Don't fret the ‘Da Vinci Code'

5/13/2006 7:53:28 AM

An ancient society, a secret brotherhood, threatens the Catholic Church. Only Robert Langdon, a Harvard professor of art history and expert on religious iconology and symbology, can save the day.

A famous man is murdered at the beginning of the story -- a murder that includes a cryptic message on the murdered body. Langdon must join forces with the dead man's beautiful and intelligent daughter in a fast-paced chase through Renaissance churches, searching for clues left in famous artwork that leads them on to the next clue. But they're stalked by a sinister assassin as they discover a secret the Catholic Church has tried to keep hidden.

Dan Brown's novel, published in 2000, drew the anger of many officials at the Vatican. But it really did little harm. Less than 10,000 books were published until fairly recently.

The story outline above, however, is not the “Da Vinci Code,” Brown's 2003 blockbuster -- one of the most successful novels of all times with more than 40 million copies sold worldwide.

Brown's earlier novel was “Angels and Demons.”

There are big differences in the two stories, but Brown does create his own cliches in his novels. If you had read his three earlier books, you quickly spotted the secret villain in the “Da Vinci Code” without effort.

The church's complaint with “Angels and Demons” had to do with publishing not-always-accurate details of the inner workings of a papal conclave and the claim that the previous, fictional pope had fathered a child.

The church's complaint with the “Da Vinci Code” was based on Brown's assertion that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and that there was an heir, a daughter, who married into the French Merovingian royal family. The Apostles also, in Brown's story, had removed worship of the “sacred feminine” from Christianity on a testosterone-driven power trip.

Some church officials are calling upon their parishioners to sue movie theaters for blasphemy, as the film, starring Tom Hanks and directed by Ron Howard, is due for release next Friday.

Of course, if Brown's story was about some deep dark secret about the prophet Mohammed or the Buddha, the church wouldn't be quite so riled up. But some mullah would put out a fatwah on Brown demanding his death and mobs would riot everywhere in the Islamic world, while the Buddhists would just ignore it, spin a prayer wheel and go about their business.

Don't blame the church, however.

If Brown wrote untrue, hypothetical and scandalous allegations about your grandma, you would appreciate the church's reaction.

It's been a long 2,000-plus-year fight for the church. Many Christian writings have been deemed heresy or blasphemy and needed to be suppressed. Some, like the lost Gnostic Gospels (part of Brown's inspiration) keep reappearing despite church efforts trash, burn or shred them.

But another book that has posed a problem for the church still is published today and has never been lost.

It's the Bible.

Oh, not the various Catholic Bibles, nor the King James Version, nor the multitude of more-modern English language Bibles that popped up in the last century like lilies of the field.

I mean the Peshitta, the Aramaic-language Bible used by the Holy Church of the East and its affiliates that stretch from the Mediterranean to India, and was the first Bible introduced into China and Japan.

The Church of the East is one of the first official churches of Christianity, founded in Antioch in 34 A.D. by St. Peter. It's main precept is the power of love and forgiveness. Syraic, a dialect of Aramaic, is the official language of the church. Aramaic is the language it is believed that Jesus spoke during his ministry.

The eastern church, and much of Christendom not founded by European missionaries, uses the Aramaic Bible - scriptures the church claims it received directly from the hands of the Apostles. Therein lies the controversy and rift with western Catholicism and Protestantism.

Western biblical scholars believe (and document quite thoroughly) that the New Testament was first written in Greek. But these “oriental” Christians are unswayed by the argument, saying their scriptures are the original. Peshitta means straight, simple, sincere and true in Aramaic.

If you are truly an ecumenical person and want to get along with all Christians, it's probably not a good idea to carry the Peshitta into any church you might visit. You likely won't run into any real trouble, because the Peshitta isn't widely known in the West and looks like any other Bible. But if the priest, parson or preacher is truly a scholar, he might ask you to keep that thing closed while in his house of worship. That's because some of the verses in the Peshitta don't match up well with western Bible translations.

One frequently quoted example is Jesus' teaching that “It is easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven.” Many the bible-expert has taught that there is a gate in the city of Jerusalem called the Eye of a Needle, and that a heavily laden camel can hardly fit through it.

In the Lamsa Bible, however, (the Peshitta translated into English by George Lamsa in the early 20th Century) the Assyrian linguist explains that early European translators learned the vocabulary of Aramaic, but not the customs and idioms of the area.

He says the Aramaic word for camel is “gamla.” But ropes, at the time, were almost exclusively made of camel hair, and so were also called “gamla,” as well as the animal.

In the Lamsa Bible, Jesus teaches that “It is easier for a rope to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven,” a metaphor much easier to comprehend.

Lamsa and other advocates of the Aramaic scriptures quote many other instances where Aramaic idioms foundered when translated into Greek, proving, for themselves at any rate, that Aramaic was the original language.

They say their scriptures have never been translated nor altered, although there is “western” evidence to the contrary.

Probably the boldest claim of mistranslation is about Jesus' last words on the cross. In the King James Version, Christ calls out: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me.”

The eastern church is aghast that anyone could believe Jesus could lose faith and say that with his final breath. The Peshitta quotes Christ as saying, “My God, my God, for this was I spared.”

If Christians weren't such a peaceful folk, that difference alone would lead to fisticuffs.

There's a multitude of arguments refuting the eastern churches' claims and as many defending the Aramaic Bible as the true word of God. But if you are interested, I'll let you spend some research time online or at the county library.

But back to the “Da Vinci Code.” I don't buy the “heir” premise as being anything but total fiction. What we know of Jesus through our Bibles -- even the Peshitta -- clearly indicates his total focus on the Kingdom of Heaven and not on earthly cares, such as romance and family.

Besides, it just doesn't make sense that God would allow His son to have offspring, and then allow them to become French.