The Da Vinci Code is cracked

Richard Burridge, the Dean of King’s College London, talks to Nigel Bovey about The Da Vinci Code and the Bible. Read the first half of this interview here.

On a number of occasions, characters in The Da Vinci Code attack the essential Christian belief that Jesus is the Son of God. The academic Teabing claims that until a narrow vote in the Council of Nicaea in AD325 ‘Jesus was viewed by his followers as a mortal prophet, a great and powerful man, but a man nevertheless’, and that it was only subsequent to this vote that the Church decided Jesus was divine. Is this true?

As with other aspects of his book – including what he writes about King’s College – Dan Brown writes a half-truth, then twists it to make it more interesting. Yes, there was the Council of Nicaea in 325, which produced a draft of what we know as the Nicene Creed, confirming a number of issues about Jesus’ divinity which were under debate at the time.

The council, however, did not finalise the debate. It took the Council of Constantinople in 381 to produce a final version of the Nicene Creed, which is technically known as the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed.

The Constantinople Council focused on who Jesus is in relation to God, including the doctrine of the Trinity. It was the Council of Chalcedon in 451 that formalised who Jesus is in relation to us – his humanity and his divinity.

It is just plain wrong to say that the divinity of Jesus was settled by a vote in the 4th (or 5th) century, although, of course, its suits conspiracy theorists like Brown to put it in these terms.

So, what is the evidence in the New Testament for the divinity of Jesus?

Mark’s Gospel was written around AD 60, Matthew and Luke around AD 80 and John’s around AD 90-100. They all show a belief in the humanity and divinity of Jesus. Remarkably, the writers – Jewish believers who had been brought up on belief in one God – use language that is appropriate to God to describe a human being who lived and died among them less than a generation earlier.

Some of the most explicit statements about the divinity of Christ come in the writings of Paul which, written in the 50s and 60s, are even earlier than the Gospels.

When Paul talks about the ‘God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ’, for the word ‘Lord’ he uses the Hebrew word Adonai, a word in Jewish thinking (and remember Paul was a man who knew the scriptures well) which was only allowed to be used of God.

He talks about Jesus in the same terms he talks about God. He is careful to distinguish between God the Father, Jesus and the Spirit.

In his Letter to the Philippians, he describes Jesus as having the nature of God, yet emptying himself and taking on human form. Jesus humbles himself to death on a cross, returns to God and is exalted.

This is stunning. This is written in the 50s, within two decades of that very person being nailed to a cross in Jerusalem. It is complete nonsense to say that Christians didn’t believe Jesus was the Son of God until the 4th century. It is clearly there in the New Testament.

What is the trinity about?

The doctrine of the trinity – the belief that God is three persons in one – is an absolute mind-boggler. It was not conceived by a bunch of people sitting down with the Emperor Constantine to impose something on or to paganise the Church. It is an attempt to put into faltering human words what is at the core of the Christian experience.

The early believers were Jewish monotheists who had been brought up to believe, know, love and trust God the Creator. They found this same God coming to them through this human being who was walking among them – Jesus of Nazareth. They found him doing and saying things that only God could do and say. It is such a staggering idea that you grope after words to describe it.

After his death they found Jesus was alive again, then he ascended to heaven. But, although he wasn’t physically present, there was a presence in their worship that was inspiring them. The same person who was the Creator-God, the person of Jesus, is now with them in their worship and they can only call that person the Spirit of God.

And so this idea of the Father, the Son and the Spirit is first experienced by Christians in their lives and worship.

The difficulty comes when you try to describe an experience like that. Paul doesn’t attempt to write a theology of the trinity, he just talks of his experience of God the Father, of being forgiven and restored by Jesus Christ the Son and of being filled, empowered and inspired by the Spirit of God.

It is only in later centuries that theologians translate the experience into the theology and into a form of words – a creed – which summarises those beliefs. Many of the arguments, then and now, revolve around how Jesus can be truly divine and truly human. Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, differ from Christianity in their beliefs about the extent to which Jesus is, at one and the same time, fully human and fully divine.

One of the problems the ancients had was in believing Jesus was truly human. How could God, who is by definition above the physical world with its failings and corruption, enter the sheer messiness of the physical creation? Some got round this by saying that Jesus was just a spectre or a demigod.

The problem people have today isn’t the humanity of Jesus but his divinity. They see him as a great teacher, a good man, a miracle-worker, a prophet – but not the unique Son of God.

The crux of The Da Vinci Code is that a very human Jesus married Mary Magdalene and had a daughter by her, thus establishing a bloodline that exists today. Was Jesus married?

The texts neither say that he was, nor that he wasn’t. I suppose it is possible that Jesus was married and his wife died before he started his ministry. Most rabbis were married. Therefore, it would have been the expectation that Jesus would marry. It is not a question in the New Testament.

Would it have been unusual for Jesus to be unmarried in the Jewish society of his time?

We know that his human father, Joseph, was alive when he was a baby and appears not to be alive by the time Jesus starts his ministry. We can reasonably deduce that Joseph died in the intervening years, leaving a young wife Mary with Jesus and their own natural children.

It was the father’s responsibility to find a wife for his son and the first-born son was the first to be married. If Joseph died in Jesus’ childhood or in his early teens that might explain why Jesus was not found a wife in the normal course of events.

Following Joseph’s death it would have been Jesus’ responsibility as eldest son to find spouses for his brothers and sisters. He would have had to do that before he could think about being selfish and finding somebody for himself.

If this is what he did, and it is pure speculation, then this may explain why he didn’t begin his ministry until he was about 30, by which time he had bigger things on his mind.

Would it make any difference to the nature of Jesus if he had been married?

No. Jesus is fully human. People who have not been married are fully human. I think Jesus wasn’t married and he didn’t have children. The incarnation – the idea that he became human – does not mean that he had to experience every human state. That would have been as impossible for him as it is for us.

His mother Mary is mentioned in Acts, his brother James is mentioned in 1 Corinthians and wrote the Letter of James. These are part of his physical family. If he had a wife or children they would surely have been mentioned as well.

What does the Bible say about Mary Magdalene?

Luke’s Gospel (in Luke 8:2) records that Jesus cast seven devils out of Mary. Over the years people have thought she was a prostitute, but it doesn’t say so in the Bible.

She is clearly close to the inner circle of Jesus and goes around with him on his preaching tours. Luke lists her next after the 12 disciples.

Mary watched the crucifixion. She saw the tomb where Jesus was laid and all four Gospels mention her as the first witness of the resurrection. Considering that in those days a woman’s testimony was not accepted in a court of law, that’s remarkable.

The Bible tells us very little about what Jesus did between the resurrection and his ascension. This has opened the doors to fantasists and speculators. One theory goes that, after the crucifixion, the cool of the tomb revived Jesus, who rolled the stone aside, married Mary Magdalene and went to India. Another one is that Jesus divorced Mary and married a rich merchant woman, Lydia. Complete nonsense!

Because she was the first to witness the resurrection, some of the Gnostic writings (written later than the Gospels and contrary to Christian teaching) use Mary as an imaginary mouthpiece for the resurrected Christ.

In the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, for example, it is Mary who comforts the distraught disciples after the crucifixion, not Jesus. It is here the claim is made that Jesus loved her more than the other disciples, which Dan Brown quotes in The Da Vinci Code, along with a verse from the equally erroneous Gospel of Philip which says Jesus used to ‘kiss her often on the mouth’.

If The Da Vinci Code is based on half-truth and speculation, why is it so popular?

Human beings are curious animals. We want to be in the know. We hate being kept in the dark. We like to know secrets. The Da Vinci Code appeals to that part of us, as well as to the spiritual part which for many people is not expressed or nourished through traditional Christianity.

Dan Brown spends a lot of time weaving a story about the physical children of Jesus. The more vital issue, for me, is how we can become children of God spiritually through a personal faith in Jesus Christ.

Photo of Richard Burridge: Richard Hanson

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