Every Christian’s Conspiracy
"Teabing paused to sip his tea and then placed the cup back on the mantel. ’More than eighty gospels were considered for the New Testament, and yet only a relative few were chosen for inclusion.'"
So claims the "expert" in Dan Brown's novel, The Da Vinci Code (p. 231). According to the fictional Sir Leigh Teabing, the emperor Constantine "had" Jesus deified at the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. The original Jesus, supposedly, was a mere man. He even had a wife. But Constantine, it's conjectured, wanted a new god for his new empire. And he authorized a slimmed down Bible with only four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, to support this politically motivated claim. According to Brown, the "thousands" of documents that chronicled Christ's life "as a mortal man" were pushed aside in one fell swoop.
A Real Conspiracy
Brown's mystery thriller has been a world-wide best seller. It has sold close to 100 million copies. In 2006 it was made into a Hollywood blockbuster movie starring Tom Hanks and Sir Ian McKellen. Clearly, its subject strikes a chord with our culture.
You may not be big into conspiracy theories. Was 9/11 an inside job? Is the world's future shaped at Bilderberg conventions? But every Christian, by default, accepts the reality of a great conspiracy. Against the true God, his Christ, and his Word.
In the Heidelberg Catechism we confess that praying for God's kingdom to come means asking the Lord to "Destroy ... every conspiracy against your holy Word" (Q/A 123). Have no doubts about it – there is a conspiracy against the Word of God. And we need to arm ourselves against it, pray for God to destroy it, for our sake and the world around us.
Brown's twenty-first century novel is hardly novel. It's so old-fashioned, really. It's very little different from Genesis 3, the first time the Word of God was questioned. That old dragon, the devil, hardly has a new trick.
Brown's novel is devilish in its packaging. It's a novel, then a movie. That means Dan Brown can make all sorts of wild claims without really having to prove them. If this were a high school essay, it would get an F. But a mystery thriller is so much easier to swallow.
It's also devilish in its substance. "History has never had a definitive version of (the Bible)" says Teabing (p. 231). "The Bible did not arrive by fax from heaven." It's all really not much different from the first words of the serpent in Genesis 3:1, "Did God really say...?"
Brown's claims have been debunked in numerous books. I have here on my shelf a little book of eighty pages by Hank Hanegraaf and Paul L. Maier. The Da Vinci Code: Fact or Fiction? Easy to hand out, simple to read. It exposes the dozens of outright fabrications in Brown's book.
For instance, where does Brown get the claim there were eighty gospels? This is nothing but pure fiction.
True, there are a few Gnostic "gospels," from a sect in the second and third century. The Gnostics attempted to hijack some elements of Christianity in the service of Greek philosophy and mysticism. According to them, the universe is the battleground for two gods, one good and one evil. The evil god formed the physical world and our bodies to imprison us. The Gnostic Jesus, then, is a liberator, not from sin, but from the material world.
But were these heretical Gnostic gospels ever part of Scripture? Was the state of the canon in flux until Constantine in the fourth century? There's not a shred of evidence of this.
Four and Only Four
In the second century, a man named Tatian made a harmony or mosaic of the gospel accounts – his Diatesseron. It uses our four gospels and only these four. A decade or so later, the church father Ireneaus can say that "There are four gospels and only four, neither more nor less: four like the points of the compass, four like the chief directions of the wind" (Against Heresies, 3.8).
A list of Bible books called the Muratorian canon, from about 180 A.D., lists only the gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Our New Testament simply was not the decision of Constantine in 325.
Genesis and Esther?
But these kinds of conspiracy theories continue to gain traction, both in popular and in academic circles. Recently, the BBC produced a series called "The Bible's Buried Secrets." (Not to be confused with the NOVA series of the same name.) In it, Dr. Francesca Stavrakopoulou who has been hailed by atheists like Richard Dawkins – puts forward "the buried secret" of Genesis. The biblical account of creation and the fall, she says, is actually about the fall of the last Jewish king (the "Adam figure"), led astray by his evil Jezebel-like wife (played by Eve). Supposedly, Genesis was written a thousand years after Moses, during the time of Esther.
But Kenneth Kitchen ably points out this claim, makes no sense. The book of Genesis reads like something written in the 2nd millennium B.C. It bears no trace of being written in the time of Esther. There are no Persian words in it, for instance, nothing like what we find in books like Daniel or Esther.1
This sort of hypothesis is just the latest in a long list of theories that attempt to date the biblical books much, much later than they claim for themselves. A few hundred years ago, German scholars postulated that Deuteronomy was not found in King Josiah's time, in the seventh century B.C., but was actually written in his time, to legitimize Josiah's reforms. Why did they think this? One main reason is that Deuteronomy speaks about the king, his role and responsibility, and it speaks about a central place of worship. These things did not exist until centuries after Moses.
A huge circular argument gets invented: "We do not believe in prophecy → Deuteronomy speaks about realities like a king and a temple → Therefore, it must be a later document → And it could not have been written by Moses." If you begin with the premise the Word of God is merely the word of man then that will be your conclusion as well.
You'll even find a bias against Scripture on Wikipedia.
A hundred years ago or so, a man named Adolf Van Harnack put forward the idea that the canon, a fixed list of authoritative books, only arose in the church because of the influence of a heretic from the second century A.D. named Marcion. Marcion started a new cult, with a new Bible only part of the gospel of Luke and ten of Paul's letters. No Old Testament. Von Harnack claimed that it was only because of Marcion the church developed its own canon. Wikipedia reads, "This prompted the orthodox, apostolic church to form an official canon of books that had been recognized as divinely inspired and authoritative." 2
But what support is given for this claim? The early church didn't have to borrow the idea of a "canon" from Marcion. Every Jew at the time of Christ was well acquainted with the concept of a canon, a list of "these books and these only." Certainly, the church did respond to Marcion, defending the canon. But to say there was no official canon before him? This is not much different than Dan Brown claiming there is and never was a definitive version of Scripture.
The Word Incarnate
It's all just what sinners want to hear – and you and me included, in our sinfulness. We might be skeptical of other conspiracy theories, but this one caters to that deep rooted desire in all of us to be autonomous, to do what is right in our own eyes. If you read Dan Brown's book, too, you'll discover that he has an agenda. The authoritative Word of the Sovereign Father is dismissed. And instead, Brown promotes something he calls the "sacred feminine," a spirituality without the constraints of morality. Not much different than the immoral worship of the ancient Baals and Asherahs, who also did not have a "word" to be obeyed.
But thankfully there is One who never questioned the Word of God, who lived by it faithfully, even when it demanded his death: our Lord Jesus Christ. And it is in him, the Word incarnate, that all conspiracies about the Word of God are and will be finally laid to rest.
Fear and Trembling
The prophet Isaiah tells us that the LORD looks with favour on "those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word" (Isa 66:2b). The devil constantly wants to take away that blessed fear and trembling. As in the beginning, he wants to make us judges over God's Word. "Did God really say?" But Jesus Christ forms a people who know God's Word to be the Word of the Holy God, true and certain.
How do we respond to these conspiracies? We can debate and discuss. But we must also daily acknowledge the King, the King's Word and Spirit, and live submissively within his kingdom. "So rule us by your Word and Spirit," we pray in the Catechism. A Christian who clings to the Word, throughout life's troubles, makes that great deceiver quake with fear.
In Jesus Christ, God's promises are always "yes" and "amen" (2 Cor 1:20). Attacks on the Word of God are always attacks upon the goodness and glory of God. But Jesus Christ had come to lay all those questions to rest – the cross is down payment on that. And when he returns God's Word will be proved so beautifully true and good it will never be questioned again, into all eternity. Maranatha, Word Incarnate!