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The Da Vinci Code: Revisiting a Cracked Conspiracy

A book review of The Da Vinci Code by James Patrick Holding

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Also See Section   Apocrypha, Lost Books, Gnostic Gospels

Every few years a popular conspiracy theory about the origins of Christianity reemerges once everyone has forgotten how it was refuted the last time it appeared. The premise that underlies the story in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code last appeared in a book titled Holy Blood, Holy Grail (Delacorte Press, 1982). [1] At that time, one theory purported that the “Holy Grail” was not the cup used by Jesus Christ at the last supper; instead, it was a royal bloodline fostered by Jesus’ marriage to Mary Magdalene. Religious scholars completely ignored or dismissed this theory because they had little patience for the claims of documents and societies that supposedly possessed “secret” knowledge that the academic world had missed for centuries. Nothing in scholarship or evidence to date has changed to supplant this dismissive evaluation. Theories like this, moreover, are promulgated not in peer-reviewed scholarly journals but in popular presses in which the exercise of critical faculties is optional. The Da Vinci Code is merely resurrecting in vain a thesis that serious scholars have condemned and buried decades ago.

Despite being merely a rehash of a discredited thesis, The Da Vinci Code has stayed atop the New York Times bestseller list for months. In addition, Sony Pictures has acquired the rights to the book and has recruited director Ron Howard to work on the film. Ironically, were the book about any other subject, it is unlikely that it would have become a bestseller on the basis of academic merit and certainly would not have become one on the basis of literary merit. The Da Vinci Code is best described as a historical/ technological fiction thriller, the sort of energetic composition that makes for excellent reading on a summer vacation but does not satisfy those seeking in-depth plot and character development.

The story begins with the murder of a French museum curator, who was the guardian of a secret cache of documents held in the tomb of Mary Magdalene. The latter is alleged to have been the wife of Jesus and the true heiress to the reins of the Christian church, whose intent was to establish a feminist-centered nature religion. The Roman Catholic Church is cast in the role of the primary arch-villain that seeks to suppress these documents and keep them hidden. Playing the background heroic role is a secretive group called The Priory of Sion, of whom the murdered curator was a leader and Leonardo da Vinci a past leader. The Priory (monastery) has kept the documents concealed under the pretense that the world as a whole is “not ready” for the startling revelations contained in them.

Much of the novel focuses on symbologist Robert Langdon and cryptographer Sophie Neveu. The two protagonists travel from place to place while solving puzzles left behind by the curator, which lead them to the location of Mary’s tomb. In the end, however, though the tomb is located, it remains unopened, and the documents remain concealed. Brown’s fast-paced novel thereby ends with a disappointing crash into a concrete wall; it promises the uncovering of secrets but never follows through. [2]


FACT OR FICTION?
Though marketed as fiction, The Da Vinci Code is clearly intended to present what Brown believes is factual material about the origins of the Christian church. “All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel,” the preface states, “are accurate.” Brown himself has said after a year and a half of research, he “became a believer” in the thesis that Mary Magdalene’s role in the church was purposefully obscured, as was her marriage to Jesus. [3]

Many readers and reviewers of The Da Vinci Code unfortunately have reached the conclusion that Brown is presenting sound research. The New York Daily News, for example, described Brown’s research as “impeccable.” Critical investigation, however, reveals that Brown has simply accepted a tendentious and unsupportable version of history put together by non scholars. He is able to do this by assuring himself, as do many readers of The Da Vinci Code and adherents to popular conspiracy theories, that the “truth” has been suppressed and that history has been “written by the winners” (the Christian church, p. 256), who felt free to distort the record. Such claims are mere contrivances, however, and are often circular in nature. Those who make such claims accept whatever evidence they can as positive and dismiss negative evidence or lack of evidence as further proof that the “winners” have been covering up the truth. Such theories are positioned to be unfalsifiable and therefore are critically worthless.


AN ARTFUL CONSPIRACY
A central theme of Brown’s work is that Leonardo da Vinci, as a former head of the Priory of Sion, left encoded messages in his art in order to direct seekers to the truth about Christian origins. Brown makes several highly questionable assertions about da Vinci’s work through the book’s characters. Langdon, for example, suggests that da Vinci’s most famous painting, the Mona Lisa, was meant to carry a “subtle message of androgyny” (120) and may have been intended to portray da Vinci as the woman; hence the Mona Lisa’s mysterious smile, which signifies “Da Vinci’s little secret” (121). This idea is further supported with the claim that the name “Mona Lisa” is an anagram for “Amon L’isa,” combining the names of the male Egyptian deity Amon and an alternate pictographic name for the female Egyptian deity Isis.

The claim that “L’isa” is an allusion to Isis is seriously questionable. There is no documentation from academic sources on Egyptology that “Isa” is an acceptable variant spelling of “Isis” and thus no support for the idea that “Isa,” combined with the Italian prefix “L” (meaning “the”), refers to “the Isis.”

Several more tangible difficulties attend Brown’s thesis. First, the closest historical testimony, by Giorgio Vasari, indicates that the Mona Lisa is a genuine portrait of Lisa Gherardini, the wife of a wealthy merchant.4 Second, the painting is not known as the “Mona Lisa” in either its country of origin, Italy (where it is called La Gioconda), or its current place of residence, France (where it is called La Joconde).5 Third, it is a matter of record that the Mona Lisa’s smile was not considered mysterious until the 19th century.6 Finally, “Mona” is short for Mia donna, Italian for “my lady,” but the English spelling “Mona” is erroneous; it should be spelled Monna.7 Brown’s anagram fails to account for that extra n!

Brown also offers a distorted history of another of da Vinci’s paintings, The Virgin of the Rocks. He correctly reports that a group of nuns commissioned this painting for a church in Milan and that a second version exists in London. He makes the unsubstantiated claim, however, that the “explosive and disturbing details” (138) in the painting disturbed the nuns, who thought those details were symbolically offensive. Brown also claims that da Vinci “mollified” the nuns by painting a second version without the offensive symbolism. A comparison of the two versions in art history books, however, reveals that although there are minor differences, all of the “disturbing” elements Brown lists are found in both paintings. For example, Mary the mother of Jesus allegedly making a “decidedly threatening gesture” (139) with her hand above the head of the infant John the Baptist. Brown also incorrectly reports the nature of the controversy: the nuns were indeed unhappy, but this was because da Vinci took several years to complete the painting. [8] Da Vinci’s delays eventually resulted in legal action by the nuns, which had nothing to do with the contents of the painting. Art history as recorded by serious scholars simply does not confirm Brown’s claims.


MARY? QUITE CONTRARY
Brown continues to misuse da Vinci in connection with his thesis that Mary Magdalene and Jesus were married and produced a “royal bloodline,” which is the true Holy Grail. One of Brown’s characters, a “historian” named Leigh Teabing, [9] alleges that da Vinci inserted Mary Magdalene into his painting The Last Supper (243–44) and signified the Grail bloodline by separating Christ and Mary with a V-shaped space, which represents the Grail as a womb.

Not surprisingly, all of Brown’s claims about The Last Supper are unsupported by the consensus of art historians. The “woman” Brown finds is all but unanimously identified by da Vinci experts as a youthful apostle John. [10] The V-shaped space between the two figures actually expresses the concept of “dynamic masses” [11] found in Renaissance art: da Vinci purposely used the space to separate the two groups of figures in the painting for artistic balance. Finally, Langdon claims that Peter is depicted “leaning menacingly toward Mary Magdalene and slicing his bladelike hand across her neck” in a threatening manner. Professional art historians, however, say Peter is leaning forward in dismay after hearing Christ announce His imminent betrayal. They also describe the “slicing” hand as actually “forming a bridge between the heads of St. John and Judas,” thus underlying “the contrast between innocence and villainy.” [12] Brown’s analysis of this painting bears little resemblance to that of scholars educated in the artistic techniques of da Vinci and other Renaissance painters.

Even more questionable are the claims Brown puts into his historian’s mouth about customs and documents of the New Testament era, supposedly pointing to Mary’s marriage to Jesus. He correctly notes that the common identification of Mary as a prostitute is false; the New Testament actually depicts her as a wealthy supporter of Jesus’ ministry. [13] Brown, however, uncritically following the theories found in Holy Blood, Holy Grail, claims that Jesus must have been married because in the Jewish world, “social decorum…virtually forbid a Jewish man to be unmarried” (245). Not only is this an argument from silence, it is patently false. The Jewish atmosphere of Jesus’ day clearly had a tradition of celibacy for those who devoted their lives to God, as exemplified by the unmarried prophets Jeremiah and Elijah and as expressed by New Testament-era groups such as the Essenes and figures such as John the Baptist and Banus the prophet (Josephus, Life 2.11). Celibacy and singleness were indeed exceptional, but contrary to Brown, they were not forbidden by any “social decorum.”

Brown’s historian also appeals to two documents from the early church era as proof of Mary’s marriage to Jesus. Claiming that they are part of the “earliest Christian records,” [14] the Nag Hammadi documents, Teabing appeals to both the gospel of Philip, which claims that Jesus “used to kiss [Mary] often” and says Mary was Jesus’ “companion,” [15] and the gospel of Mary Magdalene, which says Jesus loved Mary more than the other disciples. [16] Serious scholarship, however, dates neither of these documents earlier than the mid-third century and the late-second century, respectively, and reckons them to be the product of Gnostic thought, which was completely foreign to the Jewish-Palestinian context from which Christianity emerged. These documents, rather, express the much later Gnostic view that “spiritual beings exist in male and female pairs.” [17] Scholars are nearly unanimous in rejecting these works as the spurious creations of a deviant movement. Religious scholar Philip Jenkins notes, “Instead of representing the lost original truth of Christianity, the Gnostic world should rather be seen as the first of many popular reactions against the institutional structures of the existing church.” [18]

Brown makes a number of other errors in his treatment of biblical topics. Langdon incorrectly states the Romans “originated” the cross for crucifixion (145); in fact, the first recorded use of crucifixion was by the Persians in the sixth century BC. [19] Teabing claims that the pagan deity Mithras was “called the Son of God and the Light of the World — was born on December 25, died, was buried in a rock tomb, and then resurrected in three days” (232). Not one of these descriptions of Mithra is accurate: Mithraic scholarship knows of no such titles for Mithra, nor any birthdate, and as one Mithraic scholar rather bluntly puts it, “there is no death of Mithras” — and so, neither can there be a burial or a resurrection. [20]


CONSTANTINE THE GREAT REVISER?
The great historical villain, for Brown, is the emperor Constantine the Great (d. AD 337). Teabing claims that Constantine “collated” the various documents that comprise the Bible “as we know it today,” causing dozens of other gospels to be discarded and destroyed in favor of the current collection of four in the New Testament (231). He also claims that Christians originally honored the Jewish Sabbath but that Constantine “shifted it to coincide with the pagan’s veneration day of the sun” (232–33). Finally, Brown’s historian avers that Constantine assembled the Council of Nicaea, at which the church voted on several subjects, among them “the divinity of Jesus.” “Until that moment in history,” Teabing states, “Jesus was viewed by His followers as a mortal prophet…a great and powerful man, but a man nonetheless” (233). Constantine, Teabing asserts, stood behind this effort to turn Jesus into the “Son of God,” as he and the Roman Catholic Church set about “hijacking [Jesus’] human message, shrouding it in an impenetrable cloak of divinity, and using it to expand their own power.” The Council of Nicaea, therefore, decided on Jesus’ divinity by a “relatively close vote,” which forever destroyed the original Christian message.

It would be a profound embarrassment to any serious historian were he or she to make the errors that permeate these statements. Contrary to Teabing, Constantine did not establish the New Testament canon. Instead, over a period of time the Christian community identified which books were divinely inspired while coming to grips with its own identity and mission. Robert Grant, a scholar specializing in the composition of the canon, writes that the canon was “not the product of official assemblies or even of the studies of a few theologians,” but rather it “reflects and expresses the ideal self-understanding of a whole religious movement which, in spite of temporal, geographical, and even ideological differences, could finally be united in accepting these 27 diverse documents as expressing the meaning of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ and to his church.” [21] No single person decided the canon, and the canonical process was functioning well before the time of Constantine. [22]

In terms of the Sabbath day, this, too, was a decision made long before Constantine. [23] Paul had explained to Gentile believers that observation of a Sabbath or a special day was a matter of one’s own conviction (Rom. 14:5–6) and that the schedule of Jewish holidays was a system that was no longer in effect for Christians (Col. 2:14–17). Testimonies from early church figures who significantly predate Constantine, such as Justin Martyr (AD 150) and Ignatius of Antioch (AD 110), show that Sunday was already the standard day for Christian assembly. [24] The Council of Nicaea itself said and did nothing about the Lord’s Day or the Sabbath other than declaring that certain prayers on Sunday ought to be made while standing (Nicene Creed, canon 20).

Finally, Teabing grossly misrepresents both the nature and the outcome of the Council of Nicaea. The issue before the council was not “Jesus: Divine or Mortal?” — both sides agreed that Jesus was divine and not merely mortal. The issue was put on the table, however, because a particular heretic named Arius had declared, against the belief already held by the church at large (and affirmed by the New Testament itself), that rather than being eternal, Jesus was caused to exist by God at a particular point in time. Arius did not regard Jesus as a “mere mortal” but as a godlike being who had been called into existence by the Father. The vote, despite Teabing’s claim, was not even close: the final tally of approximately 300 bishops left only two who sided with Arius. [25] It seems that the only matter Brown correctly reports about the Council of Nicaea is its location!


THE CODE CRACKED
It is indeed unfortunate that many readers of this book have been mesmerized by Brown’s storyline and have become convinced that The Da Vinci Code presents, or may present, a true, academic account of history. On the contrary, art scholars do not support Brown’s claims about Renaissance art and biblical and patristic scholars do not confirm his assertions regarding Jesus, Mary Magdalene, the church, and Constantine. In the final analysis, Brown’s claims turn out to be just as fictional as the rest of The Da Vinci Code.


NOTES
1. See Brian Onken’s summary critique of Holy Blood, Holy Grail immediately following this article.

2. One of Brown’s characters makes the astonishing claim that there are “tens of thousands of pages” (p. 256) of documentation for the “true” version of Christian origins. Given that we seldom have as much as even a single book’s worth of information on the vast majority of ancient historical figures (e.g., Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar), the claim that anyone would have compiled such encyclopedic resources about Jesus is outlandish, especially since writing materials were so scarce and expensive, and the ancient literacy rate was no more than 10 percent.

3. Roxanne Roberts, “The Mysteries of Mary Magdalene: ‘The Da Vinci Code’ Resurrects a Debate of Biblical Proportions,” Washington Post, Sunday, July 20, 2003, sec. D. Brown reaffirmed his view on the November 3, 2003, ABC special “Jesus, Mary and Da Vinci.”

4. Donald Sassoon, Becoming Mona Lisa (New York: Harcourt, 2001), 2, 18. Vasari’s testimony contains some minor errors about the painting itself (perhaps because he saw only an unfinished version or depended on a hearsay description), but he was a contemporary of Lisa Gherardini, and his testimony is regarded as the “least unreliable” about the origins of the painting. Sassoon notes that while other women have been proposed as the subject of the painting by later writers, there is “no real evidence” (22) for any of these alternatives, and he conspicuously fails to mention the possibility that the painting is a secret message promoting androgyny.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid. Sassoon adds that “smiles are not infrequent in Renaissance paintings, and they also abound in Greek statues.”

7. Ibid.

8. Carmen Bambach, ed., Leonardo da Vinci: Master Draftsman (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 236ff.

9. Alert readers may notice that this character’s name is Brown’s cryptic tribute to Holy Blood, Holy Grail authors Richard Leigh and Michael Baigent (“Teabing” is an anagram for Baigent), even though neither of them are credentialed historians.

10. Producers of the ABC special found only one art historian who agreed that the figure depicted was a woman. Brown simply dismissed the scholarly consensus against his claim with the statement, “We see what we’ve been told to see.”

11. Carlo Pedretti, ed., Leonardo: Studies for the Last Supper (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 19.

12. Ibid., 20.

13. Luke 8:2–3.

14. Brown’s historian commits a particularly embarrassing blunder when he also refers to the Dead Sea Scrolls as part of the “earliest Christian records.” The Scrolls are entirely Jewish documents that make no mention of Christianity.

15. In yet another blunder, Teabing says, “As any Aramaic scholar will tell you, the word companion in those days, literally meant spouse” (246). This is of no relevance even if true because the gospel of Philip is only extant in Greek.

16. As a result of the popularity of The Da Vinci Code, a commentary on the gospel of Mary Magdalene, edited by Jean-Yves Leloup (Inner Traditions, 2002) has also become a fashionable item, ranking 226th on Amazon.com’s bestsellers’ list the week of November 24, 2003.

17. See Philip Jenkins, Hidden Gospels (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 117–18, 138–42.

18. Ibid., 118.

19. Herodotus History of the Persian Wars 1.128.2.

20. Richard Gordon, Image and Value in the Greco-Roman World (Aldershot, UK: Variorum, 1996), 96.

21. Robert Grant, The Formation of the New Testament (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), 10.

22. Langdon (234) also makes the linguistically outrageous claim that the word heretic “derives from that moment in history” when Constantine declared that anyone who chose forbidden gospels over the canonical ones was a “heretic.” Langdon explains that heretic comes from the Latin word haereticus, meaning “choice,” so that “heretics” were those who had “chosen” the original history of Christianity. In fact, “heresy” derives from the Greek word haireomai, which does mean “choose” (cf. Phil. 1:22; 2 Thess. 2:13), while not carrying any sort of pejorative connotation. The related word hairesis is used much earlier than Constantine’s time. For example, the Jewish historian Josephus used the word to describe the three major sects of Judaism (the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes), and Tertullus also used it for Christianity in Acts 24:5. Hairesis is sometimes used in the New Testament in a pejorative sense, in which a negative connotation is indicated by the context. For example, it is used of the schisms Paul condemns in the Corinthian church (1 Cor. 11:19; cf. Gal. 5:20), and in 2 Peter 2:1 it acquires a negative connotation because it is preceded by the word damnable.

23. See James Borland, “Should We Keep the Sabbath?” Christian Research Journal 26, 2 (2003): 22–31.

24. Justin Martyr, First Apology, chap. 67; Ignatius of Antioch, Letters to the Magnesians, 9.1.

25. Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition, vol. 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), 203.

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