Jesus. The evangelists and apologists among us must get to work. Every Christian must make use of the opportunity to share and explain – at home, at the office, and other places.