Cracks in The Da Vinci Code
Brown, Dan, The Da Vinci Code: A Novel. New York: Doubleday, 2003, 454 pp.
“All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.” — The Da Vinci Code
The mere fact that I’m a historian of early Christianity does not mean I don’t like picking up an occasional pulp-thriller, checking my brains at the door, and spending a couple of evenings riding a surging wave of cheesy prose down an implausible course of events that eventually breaks with the bad guy getting his comeuppance, and the good guy getting whatever it was he was looking for, and the girl he was looking for it with.
When one is in my position, as a historian that is, one must learn early on, if one wants to embark on such escapist adventures, to wink at great heaping multitudes of blatant historical errors. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is fantastic as a flash-in-the-pan pulp thriller. It takes you on a white-knuckle ride, without ever once distracting you with a well-turned phrase or a round character. Not only so, but its plot is also a good deal tighter than many of its market competitors. Still the only reason I can conceive of anyone wanting to doThe Da Vinci Code twice is that they forgot what it was about.
Now if anyone with literary expertise should wish to challenge my assessment of the artistic merit of Brown’s novel, I should be the first to surrender to better judgment, since my expertise does not lie in that direction. If The Da Vinci Code is literature, it is in any case not the kind of literature I turn to when I’m in the mood for literature. But then, what do I know? Where I will venture an opinion is in the area of early Christian history. And here Brown’s performance hovers somewhere between the pathetic and the reprehensible.
The natural response to this is: Who cares? We already said that when it comes to handling history, pulp fiction writers as a rule do very poorly. So why should we expect Brown to be any different? The only reason is the unfortunate claim he makes at the beginning of the book: “All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.” Very well then, let’s see how well Brown does at describing an early Gnostic text entitled the Gospel of Philip. On pages 245-46 of The Da Vinci Code we read:
Teabing located a huge book and pulled it toward him across the table. The leather-bound edition was poster-sized, like a huge atlas. The cover read: The Gnostic Gospels. Teabing heaved it open, and Langdon and Sophie joined him. Sophie could see it contained photographs of what appeared to be magnified passages of ancient documents—tattered papyrus with handwritten text. She did not recognize the ancient language, but the facing pages bore typed translations.
“These are photocopies of the Nag Hammadi and Dead Sea scrolls, which I mentioned earlier,” Teabing said. “The earliest Christian records. Troublingly, they do not match up with the gospels in the Bible.” Flipping to the middle of the book, Teabing pointed to a passage. “The Gospel of Philip is always a good place to start.”
Sophie read the passage:
And the companion of the Saviour is Mary Magdalene. Christ loved her more than all the disciples and used to kiss her often on her mouth. The rest of the disciples were offended by it and expressed disapproval. They said to him, “Why do you love her more than all of us.”
The words surprised Sophie, and yet they hardly seemed conclusive. “It says nothing of marriage.”
“Au contraire.” Teabing smiled, pointing to the first line. “As any Aramaic scholar will tell you, the word companion, in those days, literally meant spouse.” Landon concurred with a nod.
Despite all Brown’s lofty pretensions about accuracy, he makes a number of serious mistakes here. We shall address each in turn.
(1) A book containing the texts from Nag Hammadi and the Dead Sea scrolls, would not have a cover stamped, The Gnostic Gospels, unless the people who did the stamping were ignorant of the contents. Although the Nag Hammadi texts do include some Gnostic gospels, the Dead Sea Scrolls do not. They do not contain any gospels, nor were any of them written by Gnostics. The Dead Sea scrolls are made up exclusively of pre-Christian Jewish texts.
(2) The Nag Hammadi texts and the Dead Sea scrolls, do not represent the “earliest Christian records.” The Dead Sea scrolls do not represent Christian records at all, nor do they so much as mention Christianity or the names of anyone associated with its beginnings. As to the Nag Hammadi texts, they date from the second half of the fourth century. Hence a large body of New Testament manuscript material predates them.
(3) As to whether the Gospel of Philip teaches that Mary Magdalene was the spouse of Jesus, Teabing tells Sophie: “As any Aramaic scholar will tell you, the word companion, in those days, literally meant spouse.” This is interesting since the Gospel of Philip was most likely written in Greek and now survives only in one Coptic manuscript. As it turns out, tracing this statement back through Brown’s probable sources nicely illustrates just how bad his scholarship really is.
The Da Vinci Code repeats a number of erroneous claims also found in a 1997 book by conspiracy theorists Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince, entitled The Templar Revelation: Secret Guardians of the True Identity of Christ. Several of the shared assertions are so bizarre and idiosyncratic that it is hard to imagine that Dan Brown could have found them anywhere else. In other words, although it is possible that both The Templar Revelation and The Da Vinci Code relied on some other conspiracy book, it seems most likely that the latter simply relied upon the former. Indeed Brown even includes The Templar Revelation on his character Teabing’s bookshelf as a volume by one of the “scores of historians” who are said to support the weird ideas promoted in The Da Vinci Code (p. 253).
In its explanation of the Gospel of Philip passage quoted above, The Templar Revelation says that “the original Greek word actually meant ‘consort’ or sexual partner” (p. 65). How Dan Brown moved from “original Greek” to Aramaic, as the language of the Gospel of Philip, is anybody’s guess. But where Picknett and Prince found out about the meaning of the “original Greek” for a passage that exists only in Coptic is at least a question that we can answer.1 This is because they provide a footnote that gives their alleged sources. But before we consult it we turn aside to a more recent book by Lynn Picknett that makes the same claim yet is more explicit in telling us just exactly which “original Greek” word she and Prince had in mind. On page 77 of her 2003 book, Mary Magdalene: Christianity’s Hidden Goddess, Picknett speaks of, “this Greek word koinonos, which specifically means ‘consort’ or companion of a sexual nature, an intimate partner….” It is koinonos that was being referred to in The Templar Revelation as well. The footnote alluded to a moment ago points us to two different sources. The first is page 40 from Susan Haskins’ Mary Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor (originally, HarperCollins, 1993). There is nothing on page 40 of my edition of Haskins’ book (Riverhead Books, 1995) that supports the claim of Picknett and Prince. But this may only be because my edition has different page numbers than the one they were using. Thus on page 37 of my 1995 edition I find the statement Picknett and Prince must have had in mind:
The Greek word koinonōs used to describe Mary Magdalen, whilst often rendered as “companion,” is more correctly translated as “partner” or “consort,” a woman with whom a man has had sexual intercourse.
Note that apart from the fact that Haskins has incorrectly transliterated the Greek—it should be koinōnos not koinonōs — we nevertheless find her somewhat guarded in her statements, noting as she does that koinōnos was “often rendered as ‘companion.’” All such caution is tossed to the wind, however, when Haskins’ basic claim is taken over by Picknett and Prince and reframed in more categorical terms. On the other hand when one wants to know where Haskins came up with her understanding of how koinōnos ought to be “more correctly translated,” one is again proffered the guidance of a footnote, in which Haskins directs: “See R. McL. Wilson, The Gospel of Philip, London, 1962, p. 35, on the word koinonōs as ‘consort.’” But when we turn to that place we simply find Wilson’s actual translation of the passage using the word “consort,” after which koinōnos is given in parentheses.
Interestingly, it is to this same work by R. McL. Wilson that the authors of The Templar Revelation direct their readers as the second source in their footnote supporting the assertion that, “the original Greek word actually meant ‘consort’ or sexual partner.” This time however they direct us not to p. 35, but to pages 96-98. In that place, Wilson’s translation of the passage is reproduced (again with the word koinōnos following in parentheses), and is accompanied by commentary in which Wilson actually does speculate on the possibility that Magdalene might be conceived of in the Gospel of Philip as Jesus’ consort in some sense. Here is what he says:
The statement in both passages that she was the consort of Christ is plausibly explained by Schenke (op. cit. 34) on the basis of Valentinian theory, according to which there are three Christs: the aeon Christ as the consort of the Holy Spirit in the Pleroma, the Saviour as consort of Sophia, and the earthly Jesus. It would be natural for them to assume that the latter had a consort, and Mary is the obvious choice. A starting-point for such ideas is provided by John xi. 5: Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus.
Significantly, Wilson makes no attempt to derive this idea from what “the original Greek” word koinōnos “actually meant” (as in Picknett & Prince) or from how it ought to be “more correctly translated” (as in Haskins).
That Wilson did not attempt to build such a case on the meaning of the word itself in Greek is not surprising. Koinōnos occurs ten different times in the New Testament (Matt 23:30; Luke 5:10; 1 Cor 10:18 and 20; 2 Cor 1:7 and 8:23; Phlm 17; Heb 10:33, 1 Pet 5:1; 2 Pet 1:4). Not once, however, does it have anything to do with either a sexual or a marital bond. What our authors should have done to begin establishing the possible range of meaning for koinōnos is to consult the most recent edition of the Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, and Danker’s, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, the standard scholarly lexicon of Early Christian Greek, or of Liddell, Scott, Jones, and McKenzie’s, Greek-English Lexicon, the standard scholarly lexicon of classical Greek. Perhaps the reason they did not mention these standard works is that neither of them provides them with the least shred of support for their assertion that koinōnos refers especially to sexual or marital relationships.2 The interesting thing is that at the end of the day we are still just as much in the dark about where Haskins got her idea about how koinōnos ought to be “more correctly translated” as we were at the beginning.
So, then, how can we describe the research of the author of The Da Vinci Code? During my seemingly endless sojourn working on my doctorate in the western wastes of New York State (Buffalo/Niagara), I encountered an idiom used by African-Americans there that I particularly liked. When someone had a reputation for exaggerating to the point of blatant misrepresentation, they were said to “put a little yeast into everything they say.” The idiom seems to apply very aptly in the present connection:
(1) Susan Haskins “put a little yeast” into what Wilson said.
(2) Lynn Picknett & Clive Prince “put a little more yeast” into what Wilson
and Haskins said.
(3) Dan Brown “put yet a little more yeast” into what Picknett & Prince
The result of this process, of course, was not the accurate description of ancient documents, but pseudo-historical claptrap cubed.
I close with a quote from the “Jots and Tittles” section of a recent issue of the Bible Review: “None of the Gospels, canonical or non-canonical, ever refer to Mary Magdalene as Jesus’ wife, or say that Jesus was married” (Feb 2004, p. 10). The comment was made, by the way, in the context of a discussion of the accuracy of claims made in The Da Vinci Code.
One of the most famous paintings in the world is Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper. Leonardo painted it on the refectory wall of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy, between 1495 and 1498. In this painting Leonardo attempts to capture the reactions of the twelve following Jesus’ declaration: “Amen, amen I say to you, one of you shall betray me” (John 13:21).3 To establish compositional balance in the picture Leonardo grouped the twelve apostles into four groups of three, two on either side of Jesus. It is the threesome immediately at Jesus’ right hand — to the left of him as we view the picture — that plays the most important role in The Da Vinci Code. There we see the figures of John, Judas, and Peter. The triangular structure of this grouping is derived from Peter’s leaning forward to ask John a question and John’s leaning back to hear it. In this Leonardo is following the cue of John 13:24: “Simon Peter therefore beckoned to him, and said to him: Who is it of whom he [Jesus] speaketh?” In the Gospel story, John then asks the question of Jesus and is told: “He it is to whom I shall reach bread dipped. And when he had dipped the bread, he gave it to Judas Iscariot” (John 13:26). And so, Judas is portrayed clutching the money bag in his right hand (see John 13:29), with his left hand hovering over a piece of bread on the table (apparently Leonardo alludes here as well to the words of Jesus in Matthew 26:23: “He that dippeth his hand with me in the dish, he shall betray me” [cf. Mark 14:20]). The above interpretation is the standard one given by credible art historians since the time of Leonardo. The Da Vinci Code, however, offers another, very novel interpretation of this group of figures, one that it shares with, and probably derives from, an earlier book by conspiracy theorists Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince, entitled The Templar Revelation: Secret Guardians of the True Identity of Christ (1997). The Da Vinci Code explicitly praises The Templar Revelation on page 253.
On page 243 of The Da Vinci Code we encounter the following dialogue:
Sophie made her way closer to the painting, scanning the thirteen figures — Jesus Christ in the middle, six disciples on His left, and six on His right. “They’re all men,” she confirmed.
“Oh?” Teabing said. “How about the one seated in the place of honor, at the right hand of the Lord?”
Sophie examined the figure to Jesus’ immediate right, focusing in. As she studied the person’s face and body, a wave of astonishment rose within her. The individual had flowing red hair, delicate folded hands, and the hint of a bosom. It was, without a doubt … female.
“That’s a woman!” Sophie exclaimed.
Teabing was laughing. “Surprise, surprise. Believe me, it’s no mistake. Leonardo was skilled at painting the difference between the sexes.”
Sophie moved closer to the image. The woman to Jesus’ right was young and pious-looking, with a demure face, beautiful red hair, and hands folded quietly….
“Who is she?” Sophie asked.
“That, my dear,” Teabing replied, “is Mary Magdalene.” (p. 243)
According to The Da Vinci Code, Mary Magdalene was the wife of Jesus, and their offspring included the Merovingian kings of France. Hence Mary Magdalene, and not the last-supper cup, was the Holy Grail, in that her womb served as the chalice from which the royal blood of Jesus flowed forth in a royal posterity. A mysterious society called the Priory of Sion (Leonardo was supposedly served as one-time Grand Master [p. 204]) was dedicated to protecting “the true history of Jesus,” which the Roman Catholic Church throughout its long history had energetically tried to suppress. This ancient antagonism between Rome and the Priory of Sion, The Da Vinci Code asserts, is also symbolically represented in The Last Supper:
[Teabing] “Jesus was the original feminist. He intended for the future of His Church to be in the Hands of Mary Magdalene.”
“And Peter had a problem with that,” Langdon said, pointing to The Last Supper. “That’s Peter there. You can see that Da Vinci was well aware of how Peter felt about Mary Magdalene.”
Again, Sophie was speechless. In the painting, Peter was leaning menacingly toward Mary Magdalene and slicing his blade-like hand across her neck. The same threatening gesture as in the Madonna on the Rocks!
“And here too,” Langdon said, pointing now to the crowd of disciples near Peter. “A bit ominous, no?”
Sophie squinted and saw a hand emerging from the crowd of disciples. “Is that hand wielding a dagger?”
“Yes. Stranger still, if you count the arms, you’ll see that this hand belongs to … no one at all. It’s disembodied. Anonymous.” (p. 248)
We will now respond to The Da Vinci Code’s assertions about The Last Supper in the reverse order:
(1) The dagger held in the hand of a disembodied arm.
The term dagger is ominous. But what we see in the picture is not a dagger. It is a knife. A dagger, as Webster’s Third New International Dictionary reminds us, is “a short weapon used for stabbing.” Nick Evangelista tells us in his The Encyclopedia of the Sword (1995) that the word dagger “derives from the Celtic word dag, meaning ‘to stab.’”4 Given their purpose, daggers usually have thin pointed blades. The blade referred to in The Last Supper is too broad and not pointed enough to be justly described as a dagger. In addition, it also appears that only one of its edges is sharp, implying that its purpose was cutting not stabbing.
As to the arm, it is not disembodied. There are six disciples to Jesus’ right in The Last Supper, and twelve arms and hands. The knife is in Peter’s right hand. This is evident from the painting itself and from the Study for the Right Arm of Peter in the Windsor Castle Royal Collection (no. 12546). The Templar Revelation had also referred to the knife as a dagger and had made the claim that it was being wielded in the picture by a disembodied arm and hand (p. 22).
(2) The menacing “blade-like hand,” just like the one in the Madonna on the Rocks.
The relaxed gesture of Peter’s right hand in The Last Supper (which points vaguely toward Jesus) relates to the request its owner was making of John. The gesture implies that Peter speaks to John behind his hand in a whisper. The only people, one would think, that would describe the hand as blade-like would be those who have not seen the painting since its most recent cleaning and restoration, completed in 1999. And indeed Dan Brown seems to be unfamiliar with this most recent restoration, since the only one he refers to in the context is one that, he appears to say, was concluded in 1954.5 This lapse on Brown’s part may derive from his reliance on The Templar Revelation, which, as we said, was published in 1997, two years before the completion of the most recent restoration. The Templar Revelation described Peter’s gesture as follows: “a hand cuts across her gracefully bent neck in what seems a threatening gesture” (p. 22).
Although the smudgy, unrestored version of Peter’s hand might have been described as blade-like, the hand on the present painting really cannot. Furthermore, even before the most recent restoration, the original character of Peter’s gesture could be clearly discerned from early copies of The Last Supper, such as the anonymous one at the Parish Church of Ponte Capriasca in Italy, and the one by G. A. Bultraffio, now at the London Royal Academy of Art (c. 1510). The most recent cleaning merely confirmed what was already known from early copies about Peter’s gesture.6
As to the threatening gesture in the Madonna on the Rocks, The Da Vinci Code is again strikingly inaccurate in its interpretation (see pp. 13, 138-9). In its description of the picture as a whole, characters are misidentified and gestures inaccurately described. In this case, the hand of the angel Uriel is described as “making a cutting gesture as if slicing the invisible head gripped by Mary’s claw-like hand” (p. 139). A glance at the picture will reveal that Uriel is actually pointing placidly toward the child John the Baptist (which, by the way, The Da Vinci Code mistakes for the child Jesus). The gesture is in no way menacing. The Templar Revelation had offered the same bizarre reading of the Madonna on the Rocks, making the same mistakes about the gesture and about the identity of its characters (see esp. p. 30).
(3) Leonardo was “skilled at painting the difference between the sexes,” and the “delicate folded hands, and the hint of a bosom. It was, without a doubt…female.”
The reference to delicate folded hands as a proof that the figure traditionally identified as John was really Mary Magdalene is forced. In the Study for the Hands of John in the Windsor Castle Royal Collection (no. 12543), they do not appear distinctly feminine. They may be the hands of a woman, but then again they could as easily be those of a man. In The Last Supper itself, John’s hands are no less masculine than most of the other hands in the picture.
As for the hint of a bosom, this is entirely unjustified. Even if an overly fertile imagination might find such a “hint” in the folds of John’s cloak, nevertheless on the other side, where given the absence of the obscuring cloak we should be able to detect even clearer evidence of a bosom, we see instead that John’s chest is conspicuously bosomless. Are we then to suppose that Magdalene had only one breast? Here again Brown’s assertion may derive from reliance on The Templar Revelation, where we read of “the tiny, graceful hand, the pretty, elfin features, the distinctly female bosom and the gold necklace” (p. 20).7
Interestingly a more recent, post-1999-Last-Supper-restoration book by The Templar Revelations author Lynn Picknett now replaces the old distinctly female bosom claim, with the equally groundless assertion that there is “a dark smudge where ‘his’ breasts should be.”8 Picknett apparently wants us now to believe that the female bosom was originally there, but that it was subsequently rubbed out.
In a posting from ABC News (Nov 3, 2003) we read:9
“Many art historians have dismissed the theory that the figure is a woman, saying it's just a tradition to paint John as beardless and long-haired. ‘It looks like a young male. I see no breasts,’ art historian Jack Wasserman told ABCNEWS.”
Wasserman is a well-known Leonardo scholar.10
Finally, John’s face is admittedly effeminate, but not more so than the faces of Jesus and Philip in the same picture. Many of the young, beardless men in Leonardo’s paintings and drawings are effeminate (see, for example, the startlingly effeminate St. John the Baptist in the Louvre). This may relate to the artist’s homosexuality.
When conspiracy theorists lay their bogus theories before the public they have usually already insolated themselves against the inevitable outcry that is going to be raised against them by legitimate scholars. They do it by a simple formula: If scholars object to what you say, they must be in on the conspiracy too. And so they will naturally do whatever it takes to keep the conspiracy going. Hence, the reason for their attempt at discrediting you! If on the other hand scholars ignore your theory, then you cry foul and claim that your work is being subjected to a “conspiracy of silence.” Even though the reality of the situation is scholars do not consider your ideas worthy of time refuting. Either way it becomes very difficult for conspiracy theorists to ever become disabused of their own theories. They have steeled themselves against the truth before they ever hear it.
By now a great host of weighty scholars of every stripe and persuasion from some of the finest universities in the country have refuted the many erroneous assertions in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code point by point. The question is, has Dan Brown himself been disabused of it by this time or does he still believe the theories he lifted from all those conspiracy books and included in his novel? Perhaps we’ll never know.
It is certainly not my intention here to attempt to persuade the un-persuadable. In a sense the intellectual blindness that conspiracy theorists subject themselves to, with its resulting disinterest in truth, is its own judgment. Rather I write in hopes of helping fair-minded people who have encountered the outlandish claims in Brown’s book and have a sincere interest in hearing the other side of the story.
In one section of The Da Vinci Code, Brown’s character Teabing repeats a number of false statements about the influence of the emperor Constantine that have been circulating for a long time on the conspiracy fringe, and that have long since been refuted by credible scholarship. Let’s have a look at a them.
On pages 231-32 of The Da Vinci Code we read:
… Teabing burst in with enthusiasm. “The fundamental irony of Christianity! The Bible, as we know it today, was collated by the pagan Roman emperor Constantine the Great.”
“I thought Constantine was a Christian,” Sophie said.
"Hardly,” Teabing scoffed. “He was a lifelong pagan who was baptized on his deathbed, too weak to protest. In Constantine’s day Rome’s official religion was sun worship — the cult of Sol Invictus, or the Invincible Sun — and Constantine was its head priest….
Then a bit later on 232-33 we continue to read:
“Originally,” Langdon said, “Christianity honored the Jewish Sabbath of Saturday, but Constantine shifted it to coincide with the pagan’s veneration day of the sun.” He paused, grinning, “To this day, most churchgoers attend services on Sunday morning with no idea that they are there on account of the pagan sun god’s weekly tribute—Sun-day.”
For the moment we leave aside the claim that it was Constantine that collated the Bible in order to deal with these three other false assertions: (1) that Constantine was a lifelong worshipper of Sol Invictus, (2) that he was baptized on his death bed against his will, and (3) the he is responsible for the fact that Christians worship on Sunday.
As with much of the other misinformation appearing in his book, Brown probably got these claims about Constantine from the 1983 conspiracy book Holy Blood, Holy Grail, where we find them asserted in a manner quite similar to Brown’s on pages 367-68. But perhaps he got them somewhere else, since they have often been uncritically repeated in any number of other equally ill-informed conspiracy books. Anyway here is the rebuttal:
(1) Credible scholars have at times questioned the sincerity of Constantine’s Christianity. The reason usually given for doing so is that he continued to feature Sol Invictus on his coinage for a time after 312, the traditional date of his conversion. But this did not continue throughout his life. Within a decade of his conversion Constantine phased Sol out. As Ramsay MacMullen puts it: “Sol declining from 320, finally sank in 322.”11 According to R. A. C. Carson, Sol had already been phased out as a reverse of follis coinage in all Constantine’s mints by the end of 318.12 It is always hard to tell whether a politician who claims to be a Christian actually is one. One can only judge by the support they give to Christian causes. Constantine both claimed to be a Christian and supported Christian causes. By the time he became seriously active in the affairs of the Church at the Council of Nicea in 325, Sol Invictus was already out of the picture.
(2) Constantine was baptized on his deathbed, but at his own request. He had hoped to be baptized in the Jordan River, but as his final illness overtook him, he called the bishops together at Nicomedia and requested baptism. The story is told in the fourth book of Eusebius’ Life of Constantine (see, especially chapter 62), written soon after Constantine’s death. And no there is not any credible alternative account that would support the view that he was baptized against his will.
Why then did Constantine wait so long to be baptized? He was adhering to a then common, though hardly biblical, practice based on the idea that since baptism washed away sins, one ought to hold off getting it as long as possible. This is explained very well by noted classical historian and biographer of Constantine, Michael Grant:13
Surprise has often been expressed … that Constantine, who had displayed his adherence to Christianity so much earlier, postponed his baptism until what was virtually his death-bed. Some members of the Church deplored the lateness of the decision. But in fact late, last minute baptism — like adult baptism in general — was not an infrequent phenomenon, because it was strongly felt that after baptism one ought not to commit a sin, and the only way to ensure this was to become baptized when one was not going to live very much longer.
Nor is this reason for Constantine’s delay something revealed only in scholarly biographies. No, it is rather a commonplace of introductory textbooks to the History of Christianity. And so, for example, we read in the long-popular Horizon History of Christianity by the late Yale historian Roland Bainton:14
Some have assumed that Constantine’s faith sat lightly upon him, since he was not baptized until he lay on his death bed. But this was not unusual: The Church taught that Baptism washes away all previous sin, and in Constantine’s time the prudent usually postponed receiving the sacrament until all their sins had been committed.
(3) In March 321 Constantine made Sunday an official day of rest. Christians are not mentioned in the edicts related to this, nor is anything said about when they or anyone else ought, or ought not, worship. So then Brown is wrong from the get go. But there is more. Constantine did not have to tell Christians to worship on Sunday rather than Saturday, because they had done so from the beginning. They worshipped on Sunday rather than on the Sabbath because that is the day that the Lord Jesus rose from the dead. The mid-second century Christian writer Justin Martyr, for example, writes:
Sunday is the day on which we hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having worked a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Savior on the same day rose from the dead. For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (Saturday); and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things. (1 Apology 67)15
It is good to keep in mind that Justin writes more than a century before Constantine was even born.
There are indications that Sunday, the Lord’s day, or the first day of the week, was already being observed by Christians in the first century while the New Testament was still being written. That Jesus rose on the first day of the week is indicated in all four Gospels (Matt 28:1, Mark 16:2 and 9, Luke 24:1, and John 20:1). Acts 20:7 refers to a gathering at Troas where the believers came together on the first day of the week (Sunday) to break bread and listen to Paul preach. In the book of Revelation John already uses the name Christians will commonly use to describe their day of worship: “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day….” (Rev. 1:10). The anonymous Didache, written most likely before 150 A.D., directs: “On the Lord’s Day come together, break bread and hold Eucharist, after confessing your transgressions” (Didache 14). Ignatius of Antioch, who died a martyr’s death in the Flavian Amphitheater at Rome before 117 A.D., writes that Christians are “no longer living for the Sabbath, but for the Lord’s Day, on which also our life sprang up” (Magnesians 9.1).
CONSTANTINE AND THE NEW TESTAMENT CANON
We now turn to refute another major falsehood in the passage we quoted at the beginning, namely, that “The Bible, as we know it today, was collated by the pagan Roman emperor Constantine the Great.”
As one reads the literature of conspiracy theorists one finds two different stories being told as to how Constantine was supposed to have been responsible for corrupting the New Testament. Not surprisingly both are without foundation. The first one says that Constantine did it in collusion with the Council of Nicea (325). This is a myth that has been around for a long time. There is even an old legend about it which I repeat here from a book published in 1820, according to which after having scattered “all the books that were referred to the council [of Nicea] for determination, under the communion table in a church, they besought the Lord that the inspired writings might get upon the table while the spurious ones remained underneath, and that accordingly it happened.”16 A version of this myth also appears in Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince’s Templar Revelation: Secret Guardians of the True Identity of Christ, which is mentioned by name in The Da Vinci Code (p. 252), and appears to serve as the primary source of some of Brown’s corny claims about Jesus’ sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene.17
There is no historical foundation for this first view. As B. F. Westcott’s long ago pointed out in the course of his discussion of the Council of Nicea in his classic, A General Survey of the History of the Canon of the New Testament (1889), “neither in this nor the following Councils were the Scriptures themselves ever the subject of discussion.”18 Any of my readers who would prefer a more recent source, can find it, for example, in Roy W. Hoover’s 1993 article “How the Books of the New Testament Were Chosen,” where we read: “How did the Church decide finally on what to include and what to exclude? Unfortunately, our sources are mute on the issue. The Council of Nicea in 325 did not address the question, and neither Eusebius nor Athanasius nor any other writer from the period tells us how this came about.”19
But the above story is not the one advanced by Brown. We learn this from an extended passage on page 234 of The Da Vinci Code:
Teabing paused, eyeing Sophie. “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.”
The term “commissioned” clues us in to the fact that Brown is alluding to another conspiracy tale according to which Constantine corrupted the Bible in collusion with Eusebius of Caesarea in 331 A.D. In this Holy Blood, Holy Grail (p. 368) is Brown’s probably source. There we read:
Then, in A.D. 331, he [Constantine] commissioned and financed new copies of the Bible. This constituted one of the single most decisive factors in the entire history of Christianity and provided Christian orthodoxy…with an unparalleled opportunity.
Holy Blood, Holy Grail then goes on to speak of the destruction of early Christian texts during the persecutions of the emperor Diocletion of 303 A.D., after which it continues:20
As a result Christian documents—especially in Rome—all but vanished. When Constantine commissioned new versions of these documents, it enabled the custodians of orthodoxy to revise, edit, and rewrite their materials as they saw fit, in accordance with their tenets. It was at this point that most of the crucial alterations in the New Testament were probably made and Jesus assumed the unique status he has enjoyed ever since. The importance of Constantine’s commission must not be underestimated. Of the five thousand extant early manuscript versions of the New Testament, not one predates the fourth century. The New Testament as it exists today is essentially a product of fourth-century editors and writers—custodians of orthodoxy … with vested interests to protect.
There are a number of inaccuracies of fact in this passage. In the first place, no credible historian would accept Holy Blood Holy Grail’s assertion that all extant copies of the New Testament perished during the persecution begun under Diocletion in 303, nor its claim that “Of the five thousand extant early manuscript versions of the New Testament, not one predates the fourth century.” The most obvious reason being in both cases that numerous New Testament manuscript portions exist even today that predate 303. Furthermore, the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail appear to show their ignorance of basic facts when they say that: “Christian documents—especially in Rome—all but vanished.” The assumption behind the statement seems to be that since Diocletian was the Roman emperor, Rome must have been hit hardest, since it would have been the center of his activities. As a matter of fact, however, Diocletian reigned from his capital in the East, at Nicomedia on the Bosporus, the waterway connecting the Black and Aegean Seas.
The reality is that Constantine could have never gotten away with changing the Bible. Christians like Athanasius of Alexandria, for example, who suffered exile under “Christian” emperors no less than five times during his life for his unflinching defense of true Christianity, would have screamed bloody murder.21 But the real baseless character of the story becomes exceedingly clear when one looks at the sum-total of the actual evidence that serves as its alleged basis. Here it is:
In 324 AD Constantine captured a relatively insignificant city on the west bank of the Bosporous towards its southern end called Byzantium. Here he decided to establish a new capital himself that would rival the glory of Rome. More than that even, it was to be the new Rome. A Christian capital for a Christian Empire. It was to be a city in which no pagan sacrifices were to be made, nor any idolatrous festivals celebrated.22 A City named for himself: Constantinople.23 Constantine dedicated it on 11 May 330.
Another thing we must understand about Constantine is that he was an enthusiastic builder of Christian Churches. He is credited for example with building old St. Peter’s, the Lateran Basilica, and at least five other churches at Rome, the great Golden Octagon at Antioch, and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher at Jerusalem.24 But as great as these contributions were, he had a particular zeal for building churches in his capital. Eusebius, the emperor’s trusted friend and biographer, reports how Constantine, “being fully resolved to distinguish the city which bore his name with especial honor… embellished it with numerous sacred edifices, both memorials of martyrs on the largest scale, and other buildings of the most splendid kind, not only within the city itself, but in its vicinity.”25 All of these “sacred edifices” were Christian in character, that is to say, they were primarily Churches.26
Most of these of course have long since perished or been replaced with newer churches. Still we can get some idea of the extent of his church building projects in Constantinople from scattered references in ancient writers. Among these the most conspicuous of course was the Church of Holy Wisdom, Hagia Sophia.27 Then there was the Church of the Holy Apostles, which would also serve as Constantine’s tomb. There was the shrine of St. Macius, the church of St. Menas, the Cathedral of Holy Peace, the Church of Holy Power and the basilicas of St. Agathonicus and St. Acacius. Near the city as well he built the Church of the Virgin of Blachernae. Some of these attributions are more certain than others while other Churches Constantine may have built in or near the city may have escaped mention. Nevertheless they do give us some idea of the breathtaking proportions of Constantine’s massive church-building program at Constantinople.
Now if you intend to build Churches you are going to need Bibles and other “Christian supplies” to stock them. And so we find Constantine, in the year following the dedication of his new capital, putting in an order with Eusebius of Caesarea for 50 new Bibles. It is this order that stands in the background of this second version of the myth about Constantine being responsible for corrupting the Bible. Because so much has been made of it, I think it is appropriate here to quote the entire text of the letter, which has been preserved in Eusebius’s biography of Constantine, along with Eusebius’ commentary on it:28
Victor Constantius, Maximus Augustus, to Eusebius: It happens, through the favoring providence of God our Saviour, that great numbers have united themselves to the most holy church in the city which is called by my name. It seems, therefore, highly requisite, since that city is rapidly advancing in prosperity in all other respects, that the number of churches should also be increased. Do you, therefore, receive with all readiness my determination on this behalf. I have thought it expedient to instruct your Prudence to order fifty copies of the sacred Scriptures, the provision and use of which you know to be most needful for the instruction of the Church, to be written on prepared parchment in a legible manner, and in a convenient, portable form, by professional transcribers thoroughly practiced in their art. The catholicus of the diocese has also received instructions by letter from our Clemency to be careful to furnish all things necessary for the preparation of such copies; and it will be for you to take special care that they be completed with as little delay as possible. You have authority also, in virtue of this letter, to use two of the public carriages for their conveyance, by which arrangement the copies when fairly written will most easily be forwarded for my personal inspection; and one of the deacons of your church may be intrusted with this service, who, on his arrival here, shall experience my liberality. God preserve you, beloved brother!
After copying the text of this letter, Eusebius remarks: “Such were the emperor's commands, which were followed by the immediate execution of the work itself, which we sent him in magnificent and elaborately bound volumes of a threefold and fourfold form. This fact is attested by another letter, which the emperor wrote in acknowledgment.29
And that’s it. That is all the evidence there is. No one knows which New Testament books were included in the 50 Bibles, nor anything about their contents. The only thing that may be safely assumed is that they pretty much followed the form of the New Testament as it was then received in the rest of the Christian world, otherwise, as we have already said, we would have heard about it from Christians crying foul. The silence in this regard suggests very strongly that there was nothing new or surprising in the form or content of these 50 Bibles. We can also surmise from the fact that Constantine had no direct hand in producing these copies, he certainly did not, as Teabing claims “collate” them. Nor did he give Eusebius any instructions as to what they ought to contain or not contain.
The fact that so little is actually said about these 50 Bibles in the ancient evidence has given conspiracy theorists, a free hand for speculation, so that we even find them appealing to this evidence to prove opposite things. Brown says that the intention of Constantine’s Bible order was to make Jesus into a God: “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” (p. 234). But others have claimed just the opposite, i.e., that his intention was to undermine Jesus’ deity and make him into a mere man. My favorite example of this, which I reproduce here, comes from the booklet “The Attack,” by the Grand Pooh-bah of Fundamentalist tractsters, Jack T. Chick.30
1 The fact that Greek and Coptic are so similar in places that someone who knows the one can sometimes make out the other does not seem to come into play here. Return to place in text.
2 In preparing this response I also consulted G. W. H. Lampe’s A Patristic Greek Lexicon, and James Hope Moulton’s & George Milligan’s The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament Illustrated from the Papyri and Other Non-Literary Sources, both standard scholarly reference tools, and both equally unsupportive of the claims of Haskins, Picknett, Prince, and Brown. Return to place in text.
3 Quotations here and after derive from the 1582 Roman Catholic Rheims translation of the New Testament from the Latin Vulgate. Return to place in text.
4 Nick Evangelista, The Encyclopedia of the Sword (Westport, Conn.; Greenwood Press, 1995 151. The second edition of the magisterial Oxford English Dictionary gives as one of its definitions for dag: “to pierce or stab, with or as with a pointed weapon.” Return to place in text.
5 “…many of the photographs in art books were taken before 1954, when the details were still hidden beneath layers of grime and several restorative repaintings done by clumsy hands in the eighteenth century. Now at last, the fresco has been cleaned down to Leonardo’s original layer of paint.” (Teabing, speaking on page 243). Return to place in text.
6 Interestingly, one of the authors of The Templar Revelation, Lynn Picknett, came out with a new book in 2003 that still speaks of Peter’s hand as “slicing across her delicate neck with the back of his hand” (Mary Magdalene: Christianity’s Hidden Goddess [New York: Carroll & Graf, 2003] 21). Return to place in text.
7 John is not wearing a gold necklace in the picture. Return to place in text.
8 Lynn Picknett, Mary Magdalene: Christianity’s Hidden Goddess, p. 21. Return to place in text.
10 See Jack Wasserman, Leonardo da Vinci (New York: Harry Abrams, 2003). Return to place in text.
11 MacMullen, Constantine (New York: Dial, 1969), 133. Return to place in text.
12 R. A. C. Carson, Coins of the Roman Empire (London and New York: Routledge, 1990) 159-65, 239. Return to place in text.
13 Grant, Constantine the Great, p. 212. Return to place in text.
14 Roland Bainton, The Horizon History of Christianity (New York: American Heritage, 1964) 99. Return to place in text.
15 Justin Martyr, First Apology 67 (ET: ANF; modified). Return to place in text.
16 The story is told in the preface to the second edition of William Hone’s Apocryphal New Testament (Londo n: Printed for William Hone, 1820) xiv. Hone traces it to an obscure writer named Pappus. Return to place in text.
17 See my “Cracks in The Da Vinci Code” Part I: “It’s Clumsy Treatment of the Gospel of Philip." Return to place in text.
18 Brooke Foss Westcott, A General Survey of the History of the Canon of the New Testament (6th ed.; Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker, 1980 ) 430. Return to place in text.
19 Roy W. Hoover, “How the Books of the New Testament Were Chosen,” Bible Review (April 1993) 47. Return to place in text.
20 Ibid., 368-69. Return to place in text.
21 See Mark A Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity (Grand Rapids, Mich. Baker // Leicester, U.K.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1997) 55. Return to place in text.
22 Eusebius, Life of Constantine 3.48; see also W. H. C. Frend, The Rise of Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984) 504. Return to place in text.
23 Modern Istanbul. Return to place in text.
24 See the chapter on Constantine as builder in Michael Grant, Constantine: The Man and His Times (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1998 ) 187-207. I lean heavily on Grant in my discussion at this point. Return to place in text.
25 Eusebius, Life of Constantine 3.48 (ET: ANF). Return to place in text.
26 Grant, writes: “Eusebius may have been right to say that all his [Constantine’s] religious building at Constantinople was of a purely Christian character” (Constantine p. 201). Return to place in text.
27 The present Hagia Sophia was built by the Emperor Justinian in the sixth century. Return to place in text.
28 Eusebius, Life of Constantine 4.36 (ET: ANF). Return to place in text.
29 Ibid., 4.37. Return to place in text.
30 Jack T. Chick, “The Attack,” (Chick Publications, 1985). Return to place in text.