Code Breaker

Dr. Darrell Bock says The Da Vinci Code is fiction, just fiction.

Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, who fled to France with their child and founded a secret royal dynasty after he died on the cross. Since 33 A.D., church fathers have tried to cover this up because they must rid the world of the sacred feminine or, in other words, pagan goddess worship. Folks in a sexy secret society called the Priory of Sion know the truth. If they can find the Holy Grail, which may or may not be a goblet, they can release the proof. But the Vatican is hunting down and killing those with this Gnostic knowledge. Wrapped in a murder mystery, that's essentially the conspiracy plot of the wildly popular book The Da Vinci Code. An intellectual but rugged male scholar and a gorgeous female French cryptographer must decipher clues left inside art by Leonardo Da Vinci to find the killers.

The novel by Dan Brown has remained on The New York Times best-seller list for more than 55 weeks. Despite pedestrian writing, clues astute readers can decipher long before the protagonists and a muddled ending, the book has prompted serious examination of Brown's premise in Newsweek, Time and various other media outlets. It's sold an estimated 5 million copies.

Now comes Dr. Darrell Bock, research professor of New Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, with his book Breaking the Da Vinci Code: Answers to Questions Everybody is Asking.

Christian scholars everywhere will be slapping their foreheads, saying, "Why didn't I think of that?"

Bock has written more than a dozen books about the Gospels, mostly geared toward other scholars and pastors. Sales of Blasphemy and Exaltation in Judaism in the Final Examination of Jesus: A Philological-Historical Study of the Key Jewish Themes Impacting Mark 14:61-64 topped out at 1,000. His best seller so far, with an estimated 20,000 sold, has been Luke: New International Version Application Commentary, published in 1996. But the first printing of Breaking the Da Vinci Code ran 75,000 copies, and Bock wrote the book in a week.

Bock's take on Brown's book: "The story is as good as the history is bad."

It's a leap, from publishing highly technical research for a theological audience to riffing on a sensationalistic best seller for the general public. But since 1988, Bock has made an effort to "engage" the culture instead of condemn it, as many conservative Christian authors do. He's a switch-hitter who writes for mainstream op-ed pages and the eclectic religious Web site, as well as Christianity Today, where he's a corresponding editor. In the process, Bock has become a source for journalists nationally who tackle religious subjects.

He has Peter Jennings to thank for it.

Bald, with a full beard and a monk's fringe of salt-and-pepper hair, Bock appears to be the epitome of the ivory tower scholar, except for the raucous laugh. Bock never intended to be a religious scholar. He's a sports nut who wanted to broadcast games and interview athletes.

A religious conversion in college sent Bock in another direction. He studied in Scotland and Germany and is internationally known for his textual analysis on the books of Luke and Acts.

Bock's first piece for the lay audience came in 1988 on the release of Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ. In 1992, he wrote an article on the Republican National Convention, pointing out that despite the close identification of Republicans with Christianity, the party's principles often don't match up to the faith. Bock took those opportunities as they came along, not really seeking them out.

But in 2001, as president of the Evangelical Theological Society, Bock gave a speech that was a call to arms. He told the scholars that they were talking to each other and ignoring the broader world. Interest in religious topics in the mainstream press has exploded since the '80s. They had to get back in the game.

"Theologians are trained to work for and in the church," Bock says. "They don't think about how to connect and engage the culture."

What prompted that speech was The Search for Jesus, an ABC special with Peter Jennings that aired in mid-2000.

"It was problematic from the get-go," Bock says. "The day it came out, I wrote the president of ABC News." Bock says it featured liberal scholars who viewed Jesus as a political dissident who actually said little of what is attributed to him in the New Testament and almost certainly did not rise from the dead. There was no attempt, Bock says, to present both sides of those arguments.

Bock didn't get a reply, but the ABC special taught him a lesson in the promotion of religious ideas. "The fact that the Jesus Seminar caught on so fast took me by surprise," Bock says. "They were so good at marketing and getting their message out."

He worked on a rebuttal documentary with broadcaster John Ankerberg that aired on Christian stations. "My frustration was that it wasn't on the History Channel or prime-time TV," Bock says. "It was talking in-house."

Then Dallas Theological Seminary engaged a public relations firm to raise the school's profile.

"They helped me create media contacts," Bock says. "I found that once you got your foot in the door and the media people came to respect what you were offering, then you got on the list of people to call."

Bock first heard about The Da Vinci Code in the summer of 2003. On a panel at a religious conference, Bock was amazed at the odd questions he got from the audience curious about the book's claims. Was Jesus married to Mary Magdalene? Was she a prostitute? What about the so-called Gnostic Gospels? (These are writings not included in the canon that became the Bible.) Were they suppressed and true Christianity hijacked by the Catholic Church?

When ABC producer Jean Marie Condon called him in September about the novel, Bock decided to read it. He found it entertaining fiction but, for a scholar of ancient texts, built on flimsy foundations.

On November 3, when ABC aired a special called Jesus, Mary and Da Vinci, Bock was one of the scholars interviewed. A few days later, an editor with Thomas Nelson, a Christian book publisher, asked Bock to write a rebuttal to the book.

Finishing a long commentary on the book of Acts, Bock didn't have the time. And after all, it's just a potboiler novel. Then Bock heard comments made by Brown on national TV saying that if he had written the book as nonfiction, he "wouldn't change a thing."

Bock realized that the ideas Brown was promulgating were the same concepts being promoted in universities. "There's an effort to redefine and revise Christianity," Bock says, "to make Jesus simply a religious great among other religious greats."

That did it. Over Thanksgiving week, Bock sat down, identified seven "codes" to be deciphered in the book, dipped into his extensive collection of theological documents and wrote like a madman.

The book attracted a lawsuit in February from Random House, owner of Doubleday, The Da Vinci Code's publisher, which said the title would confuse readers. The publisher dropped its demand that the title be changed after Thomas Nelson agreed to put a sticker on the book saying "A Critique of The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown."

In Breaking the Da Vinci Code, Bock says, there's no evidence Jesus was married and plenty that he wasn't. Mary Magdalene wasn't a prostitute but a witness to Christ's ministry, death and resurrection. Larry Hurtado, professor of New Testament Language, Literature & Theology at the University of Edinburgh, calls Bock's book "a veritable demolition job" on Brown's gumbo of lore, legend and delusion.

But will millions of biblically illiterate readers care?

The good thing, Bock says, is that journalists and readers are asking questions about who Jesus was and what is known about him, as evidenced by the furor over The Passion of the Christ.

Last week, Bock turned the tables, interviewing Peter Jennings for a piece in Christianity Today about his recent ABC special called Jesus and Paul: The Word and the Witness. "I thought it was much better than the...special," Bock says. For starters, the network used both conservative and liberal scholars to tell the story.

Bock says that despite many Christians' assumptions, he doesn't get a sense of "liberal" media bias--most of the time. "They are pretty professional in doing their job," Bock says. "I have been given access and treated for the most part fairly. My message to the church is that in the media, you're going to get a variety of opinions. You need to respect that. The point is interacting in the public square."

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