The Dan Brown phenomenon    La Vie de Jesus
More than a century before The Da Vinci Code, another instant bestseller not only managed to upset the entire Christian community; it actually managed to create entirely new inroads of debate about Jesus Christ – thus giving rise to the discussions entertained in The Da Vinci Code.
by Philip Coppens

Christians seem to have a short-term memory. The furore that reigned as a result of the “allegations” made in The Da Vinci Code is not the first time that the Christian world is upset by a book – or a film.

Of course, as so little is known about the life of Jesus and even less agreed upon by most sections of Christianity, controversy is easily generated. Seconds-long scenes from the movie “The Last Temptation of Christ” by Martin Scorsese (1988) revolved around the potential that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, instead of dying on the cross. A brief scene of the married couple making love is shown in the film, which sparked the anger of many protesters. Joseph Reilly of “Morality in Media” described the film as “an intentional attack on Christianity,” and James Dobson of “Focus on the Family” warned ominously that “God is not mocked”, i.e. arguing the film was blasphemous.

In this instance, controversy did not begin in 1988, but a few decades earlier, in 1951 with the publication of the book on which the film was based. It led almost to its author Kazantzakis’ excommunication from the Greek Orthodox Church. The novel was placed on the Roman Catholic Index of Forbidden Books, and Protestant fundamentalist groups in the United States tried to have it banned from libraries. Of course, this only helped in making it become a bestseller. Almost a century and a half ago, The Da Vinci Code had a non-fiction equivalent. For one, it was not only controversial, but it was – once again – also a tremendous bestseller. Written by Ernest Renan, and published in 1863, “La Vie de Jesus” sold nearly 5000 copies per week. Of course, the book market was much smaller then, but even today, selling 5000 copies per week for any book is more than respectable, and is given only to a few – especially if one were to exclude paperbacks. In less than six months, 60,000 copies of this momentous work were sold. Edition quickly followed edition, no less than twenty-three appearing within the space of twenty years.

“La Vie de Jesus” also had another thing in common with The Da Vinci Code: between 1863 and 1864, an incredible 300 books and booklets were published denouncing its blasphemy and mistakes. But the book was republished, and 45 different editions have come out, the most recent appearing in 2005. And as in so many other instances, the Christian community forcefully attacked Renan. Many of the attacks on Renan were deeply personal in nature: like The Da Vinci Code, it even got a reaction from the Vatican, Pope Pius IX calling Renan the “European blasphemer”; others described him as a modern Judas Iscariot. Though becoming one of the Church’s most vociferous critics, in the beginning, Renan had actually trained for the priesthood, entering the college of St Sulpice in Paris, to take his degree in philology. One can only appreciate the coincidence that his chosen college would feature in The Da Vinci Code.

But what should have prepared him for a religious life, actually convinced him to become a critic of Catholicism. When he began his study of Hebrew, he learned that the second part of Isaiah differed from the first not only in style but in date; that the grammar and the history of the Pentateuch were later than the time of Moses; and that the Book of Daniel was clearly written centuries after the time in which it was set. In short, it was clear that it was all wrong. Though today, these revelations might seem minor, when Renan made these observations, no-one had seriously seen – or at least published – similar observations. Renan felt disappointed, and no doubt in internal turmoil, as there was largely no-one thinking like him. No wonder therefore that rather than opt for the priesthood, he decided to become a teacher and set himself on a path to educate the world about the “true” Christ – as Renan saw him.

Again, it might seem normal today, but if it is, it is largely thanks to Renan. Rather than accept as dogma that Jesus was the Son of God and somehow supernatural, “La Vie de Jésus” argued that the life of Jesus should be written like the life of any other man, and that the Bible could be subject to the same critical scrutiny as other historical documents. Apart from pulling Jesus down from his religious pedestal, it had a side-effect: it opened up the floodgates of endless speculation and analysis. Hence, not only does the modern debate about his possible marriage and offspring find a precursor in Renan, today, Renan’s initiative means that hundreds of books are written, speculating about what for any other person would be totally boring and unimportant aspects, like where precisely the tableware used at the Last Supper has ended up! (Has anyone ever pondered the notion that the first thing that might have happened to the “Holy Chalice” was that after dinner, it was washed?) Ernest Renan “La Vie de Jesus” is therefore an appropriate title, for it began the discussion about dozens of small details in the man’s life, as written down by the gospels. But the book was not Renan’s first airing of his theories. In fact, his critical religious views were already well-known and the book was more or less seen as the next stage of his proclamation of his doubts about Christ’s status as Son of God.

Before, when the chair of Hebrew and Chaldaic at the College de France became vacant, Renan had offered himself as a candidate. There was little chance he would get the position, but Renan must have known that he would create controversy and would force the government to come up with lame excuses as to why he was not retained. Indeed, in a twist that reveals the ingenuity of governmental thinking of a bygone era, Renan was instead “handpicked” to go on an archaeological mission to Syria – buying the government more time.

Alas, Renan had used his foreign posted to begin working on the first draft of “La Vie de Jesus”, with the help of his sister, who had travelled with him to the Middle East. Alas, she died on this trip, the result of a severe attack of fever.

Upon his return to France, the chair was still vacant and – apparently with no excuses left – was given to Renan. His inaugural address provoked more than one interruption, the climax coming when he referred to Jesus as “a man so great that […] I should not wish to contradict those who, impressed by the unique character of his movement, call him God.” The Catholics, who had vehemently opposed his appointment in the first place, demanded a reaction: four days later, Renan was suspended from his professorial duties, although he retained his salary. Following the French Revolution, there was supposedly a strict separation of State and Church, and Renan was testing the relatively new system to its limits, and largely beyond its breaking point.

Indeed, the subsequent publication of “La Vie de Jesus” prevented his reinstatement, whereupon the French ministry offered him a post in the Bibliothèque Imperiale, which he unsurprisingly declined. Despite the controversy, thousands welcomed “La Vie de Jesus”, as it not at all was negative towards Jesus. It “merely” stated that Jesus was not the Son of God, but instead an enlightened human being – one of us – who excelled where most of us did not tread.

The success of “La Vie de Jesus” resulted in a number of follow-up books, discussing related aspects. Three years later, Renan published “The Apostles”, followed by “The Gospels and the Second Christian Generation”, “Saint Paul, The Antichrist”, and “The Christian Church, and Marcus Aurelius”. This is very similar to the strings of books that followed “Holy Blood, Holy Grail”, which saw the same authors digging ever deeper into “the mystery”. To some extent, the same fate befell Dan Brown, his other novels becoming world bestsellers, though tackling themes that were moderately (e.g. Angels and Demons) to vastly (e.g. Deception Point) different from The Da Vinci Code. Still, what Renan was saying was not truly unique and neither was he the first to experience the rage of Orthodoxy against a book and its author. The reaction was at least as great as that provoked by Strauss’s “Das Leben Jesu”, which had been published nearly thirty years earlier.

The German theologian David Friedrich Strauss had concluded in his 1835 study of early Christianity that the supernatural in general and the miracles of Jesus in particular were myths. However, whereas Strauss had concluded that Jesus himself was a figure of legend, Renan argued that study of biblical and secular sources proved that Jesus had in fact existed, had attracted a mass following for his spiritual teaching, and had been crucified for the revolutionary fervour he created. Thus, Renan more so than Strauss, should be held responsible for a century and a half of speculation about details of Christ’s life; if Strauss had his way, the “Christ myth” would have been just that: exposed and done away with, to be replaced with discussion on anything but Jesus.

It was just one such detail of Jesus’ life that became the focus of “Holy Blood, Holy Grail”, “The Last Temptation of Christ” or Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code”: a focus on the possible marriage of Jesus with Mary Magdalene and their offspring.

Both claims are unsupported either by biblical or apocryphal documents and are thus evidence of how the “gaps” in Jesus’ life themselves have become subject of endless speculation, resulting in books and films tackling material that hardly seems to matter, if the world was not so obsessed with “Jesus the Man”.

Indeed, it is Renan’s “fault” that the obsession with Christ continues. For any logical person, if Jesus Christ is no longer Christ – the Son of God – this means his role in history can largely be negated. Whether he married, had offspring, did this, or that, has become irrelevant. But Renan was almost singularly instrumental in arguing that even though Christ was not the Son of God, we should still study him and his life. And hence, he created a strange mixture of “he’s just human, but we need to study him” that has so typified this type of literature, whether in non-fiction or fiction, that gave rise to The Da Vinci Code. As a scientist, Renan is best remembered for his two main arguments: that New Testament sources were not infallible, as they were written by humans, and that the formation of any religion, including Christianity, can best be understood through a study of social, linguistic, and psychological elements. Both of these arguments have largely been accepted by modern secular academics. In retrospect, it is therefore clear that Renan’s book has strongly influenced modern biblical research – or was ahead of its time.

Though many have regarded Renan’s approach as a welcome breeze within the halls of biblical academia, it has to be said that Renan’s “liberal approach” nevertheless had its origins in his own dogma. Rather than argue that there was zero evidence that Jesus was the physical Son of God, born of a virgin, Renan was convinced that “miracles are things which never happen, and, therefore, things which Jesus never did.” So, in short, Jesus was not the Son of God, as miracles cannot be performed. Today, such reasoning is normally encountered within the ranks of the sceptical community and the likes of James Randi, who argue e.g. against faith healers not on individual deficits of those claiming to perform such healings, but instead on a broader canvas that anything beyond the boundaries of the purely physical simply does not exist, and hence faith healers are charlatans. It is indeed in that category that Renan should, in retrospect, be depicted, and not amongst those who used the available evidence and let it speak for itself. Take, for example, the miracle of the raising of Lazarus. Renan claimed that the raising of Lazarus from the dead was a fraud, which Jesus and several of his disciples committed to elevate Jesus’ status with the masses. This allegation can only be partially true, for if we take the bible’s chronology, then Jesus raised Lazarus only a few days before his own execution. So if anyone invented it, it were the disciples, post Jesus’ death; there was too little time for Jesus’ fame to be derived from him raising Lazarus within Jesus’ own lifetime.

Indeed, the raising of a dead person back to life is a phenomenal feature when taken literally. The question, of course, is whether we should take it literally. Without going into too much detail, it seems rather more likely that the raising of Lazarus was first of all subject to a series of careful edits, in which the original account got greatly distorted. Today, with apocryphal material at our disposal and a better understanding of the other cults that competed with Christianity for attention, an image is emerging that the “raising of the dead” was largely an initiation ceremony performed by Jesus, Lazarus being the initiate. However, today, such possibility receives scant attention, as the scholarly dogma states that Jesus’ group was open to all and hence required no initiation. But each time new apocryphal documents are discovered, they add further weight to this initiatory aspect of Jesus’ original cult.

But more importantly, in this approach, there is no need for the dogma of whether or not Jesus could perform a miracle or not, or whether miracles exist. What it shows, is that the bible was edited, and an original account distorted almost beyond recognition, and definitely making it into something that in origin was not meant to be read as such. Of interest to The Da Vinci Code enthusiasts will be that Renan argued that Jesus’ resurrection was a hallucination experienced by Mary Magdalene and that the disciples and early Christian writers uncritically accepted this story as true, which resulted in the mythological status of Jesus. In short, for Renan, Mary Magdalene was to blame for the wrongful conclusion that Jesus had risen from the dead. Again, recent research and discoveries have highlighted that the original gospels ended with the crucifixion of Christ; his resurrection, and definitely Mary Magdalene’s encounter in the garden, are seen as later continuations of these original accounts and should definitely not be blamed on Mary Magdalene.

Indeed, Renan was a pioneer and as such we should condemn too strongly him getting details wrong. But there is a bigger problem: even if Renan had focussed on miracles, a far less dogmatic – and hence scientifically more valid – point would be to point out that Jesus was neither the first nor the last to claim he was able to perform miracles. Others, such as that other biblical character Simon Magus, were said to perform similar if not identical miracles. In retrospect, Simon Magus would become known as an evil person, for Jesus’ miracles were genuine, and Simon’s weren’t.

In truth, of course, Simon Magus was not the only magician. If anything, the performance of miracles had always been the bailiwick of magicians, throughout the Middle East and throughout history. Indeed, all of the miracles Jesus performed and that are reported in the bible, are on the repertoire of the magician; what is claimed special about Jesus, is that he did not practice magic, but that they were real – miracles, not parlour tricks. But this in itself shows a typically Christian sense of superiority, which suggests that its own “miracles” were unlike any of the “pagan magic tricks”, a belief that still pervades Western society and was instrumental in the Christian world’s dealing with religion it encountered, especially in the New World.

The situation is hence very similar to our modern times, and specifically the position of e.g. Uri Geller, and the question whether spoon bending is a supernatural skill, or a trick – the act itself remaining nevertheless totally identical from the observer’s point of view: the spoon bends. Rather than debate the specifics, modern sceptics conclude that Geller is a magician, a conclusion that is not based on any hard evidence, but on the belief that the supernatural does not exist; the laws of physics state spoons – metal – only bend if pressure is applied, so they argue Geller applies pressure. Full stop. So what, in the end, did Renan accomplish? Most importantly, popularising the notion that the bible was written by humans and should not be treated as infallible. Secondly, that Jesus’ role should be the subject of debate, rather than blind dogma. Alas, his own discussion of Jesus was within another dogma, namely that miracles could not exist. But, specifically, what Renan did – and what Dan Brown did as well – was not merely attack the Church, however easy that might be to do, but that apart from criticism, he offered a new definition of Christ – or, rather, Jesus.

For Renan, Jesus was an example of an extremely moral man. Specifically, he argued that it should not be on Jesus, but his message, that Christianity should concentrate. A century later, several of the young men entering the priesthood equally felt that the message was more important than the Man, which was echoed in the Second Vatican Council, in which it was argued that the salvation no longer had to be guaranteed because Christ died on the Cross, but merely by the fact that he had shed blood on the cross. It was a remarkable statement to make, arguing to some extent that it no longer mattered whether Christ died on the Cross or not, while at the same time maintaining that he was still the Son of God. But it could have been the first step in a redefinition of Christianity, which in the end has decided to once again become more conservative in its dogma in recent years than it appeared to be in the 1960s and 1970s. Renan also argued, throughout his book, that belief in Jesus’ divinity was due to two principal factors: Jesus’ profound charisma combined with a period in Jewish history in which a frustrated people under the yoke of Roman repression yearned for a leader who would fulfil Old Testament prophesy and usher in a new age of Jewish glory and righteousness. This identification, of course, has since been used to explain the appeal of certain modern apocalyptic sects, and why, time and again, people “fall” for the promises of their leaders. But it is also very similar to the role of The Da Vinci Code, as its success was further evidence that the Christian world at its largest had grown dissatisfied with blind belief, and tried to reinterpret itself in a manner that itself too is a sign of the times. Hence, there is indeed nothing new under the sun.

Whether friend or foe, The Life of Jesus became the defining work of its age, just like The Da Vinci Code is there with Harry Potter as the defining books of the first decade of the 21st century. One critic even compared “The Life of Jesus” to Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of Species” and Karl Marx’s “Das Kapital”, asserting that all three are landmark books of the 19th century that revolutionized intellectual and popular thought. Only the future can tell whether The Da Vinci Code – and the first decade of the 21st century – can ever be seen as such.