Dan Brown’s private religion, gnosticism, gets a Hollywood boost.
Peter Jones talks to Peter Hastie
4 • AUSTRALIAN PRESBYTERIAN July 2006
Dr. Peter Jones is the director of Christian Witness to a Pagan Planet and an adjunct Professor of New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary, Escondido, California. Dr Jones holds a MDiv from Gordon–Conwell Seminary, a ThM from Harvard Divinity School and a PhD in New Testament from Princeton Theological Seminary. He was a close boyhood friend of John Lennon and helped him learn the guitar. Dr Jones is still a keen musician who plays bass guitar and jazz piano. A former missionary theological educator in France, Dr Jones is the author of a number of best–sellers, The Gnostic Empire Strikes Back, Spirit Wars, and Cracking DaVinci’s Code. Dr Jones has a web–site: www. cwipp.org.
Peter, the new film on The Da Vinci Code has generated a huge amount of excitement and interest. How do you account for the interest in the film among Christians as well as the wider community?
I think Dan Brown is tapping into some deep religious and spiritual issues that have arisen in modern western culture. He popularises a line of New Testament interpretation that traditionally has been considered quite radical and he’s taken it to the masses through a popular novel.
At the same time he is also tapping into the deep stream of what’s now called “the new spirituality”. Many people today are asking, are there any other kinds of spirituality besides Christianity? Not surprisingly, there are; and Brown is directing people to one such form, which is gnosticism.
Gnosticism is as old as Christianity and has been practised by esoteric groups for centuries. However, what’s interesting is that in a moment of apocalypse we’re seeing this stuff appearing right on the surface of our culture. We are going through a profound cultural transition where we are turning away from secularism and atheistic humanism and are rushing like lemmings towards this new gnostic spirituality. It is within this context that Brown’s ideas seem to be resonating with large numbers of people.
Do you think the film is going to generate even more interest in Brown’s ideas and claims?
It’s hard to say. I initially thought that the film was going to have an explosive effect when it was released. But then I saw the trailer and I thought that Ron Howard would succumb to the temptation of Hollywood and emphasise the more adventurous plot rather than the ideology. I guess viewers will form their own views on whether Howard has allowed the drama of the plot to dominate the movie. All I know is that the release of this movie gives Brown a tremendous occasion to spread the agenda of his novel to non–readers. And I am sure that there will be lots of people who fall into that category today. If this happens, of course, it will be a massive influence on our culture as to the way we think about the origins of Christianity and the way we think about spirituality.
Can you account for the intense interest in the film apart from the obvious media hype? What is it about The Da Vinci Code that is exciting so much interest in the ordinary person?
You know, I think the simple answer to your question is that Dan Brown has become a gnostic and so he favours the gnostic account of who Jesus is. I’ve never said that before, but I’ve been coming to that position rather slowly. And so his two attacks on the historic Christian faith – first, his attack on the historical reliability of the New Testament and early church history, and then, second, his rejection of Christianity as a theological system and his promotion of gnostic spirituality – reveal how hostile Brown is to the Christian faith. Brown is preaching an altogether different type of religion to orthodox Christianity. He has discovered the power of gnosticism as a modern spirituality and so he is driven to an account of Jesus that was favoured by the early gnostics.
Why is that attractive? Well, I’ve just said that this kind of spirituality has suddenly burst on to the scene in our modern world. As a culture we have turned away from secularism and have warmed increasingly to postmodernism. Few people today are looking for rationalistic explanations for life and reality. In fact, many people are now convinced that reason is very limited in what it can do. It certainly cannot provide a credible explanation for the existence of the world and the meaning of life. Of course, that doesn’t leave us with too many alternatives. If you don’t have reason, how do you put the world together again? Well, you do it via “unreason”, which is spirituality and myth. And so our modern world is, as I said, rushing headlong to this sort of spirituality and Brown is simply providing the data to justify that movement.
You’ve said that Dan Brown seems to be pushing a gnostic agenda. What leads you to that conclusion?
I think you’ve got to gather various bits of evidence and see where it all leads. I don’t think it’s unfair for a person like me to identify a particular agenda in a novel. I think that everyone realises that when most intelligent people write a book they express a number of values or assumptions that they might have about life in general. We call these values or assumptions their world–view. In one way or another, elements of our world–view will appear in what we write. This is why I say to students in lectures I give about The Da Vinci Code that Dan Brown’s worldview comes through in what he says. His novel is not pulp–fiction; he’s more intelligent than that. He’s got a definite message and he’s putting it out there for people to read.
When you study all that Brown has written and analyse his use of gnostic texts, I think that a definite pattern emerges. It seems that he is attempting to use these texts to try to undermine the Jesus of history from the perspective of the New Testament. Further, throughout the book Brown makes a point of proposing a kind of spirituality that fits with some of the things that he himself says,namely, that he is a student of all religions and that his is a quest for enlightenment and things like that. Bishop Tom Wright has c o m m e n t e d similarly to me that Brown seems to be a advocating gnosticism. So I am not alone here in pointing out that some of the more obvious features of Dan Brown’s book have gnostic origins. After all, I think I am fairly well acquainted with gnosticism, having studied it in–depth for a number of years now. I am reasonably convinced that there is enough evidence to suggest that Brown’s agenda is to reintroduce a modern form of gnosticism into the churches and contemporary culture.
The popularity of his book and the new film shows that he is having some success in his mission.
What is gnosticism?
Gnosticism is a spirituality that is concerned with enlightenment. One of its fundamental teachings is that true knowledge or “gnosis” consists of knowing that one is actually divine. Gnostics believe that God and man are ultimately the same which, of course, is the very opposite of what the Christian faith declares. Christianity proclaims that God and creation are entirely separate and always will be.
Gnosticism rejects the God of the Old Testament. Likewise, Dan Brown ignores Him. Interestingly, however, in the recent Gospel of Judas that has been published, we find a classic example of what’s called “Sethian Gnosticism”, based on Seth as the Christ figure. In this sort of gnosticism – and you see hints of it in the gospel of Judas, especially in the title and the hero – all the anti–hero figures of the Old Testament are transformed into heroes.
According to this particular version of gnosticism, Cain, Esau, Korah and the Sodomites are all heroes. Further, the big surprise is that the great evil mastermind in the universe is the God who created the world. So we’re dealing here with massively different views of spirituality. On the one hand, gnosticism believes that man is God; Christianity, on the other hand, teaches that God created man.
So what are the gnostic gospels? How do they differ from the canonical gospels? And how early are they? It’s been suggested recently that the Gospel of Thomas is actually a very early document. Is this so?
I know it’s been said that the Gospel of Thomas is the earliest gospel, even prior to the canonical gospels. However, I don’t believe that for a minute. I think there’s good reason for thinking that the earliest the Gospel of Thomas was written was in the latter part of the second century AD. I am aware that some radical New Testament scholars have found the theology of the gnostic gospels very much to their liking, and have tried to rehabilitate gnosticism as the original form of Christianity.
As you are probably aware, many of the gnostic texts were recovered from the Nag Hammadi library in Egypt. In fact, most of these texts have been dated quite late by the editors of the collection. For example, the editors date the gospels of Philip and Mary from the middle of the third century AD. It’s only the gospel of Thomas that is claimed to be earlier. As I have already mentioned, I think there are good reasons for seeing this gospel in the second part of the second century.
What these radical scholars try to do is to argue that the discovery of these gnostic texts, including the recent Gospel of Judas, shows a “formative period” where all these ideas were going around. Then, so the argument goes, the most dominant people in the church, the “winners”, wrote the history and they’re the ones who established who the “real Jesus” was. But even a moment’s reflection reveals what a preposterous account that is of the beginnings of Christianity. These scholars are asking us to believe that a religious movement – probably the most powerful in the history of the world – begins with radical confusion at its very centre. I mean, gnosticism and orthodoxy are as different as chalk and cheese. It’s like comparing atheism with theism. I simply don’t believe that it’s possible to make the case that Christianity began as a movement that was riddled with confusion, contradiction and incoherence and then one particular idea won out. It doesn’t make sense to me in terms of the power of original Christianity. People don’t die for incoherent and contradictory views. They die for absolute certainties. I find it interesting that there were no gnostics who died for their faith in the early church. The believers who found themselves on crosses were all orthodox in their faith. Indeed, one of the more well–known scholars who supports the gnostic view, Elaine Pagels, who was once an evangelical, actually admits that there were no gnostics who were crucified or persecuted because they fitted far too well into the Graeco–Roman pagan culture. This simply proves my point that Gnosticism is a heresy: it represents the synthesis of some Christian terms with religious paganism.
Even a moment’s reflection reveals what a preposterous account the radical scholars give of the beginnings of Christianity. How did the early church distinguish between a canonical gospel and these later gnostic versions which were competing with them?
Well, the first thing to recognise is that the early church made a point of distinguishing between the apostolic gospels and the gnostic ones. For instance, Irenaeus in AD 175 – 180 was involved in doing this. So was Hippolytus around AD 220. One of the earliest attempts to distinguish between genuine New Testament documents and Gnostic ones is found in the Muratorian Canon from around AD 170. This Canon states that the works of the Gnostics cannot be received into the catholic church ‘for it is not fitting that gall be mixed with honey’. Even as late as Augustine (AD 386–420), this sifting process was still taking place. Of course, Augustine was battling Manichaeism, which is actually a development of gnosticism. So there was an ideological conflict and it came to the fore in the latter part of the second century AD. Further, we discover some serious warnings in Paul’s writings that teachings similar to the gnostic heresies would arise and cause confusion and division in the church. I suppose that this was an inevitable development in taking the gospel to the Graeco–Roman pagan world. When people converted to Christianity, they arrived in the church with a certain amount of baggage. It doesn’t surprise me that some of them tried to redefine the Christian faith along the lines of neo–pagan thinking. And this brings me to the vexed issue: how did the church decide which of these so–called gospels was canonical? It’s a complicated question. The church, in a sense, doesn’t decide; it submits. As you know, the church has no authority to make canonical documents. Documents are inherently canonical, or they are not. What the church does is recognise those documents which come from the apostles and which bear the marks of the Holy Spirit’s authorship. Of course, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to see that there is a massive distinction between the message in the Christian gospels and later Christian writings and the gnostic gospels. There’s no ambiguity here; they are two opposed systems. Historically speaking, we have evidence that the apostle Paul’s conversion took place a couple of years after Jesus’ crucifixion and no one is more antignostic than the Apostle Paul. He writes vehemently in the late 40s and early 50s against any kind of watering down of the Christian gospel. He makes a very powerful statement of biblical theism. Paul says that three years after his conversion he went to Jerusalem and met Peter and James and that they clearly gave him the right hand of fellowship; in other words, the gospel that he preached was the same gospel as the one originally preached in Jerusalem. He actually cites an early creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3–5. He says, “that which I received, I give to you”– and then he cites an early Palestinian creed. I mean these are very early texts. No one has questioned the early dates of Paul’s letters. You know, to imagine that the Christian faith began with a group of gnostics writing texts cannot be reconciled with the history of early Christianity in Paul’s writings.
As I said, the apostle Paul was converted a few years after the resurrection and from that earliest time he was giving full expression to the Christian gospel that you find adopted in the later creeds.
Further, I think an excellent case can be made for showing that the New Testament – all of it – was written prior to AD 70. A famous radical scholar, Bishop J.A.T. Robinson wrote a book to this effect and called it Re–dating the New Testament. Actually, Dr Robinson did a magnificent job in showing that all the New Testament documents must have been written prior to AD 70.
If he was a radical, why would he have done that?
The simple truth is, I think, that he was an English gentleman who observed the rules of cricket. He believed in a sense of fair play. I guess that when he looked at the evidence he found that it was all pointing in one direction. His basic thesis, of course, is that there’s no mention of the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in the New Testament. This is surprising given the fact that Christianity claims to be the fulfilment of Judaism. If the temple had been destroyed by the time the New Testament was written, it’s hard to imagine that such a significant fact would have been omitted, especially in books like Acts and Hebrews. So I believe we have all kinds of evidence to show that the New Testament is very early historically. Further, we have strong support for the view that the gnostic texts come from the later part of the second century at the earliest.
One of the forces driving the push to admit the gnostic gospels as authoritative sources of faith is an organisation known as The Jesus Seminar. Can you tell us a little bit about that group and what its agenda is?
You don’t hear a lot about the Jesus Seminar these days, especially since its foremost representative, Dr Robert Funk, died not so long ago. Of course, a number of radical scholars such as Elaine Pagels and Marcus Borg have been associated with the group. I knew Elaine Pagels for a time at Harvard when I was studying there. I don’t know Marcus Borg personally.
One interesting thing I do know is that Robert Funk and Marcus Borg were raised in evangelical homes and rejected orthodox Christianity. Since people are holistic in their thinking, when they reject one world–view they have to find another one. As far as Marcus Borg is concerned, he has adopted a sort of “gnostic Jesus”. In his view Jesus is some kind of wisdom guru. Essentially, he denies most of the historical elements of the Christian faith.
Elaine Pagels has now said in her public writings how much she is drawn to a synthesis of Christianity and Buddhism as well as to the gnostic texts as a theological system. And all this from a former evangelical! Incidentally, Bart Ehrmann, who wrote the introductory essay to The Gospel of Judas, was once an evangelical too. He now calls himself a “happy agnostic”. He has also written many books on the early Church. He studied at Wheaton College early in his career and was apparently a very committed Christian at that time. But now he has opted for a picture of the early church that is marked by radical confusion and incoherence. I can only assume that he does so because it allows him share in that same kind of ambiguity today while keeping the name “Christian”.
The interesting thing about these scholars is that they like to claim that they are neutral. However, no one is really neutral; we’re all coming at life with a worldview. And they have a definite world–view which is no longer Christian. Elaine Pagels, as I have said, falls into this category. For example, I know she has participated in Buddhist–Christian dialogue, and so on. She has also admitted that she is strangely drawn to the gnostic way of thinking. So you have a situation today where these brilliant minds give the impression of being neutral, but they’re not really neutral; indeed, none of us is neutral. We all have a world–view, otherwise we can’t speak.
It’s been said by some that the controversy over The Da Vinci Code is simply a 21st century re–run of the ancient debate over “who is Jesus?” Do you think that’s an accurate account of what’s going on here?
Yes, I am sorry to say it is. I think the answer to the question is self–evident – it is indeed the case that we are reliving the struggles of the second and third centuries AD all over again. So Sir Leigh Teabing, who’s one of the main figures in The Da Vinci Code, says that “many scholars now say that the early church hijacked the original Jesus”. The truth is, I think, that the gnostics were the ones who tried to hijack the original Jesus. I am convinced that we’re seeing that same hijacking going on today. As I have already said, the gnostic account of Jesus produces, to my way of thinking, a preposterous account of early Christianity – one that is marked by radical incoherence and confusion. Personally, I cannot buy that as an explanation.
Peter Hastie is issues editor of Australian Presbyterian.
Copyright, Australian Presbyterian 2006