"Elymas' Blindness: Debunking the Da Vinci Deception"
April 30, 2006 Acts 13:1-12
"You can't believe everything you hear." Unfortunately that's often the case, whether it pertains to the latest rumour around town or more deliberate forms of communication. The "Deleted Items" in my email program contains 22 messages from just the past two months that are fraudulent or "phishing", purporting to be from agencies such as Royal Bank, Chase Bank, eBay, and PayPal. Their subject lines sound very urgent: "Notification of limited account access", "Your final warning from eBay", "Reactivate your Chase account!" (Not that I ever had one in the first place!)
The suspiciousness of such fake messages is relatively easy to spot. But there are other voices in our culture claiming credibility that are harder to debunk. Yes, we've been warned about the tabloids like National Enquirer. [GRAPHICS] Recently our son Keith made up some fake magazine covers. Unfortunately these imaginary headlines are the substance of best-selling novels: "Author claims Jesus did not die on the cross...Jesus caught with hooker named Mary: God-man more man than God?"
The success of The Da Vinci Code took even its author Dan Brown by surprise. Since its release in March 2003, it has sold more than 36 million copies and been translated into 44 languages, a bestseller in 100 countries; its publisher Doubleday has called it "the all-time bestselling adult novel." Sony's Columbia pictures bought the movie rights for $6 million and lined up Ron Howard as director and Tom Hanks to portray the lead character; release date is this coming month, May 19. Author Dan Brown has admitted, "I never imagined so many people would be enjoying it this much."
Well, not everyone's enjoying it. Some Christians find it undermines their faith. The author claims to have written a fictional, fact-based conspiracy theory alleging "scientific evidence that the New Testament is false testimony" (p.341). One person wrote in desperation to RBC Ministries, "Is it all true?...Is the last 25+ years I've been a Christian all a lie? Was Jesus just a man? Did it all really happen? Was He married to Mary Magdalene? Is everything I was raised to believe just made up for the sake of money? I have to know. I don't know where else to turn. Now I am doubting if there is a heaven, a God, and Jesus. Please, help me! Please, in God's name, help me. I'm brokenhearted, confused, and still crying."
As we'll see, The Da Vinci Code is largely fiction masquerading as fact. It's typical of the enemy's attempts to derail the gospel and sow confusion in people's lives. Before we examine it, let's look at another occasion when the first Christian missionaries were strongly opposed and found they needed to confront misinformation and deception head-on.
The context of chapter 13 within the book of Acts shows a gradually increasing awareness of the reality of the spirit-world, and thus of conflict between God's forces and the power of Satan. As well, the church is developing a sense of strategic mission. This is where the early church seems to catch its breath after fleeing the persecution following Stephen's martyrdom; it is re-oriented from simply reacting to persecution to intentionally launch out in mission. V2 says, "While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them."" After more fasting and prayer, they lay hands on them and send them off. A congregation for the first time is sending out a team into new areas. You could imagine the demonic realm murmuring, "Of course you know, this means war!" It's as if the Lord is saying to His Church, "OK, that's enough time in training and practice skirmishes.Now you're going into attack mode!"
John Eldredge writes in Wild At Heart, "A man must have a battle to fight, a great mission to his life that involves and yet transcends even home and family. He must have a cause to which he is devoted even unto death, for this is written into the fabric of his being. Listen carefully now: You do. That is why God created you - to be his intimate ally, to join him in the Great Battle. You have a specific place in the line, a mission God made you for." Barnabas and Saul said "yes" to God's call into mission.
Their first objective was Cyprus. This was Barnabas' home island, roughly 100 miles long by 50 wide. It can be seen on a clear day from the coast of Asia. They sailed across (125 miles - that's about 5 times the distance on the ChiChiMaun from Tobermory to Manitoulin - with no diesel!) and came to the port of Salamis at the east end of the island [MAP]. Salamis had a large Jewish population (note "synagogueS" plural v5): the Ptolemy rulers had encouraged Jews to settle there. They started by preaching the word of God in these synagogues. Then they left Salamis and worked westward, travelling to Paphos at the west end which was the Roman headquarters. There they met the proconsul or Roman governor of the whole island, Sergius Paulus, whose name has been found in an archaeological inscription. Luke describes him as "an intelligent man".
Several famous Roman rulers (Marius, Crassus, Pompey, Tiberias) were influenced by Jewish 'wise men' or magicians, and Sergius Paulus had one in his court, too. Luke introduces him as "a Jewish sorcerer (magon, like Magi of Mt 2) and false prophet named Bar [son of]-Jesus". This 'wise guy' seems to have been a bit of an opportunistic parasite, having 'attached himself' (NLT) as an assistant to the governor. Perhaps sort of a court leech or tapeworm; more 'maggot' than magon. He was at least wise enough to know where to find the cream - right at the top! Conscious of his influential position and privileges, he no doubt would be watching for anything that might diminish his significance.
But the proconsul sent for Barnabas and Saul because he wanted to hear the word of God. The Lord was at work - here comes a real opportunity; and with it, opposition. V8, "But Elymas the sorcerer ...[Elymas = Arabic for 'a wise man'] opposed them and tried to turn the proconsul from the faith." He opposed them: set himself against them, perhaps in cantankerous debate; and he 'tried to turn' the governor from the faith - the Greek word diastrepho means to turn or twist in two, distort, pervert, turn from the right path. The devil through this agent was hurling all the arguments he could to try to prevent the proconsul hearing the news about Jesus.
This is where Saul /Paul (his Roman name) stepped up to the plate. This interference had to stop. Luke recalls, "filled with the Holy Spirit, [he] looked straight at Elymas" - like we might fix our attention on the goal when someone's about to score in hockey - and let him have it with both godly barrels, saying: "You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right! You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord?" (13:10)
Strong language, but truthful and warranted in a critical situation of spiritual warfare. Consider it carefully. "You are a child (son) of the devil": in contrast to his Jewish name, Bar(son of)-Jesus (Joshua, 'God delivers'). Similar to the strong language Jesus used addressing the Pharisees in John 8(44): "You belong to your father, the devil...there is no truth in him.When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies." When untruth and deception are heard, Satan can't be far away. Elymas was lying and twisting as much as he could in an attempt to subvert the apostles' vital message.
Paul calls the magician an enemy of all that's right / just; full of all kinds of deceit (from a word meaning to capture with bait or a decoy) and trickery (mischief). Perhaps Elymas was a pragmatist, prepared to do "whatever it takes" in order to protect his valuable position, however unethical it might be. The Gomery inquiry found such wrongdoing in the corridors of power in our own country. Paul exclaims, "Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord?" There's that diastrepho word again - to turn or twist in two, distort, pervert...The opposite of what John the Baptist and Old Testament prophets called people to do in repentance, "Make straight paths for [the Lord]...the crooked roads shall become straight..." (Lk 3:4f; Is 40:3). Elymas was using every weapon he could think of to derail or torpedo the gospel enterprise, but Paul in God's name was not going to allow it. He announces the Lord's hand is against the false prophet (lit.'upon' him - 'God's got a-hold of you!') and Elymas will be blind for a time, unable to see the light of day. Immediately it happens: the seer now gropes around looking for someone who will lead him by the hand as a guide.
He who had been trying to confuse and darken the communication was now handed over to the powers of darkness he served. Interestingly, this is similar to the blindness for 3 days Paul had to endure after meeting Jesus en route to Damascus (Ac 9:8f): perhaps Paul especially knew the power of blindness to make one realize one's dependance and helplessness without God's light and truth.
V12 records the victory of God's ambassadors over the confusion of the enemy: "When the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, for he was amazed at the teaching about the Lord." Not just at the miracle - perhaps the magician had counterfeited wonders before. Sergius Paulus 'was amazed (lit.struck) at the Lord's teaching"- the whole message of Barnabas and Saul about the centuries-old promise through the prophets of a Messiah, recorded in ancient Scripture, and how this had just recently come true in amazing detail in God's provision for human sin through the death and resurrection of Jesus so recently in Judea. The Lord's truth hit home in a convincing way, bringing this key leader in the territory into a lasting inheritance of eternal life.
So, God sends us on mission as Christians with a precious message. The enemy may try to muddle or twist the Good News, but the Holy Spirit helps us stand against such deceit and perversion, setting the facts forth plainly so others can discover the truth and joy of knowing God through Jesus Christ.
[References: Dennis Fisher, The Da Vinci Code: Separating Fact from Fiction, RBC Ministries, www.discoveryseries.org
Josh McDowell, The Da Vinci Code: A Quest for Answers, Green Key Books, www.davinciquest.org
Erwin Lutzer, The Da Vinci Deception, Tyndale House Publishers, www.davincideception.com ]
Part of the deceptiveness of The Da Vinci Code is that, while it's a fiction novel, it purports to be based on truth. Its opening page states, in part, "FACT: The Priory of Sion - a European secret society founded in 1099 - is a real organization. In 1975 Paris's Bibliotheque Nationale discovered parchments known as Les Dossiers Secrets, identifying numerous members of the Priory of Sion, including Sir Isaac Newton, Botticelli, Victor Hugo, and Leondardo da Vinci...All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate." Doesn't that sound impressive? This guy must have done some research!
But in many areas the reader is hoodwinked because what seems to be factual is actually fictional. Let's look at a few historical elements before considering the claims which are more threatening to traditional Christian belief.
<> The Priory of Sion: According to Brown, the Priory of Sion was started by a French king in 1099 after he conquered Jerusalem, to protect the secret of the Holy Grail and pass it on; this involved protecting special blood-line documents. Papers were discovered in Paris's Bibliotheque Nationale which supposedly proved the Priory's existence. In fact though, the Priory was first a monastic order founded in Jerusalem in 1100 that was absorbed into the Jesuits in 1617. The second and third Priory of Sion were each under the leadership of Pierre Plantard, an anti-Semitic Frenchman who went to jail in 1953 for fraud. In 1954, Plantard formed a group called the Priory of Sion to help those in need of low-cost housing. The group dissolved in 1957. Then in the 1960s and 70s Plantard created a series of forged documents to "prove" the existence of a bloodline descending from Jesus and Mary through the kings of France to himself (claiming to be the rightful heir to the throne). He and his associates called themselves the Priory of Sion and stealthily deposited these documents in libraries all over France, including the National Library. In 1993, however, Plantard admitted under oath to a French judge that he had fabricated all the documents relating to the Priory of Sion.
<> Opus Dei: Brown states in the opening pages as fact: "The Vatican prelature known as Opus Dei is a deeply devout Catholic sect that has been the topic of recent controversy due to reports of brainwashing, coercion, and a dangerous practice known as 'corporal mortification.'" The Da Vinci Code alleges to have uncovered "secrets" about the church. The truth is that the real Opus Dei ("work of God") is a Roman Catholic lay organization that emphasizes piety and good works. It was created to empower lay people, instead of focusing on the spirituality of clergy. The characteristics of Opus Dei are self-denial and sacrificial good works within the Roman Catholic Church. Its portrayal in The Da Vinci Code as existing to suppress documents of the Priory of Sion is pure fabrication.
<> The book states that all descriptions of artwork in the novel are accurate. But Josh McDowell points out that although the book says a famous glass pyramid was constructed of exactly 666 panes of glass at President Mitterand's explicit demand, there are actually 673. The book says the title of Leonardo's painting Mona Lisa refers to two Egyptian gods; but in fact Leonardo never called it 'Mona Lisa'. Also in the book, the heroine uses one of Leonardo's paintings, described as a "five-foot tall canvas", as a shield, "pressing it so close to her body that it bends". But a curator of the Art Institute of Chicago notes that the piece in question is painted on wood, not canvas, and is unlikely to be so supple; also, it's more than six feet tall. And though the book suggests Leonardo left clues in his artwork about secret religious beliefs, art critics who have no interest in defending the church have rejected the notion.
<> The Knights Templar are based in history but not as portrayed in The Da Vinci Code. They were founded in 1118 as a military religious order, but they did not become wealthy, as alleged in the novel, by discovering the secret of the Holy Grail. Their mission was simply to protect pilgrims to the Holy Land. And there is no evidence that they were annihilated for having knowledge of it.
<> The Holy Grail is a medieval legend about the cup of the Last Supper. The first appearance of the term "Holy Grail" was in 1170 in a romantic writing Perceval about the legend of King Arthur. When Brown suggests that the Holy Grail is not a cup but actually Mary Magdalene and that she carried on Jesus' bloodline by having His child, he alters an existing legend about the historical "cup of Christ" and uses it to advance fictional claims about Jesus and Mary.
<> The Da Vinci Code bolsters the significance of the Priory of Sion by claiming a little-known connection with such geniuses as Leonardo da Vinci and Isaac Newton. However, Brown bases these assertions on one of Plantard's forged documents. Even though a French judge got Plantard to admit his hoax, Dan Brown uses these "secret records" as if they were legitimate. Lies based on lies!
Thus far we have looked at factors which are not directly related to Biblical truths. Brown's "facts" in these non-doctrinal areas seem not only inaccurate but in some cases, careless and just downright sloppy. How credible does this make him when it comes to matters of faith and spirituality?
<> Brown places much emphasis on the Gnostic Gospels. But these were written about 100 to 200 years after the life of Jesus. Lacking connection to those who knew Christ, they reflect Gnostic doctrines of the second and third centuries rather than a first-century record of witnesses. By contrast, the New Testament gives us eyewitness accounts, with more copies, closer to the event than any other document from the first century. Small portions like the Chester Beatty and John Rylands papyri fragments bring scholars back to within 40 years of the writing of the gospel of John. F.F.Bruce shows how historians have used other early documents to confirm the reliability of New Testament accounts.
<> Extrapolating loosely from the later gnostic writing, Brown portrays a romantic relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene that leads to marriage and a child. But according to the more reliable New Testament, Mary was a follower of Jesus but nothing more. Darryl Bock says, "Most scholars have long believed that Jesus was single...No early Christian text we possess, either biblical or extrabiblical, indicates the presence of a wife during His ministry, His crucifixion, or after His resurrection." Other arguments that support this: Mary is never tied to any male when she is named (Mt 27:55f; Mk 15:40f; Lk 8:2; Jn 19:25). A minister's right to marry was cited without reference to Jesus (1 Cor 9:4-6). And, Jesus showed no special concern for Mary Magdalene at the cross.
<> Brown's supposed 'expert' claims, "The Bible, as we know it today, was collated by the pagan Roman emperor Constantine...Because Constantine upgraded Jesus' status almost four centuries after Jesus' death, thousands of documents already existed chronicling His life as a mortal man. To rewrite the history books...Constantine commissioned and financed a new Bible, which omitted those gospels that spoke of Christ's human traits and embellished those gospels that made Him godlike. The earlier [Gnostic] gospels were outlawed, gathered up, and burned." In actual fact, what the Council of Nicea burned were papers relating to the Arian heresy. The Old Testament books had been collected and translated into Greek more than a hundred years before Jesus was born. As for the gospels, Irenaeus was an early church father writing a century and a half before Constantine; the four gospels were already so universally recognized that he referred to them as four pillars. Dr FF Bruce says that by AD180 the idea of the fourfold gospel had become "axiomatic throughout Christendom". Regarding the New Testament, a broad consensus about which writings were trustworthy had developed long before the first Council of Nicea in AD 325.
The enemy will always be trying to induce people to 'edit out' parts of Scripture they don't like. That was his temptation in the Garden of Eden, sidling up to Eve and asking, "Did God really say...?" then contradicting divine instruction and suggesting "you will be like God" when the humans decide to do their own thing and disobey (Gen 3:1,5). Brown's book makes false and deceptive statements in order to persuade the public both the Christian church and the Bible are neither trustworthy or authoritative. Like Elymas, he's distorting matters, trying to trick people and turn them from the Christian faith. That's a perversion. When mortals construct our own framework of meaning and values, that's idolatry. We reject the "Manufacturer's Handbook" to our peril!
This is not a new problem. Gnosticism was around back in the first century AD. Gnostics weren't interested in historical facts, but secret conjecture; they didn't feel they needed to be saved, but to 'self-actualize'. So there's resurgence in interest in their thinking in our postmodern, subjective, secular culture. We must be wise in filtering through strange teachings. The apostles urge us to "test the spirits", as 1Jn 4(1-4) implores: "Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.[He adds on an encouraging note] You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world."
Vernon Wishart is a retired United Church pastor living in Edmonton. In the issue of Theological Digest & Outlook which came out just this past week, he ends his article with a warning, quoting Timothy George: "A Church that cannot distinguish heresy from truth, or, even worse, a Church that no longer thinks this is worth doing, is a Church which has lost its right to bear witness to the transforming Gospel of Jesus Christ who declared Himself to be not only the Way and the Life but also the Truth." May the Spirit embolden us, like Paul, to stand for what's right in the face of those who are enemies of the truth. Let's pray.