May 16, 2006 -- Mystery, history and (some would say) heresy are the perfect potion for today's most successful thriller, "The Da Vinci Code."
The book has sold more than 46 million copies, been translated into 44 languages and is now a publishing phenomenon. And, in case you've been hibernating, the movie opens in American theaters on Friday, with Tom Hanks headlining a star-studded cast.
And a little controversy hasn't harmed the book's profile, either. "The Da Vinci Code" has rarely been out of the headlines since it was published a little more than three years ago.
Initially, there was an adverse response from certain sectors of the church. In 2005, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, then a senior figure within the Vatican's office of doctrinal orthodoxy, attacked Brown's novel for being rich in "anti-Catholic" prejudice. Many churches and denominations have urged Christians to boycott the book on the grounds that it is blasphemous and insulting toward the very foundations of the Christian faith.
The theological attacks were followed last month by a legal challenge from two authors in Britain who claim that Brown plagiarized his construction of the book's plot. The High Court in London rejected their claims, and Brown was exonerated, even though he did concede that he had drawn upon a wealth of written material in building his narrative.
Tonight, "Nightline" brings you neither a boycott nor an attack, but rather one academic's attempt to address key parts of Brown's book.
Until recently, Darrell Bock was an obscure evangelical scholar teaching the history of the New Testament at a seminary in Dallas. But not anymore. Having read the book, and seen the public's reaction, he felt compelled to leave his ivory tower in Texas.
"Between 20 [percent] and 33 percent of the population say they believe the book or feel they benefited from the book," Bock said. "That's the combined populations of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston. Take everybody in those cities, they all believe it. Now what's the church's responsibility to that group ... of people who believe that? You can't say, 'Oh, sorry, you shouldn't believe it'. You better engage them."
Bock, who has written his own best-selling book, "Breaking the Da Vinci Code," has been on a road trip for a series of public events, ranging from meeting diplomats at the United Nations in New York to debating a Jewish rabbi. His task? To challenge the historical claims that Brown makes in his book.
"The Da Vinci Code" is the fictional story of a conspiracy -- perpetrated by the Catholic Church and ongoing for 2,000 years -- to hide the truth about Jesus. Certain clues emerge through the works of Leonardo Da Vinci. These hidden messages disclose an unorthodox view of Jesus -- that he was not divine, that he and Mary Magdalene secretly married and conceived a child. But while Brown says his book is fictional, he has claimed that all historical references and documents within "The Da Vinci Code" are accurate and based upon existing evidence. Not true, Bock says.
I asked Bock what the evidence was to support the claim that Jesus married Mary Magdalene.
"There's not a single text anywhere that I'm aware of that says that Jesus was married to anybody. There's not an explicit text anywhere," Bock said. "The best you can do is get the inference out of two texts, both of which are late Gospels -- the Gospel of Philip and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene; second, third century texts -- and all they claim is, is that Jesus loved this woman more than he loved the 12."
What about Dan Brown's claim that Jesus and Mary Magdalene conceived a child?
"Again, no evidence of such a thing, and we're talking about masses of literature here," Bock said. "I have a collection in my office of 36 volumes that stretches about five to six feet wide. It's hundreds of pages in each of those volumes. Single-spaced, small font. It's a lot of material. Nowhere, nowhere is there any hint that Jesus had a child."
Bock maintains that the church has failed in its duty to teach Christians about the history of their faith, and this is why so many have faltered in the face of Brown's fiction.
"I think that the church has not done a good job of teaching its membership," he said. "And, and so when something comes along, it walks into this black hole of a lack of knowledge. And when someone purports to say, 'I've done careful research,' we take the author at face value and the idea becomes, 'Oh, that must be true.'"
Bock readily concedes that Brown's book is a compelling and captivating read. But it's his hope that by engaging the substance of the book he'll persuade people to look beyond "The Da Vinci Code."
"When, as often happens ... something comes out in our culture, from the world, that attacks our faith ... the best response is not to whine or shake our finger," he said. "The best response is to engage and have a conversation and a dialogue. Because I think through the conversation and the dialogue, the opportunity does exist not only to talk about the real Jesus but to reflect the real Jesus, because when He went to be crucified, He never lost his love for the world."