Do we have the complete story of Jesus Christ's life and death? For centuries alternative ideas have circulated as to whether Jesus was who the Gospels say He was. The Da Vinci Code, a hugely popular best-selling book, dramatizes one of these stories. What is the truth? Can we know for sure?
For a Christian, there is no more central tenet of faith than the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. On that point hangs the hope of eternal life in the Kingdom of God through the resurrection of the dead.
That He would rise from the dead, thus signifying that He was the Son of God, was the one sign He gave to a skeptical generation. The four Gospels testify with convincing evidence that He did rise from the dead and that He was the divine Son of God, the Messiah promised through the biblical prophets.
Almost from the beginning of the Church, this central fact was attacked as a falsehood. The Church carefully gathered eyewitness accounts. The apostles wrote and told what they saw. Paul went into considerable detail on the matter when he wrote to the Corinthian church about the resurrection and its vital importance to the Christian faith.
And yet the attacks continued. For some, Christ was no more than a good moral teacher, a rabbi who broke out of the pack. They believed that His frustrated followers did nothing more than fabricate a fantastic tale of an empty tomb and new faith.
The attempt to deny Christ's resurrection has continued into modern times. The 1967 book The Passover Plot offered purported "rational" and "logical" alternative explanations to the biblical account. The book's title sums up a view that many still hold-that the story told in the New Testament is at best incomplete and at worst a complete fraud.
The latest popular theory is told in a book that has been on the best-seller list for the better part of a year and will appear in 2005 as a Hollywood motion picture. The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown, is a work of fiction that uses actual events, characters and places to draw readers into offbeat speculations about the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.
Mr. Brown spins fact and fiction together in a way that makes for a fast-paced, intriguing story, long on action and excitement-but woefully short on actual truth.
In a nutshell, The Da Vinci Code puts forth the idea that Jesus Christ was married to Mary Magdalene, leaving her pregnant with His child when He died. The mother and child were secreted off to southern France and the lineage of that union exists to this day. The male-dominated church supposedly suppressed this "knowledge" and saw to it that any writing containing this information was purged from the official record.
According to Mr. Brown's plot, those who knew the "truth" managed to keep it alive and pass it down through the ages. Leonardo da Vinci was supposedly one such keeper of the secret, and his famous painting The Last Supper purportedly shows Mary Magdalene to the right of Jesus. Of course this contradicts the biblical account, which tells us it was the disciple John who sat at the Lord's right on His final evening.
Brown's book inspired an examination by the ABC news program Primetime . Interviewed on the program, Mr. Brown said, "I began as a skeptic. As I started researching The Da Vinci Code, I really thought I would disprove a lot of this theory about Mary Magdalene and holy blood and all of that. [Instead] I became a believer."
The program's hostess, Elizabeth Vargas, sent a mixed message to viewers with this conclusion: "What we found is that some of the claims the book makes are simply not credible and some of the claims have been made before. But there are some surprising truths behind the story of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Leonardo da Vinci" ( Primetime, airdate Nov. 3, 2003 ).
Fiction disguised as history
What "truths"? What exactly does the book claim is the true story of Christ and the Church? Here are some excerpts from the book purporting to be the real story:
"At this gathering [the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325] many aspects of Christianity were debated and voted upon-the date of Easter, the role of the bishops, the administration of sacraments, and, of course, the divinity of Jesus . . . Until that moment in history, Jesus was viewed by his followers as a mortal prophet ... Jesus' establishment as the 'Son of God' was officially proposed and voted on by the Council of Nicea ... A relatively close vote at that" (p. 233).
"From this sprang the most profound moment in Christian history. 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 other gospels were outlawed, gathered up, and burned" (p. 234).
"Behold, the greatest cover-up in human history. Not only was Jesus Christ married, but also He was a father ... Mary Magdalene was the Holy Vessel. She was the chalice that bore the royal bloodline of Jesus Christ. She was the womb that bore the lineage, and the vine from which the sacred fruit sprang forth" (p. 249).
"Mary Magdalene was pregnant at the time of the crucifixion ... With the help of Jesus' trusted uncle, Joseph of Arimathea [she] secretly traveled to France , then known as Gaul . There she found safe refuge in the Jewish community. It was here in France that she gave birth to a daughter ..." (p. 255).
Many other wild ideas are floated in the book, but these few passages show the principal storyline.
Mr. Brown suggests that secret documents were interred with Mary Magdalene's remains, documents whose contents would wreck Christianity. These documents supposedly contain the "true" gospel-one whose foundation is in goddess worship. If revealed to the world, these recovered "truths" would pave the way for mankind to return to a more enlightened spirituality centered on this feminine deity.
What is most troubling about this book, and the movie to come from it, is that so much fiction and misinformation is mingled and passed off as truth. Anyone reading it without an adequate background in the basics of the Bible, much less history, could read it and come away with a lot of doubt and many questions. That borders on blasphemy.
Christ spoke to this when He said of any who would cause offense and stumbling, "It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones" (Luke 17:2).
What is the biblical evidence?
Mr. Brown's imaginative rewrite of history conflicts with the Bible in many points. First of all, Jesus was not married. No reference of any sort in the Bible suggests the possibility. It just isn't there. There have been past attempts by scholars suggesting that the scene in John 2 of a wedding in Cana where Jesus turned the water into wine was actually His own wedding, but the Bible indicates nothing of the sort.
There isn't any biblical evidence that Christ was married to Mary Magdalene or anyone else. The idea reflects gnostic teaching extolling the feminine side of spirit beings and was popular in the second century after Christ.
Neither is there anything in the Bible to support the deprecating and oft-floated idea that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute who followed Christ and His disciples around.
Another part of the misconception about Christ is the idea that there were other legitimate gospel accounts, which were either lost or purged from the accepted record and labeled as heretical. This raises doubts as to whether we have the whole story about Christ and the early Church.
It is true that other letters and accounts circulated during and after the first century, claiming to be authentic accounts of Christ's life. Spurious letters purported to be from Paul also circulated (2 Thessalonians 2:2).
The story of how the books of the New Testament were put together in a form that people could accept as authentic is too long to be told in this article. However, scriptural evidence points to Peter and Paul's personal involvement in preserving selected works and letters that bore the true and reliable record of the events of Christ's life and the gospel of salvation in the Kingdom of God .
These scriptures, indicating how the Bible is put together, preclude any possibility that other so-called "lost gospels" could be valid for understanding true doctrine and teaching.
Mary, a proof of the Gospels' accuracy
Let's look at one example that demonstrates the reliability of the Gospel accounts that we have. Mary Magdalene's presence among the followers of Christ and as a bearer of the news of His resurrection actually serves as proof of the authenticity of the accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
Women did not enjoy honored status in the world at that time. Luke and John tell of women serving and participating in ways that would have been quite radical by standards of the time.
Among some cultures of the region, the status of women was near that of slaves. Wives were not allowed to eat with their husbands' guests nor to leave their houses unescorted. Women were viewed as inferior and impure compared to men. In Rome , a man had complete authority over his wife. Adultery could be punished by death. Going without a veil could lead to divorce. Some conditions then remind one of today's strict Islamic codes for women.
The point is, if the Gospels had been a total fabrication, the authors would have written accounts that reflected the existing cultural norms. What they did was tell a true story of the coming of the Messiah and His life.
They told it accurately, as it happened. And they told it under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Paul powerfully asserted, "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness" (2 Timothy 3:16 ). God has left mankind with assurance that the essential aspects of His gospel of salvation have been preserved accurately.
Looking for enlightenment in all the wrong places
Many people in the Western world have an innate desire to understand the spiritual side of life. Periodically a major weekly newsmagazine will run an article about the Bible, Christianity or a major Christian teaching such as heaven or hell. Time magazine, for example, recently ran a story on "The Lost Gospels" ( Dec. 22, 2003 ).
Publishers and editors know people have a fascination with the Bible even if they don't really know much about it. Publications like Time are responding to ideas in the current American culture that offer alternative views of traditional Christian teachings.
The ideas run the gamut from theology to pop culture. A recent issue of Time ran a story about the popular movie trilogy The Matrix . This science-fiction story pivots on the idea that the world we see is not the ultimate reality. One of its characters, Morpheus, tells another, Neo, that "the Matrix is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you to the truth."
The good guys in the movie are a band of enlightened ones staying one step ahead of those from the "matrix," who seek to seal this leak and bring everyone under control. The ideas of the movie can be found in ancient ideas that predate Christianity and later found expression in gnostic thought.
For decades the traditional ideas of religion have been challenged and questioned by liberal theologians. Along with a growing skepticism of virtually all institutions, this has led people to search in other areas for spiritual fulfillment. The article in Time also dealt with the fascination for what is called "New Age" religious ritual. These supposedly "suppressed" gospels are providing people with ideas for modern rituals from ancient non-Christian belief systems.
Even some of today's theological intelligentsia give credence to alternative gospel accounts of the early Church. The controversial Princeton theologian Elaine Pagels, for example, has written of her acceptance of the Gospel of Thomas, one of the many ancient texts discovered at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945.
Dr. Pagels' study of the Nag Hammadi texts has shaped her view that the biblical texts don't tell the full story. She cannot accept "Christianity with a single, authorized set of beliefs ..." To her and other scholars, the Nag Hammadi texts are "like newly discovered pieces of a complex puzzle, next to what we have long known from tradition, we find that these remarkable texts, only now becoming widely known, are transforming what we know as Christianity" ( Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, 2003, p. 29).
Why the interest in these myths?
People are looking for some sort of spiritual foundation to give meaning to daily existence. This is a normal human desire that's been with us for ages.
And because Westerners live in a Judeo-Christian culture, based on both the Old and New Testament Scriptures, many people who have grown up in this culture think of themselves as "Christian"-in spite of the fact that they fail to practice the way of life the New Testament Church of God followed. Instead, they mix and match their beliefs with all sorts of non-Christian ideas.
Some say this is just another way of being a Christian. However, when you adopt non-Christian ideas, instead of getting closer to the truth you only end up further from true spirituality.
Such practices, as described in ancient nonbiblical texts, may seem to answer basic questions of life. People look to them to explain the reason for evil and suffering in the world, and how to achieve closeness to God. In reality, however, the very truths they are seeking are explained in the Holy Bible.
That people turn to such a hodgepodge of ideas to answer these major questions of life shows the confusion that continues to reign in modern religion. But this religious confusion does not provide the answers our modern world so desperately needs.
Turning aside to fables
In a comment for his own time and as a prophecy for today, Paul said to his fellow minister Timothy, "For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables" (2 Timothy 4:3-4).
Today, just as when Jesus came among men, there is a need to look at what He said and to decide whether we will follow His plain teachings. Ironically, it's much simpler to believe in what the Bible says about Christ than to believe the myths that have been perpetuated over the years. Yet many from each generation seem to thumb their noses at the Bible and embrace ideas that deconstruct the story of salvation through the Lamb of God.
The true story of Christ has been cheapened and hidden through lawless, godless tales that have turned the truth as taught by Christ and His apostles inside out. This has been true with every part of the message of their gospel. What we are seeing in these recent stories is the same distortions of the person of Christ and the message He brought that have been around for centuries, only taken to greater extremes.
The idea that Jesus married and fathered a child makes Him into just another man. Such teaching devalues and suppresses the truth that God is building a spiritual family, and that by His timetable everyone who has ever lived will have opportunity to join that family (Ephesians 3:14-15).
And if Jesus was simply another man, then God is not a Father and therefore we are not His children. This would mean that the plan of God revealed in the Scriptures is a fraud.
But the apostle Paul rebutted this heretical idea in his letter to the Corinthians. Some there denied Christ's resurrection and His divinity. They found it hard to believe that such an event could happen. It fell to Paul to set them straight, leaving us with one of the most powerful chapters of the Bible, 1 Corinthians 15.
Jesus Christ-the Son of God-was also the greatest of the prophets God sent to Israel (Deuteronomy 18:18 ). His life and death were a fulfillment of hundreds of Old Testament prophecies. His message was a prophecy of the coming Kingdom of God to this earth, a dramatic fulfillment of Daniel 2:44-45.
The apostle Peter was an eyewitness of Christ's glory and resurrection. Years afterward, Peter wrote that he and his fellow apostles knew with certainty that Christ was the Son of God. Responding to the same charges that we see today, Peter wrote, "For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty" (2 Peter 1:16).
After His resurrection, the glorified Christ said to Peter, "Follow Me" (John 21:19 ). There was no doubt in Peter's mind that he was following the Son of God, the coming King of Kings.
The same call goes out today: "Follow Me." Can you evade the doubt and distractions and discover the real Christ of the Gospels and follow Him to the Kingdom of God ? The choice is yours. GN