Separating fact from fiction

April 16, 2006|By ELLIS EASTERLY

Not too long ago, I received an e-mail from a very confused former student of mine. She had just finished reading Dan Brown's best-selling thriller, The Da Vinci Code. She asked what many others are asking: Is what the book says about Jesus true?

As if mere confusion were not enough, large numbers of readers are convinced that what the book portrays is largely accurate, even though the hardcover dust jacket says, in small print, "A novel."

We must now brace ourselves for more damage control.

The much-heralded movie version, starring Tom Hanks, is due out May 19. A paperback version of the novel was recently released. And Easter, the holiest day of the Christian calendar that celebrates Jesus' Resurrection, is here.

So now is a good time to address what I believe to be one of the most misleading and overlooked treatments in the book. That's the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D., which, history tells us, ended with a creed that affirmed that Jesus is the divine Son of God. But to date, much of the controversy over the book focuses on its portrayal of Jesus' romantic relationship with Mary Magdalene and its unflattering treatment of the Roman Catholic Church.

So what is so misleading about the book's treatment of Nicaea? It cleverly makes use of a historical event, date, place and emperor to create an unhistorical scenario that, in effect, denies Christ's divinity.

This is no small matter. Christ's being equal with God is at the heart of Christianity and makes it unique. Otherwise, Jesus is nothing more than just another influential prophet.

Those who believe that The Da Vinci Code contains largely truth in this and other matters are no doubt swayed by the author's preface. He declares there that all descriptions of "documents" (which presumably include the circumstances of the Council of Nicaea) are accurate, along with the artwork, architecture and secret rituals discussed in the book.

The book's take on the council goes like this: Until it met, Jesus' followers had regarded him as a mere mortal prophet. In their eyes, he was only a man and not the Son of God. The Roman Emperor Constantine, in a power play intended solely to solidify his empire and enhance the Roman Catholic Church, convened the council and engineered - in a close vote - a declaration that Jesus was divine.

However, it's simply not true that the early church regarded Jesus as only a man. The New Testament's Gospel accounts, written over 200 years before the council, clearly state Jesus' divinity.

For example, Jesus states in John 10:30, "The Father and I are one."

The apostle Paul, who founded churches and helped formulate Christian doctrine at least 250 years before Nicaea, said of Jesus, "In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell" (Colossians 1:19).

This was standard belief long before Nicaea, as evidenced also by early church fathers such as Justin Martyr, who believed that in Christ, the Word (Greek logos) took on human-historical form.

As for the Council of Nicaea itself, the players, place and date are the same as in The Da Vinci Code. But what actually went on is somewhat different. The council was called to deal with a heresy called Arianism, perpetrated by Arius, a presbyter in the church at Alexandria, Egypt. He maintained that God is without beginning but that Jesus had a beginning and is not a part of God. Arius was opposed by his bishop, and the dispute grew, chiefly in the eastern part of the empire.

Then Constantine, desirous of religious peace and alarmed at the threat to the empire's unity (the book is correct here), stepped in. He convened the council at Nicaea in Asia Minor (now Turkey). About 300 bishops from across the empire attended.

The council heard all sides and overwhelmingly adopted a statement that said Jesus is "true God" and "of one substance" with the Father.

Only two bishops out of the roughly 300 eventually refused to sign the creed.

This reaffirmation of Christ's divinity was later incorporated into the "Nicene Creed," a standard statement of faith today for Catholic and Reformed churches.

The Da Vinci Code is a terrific read. I enjoyed it immensely. Like John Grisham's legal thrillers, I stayed up too late many a night because I couldn't stop turning the pages. And I learned a lot about art and architecture.

But in historical fiction, how does one discern what is history and what is fiction?

The only sure way is to be familiar with the historical milieu of what's being discussed.

Regarding The Da Vinci Code, one should start by reading the New Testament Gospels.

Then it would be helpful to consult a standard history of Christianity or encyclopedia articles on Christianity. The latter will also have entries on the Council of Nicaea. Really ambitious readers can browse through some of the noncanonical literature the book mentions.

Many in the Christian community have gone on the offensive.

Catholic and Protestant writers have come forth with such books as The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code and Decoding Da Vinci: The Facts Behind the Fiction of The Da Vinci Code.

In an unusual twist, Sony Pictures, which is releasing the film, has begun an online site inviting essays by detractors of The Da Vinci Code.

So what's the public to do about The Da Vinci Code? Buy the book and see the movie. You'll find it great entertainment. But don't forget to do your homework beforehand.

Ellis Easterly, a former copy editor at The Sun, is an adjunct professor of religion at Villa Julie College. His e-mail is easter@joimail.com.

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