The Da Vinci Code is cracked

In the first of two features (part 2 is here), Richard Burridge, the Dean of King’s College London, talks to Nigel Bovey about The Da Vinci Code and the Bible.

Dr Burridge, what is your overriding impression of The Da Vinci Code?

Firstly, it is a cracking good read, a real page-turner. One of its appeals is that we all like secrets. We suspect that ‘they’ are keeping something from us – that there’s a conspiracy of silence. The book also taps into a spiritual thirst. From the musical Godspell of the 1970s to last year’s The Passion of the Christ, people are fascinated by Jesus. Who is he? The book is seductive in that it promises hidden secrets to those in the know. And we all want to be in the know.

The central plot of the book is that the two main characters go hunting for the Holy Grail, having decoded secret messages found in Leonardo da Vinci’s painting The Last Supper. They make inquiries at King’s – ‘renowned for its electronic theological database’. Are you happy with the college’s inclusion?

Dan Brown makes a number of statements about King’s College which contradict his opening statement about accuracy. He has his two main characters catching a Tube at Temple station to travel to King’s, whereas Temple is the station nearest to King’s. He locates King’s next to the Houses of Parliament, when it is on the Strand. He places our Research Institute in Systematic Theology (which is part of our Department of Theology and Religious Studies) in a magnificent on-campus library with ‘one of the most complete and electronically advanced religious research libraries in the world’, complete with a tea-serving librarian and fellows conducting biblical research.

Our Research Institute and Theology Department are world-renowned but the rest is a figment of his imagination. As with so much of what follows, Brown is plausible but wrong. He may have visited the college website but I doubt he has ever visited King’s or, indeed, London.

This lack of accurate research – especially in light of his accuracy claim – poses a fundamental question: if Brown can’t be trusted on matters of fact, can he be trusted on matters of faith?

The leading academic in the story claims that rather than just the four Gospels, there were thousands of records of the life of Jesus in existence. He also says that more than 80 gospels were considered for the New Testament and that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were included to suppress the truth. As a Gospels specialist how accurate would you say this is?

This shows a complete misunderstanding of what actually happened. During the first generation after Jesus’ life, death and resurrection lots of stories and teachings of Jesus circulated in oral form – people talked about Jesus and passed them on to one another. There were also living witnesses – the apostles, disciples’ wives, lots of people who had seen Jesus. They may have had a collection of Jesus’ teachings that were written down in a document scholars call ‘Q’.

The first written accounts of Jesus’ life appeared a generation or two later. As one would expect, this was around the time the eyewitnesses were getting old or were being killed in persecutions. Most biblical scholars agree that, because of its rough-and-ready style, Mark was the first Gospel to be written and they date it in the AD60s, during the period of the persecutions under the Roman Emperor Nero. So we are talking only about 30 years after Jesus’ death. New Testament scholars say that Matthew, Luke and John belong in the period between the two Jewish wars, AD70-132, with the overwhelming majority placing them in the 80s or 90s. It is very unlikely, then, that there were thousands of different documents chronicling the life of Jesus.

‘Q’ sounds like something from a James Bond novel. Is it a code name or another code?

‘Q’ is scholars’ shorthand for the German word quelle, or ‘source’. What we mean is that some parts of Matthew and Luke are so similar that they suggest the writers had access to a common source (in the same way that students might access the same references for an essay). ’Q’ is a collection of the sayings of Jesus. There is nothing about his life story. We don’t know whether ‘Q’ existed as a written document or whether it was transmitted solely by word of mouth. Brown suggests that Jesus may have written ‘Q’. He most certainly did not.

Dan Brown quotes from the gospels of Mary Magdalene and of Philip. What kind of writings are these and why aren’t they in the New Testament?

In December 1945 an Arab peasant Mohammed Ali discovered some ancient manuscripts buried in the sands of Nag Hammadi, Egypt. Fifty-two survive, including the gospels of Mary, Thomas, Philip and various other secret texts.

Most of these are accounts of Jesus after his resurrection, with lots of new supposed revelations and teachings. They were written in the 2nd and 3rd centuries and reflect a belief in secret knowledge as the way to salvation. They are referred to as the Gnostic gospels, coming from the Greek word gnosis – ‘knowledge’.

They were not included in the New Testament or mainstream Christianity because they represented a wider belief system that was incompatible with the teachings of Jesus and with traditional Jewish teaching as outlined in the Old Testament.

The Gospel of Thomas is a collection of 114 purported sayings of Jesus. Some of them are very similar to sayings in Matthew, Mark and Luke; many are wild and wacky and out of keeping with what we know of Jesus. Like other Gnostic literature it is reckoned to have been written some 100 years after the New Testament Gospels and tells us nothing about Jesus.

So, wanting to give the reader secret insight is something Gnostic literature and The Da Vinci Code have in common?

The New Testament Gospels have silences. What, for instance, was Jesus like as a boy? What did he do between praying in the Temple at 12 and being baptised in the River Jordan at around 30? What did Jesus do in the 40 days after the Resurrection? These are valid enough questions and provide fertile ground for imagination and speculation.

The cornerstone of The Da Vinci Code is that Jesus was only human, married Mary Magdalene and fathered a daughter with her. Part of the Gnostic writings known as the infancy gospels, such as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, with its stories of the young Jesus killing a boy while playing, lengthening a piece of wood in a carpentry shop and making clay sparrows fly, are just as fanciful. They are myths and legends. Silence is always grist to the mill for conspiracy theorists.

Brown’s academic claims that, in an attempt to exert power, Emperor Constantine commissioned a new Bible which played down Jesus’ humanity and boosted claims of his divinity. Is that the way it happened?

It’s a great conspiracy theory to say that Constantine had a beauty contest of 80 or so gospels and decided to give one or two some cosmetic surgery to suppress the truth. But the facts simply do not bear that out. Constantine did call the first great Church council, the Council of Nicaea in 325, but the discussions were about the nature of Jesus, not a new Bible.

A number of gospels were circulating during this period. Just as people recommend helpful books to each other today, that’s what happened then. As one who believes that Scripture is divinely inspired, I’m not surprised that people found that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John contained the word of life. People’s lives were changed when they read these books and they gained acceptance as authoritative.

As early as the 2nd century, bishops and Church Fathers were referring to other books as the ‘so-called Gospel of…’ By 150AD Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were the four that were accepted by the widest number of early Christian communities, and they were being put together as the four-fold Gospel.

Is the Bible, as The Da Vinci Code puts it, the ‘product of man, not of God’?

Very few Christians believe that divine inspiration means verbal dictation. Muslims believe Allah dictated the Koran to Mohammed. Mormons believe the Book of Mormon was copied from golden plates sent from God. People who practise the occult believe in spirit writing, when someone is taken over by a spirit and writes or draws through channelling.

But the Christian understanding of God is that he respects human freedom so he wouldn’t take over a person. The best place to look for biblical inspiration is the Bible. In 2 Peter 1:20, 21 it says we ‘must understand this, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God’ (Revised Standard Version).

In 2 Timothy 3:16 we have the word ‘inspired’ – ‘All scripture is inspired by God …’ ‘Inspired’ comes from the Latin inspirare, ‘to breathe into’. The Bible itself makes it clear that it is a human production and breathed through by God. Few Christians believe the Bible was dictated. No Christian believes the Bible is simply a human product. All Christians think it is a matter of human beings being inspired by God to write it.

There is another side to inspiration. And that is, what does it do for the reader? It is through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that, when we read the Bible, God speaks to us.

I, along with many others, have known the words of the Gospels to leap out of the page and hit me between the eyes. Why are Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (pictured right) in the Bible and other gospels aren’t? Simple – they have power, the others don’t. When people take Jesus up on his promise, ‘Come to me all who labour and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest’ (Matthew 11:28), they find that it works! The amazing thing, the miracle if you like, is that it is the original Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, those that contain the real account of the historical Jesus – that still change people’s lives today.

To the casual reader, the theology of The Da Vinci Code might seem as reasonable – credible, even – as the Bible’s. Is The Da Vinci Code a threat to the Christian faith? Is it a barrier to belief in Jesus? It is persuasively written but it is most definitely not a credible threat to the Gospels. They are far more accurate and authoritative. It is, however, a marvellous opportunity to talk with people about Jesus. And a great reason for people to read the Gospels and find out who Jesus really is.

Continue reading: Part 2 of this interview.

Photo of Richard Burridge: Richard Hanson

This article first appeared in The War Cry and is reprinted with permission