One of The Da Vinci Code's most dramatic claims is that before the Council of Nicea in 325 AD, no Christians believed Jesus to be anything more than a human prophet. The idea of a divine Christ was invented by Constantine in 325 for mainly political reasons.
While among the most intriguing and based in real historical events, this is also one of the most demonstrably inaccurate claims in the entire novel. However, it brings up the interesting question of when Jesus' followers began to regard him as divine and what they said about him in the earliest centuries.
Overview of the Divinity of Jesus in The Da Vinci Code and Reality
Documents and Historical Evidence for the Divinity of Jesus
Contrary to Leigh Teabing's claims that Jesus was regarded as a mortal prophet until the 4th century, Jesus is described as the Son of God and as God from the 1st century onward. However, it is possible that his first followers did not see him as divine. Read on to learn more about this fascinating question.
The Humanity and Divinity of Jesus in the New Testament
Far from being invented in 325 AD, the idea that Jesus is divine appears already in the first century, in the New Testament Gospels (which also depict him as human).
However, the New Testament Gospels are generally dated to several decades after Jesus' death and it may be that Jesus' original followers believed him to be merely human. In fact, this is the belief of many modern biblical scholars and textual critics. As explained by Bart Ehrman, a professor of early Christianity:
As we have seen, Teabing is wrong on a couple of points. He is wrong to think that the New Testament portrays Jesus only as divine... and he is wrong to think that the earlier understanding of Jesus changed with Constantine.... But Teabing is right on one key issue: our earliest and best sources do indeed understand Jesus to be a mortal prophet. In fact, more than that, they understand him to be a prophet who made a precise set of prophecies. Jesus, like the Essenes of the Dead Sea Scrolls community, was an apocalyptic Jew, who understood that God was soon to intervene in the course of history to overthrown the forces of evil in this world and to establish a new kingdom on earth, in which there would be no more pain and suffering. (Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code, p. 127)
Ehrman and other scholars who share his view of Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet base their theory on the "earliest and best" sources within the canonical New Testament, with occasional help from the Gospel of Thomas. (For more information on the criteria and conclusions for the "historical Jesus," see the links and books at the left and bottom of this page.)
Whether these scholars are right or not, it is clear that Christians believed Jesus was divine by the time the New Testament was written (c. 50-120 AD). Jesus is not recorded as referring to himself as the "Son of God," but the term is used in the writings of Paul (e.g. Ro 1:4, 8:31), which are the earliest surviving Christian writings, and in the epistle to the Hebrews (4:14).
The Gospel of John refers to Jesus simply as "the Son," which may have a similar meaning. Paul uses the term for both Christ and Christians, but distinguishes between the two: Christians become sons of God by adoption, but Jesus is the rightful Son of God by nature.
Explicit statements that Christ is God can be seen in the New Testament in at least the following places:In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.... The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. (John 1:1,14) Thomas said to him [the resurrected Jesus], "My Lord and my God!" (John 20:28) Have this same mind in yourselves which was in Christ Jesus, who althoughhe was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped, but he emptied himself and took on the form of a slave, having come in the likeness of a human. (Philippians 2:5-7) But about the Son he [God] says, "Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever." (Hebrews 1:8)
In addition, some important titles and functions applied to Christ in the New Testament indicate early belief in his divinity. The statement "Jesus Christ is Lord (Greek kyrios, Hebrew adonai)" is found throughout the New Testament and was one of the earliest Christian confessions of faith. Due to the substitution of the word "Lord" in place of YHWH (the holy name of God that may not be pronounced) in Torah readings, "Lord" had come to be almost synonymous with God in Jewish thinking by the time of Jesus. This associated can be seen in the Jews' refusal to address the Roman emperor as "lord," even under penalty of death. (Alister McGrath, Christian Theology, 327, citing Jewish historian Josephus)
Finally, the New Testament writers apply the following functions to Jesus that are associated only with God:
- Jesus is the savior of humanity (Mt 1:21, Ac 4:12, Lk 2:11)
- One should call on the name of Jesus in prayer (1 Co 1:2) and worship him (Mt 28:9)
- Jesus reveals God directly: "Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father." (Jn 14:9)
The Divinity of Jesus in Early Christian Writings
Between the New Testament and the Council of Nicea, virtually all Christian writers spoke of Jesus as divine. For example, the martyr Ignatius of Antioch, one of the earliest Christian writers after the New Testament, wrote around 100 AD:There is one physician, both fleshly and spiritual, born and unborn, God come in the flesh, true life in death, from both Mary and God, first subject to suffering and then beyond suffering, Jesus Christ our Lord. (Letter to the Ephesians, 7.2)
Comments by Experts and Authors on the Divinity of Jesus
Bart Ehrman, a historian of early Christianity, writes in Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code:Teabing in fact presents a rather confused picture to Sophie in his discussion of Jesus' identity as divine. On one hand, he indicates that Jesus' divinity was not accepted until Nicea in the year 325; on the other hand, he indicates that Constantine accepted into his canon of scripture only those Gospels that portrayed Jesus as divine, eliminating all the other Gospels that portrayed him as human. But if Jesus' divinity was not acknowledged by Christians until the Council of Nicea (Teabing's view), how could the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John portray him as divine already in the first century (which is also his view)? (p. 15) Constantine, wanting unity in the church because he wanted unity in his empire, called a council to decide the issue raised most poignantly by Arius, whether Christ was a divine creation of the Father or was himself co-eternal and equal with God. The Council of Nicea met in 325 CE to decide the issue. Contrary to what Leigh Teabing asserts, it was not a particularly close "vote." The vast majority of the 200 or 250 bishops present sided with the view of Athanasius against Arius, which was eventually to become the view of Christianity at large.... And more important, contrary to Teabing, it was not a vote on Jesus' divinity. Christians for 250 years had agreed Jesus was divine. The only question was how he was divine, and that was what the Council of Nicea was called to resolve. (p. 23) It is important to see how historians go about this kind of work [of evaluating early sources on Jesus], in order to make my overarching point: that knowing about Jesus is not simply guesswork, on one hand, or a matter of coming up with an imaginative idea, on the other hand.... And I am not denying that people are perfectly within their rights to make any claim they want about Jesus, whether sensationalist or cautious. But if historians are to accept such claims, they need to look at the evidence. The only reliable evidence we have comes from our earliest sources, and we can neither simply take these at face value nor just read between the lines in order to make the sources say what we want them to say. They have to be used critically, following established criteria and historical principles. (p. 138)
Robin Griffith-Jones, pastor of the Temple Church in London (of Da Vinci Code fame), points out in The Da Vinci Code and the Secrets of the Temple:In the 50s or 60s C.E.--30 years at most after the death of Jesus--Paul wrote to his converts in the city of Philippi. In his letter he quoted a hymn, perhaps one that he had written himself, perhaps one he had inherited. He seems to expect his converts in Philippi to recognize the hymn; perhaps, then, he taught it to them on his own visit to the city, some five years before. The hymn is in two parts. The first speaks of Jesus’ willingness to humble himself: "He made himself empty, being born in the likeness of humans; he humbled himself and was obedient to the point of death--and death on a cross." And in the hymn’s second part Jesus is rewarded for his obedience: "Therefore God has highly exalted him and has given him the name above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow" (from Philippians 2.6–10). Every knee shall bow at the name of Jesus: Within 30 years of his death, Jesus was being given the worship that could be given to God alone. Of all the startling things in early Christianity, this is the most remarkable of all. It was indeed under Constantine, in the fourth century, that the churches’ leaders defined in the terms of Greek philosophy what status this Jesus had in relation to God himself. But the instinct was there from the earliest decades: Jesus must be worshipped as God alone is worshipped. Such worship, in itself, raises more questions than it answers; and it would be 300 years before the churches’ thinkers had worked through all the possible implications (and hazards!) of all the possible accounts they could give of this Jesus. Constantine required his bishops to endorse one such view, expressed in sophisticated and carefully ambiguous language. ...Arius stirred up a storm. Just as Constantine was strengthening the churches as a power for unity and cohesion in his Empire, Arius was splitting those churches themselves down the middle. Constantine sought--and more or less demanded--unity at Nicaea among the Christian theologians who were effectively in his service. He won the agreement he wanted: Of the 220 bishops at the Council, 218 signed their agreement to the creed that Constantine proposed.
Michael Haag and Veronica Haag note in their Rough Guide to the Da Vinci Code:The argument was not, as claimed in the The Da Vinci Code, over whether Jesus was divine or not - his divinity was almost universally agreed. Rather it conerned the nature of that divinity. (p. 84)
More Information on the Humanity and Divinity of Jesus
- Historical Jesus Theories - lots of information on various theories of who Jesus really was
- The Jewish Roman World of Jesus - a comprehensive and attractive web resource
- Jesus Seminar Forum - information on the research of the Jesus Seminar
- Christology - Catholic Encyclopedia - long article on Christ's identity
- The Historical Christ - Rick Wade
- The Road to Nicea - Christian History Magazine
- "Do You Know Whom You Worship?" - Christianity Today - about Council of Nicea