|HE TRICK IS quite simple: the Revolutionist "finds" a lost Gospel, publishes it, and declares that the lost Gospel is the real Gospel, suppressed by Big Bad Church Meanies in the first centuries of Christianity. The real Gospel is then trumpeted as the picture of Christianity as its author and originator intended it. A plot as predictable as a Harlequin romance.|
The funny thing about the lost-found-real Gospel: it always seems to bear a striking resemblance to the discoverer's idea of what Christianity should look like, rather than what it has actually been for the centuries prior to the discovery. In other words, Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code tells us more about Dan Brown than it does about Jesus Christ, Mary Magdalene, or Leonardo Da Vinci. Dan Brown (and not Da Vinci) is simply painting the Jesus and Church history he wishes were real. That it has become so popular tells us how far our culture has strayed from its Christian roots, not (as Brown would have it) how far the Church has strayed from true Christianity.
But again, this is nothing new. Let's skip back a few centuries and view another "Dan Brown," the radical early Enlightenment figure John Toland. Comparatively little is known for certain of Toland's early life. Rumored to be the illegitimate offspring of an Irish Roman Catholic priest and his concubine, John Toland was born in Ireland on November 30, 1670, and was raised a Roman Catholic, until he converted to Protestantism in his mid-teens. But soon enough, after a trip to liberal Holland in the early 1690s, he rejected Christianity completely, and became a devoted Pantheist. (Pantheism is a form of radical materialism based on the notion that God and nature are identical.) He then embarked on a life-long campaign to displace Christianity with Pantheism.
Toland generally kept his radical views from the public. Privately, he kept company with a transnational group of like-minded radicals. This group not only got together and discussed the most recent, tantalizing, subversive literature, but (like all good modern revolutionaries) engaged in a far-flung enterprise of disseminating subversive literature.
One of the "products" exported all over Europe and England by Toland's group was the infamous Treatise of the Three Impostors, the impostors being Moses, Jesus Christ, and Mohammed. The Treatise railed against the Bible as a "book [that] is only a tissue of fragments stitched together at different times... a book...which no one understands, it is so obscure & ill conceived; a book which serves only to foment divisions."
According to the Treatise, Moses was "an able Charlatan, and a conjurer" who used "pretended Magic" to dupe the "imbecile Populace" of Jews into thinking he had contact with the Divine so that he could lord it over them. Jesus was also an imposter, who "got himself followed by some imbeciles whom he persuaded that the Holy Spirit was his Father; & his Mother a Virgin: these good people, accustomed to indulge themselves in dreams & fancies, adopted his notions & believed all that he wanted,...As the number of fools is infinite, Jesus Christ found Subjects everywhere;..." Mohammed was treated no better.
Obviously Toland and his circle had nothing but contempt for Christianity. But that contempt couldn't afford to be too bold. In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, Christianity still had a firm alliance with political power. So, The Treatise of the Three Impostors was published anonymously and smuggled around the censors.
But what has all this to do with Dan Brown and the Da Vinci Code? While Toland had contempt for Christianity, he also had a healthy fear of being too public about it, given that Christians were in power. He certainly couldn't risk persecution by carrying on his revolution in the light of day.
What to do? How could he de-claw Christianity? Well, interestingly enough John Toland "happened" to find a lost Gospel, the "ancient Gospel of Barnabas" (not to be confused with the real early Church document, the Epistle of Barnabas). He published his findings in 1718 in a book called Nazarenus.
According to Toland, the Gospel of Barnabas reveals "the true and original Christianity," a Gospel that was buried, curiously enough, in a "Gospel of the Mahometans." Muslims used the Gospel of Barnabas to vindicate their belief that Jesus Christ was not divine but only human, and that Jesus actually designated Mohammed as the coming prophet.
Toland argued that if we remove the overlay of Islam, we actually receive a glimpse of the beliefs of the earliest Christians, the Ebionites or "Nazarens," who believed that Jesus was only a "mere man." The Nazarens were "the first Christians, and consequently the only Christians for some time." Unlike the later, institutional Church, the first Christians "affirmed Jesus to have been a mere man, as well by the father as the mother's side, namely [he was] the son of Joseph and Mary, but that he was just, and wise, and excellent, above all other persons, meriting to be called the Son of God by reason of his most virtuous life."
Toland reported all this in the most scholarly and detached manner, with plenty of footnotes to ancient texts in Latin and Greek, and cleverly let it to the reader to draw the desired conclusion: if the earliest Christians believed that Jesus was a mere man, the son of Joseph and Mary, and only the later Christians declared him to be divine, then...
You've got it! The institutional Church, full of greedy priests and cut-throat prelates, has been suppressing the truth about Jesus all this time to feather its nest! They pretended that Jesus was divine so that they could control the masses for their own gain! It's all a vast conspiracy!
Sound familiar? It does if you've read Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code.
But it was a conspiracy...of Toland's. While there is a Gospel of Barnabas mentioned by the Fathers of the early Church, the text Toland discovered was actually an elaborate forgery, written sometime during the 14th to 16th century in Europe (perhaps Spain or Italy), a sign of which is that the "Gospel" contains a number of embarrassing anachronisms and confusions that show that the writer was very familiar with medieval Europe but not very familiar with the Holy Land of the first century.
Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code. As the inimitable Yogi Berra would say, "It's Déjà Vu all over again."
First published by tothesource.org.
Benjamin Wiker holds a Ph.D. in Theological Ethics from Vanderbilt University, and has taught at Marquette University, St. Mary's University (MN), and Thomas Aquinas College (CA).
He is now a Lecturer in Theology and Science at Franciscan University of Steubenville (OH), and a full-time, free-lance writer. Dr. Wiker is a Senior Fellow of Discovery Institute and a Senior Fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. He writes regularly for a variety of journals.
Dr. Wiker just released a new book called Architects of the Culture of Death (Ignatius). His first book, Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists, was released in the spring of 2002 (InterVarsity Press). He has written another book on Intelligent Design for InterVarsity Press called A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature (due out in Spring 2006).
More columns by Dr. Benjamin Wiker