This review appeared in the Jul-Sep 2004 vol. 161 no. 3 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.Subscribe Today
Breaking the Da Vinci Code: Answers to the Questions Everyone’s AskingThomas Nelson, Nashville April 18, 2006
In this book Bock, research professor of New Testament studies and professor of spiritual development and culture at Dallas Seminary, integrates these disciplines in a critical interaction with the best-selling novel by Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code (New York: Doubleday, 2003). As a New Testament scholar Bock probes the historical inaccuracies and misleading conclusions that underlie Brown’s depiction of conspiracies within the church that Brown claims have resulted in the truth being hidden. As a professor of Christian spirituality Bock points the reader to Jesus, the source and focus of true spirituality. As a student of culture Bock provides an example of the integration of theology and culture. He masterfully integrates scriptural exegesis, historical theology, and cultural analysis in an instructive and compelling defense of orthodox Christianity.
In his extraordinarily popular best-selling novel Brown tells a tale of intrigue, mystery, and suspense, set within a classic power struggle. In Brown’s story the Roman Catholic Church has suppressed the facts that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, that they had children together, and that this family fled to France. According to Brown these and other stories from many ancient sources have been marginalized and silenced to suit the agenda of the Catholic Church.
Why respond to such a work at all? After all, some might say, The Da Vinci Code is only fiction. And will not further publicity fuel the public interest in Brown’s novel, thereby resulting in more people reading the work? Is it not better to leave it alone and hope that it will “go away.” Bock responds to these questions in an introductory chapter. He correctly explains that the novel itself purports to be based on historical facts and is thus a mixture of fiction and nonfiction. Readers, particularly those sympathetic toward Christianity, without sufficient historical knowledge could use some help in discerning truth from speculation and error. Furthermore it is unlikely that this book could be much more popular than it already is. But perhaps more importantly these objections seem to be based on a dangerous assumption that theology and popular culture are completely disconnected. The sensational success of Brown’s novel shows that there is no wall of separation between religion and “real life” in popular culture. Brown’s theological perspective is being widely disseminated in his novel. And no one should overlook the fact that Brown does have a theological perspective.
Ultimately, however, the best reason to interact with this popular novel is because of the opportunity it affords evangelical theologians to speak truth in and to the contemporary world. Perhaps the success of this work is a divinely appointed opportunity to speak about Jesus in the public square. In a variety of venues the details of the life of Jesus are being discussed. It would be a tragedy if the voice of orthodoxy were not also heard. The historic claims of Christianity can stand up to the questions and objections raised by skeptics and critics.
In an attempt to delineate the differences between the historical reality of the life of Jesus and the development of Christian orthodoxy and the “virtual reality” of The Da Vinci Code, Bock examines the major presuppositions Brown uses to construct his unreal world. He does so in eight chapters, seven of which crack the codes on which Brown’s work is based. The final chapter presents what Bock calls “the real Jesus code.”
Bock begins with the question, Who was Mary Magdalene? According to The Da Vinci Code Mary and Jesus were married and had several children, a “secret” the church hid to protect Jesus’ deity. However, there is no historical evidence whatsoever to support this claim. The New Testament, rather, portrays Mary as a disciple of Jesus, as one of a group of women who were eyewitnesses to His death, burial, and resurrection. Mary was one of the first to see Jesus after His resurrection (John 20:11–18). Bock argues that if there were more to the relationship between Jesus and Mary than this, the New Testament writers had numerous opportunities to indicate it. Further there is no evidence in the writings of the church fathers to support Brown’s assumption.
Also no evidence exists that Jesus was married. Of course no explicit statement in Scripture says He was not married. Bock argues that the silence of the New Testament on Jesus’ marital state implies that He remained single, since the writers had numerous opportunities to use Jesus as an example to support their teaching on marriage. For example Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 9 that the apostles had the right to be married would have been greatly enhanced by the example of Jesus if He had been married.
In the third chapter Bock examines the charge that Jewish custom, particularly for a rabbi, would require that Jesus be married. From first- and second-century Jewish texts Bock shows that this assumption is unwarranted. Celibacy was not unheard of for pious Jewish men.
One of the most misleading statements in Brown’s novel is the claim that there were more than eighty “gospels” from which the church selected only four. The implication is that since the Gnostic gospels present a different picture of Jesus than the New Testament, their exclusion was due to a conspiracy to silence those voices. Bock breaks this code by showing that although there were numerous writings about Jesus (Luke 1:1–4), the number is far less than eighty. From a brief survey of the Gnostic writings Bock shows that these writings were rejected because of their false view of God and creation, not because of some sinister plot. In a separate discussion Bock shows how the process of canonization resulted in the selection of the books that make up the New Testament. The fact that the Spirit of God guided the process, even using the acts of sinful human beings, is a remarkable evidence of divine sovereignty. The claim that there was a massive conspiracy and cover-up is unsupportable from the evidence. But of course those who are looking for conspiracies can often find them and will unlikely read the evidence the same way. What Bock provides here is a compelling defense of the canonization process for people of faith.
In an excellent discussion of the recent literature on Mary Magdalene and other women in Scripture Bock shows that Jesus and His male followers had a significantly higher view of women than is often recognized by current feminist scholarship. Of course the early church was not as egalitarian as some moderns might wish, but the claim that Jesus and Christianity suppressed women is unwarranted.
In a concluding chapter Bock gets to the heart of the matter in retelling the gospel. Jesus, fully God and fully human, crucified on behalf of others, has conquered sin and death. Faith in Him and in His work imparts life and hope. Mary Magdalene, a disciple and eyewitness of Jesus, pointed to Him. The One whom she trusted remains the only hope for the world.
Bock provides a model of evangelical scholarship engaging popular culture, speaking the truth of the inerrant Scriptures interpreted within the apostolic tradition of the church in the cultural context of today. As a tool for leading seekers of truth to the Jesus of Scripture, this book is a helpful resource.
—Glenn R. Kreider