Ben Witherington III

The Counter-Code

When The Da Vinci Code hit bookstores in March 2003 and became a bestselling phenomenon, many Christians of all stripes objected to the inclusion of the word "historical" in its description as "historical fiction." Some of the authors and scholars among them decided to take on the task of refuting the novel's historical factuality, which has led to the explosion of a mini-subcategory of anti-Code books, now some 20 in number.

Ben Witherington III, a professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky., and at St. Andrew's University in Scotland, decided to join the fray. Stressing what he sees as a crucial premise of early Christian history—that Jesus was considered divine by his earliest followers—he set about confronting the assumptions that led to Brown's exciting—but, he says, inaccurate—account of the development of the early Christian church after the death of Jesus.

Brown's story is based on a theory that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and that she bore his child, a fact that the Catholic Church systematically suppressed throughout its history. "Wishful thinking" and "a fishing expedition" are how Witherington describes these hypotheses. Witherington's The Gospel Code: Novel Claims About Jesus, Mary Magdalene and Da Vinci, (InterVarsity Press), published in June, is written in an accessible tone to reach the widest audience.

The book, which is already in its fifth printing, asserts that early Christians inarguably saw Jesus as divine. The Da Vinci Code's suggestion that the emperor Constantine, who made Christianity the state-sponsored religion of the Roman Empire, initiated the theology of Jesus' divinity is wrong, Witherington says. Constantine "opened the door so Christianity could be seen as a valid religion among the valid religions in the Roman Empire," Witherington says.

To bolster his argument, Witherington points out that the fourth-century Council of Nicea, which some say was the first example of early Christians transforming Jesus into a divine figure, did not even feature debate on the question of his divinity. Rather, the Council debated how to understand the relationship between Jesus' human and divine natures.

"It's clear from that material that Jesus is already revered as God," Witherington says, citing examples of the apostle Paul referring to Jesus as "God" and "Lord" in his early letters. "The early church was praying to him," Witherington adds. "All of the earliest Christians were Jews, and Jews don't pray to anybody but God."

According to his publisher, Witherington's book stands out in the crowded field of scholarly responses to The Da Vinci Code because it takes on a larger framework of New Testament scholarship than is addressed in the novel itself. The Gospel Code contains scathing critiques of everyone from biblical scholar Elaine Pagels to participants in the Jesus Seminar, a group of scholars that examines evidence about the historical Jesus and often draws conclusions that challenge some aspects of traditionally accepted Christian theology.

What he questions about their work, Witherington says, is what he sees as a dismissal of biblical and other sources in favor of theories for which there is little or no evidence. Witherington emphasizes that his work focuses on the historical sources that are available. "The alternative to accepting this presentation of church history is nothing, because we don't have any alternative sources," he said, calling some of his colleagues' main hypotheses "an argument from silence."

Brown, Witherington argues, mistakenly accepts these interpretations at face value. Specifically, Witherington questions the reliance by scholars and Brown on the Gnostic Gospels, which he says are "profoundly anti-Semitic" documents that are reactions to the canonical gospels, not reliable historical portraits in and of themselves. Further, Brown mistakenly identifies the Dead Sea Scrolls as containing insight into early Christianity, whereas, according to Witherington, the scrolls are "not Christian documents."

The plethora of reactions from historians and theologians to The Da Vinci Code is a result, says Witherington, of a combination of social forces in contemporary American culture. "We live in a Jesus-haunted culture, a culture in which Jesus is a household name, but it is also a biblically illiterate culture," he says.

InterVarsity Press associate editorial director James Hoover says that Witherington's book stands out from others because it looks beyond the novel itself to challenge the phenomenon of New Testament criticism as it emerges every few years in both popular and scholarly literature. "What distinguishes it is its interaction with the larger issues that surround the reliability of the New Testament," Hoover says.

—Holly Lebowitz Rossi


Does God Care if You're Thin?

Body obsession is rampant among girls and women in contemporary culture (and is even gaining ground among young men). But fixation with diet and weight also has come to permeate the evangelical Christian community thanks to Bible-based programs, says Marie Griffith, author of Born Again Bodies: Flesh and Spirit in American Christianity (Univ. of California Press, Oct.)

Griffith, associate professor of religion at Princeton, says it seems what is being suggested is that an attractive appearance makes a woman a better witness for the faith. The programs promote the idea that "you want to have that glow about you so other people will want what you have," she believes.

Griffith noticed the booming Christian diet industry while researching her first book, God'sDaughters: Evangelical Women and the Power of Submission (Univ. of California, 1997). At a local meeting of the interdenominational Christian fellowship Women's Aglow, Griffith saw a used-books table that offered numerous Christian diet titles. And once she looked into the topic, she discovered "scores and scores" of such books had been published—and they just keep coming. "These are rolling off the presses. I can hardly keep up with it," Griffith says. To gather material for Born Again Bodies, she joined a Weigh Down Diet group in the mid-Atlantic region and interviewed authors such as Carol Showalter of 3D: Diet, Discipline & Discipleship (Paraclete Press, revised 2002), which was first published in 1975. Showalter is considered the founder of the first Christ-centered group diet program.

While Griffith believes the Christian diet industry has paralleled and adapted fads from the wider culture, she also thinks the Christian diet titles have had an impact on general market books on the topic by, for one thing, popularizing the concept of spirituality-linked dieting. "The line is now blurry between what's religious and what's secular in the diet market," she says.

Whether the program is Weigh Down or the raw-foods, vegetarian Hallelujah Diet, Griffith's guess is that the followers are 95% women. (Like Weight Watchers and other non-religious plans, the Christian groups don't furnish statistics.) These women seem to share a common expectation—that using a Bible-based diet method will work for them when other approaches haven't. As far as Griffith could tell, the Christian systems didn't produce better results. "Many, many times people have not achieved the weight loss that they had expected, or they have not maintained the weight loss. But what they did say was, 'I achieved a closer relationship with God, and the main benefits are spiritual.' "

Still, Griffith worries that the unsuccessful dieters may feel they have failed God and failed to live a disciplined Christian life. She confronted some women about the danger that the Christian programs were contributing to poor female self-image. "They all would say, 'Wow, I never thought of that,' " she says. University of California Press marketing director Julie Christianson says, "I think the phenomenon is perpetuated in Christian themes of purity and attaining a certain type of religious perfection." She describes the book as a "scholarly work that's very readable... that has that crossover potential into the trade."

The press is promoting Born Again Bodies primarily in the Christian market, as well as to women's magazines that deal with health issues. Christianson says the press hopes for coverage in Christianity Today, Spirituality & Health and Teen Vogue magazines, and is advertising in publications such as Christian Century magazine. The title will be prominently displayed at this month's American Academy of Religion annual meeting in San Antonio, Tex., where the house will have a double booth. Christianson says Griffith's previous book generated a lot of interest at the AAR meeting, and the press aspires to a similar splash this year.

Says Griffith, "What I wish for from Christianity is some sort of critique of this— 'Hey, God loves you no matter how you look.' " She says a few voices for moderation have started to emerge, but to date they are far overwhelmed by the vigor of the Christian diet market.

—Juli Cragg Hilliard

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