DON'T KNOW MUCH ABOUT HISTORY
Fact, Fiction, and Faith
You say you dont know much about history? Well, dont let that stop you from writing a multi-million dollar best-selling novel. It didnt stop Dan Brown from DaVinci Code and every magazine article and follow-up book to the DaVinci Code is packed with the historical errors that Dan Brown has made regarding art history, medieval history, biblical history, and even recent history.
No big deal right? After all, The DaVinci Code is just fiction, right? Thats just the problem is it only fiction? The novel has a much-discussed front page emblazoned with the legend FACT: which informs us that All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals are accurate. So, if I trust this statement and I am reading the fictional characters describe history and documents and artwork I would be inclined to think that even though this is just the discussion of fictional characters, what they are discussing is true, yes? Logically that would be so, yet the fact is that the descriptions are not at all accurate. Furthermore, even though Brown or anyone else can ultimately contend that The DaVinci Code is just a work of fiction, the books and scholarship that Brown relied upon, such as Holy Blood, Holy Grail, do not presume to be fiction. They attempt a revision of history that will appeal to some.
We could spend a day or more discussing the historical errors and fabrications in the DaVinci Code. But lets focus in on the history that involves our faith. According to the history laid out in the DaVinci Code, our faith in Jesus as both man and God is a sham. Our Bible and the belief that Jesus Christ is the resurrected Son of God is a con-job pulled off by the Roman Emperor and the Roman Catholic Church in the 4th century. And the Vatican knows this and to this day they are keeping the secret but thankfully, a secret sect of those in the know have hidden the truth about Jesus in famous works of art and crypts in Europe. [But this is just fiction, right? Remember that the descriptions of these things is accurate, says Brown. And he is getting his ideas from others decades before who do not claim that this is fiction.]
Here are the significant revisions of history in the plot of the Code ...
- Before Constantine came to power in the early 4th century, the official religion of the Roman Empire was pagan sun-worship. Pagans religion had a balanced approach to life because they worshipped gods and goddesses. (Of course Dan Brown misses the fact that the cult of Sol Invictus and Mithraism was even more male-oriented that he claims Christianity is).
- Emperor Constantine unified Rome by imposing his own version of Christianity. His new official religion was the cement that he used to solidify the factions within the crumbling Roman Empire. He chose Christianity because he was a good businessman who could pick a winning horse. And the way Constantine pulled off this feat was to assemble the bishops of the church to a council at Nicaea and rewrite Christian faith and history.
- Before the Council of Nicaea, Jesus was viewed by his followers as a prophet who was only human and not divine. Heres the excerpt from the book on page 233 where all of this is revealed ... [Read excerpt from p. 233]
Dont Know Much About History ... In this case and in many other examples, the DaVinci Code suffers from anachronism. Brown uses terms and refers to events and persons and institutions as if they all existed at the same time and were always the same. For example, the catholic church in the 4th century did not mean what we mean by catholic church ...
- The word catholic means universal and was used of the church worldwide and not just the Roman Catholic Church. In the 4th century, there were five major cities that represented the centers of the church: Alexandria, Antioch, Rome, Constantinople, and Jerusalem. The other cities would have been greatly offended by the suggestion that catholic church was particularly Roman.
- If Constantine really wanted to unify the Empire, his plan didnt work because The Roman Empire was divided into eastern and western regions in 395 just sixty years after his death.
- The term Catholic as we commonly use it came about in 1054, after a breach between the East and West regions of the universal church, the term Catholic became associated with Rome and Orthodox with Constantinople. So it isnt correct for Brown to say that the only established sacred channel is the Roman Catholic Church theres no such thing in the 4th century.
- And there cannot be a Vatican power base. It wasnt until 1377, the Vatican became the official residence of the Roman pope.
- The other cities were invaded by Arabs and Turks in the 7th century, then In 1453, the Turks invaded Constantinople leaving Rome as the most important center of the Catholic church.
Who Was Constantine and What Did He Do? Constantine is an important person in the history of Christianity. He isnt a saint, but he certainly isnt the calculating dictator he is portrayed as by the DaVinci Code. Before Constantine, Christians suffered one of the most severe persecutions in history at the hands of Emperor Diocletian. This started in 303 when Diocletian issued an edict ordering that the meeting-places of Christians be demolished, their sacred books burned, and the Christians stripped of civil rights and honors.
- Within this context, Constantine had a spiritual revelation of some sort at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312. He saw a cross in the sky and was told that this sign would lead him to victory. Constantine does worship the Invincible Sun and he is a religious person. Whether he truly had a vision is questionable, but it is important to what happens next.
- Constantine, who is now emperor, ends the unfavorable attitude toward Christians and issued the Edict of Milan in 313 that legalized Christianity. Note that he didnt make it the official religion he simply tolerates it and ends the persecution.
- Constantine is a sort of friend to the Christians and he takes an interest in the welfare of Christians, no doubt due to his religious experience at Milvian. So when a big argument erupts in the Eastern church, Constantine assembles the Council of Nicea in 325. He is doing what all Roman emperors do they take charge. Romans dont like trouble and disorder. So he rounds all these church leaders up and gets them to work out their problem. This sets the precedent for ecumenical councils.
- Theres debate over whether Constantine was a Christian. He was baptized on his deathbed in 337. It was common to be baptized just before death. I doubt that the baptism was forced on Constantine as DaVinci Code claims. Why would Constantine force all the empire to become Christian and he himself remain a pagan?
What Was Nicea and Why Does It Matter? But lets focus on this Council of Nicea for a moment. What was it all about? Remember that the Christians were persecuted before 313. Persecuted Christians have little time to argue. They are busy trying to protect each other and encourage the faith under fire. But after Constantine lifts the persecution, some matters of debate surface.
- There was no disagreement as to whether or not Christ was divine. Brown claims that before Nicea Jesus followers regarded Jesus as a human prophet but not the Son of God. And Nicea was where they voted on the position that Jesus was divine. This is dead wrong! Setting aside the history of the first century and Scripture, it is impossible to even read the history of the Council of Nicea in this way and understand it. Even an atheist could not rightfully contend that this is what happened at Nicea.
- The debate did not involve an up or down vote on Jesus divinity, but instead focused on a rather technical understanding of how Jesus was divine. Everyone agreed that Jesus was the Son of God, but in what sense was he? Arius contended that Christ was lesser than God or younger than God. God is the father so he has to come first.
- Athanasius argued that Christ was of the same substance as God. He was concerned about the implications of saying that there was a time when there was not Son of God. So the father and son are co-eternal.
- Even though Arianism was popular the vote at Nicea was not a close vote. It was 218 to 2 in favor of Athanasius position.
- Along with this decision, they ratified many long-held beliefs of the Christian movement. But Nicea didnt end the controversy. It continued. And there were more and more church councils; more and more debates ...
And We Need to Know This Because ... ?
- In our age, people adopt any history that seems plausible. Mainly because of the brokenness of humanity. If the church cannot get along and is split into a thousand disagreeing factions, then why not believe a mock history that contends that all these so-called Christians are a sham.
- This is why it is good for us to know our history. Not just the first century, but even the second, third, fourth and so on. The early centuries were closer to the first century than us. We view the first century through the lenses of the centuries in-between that cannot be helped but if I know I have tinted glasses on, then I am aware of how ideas and thoughts have developed over time. This keeps us from making the anachronistic mistakes Dan Brown has made.
- We can learn from the struggles of early Christians; we learn from their courage and from their mistakes. One thing is true they were not superhuman. Like us, they were ordinary people caught up in the work of God. Some were faithful and some were not.
When we notice how much the church changed when it went from being a persecuted group to being favored by the government we can learn a lot. Though it is wonderful that the church persecution was lifted by Constantine, the Christians were no less faithful to God when they were persecuted and outcast. We dont have to have the permission of the government to be faithful to Christ. And so, if our nation or culture should ever disdain or persecute Christians, we can be just as brave and faithful as those Christians in the early centuries and brothers and sisters even now who are persecuted in places like Africa, the Middle East, Vietnam and Laos.
And for us who enjoy favor and maybe even privilege as Christians we need to be very responsible with this favor and privilege. We dare not use this blessing as an opportunity to get our way or to indulge in controversial disputes that encourage non-believers to view Christ and the church negatively. Sure we will have problems that need to be worked out, but we need to do that with love and maturity. Even the sacrificial attitude of Jesus Christ who said to the power of Rome 36Jesus said, "My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place." 37"You are a king, then!" said Pilate. Jesus answered, "You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me." (John 18)
West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Morning Sermon, 28 May 2006
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