The Da Vinci Code: Harmless Thriller or Dangerous Hoax?

W. Ward Gasque

Dan Brown’s novel, The Da Vinci Code, has been the best-selling hardback novel in recent years. It has been at or near the top of nearly all bestseller lists in North America since its appearance just over a year and half ago, and now it has been translated into more than 42 languages. To date, more than 17 million copies of The DaVinci Code (DVC) have been sold and the numbers are rising daily.

The French translation, published six months ago, has already sold more than 400,000 copies, putting it at the top of all sales lists in France. As I write, DVC is also number one in Germany, Turkey, Singapore, and the UK (to mention only four countries). It has been banned in Lebanon (in deference to the Christian population), and a major Catholic organization has asked the Indian government to ban it there (a bad move, in my opinion).

Tourists with copies of DVC in their hands are flooding the Louvre, Eglise Saint-Suplice, the environs of Paris, London’s Temple Church and Westminster Abbey, and Edinburgh’s Rosslyn Chapel looking for links with the narrative. A California real estate agent who is a true believer in Dan Brown’s claim to present “the truth about the most dramatic cover-up in history” has purchased and refurbished the Château de Villette outside Paris (home of Sir Leigh Teabing, Brown’s fictional British Royal Historian). That agent also offers a weeklong DVC group tour with lodging on her estate for $55,000, breakfast included. For those on a tight budget, there is a two and a half hour tour of the Louvre and Saint-Suplice with an art historian for $95/person.

Even if you haven’t read the book, you’ve probably heard by now the sub-plot of DVC: the Catholic Church has been keeping the secret about Jesus and Mary Magdalene and their baby, Sarah. The Knights of King Arthur’s Round Table were not looking for a goblet in their quest for the Holy Grail, but rather for the bloodline of Jesus. If you are interested in learning more, you can join one of the seminars and tours of southern France focused on the cult of Mary Magdalene and Europe’s mysterious Black Madonna (not the mother of Jesus as you may have mistakenly thought).

Dan Brown’s fourth book has been a huge financial success; but, as the saying goes, “You ain’t seen nothing yet!” A Columbia Pictures film produced and directed by Oscar-winning Ron Howard is set to come out in 2005, alongside a sequel from Brown’s pen (this time focusing on the Masons). Who knows? You may have another blockbuster opportunity to share the authentic gospel, as you did last year following release of The Passion.

What is it that has made DVC such a publishing success? Brown’s first three books (Digital Fortress, Deception Point, and Angels & Demons) sold about 10,000 copies each, enough to make an impact on his income tax bill but hardly enough to retire on (he’s doing better now). Angels & Demons , like DVC, made claim: “All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.”

A great work of literature DVC is not. No chance of winning any major literary prize here. It has 105 chapters, averaging four pages each. To say that the action is fast moving is an understatement: a merry chase around Paris and its suburbs and from thence to London and Edinburgh and back to Paris again takes just over 24 hours. The narrative reads more like a movie script than a novel. Not very plausible, but hey, it’s fiction.

I confess I enjoyed staying up late two nights to read the book. For me it was certainly a page-turner. Pure entertainment all the way. As a historian, I found it hard to imagine that anyone would take seriously some bogus history lessons offered by two male enthusiasts for the “sacred feminine.” And I couldn’t help noticing that there were only two women characters in the book, both of them quite subservient to men: Sophie Neveu (“Wisdom” + “New Eve”), wide-eyed as she is constantly lectured to by the two professors; and her nameless grandmother, a passive participant in the neo-pagan ritual of heiros gamos (“sacred marriage”) which is supposed to celebrate the divine balance between male and female.

Besides being more fun to read than watching TV, what explains DVC’s huge readership? The answer lies, I believe, in its historical insinuations about the history of Christianity. The book has been promoted as “THE GREATEST CONSPIRACY OF THE PAST 2000 YEARS.”

To quote the author:

Rumors of this conspiracy have been whispered for centuries in countless languages, including the languages of art, music, and literature. Some of the most dramatic evidence can be found in the paintings of Leonardo Da Vinci, which seem to overflow with mystifying symbols, anomalies, and codes. Art historians agree that Da Vinci’s paintings contain hidden levels of meaning . . . . Many scholars believe his work intentionally provides clues to a powerful secret . . . a secret that remains protected to this day by a clandestine brotherhood of which Da Vinci was a member.

Purportedly the conspiracy started with Peter and the other male disciples of Jesus, who were jealous of the role given by Jesus to his disciple-consort, Mary Magdalene. They attempted to do away with her following the crucifixion. Providentially for her and the child she was carrying, Jesus’ rich uncle, Joseph of Arimathea, was able to whisk them out of Palestine and drop them off in southern France on his way to become the first bishop of England. In due course, church leaders developed the legend that Mary M. was a converted prostitute in order to marginalize her historic witness.

According to DVC, besides protecting the reputation of Jesus, the earliest Christian leaders wanted to reverse his teachings concerning sexuality, the sacred feminine, goddess worship, and the essence of the gospel he proclaimed. In any event, nobody in the first couple of centuries believed that Jesus was anything but an extraordinary human being. Then along came a politically astute emperor, Constantine I (273/275-337), who saw the potential of uniting the empire by making Christianity the official religion. First he had to establish one form of Christianity as the “official” or “orthodox” brand and get rid of all the theological diversity that was characteristic of the early centuries. So he called the leaders of the church together for a discussion in 325 (Council of Nicaea) and presented them with a new creed.

Constantine, Brown asserts, also had to get rid of all documents that did not fit in with the new orthodoxy he had created. So he had the four gospels that we find in our Bibles today preserved, along with the other 23 documents contained in the New Testament; “thousands” of documents portraying Jesus as “a mortal man” were destroyed. Not only did Constantine upgrade the status of Jesus, he changed the day on which Christians worshiped from the seventh (the Sabbath) to the first (Sun-day, in honor of the God he worshiped).

Since that time the leaders of the church, to whom Brown keeps referring as “the Vatican,” have kept the knowledge of the true story a secret. Brown seems to know nothing of Eastern Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, Protestantism, the Radical Reformation, Pentecostals, Independents or any of the multitude of denominational groupings who might be interested in knowing about the true origins of Christianity.

According to Brown, however, a few cognoscenti down through the ages knew the secret. Among them were the descendants of Jesus (who in the fifth century married into the French royal bloodline and created the Merovingian dynasty) and the Knights Templar (who discovered secret documents underneath Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem that gave them leverage with the Catholic hierarchy). There was also a shadowy secret society called “The Priory of Sion,” founded in 1099, including such illustrious Grand Masters as Sir Isaac Newton, Botticelli, Victor Hugo, and Leonardo da Vinci. Oh yes, and there was the 20th-century Catholic organization, Opus Dei, which somehow happened onto this information and sought to eradicate (a) the documentary evidence, (b) the leadership of the Priory of Sion, and (c) the bloodline of Jesus.

Further, we are told, the secret story of Christian origins lies hidden in art for those who have imaginative eyes to see. “The Grail story is everywhere,” Harvard professor Robert Langdon informs Sophie Neveu. “When the Church outlawed speaking of the shunned Mary Magdalene, her story and importance had to be passed on through more discreet channels . . . channels that supported metaphor and symbolism.”

People like Leonardo, Botticelli, Poussin, Bernini, Mozart, Victor Hugo, and even Walt Disney made it their life’s work to pass on the Grail story to future generations. Leonardo (whom Brown consistently dubs, incorrectly, “Di Vinci,” indicating the place he came from rather than the equivalent of a modern surname) documented the truth of the originally pagan origins of earliest Christianity though esoteric symbols and hints in his paintings and also in encoded comments in his notebooks. Mona Lisa is smiling because she (or is it Leonardo?) knows the secret. It’s even revealed in her name (an anagram for an Egyptian god and goddess, Amon and L’isa, an unusual French version of Isis). And then there’s Leonardo’s Last Supper, where one of Jesus’ 12 apostles is a woman. Guess who? (Look for the one without a beard!)

And there are Tarot Cards, originally “devised as a secret means to pass along ideologies banned by the Church,” and some ancient documents thought destroyed but turning up in our time, such as the Nag Hammadi documents and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Meanwhile, the Knights Templar invented gothic architecture and built originally pagan ideas into the symbolism of the medieval cathedrals; further, their historic successors, the Masons, bear symbolic witness to the true historical origins of Christianity in their rituals, traditions, and shrines. And so on.

None of these ideas originated with to Dan Brown. Most of the “research” that went into his book was dependent on the now discredited pseudo-history embedded in a 1982 bestseller, Holy Blood, Holy Grail, by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln. That book became the subject of a BBC documentary, but was later debunked by subsequent documentaries and by virtually all historians who were willing to read it. Soon it was relegated to its publisher’s backlist—until it was mentioned in DVC.

Brown gets a few other ideas from two equally unreliable and professionally discredited sources: Margaret Starbird (especially her The Woman With The Alabaster Jar: Mary Magdalene and the Holy Grail [Bear]) and Lynn Picknet and Clive Prince (The Templar Revelation: Secret Guardians of the True Identity of Christ [Simon & Schuster]). Brown’s website lists some 30 references, only a couple of which are works of serious scholarship.

Reviews of the book during most of the first year of its life were positive, even enthusiastic. “An exhilaratingly brainy thriller,” wrote a reviewer in the New York Times. “This is pure genius,” commented Nelson DeMille. “Dan Brown has to be one of the best, smartest, and most accomplished writers in the country.” “A compelling blend of history and page-turning suspense,” noted the Library Journal.

Finally, 11 months after its release, Laura Miller wrote an article for the New York Times Book Review entitled “The Da Vinci Con,” in which she pointed out the author’s dependence on the notorious Holy Blood, Holy Grail and that the so-called Priory of Sion, was a hoax invented by a man who had pretensions to the French throne. Since Laura Miller’s essay we have seen a spate of new books critiquing DVC (see below).

Why should Christians be concerned with a book like The Da Vinci Code, which has no credibility with scholars?

(1) The book has been read by millions of individuals, many of whom have been duped by its fraudulent historical pretensions. It is likely to be read by many, many more during the next couple of years and perhaps for a decade to come. It’s only fiction, of course, even though the author’s prologue and his interviews with the media claim that the book’s historical allusions are accurate. To a historian, the claims are ludicrous. But to many people they seem as credible as any other claims they are exposed to on soap operas or talk radio.

(2) DVC reflects the Zeitgeist of the time in which we live. The part of the USA that stretches from the northwest Canadian border down to a hundred miles or so south of where Radix is published is the part of North America where people are least likely to be regular churchgoers. It is also a region where neo-paganism and new age spiritualities are flourishing, That’s why our unchurched friends are enthusiastic about DVC: it rings true to what they already believe. If we are to be effective in sharing the Good News with our neighbors, we need to know the culture in which they live and breathe.

(3) Dan Brown’s pretensions to careful research and the historical claims he makes are easily answered by historians:

—Contrary to what is suggested by DVC, the church from the earliest days nearly universally recognized Jesus’ divinity, as the New Testament bears witness. It was his humanity that was more frequently questioned. The Council of Nicaea was concerned about clarifying exactly what that implied.

—No one prior to the mid-20th century (Kazantzákis’s Last Temptation of Christ , 1955 and William Phipps, Was Jesus Married? , 1970) ever suggested that Jesus may have had a sexual relationship with or been married to Mary Magdalene. Neither the traditions and legends about Mary Magdalene in Ephesus (the earliest) or France (medieval) nor the Gnostic texts quoted in DVC say such a thing.

—Brown repeats the familiar factoid that during the Inquisition “the Church burned at the stake an astounding five million women.” Historians would put the number closer to 25 to 50 thousand women and men, most of whom were tried and executed by the state rather than the church. In some countries (e.g., Switzerland ) more men than women were condemned. There is also a lot of evidence that in some countries both church and state resisted such attacks. (See Ronald Hatton, The Triumph of the Moon: The History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft, 2000.) It’s also worth noting that the neo-pagan assumption of a historical link between ancient and modern paganisms is also without basis in fact.

—Some feminist scholars claim that both pagan and Gnostic Christian traditions held women in higher esteem than did/or does orthodox Christianity, but that is questionable. Evidence suggests that ancient and modern non-Christian religions, particularly those dominated by a mother goddess figure (often served by thousands of temple prostitutes), have been much less liberating for women than virtually any form of Christianity.

—The concluding paragraph of the most famous Gnostic text, the so-called Gospel of Thomas (logion 114), hardly sounds like a message of liberation:

Simon Peter said to them: “Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.” Jesus said: “I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.”

—Gnostics, contrary to what is said in DVC, did not believe that Jesus was merely a man. Rather, they believed he was a god or emanation of the divine who was able to manifest himself to humans. The goal of Gnostic Christianity was to escape from this material world of ordinary human experience to the world of the spirit.

—The Gnostic documents that Dan Brown and his sources refer to are virtually all 100 to 200 years later than the canonical New Testament writings. A few scholars would date the so-called Gospel of Thomas earlier than this and place several New Testament texts in the 2nd century, but they are a distinct minority. None of the Gnostic texts was ever widely accepted as “Scripture” by the Christian majority; thus they were not in the running to be included in what became the Bible.

—The theology of the Gnostic writings is radically different from the shared theology of the writings of the New Covenant As F. F. Bruce comments:

Diverse as the gnostic schools were from one another, they all tended to ascribe creation and redemption to two separate (not to say opposed) powers. They fostered an individualist rather than a social form of religion . . . . They not only weakened a sense of community with other contemporaries but a sense of continuity with those who went before. True Christianity . . . looks to one God as Creator and Redeemer, knows nothing of a solitary religion, and encourages among the people of God an appreciation of the heritage received from those who experienced his mighty acts in the past . . . . Gnosticism was too much bound up with a popular but passing phase of thought to have the survival power of apostolic Christianity.”

—One reason that the Gnostic writings are not in the Christian Bible is that our Bible begins with the Hebrew writings (Old Testament). Virtually none of the wide variety of Gnostic Christians accepted the authority of those Scriptures. The God of the Hebrew Bible and of the Jews was regarded as different the God of the gnostic quest.

—A few notable scholars, like Professor Elaine Pagels of Princeton , are enamored with the Gnostic writings, finding more spiritual inspiration there than in the canonical texts. Why? Perhaps they have given up on the church, or find it more challenging to seek than to find. Perhaps the idea of finding God within oneself is more attractive to them than the idea that he revealed himself in history though Jesus Christ “who suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. . . . [and] on the third day rose again.”Gnostic religion can be interpreted any way you find useful. Clearly, it is more akin to our individualized, inward-looking, and narcissistic Western culture than is traditional Christianity.

Does Dan Brown ever get it right? The fact is, he rarely does.

He confuses the geography of Paris; the content of Leonardo’s paintings, the facts of his life, the contents and form of his notebooks; the history of both the Roman empire and the French dynastic tradition; the history of the papacy and the nature of eastern Christianity; the geography of the Holy Land and the history of the Knights Templar (as well as gothic architecture!); the contents of the Dead Sea Scrolls (which contain nothing related to the subjects under discussion) and the language of the Nag Hammadi Library; the origin of Tarot Cards (which began as a children’s book); the iconography of the pentagram; the Hebrew name for God, plus a host of other historical facts that he professes to portray accurately.

Whether out of ignorance or by design, Brown’s interpretations of Leonardo’s ideas and work are totally impossible, even perverse, and would be defended by no art historian specializing in the Italian Renaissance. In a sketch of the Last Supper in one of Leonardo’s notebooks, each individual is named. The beardless disciple, who my look effeminate to us, happens to be “John, the beloved disciple.”

Other Critiques

Secrets of the Code, edited by Dan Burstein (CDS Books), is an eclectic collection of essays and excerpts by recognized scholars, by informed and insightful amateurs, and by the conspiracy pseudo-scholars upon whom Brown has drawn (Baigent, Leigh, Lincoln, Lynn Picknett, Clive Prince, Timothy Freke, Peter Gandy, Margaret Starbird, et al.). Read critically, it contains much fascinating if mutually contradictory information.

The best Christian response is The Da Vinci Hoax by Carl E. Olson and Sandra Miesel (Ignatius Press), who astutely expose the “research” in Dan Brown’s thriller. The claim that the historical references in his book are all FACT (Brown capitalizes the word in his note at the beginning) and that “all descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate” are far from the truth. Brown’s claims appeal to many readers who don’t have a clue about history. Olson and Miesel have little difficulty exposing the ludicrous insinuations that Brown puts into the mouth of Harvard guru Robert Langdon and “historian” Sir Leigh Teabing. A satisfying feature of Olson and Miesel is that they cover the whole gamut of historical allusions rather than just the earliest centuries.

An extremely well-written but briefer response is Amy Welborn’s De-Coding Da Vinci (Our Sunday Visitor), sub-titled “The facts behind the fiction of The Da Vinci Code.” As a Catholic, the author occasionally seems a bit over sensitive about the book’s outlandish claims, though the same could be said for some of the evangelical Protestant critiques. Still, here is probably the best, brief, but comprehensive treatment.

Two excellent critiques by Protestant writers who focus primarily on refuting Brown’s historical reconstruction of the first four Christian centuries are Breaking the Da Vinci Code by Darrell L. Bock (Thomas Nelson) and The Gospel Code by Ben Witherington, III (IVP). Witherington, author of several scholarly books on women in the early church, offers an authoritative counterbalance to the muddle-headed neo-pagan feminism reflected in DVC. Here are superb introductions to the New Testament data, to the Gnostic and other post-biblical literature, and to history up through the fourth century.

What is offered is both New Testament 101 and Early Church History 101. In reading these works, I kept asking myself: Why is it that most adult Christians don’t know this material? Has the church been strongly influenced by the anti-historical age in which we live?!

Cracking Da Vinci’s Code by James L. Garlow and Peter Jones (Victor) offers a comprehensive response to Brown’s implied historical reconstructions and new-age-ish theology, linking the novel to the current religious and ideological scene. Three smaller books offer interesting reading on the subject: The Da Vinci Deception by Erwin W. Lutzer (Tyndale) is a response from a preacher. The Truth Behind the Da Vinci Code by Richard Abanes (Harvest House) reads like a commentary on key claims by Langdon and Teabing; and The Da Vinci Code: Fact or Fiction? by Hank Hanegraaff and Paul L. Maier (Tyndale) gives the views of a popular apologist and a history professor.

For Further Reading

On the New Testament Canon:

F. F. Bruce, a leading Bible scholar in the second half of the 20th century, has given us three excellent guides:

The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (IVP), a brief consideration of the historical reliability of the New Testament;

New Testament History (Doubleday), the best history of the era of the earliest church;

The Canon of Scripture (IVP), a magisterial but accessible introduction to this important subject.

Bruce M. Metzger’s The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance ( Oxford } will answer almost any question you might have and many others you have not thought of.

On Gnosticism:

The Nag Hammadi Library (Harper & Row), edited by James M. Robinson, contains the English translations of the mostly Coptic Gnostic texts quoted or alluded to in DVC. Bentley Layton’s The Gnostic Scriptures (Doubleday) rounds out the topic, though to call them “Scriptures” may be somewhat misleading. If you prefer, you can get them free online at The Gnostic Society Library <http://www.gnosis.org/library.html>.

Three articles offer compact overviews and modern research (with extensive bibliographies):

—David M. Scholer’s “Gnosis, Gnosticism,” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Development, ed. Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids (IVP, 1999), 400-412:

—Edwin M. Yamauchi’s “Gnosticism,” in Dictionary of New Testament Background, ed. Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter (IVP, 2000), 414-418;

—Yamauchi’s “Gnosis, Gnosticism,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, & Daniel G. Reid (IVP, 1993), 350-354.

Robert M. Grant’s Gnosticism and Early Christianity (Harper & Row) is a useful introduction by a distinguished University of Chicago historian. Hans Jonas’sThe Gnostic Religion (Beacon) is a classical and accessible introduction to the major documents and ideas. What is Gnosticism? by Karen L. King ( Cambridge ) is an attempt to disentangle the study of the subject from the early Christian discourse of orthodoxy and heresy. If the older writers tipped their hats to the orthodox church fathers, Professor King has more than redressed the balance.

On the Apocryphal New Testament:

Christian fiction was alive and well in the early centuries of the church! The Gnostic writings are only some among many extra-canonical texts tht were being read by various groups of professed followers of Christ. You don’t have to wonder about what was in those mysterious books; you can read them. Two collections translated and edited by J. K. Elliott and published by Oxford are The Apocryphal New Testament and The Apocryphal Jesus. They present a fascinating introduction to texts that have shaped the thinking of Christians in earlier ages as well as some that were largely unknown. W. Schneemelcher, ed. New Testament Apocrypha, 2 vols. (Westminster) offers a complementary introduction to the literature and scholarship of that early period.

[W. Ward Gasque is the New Testament editor of New International Biblical Commentary, was the founding co-editor of New International Greek Testament Commentary, and is the author of two books and editor of four books in Biblical studies.]