09 November 2007

If a line be not perfectly directed towards a point...

I met somebody a month or so back, someone who I'd wanted to meet for a while, but who, for a variety of reasons I'd never approached. Prudence and caution may not be things my friends associate with me, but I'm not entirely lacking in these qualities. Anyway, having been called, I came.
'I imagine you've heard quite a lot about me,' I said, grinning, and extending my hand.
'I certainly have,' said my new friend, shaking it, 'and I'm sure not an ounce of it is true.'
'I wouldn't say that,' I mused, 'The best lies are just distortions of the truth.'
I really believe that: it's harder to refute something that's got some basis, however tenuous, in reality, than something that's fabricated from thin air. I was thinking this yesterday, as I wrote about stories with historical content actually being, well, nonsense.

Take The Da Vinci Code, say. It was pointed out to me the other day that the pan-Christian opposition to film and book is a very curious arrangement, as it tends to involve Evangelical Christians coming out to bat for the Catholic Church. How they manage to evade the logical implications of their apologies and defences I really don't know, but I'd love to find out.*

The central 'historical' claim of The Da Vinci Code, repeated by Dan Brown ad nauseam in interviews, is that the figure of Jesus Christ, as we know him, is a sham, a creation of the Catholic Church. Brown's characters claim that Jesus' divinity was first proposed and established by a narrow vote at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD, with the support of the emperor Constantine, Jesus having before this been seen merely as a prophet and a great man, and that Jesus' divinity was carefully promoted through the systematic assembly of a definitive Bible, with more than seventy gospels being excluded and only the four we all know being included, these being systematically edited to perpetuate the myth of Jesus' divinity.

Of course, it's nonsense, but it's not something that can be refuted in a hurry, as it does contain more than a bit of truth.

There was an ecumenical Council at Nicea in 325 AD, and the hundreds of bishops who attended were indeed summoned by Constantine, but its main topic of debate concerned not the fact of Jesus' divinity, but the manner of it, which was a theological nicety about which the first Christians felt very strongly. That Jesus was in some sense divine had never been in doubt among the Christian churches - if you don't believe me, start with Acts, and carry on though the various epistles and Revelation, all of which testify to the early Christians belief in Jesus' divinity, before looking at what the writings of the Church Fathers have to say on this. Seriously, if you have time take a look at Clement's First Letter to the Corinthians, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Didache, and the letters of Ignatius of Antioch, as well as the writings of Justin Martyr, of Irenaeus of Lyons, of Clement of Alexandria, of Tertullian, and of Origen. For starters. Even take a look at Pliny's letter to the emperor Trajan:
They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food--but ordinary and innocent food. Even this, they affirmed, they had ceased to do after my edict by which, in accordance with your instructions, I had forbidden political associations. Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition.
As to what the depraved and excessive superstitions were, well, that's a separate issue. The point here, surely, though, is that if the Constantinian Church - which Brown identifies as the Catholic Church, as aside from a sideswipe at the Anglicans he seems unaware that there are any other Christians in the world - had decided to deify a Jesus who hitherto had been honoured only as a mortal, it wouldn't have been enough for them merely to have generated an official Bible, obliterating all rival accounts of the life of Christ with a breathtaking efficiency. They also would have had to have gone out of their way to create hundreds of other documents so that future generations could be suitably misled about the early history of Christianity.

A tad unlikely, I feel.

Or take Brown's claims about the creation and canonisation of the Bible. There are elements of truth in it: the contents of the Bible indeed weren't established until the Fourth Century, and plenty of books that could have been included were left out. So much is true.

But the story of how the Bible was canonised is longer and messier than that. The Old Testament was largely defined from Apostolic times as the 46 books of the Greek Septuagint used by Christians throughout the Mediterranean, although it's not until 367 AD that we see an unambiguous list of all 46 books. Regarding the New Testament there was a general consensus, despite the proposals of Marcion, by the middle of the Second Century - and if you ever visit the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin you'll see two codices from the early Third Century, one containing the four recognised gospels and the other containg most of the letters of St Paul. For all, that, though, it seems that the canon wasn't regarded as definitively closed until fifty or more years after the Council of Nicea.

The thing is, in order to prove all this - to refute Brown's claims, basically - you need to look at the writings of quite a number of prominent early Christians, and if you're going to claim them as credible witnesses for what the early Church believed, you need to accept that their descriptions of early Christian belief and practice actually reflect early Christian belief and practice. And the thing is, the things they believe tend to sound ever so slightly Catholic.

Alternatively, you can just stick your fingers in your ears and insist that Dan Brown is wrong because the Bible says so, but I'm not sure that mere assertion will really do the job on this one.

* I'm afraid watching Nicky Gumble's rather eloquent and compelling presentation on The Da Vinci Code really won't help you on this one. He misrepresents a couple of things, makes claims that can't really be proven, cherry-picks his evidence, and ignores the implications of what he's saying.

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