The Da Vinci Code: fact or fiction?
Dan Brown’s novel, The Da Vinci Code1 has sold more than 40 million copies and has been made into a blockbuster movie.2 The publicity generated has been extraordinary. The Vatican and the Archbishop of Canterbury have condemned it,3 and author Dan Brown was unsuccessfully sued for plagiarism by the writers of another fictional but similar book, Holy Blood, Holy Grail.4 The resultant massive media attention raises three questions: What is the appeal of the book? Why such a strong reaction to it? Why should we care?
Summary of the plot
To answer these questions, let us first look at the novel’s plot line. Robert Langdon, a Harvard University professor of “Symbology,”5 is called in by the Paris police to solve the grotesque murder of Jacques Saunière, curator at the Louvre Museum in Paris. The action takes place over a contemporary 24-hour time period, starting with mysterious codes and symbols written by the murdered man while he is dying. We then follow a murderous member of private Catholic prelature, Opus Dei, seemingly one step ahead of our hero, Robert Langdon; and heroine, Sophie Neveu, a French cryptologist and granddaughter of the murdered curator. Robert and Sophie’s adventures lead them to seek the advice of the mysterious and wealthy Sir Leigh Teabing, a “scholarly expert” in Christian relics and history, such as the Holy Grail, which Teabing has made his life’s work to acquire. Teabing reveals to a The Da Vinci Code: fact or fiction? by Maxine Bingham and Ron Bingham stunned Robert and Sophie, “historical facts” that, if made public, Teabings asserts would undermine the faith of Christians, by disproving the divinity of Christ and the accuracy and historicity of Scripture. Teabing avers that the Vatican has suppressed the “sacred feminine” through an almost 2,000-year-old conspiracy starting with Emperor Constantine in the fourth century A.D., and continued by Popes and the Vatican to this day.
The main secret, which Teabing unveils, is that the true Holy Grail6 was not Christ’s cup or chalice from the Last Supper, but, was, in fact, Mary Magdalene, who as wife to Jesus and mother to their daughter, Sarah, was the carrier of Jesus’ bloodline to the Merovingian kings of France, as well as the person the mortal Jesus deputized as the leader of His church. Clues that Mary Magdalene is the Holy Grail are hidden in The Last Supper and other paintings of Leonardo da Vinci, a Priory of Sion “grand master,” as listed in Les Dossiers Secrets in the National Library of France.
The novel comes to a dramatic end when Teabing is revealed as the mastermind behind the killings, and Sophie is revealed as the descendent of Mary Magdalene and Jesus, thus embodying the “true” Holy Grail. The novel ends with a newly enlightened Robert Langdon making dramatic obeisance to Mary Magdalene’s bones that are secretly lying beneath the 1986 I. M. Pei-designed pyramid glass entrance7 to the Louvre.
What is the appeal of this fantastic tale?
What is the appeal? First, the novel is a fast-paced mystery, with tantalizing clues, codes, and word plays, along with heroes and villains and a damsel (Sophie) in distress. Second, the book is based on conspiracy theories and anti-religious authority polemics, especially against the Roman Catholic Church, which has recently been rocked by scandals. Third, the book makes use of real persons and events, from Emperor Constantine and the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. to Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of The Last Supper, that supposedly represents Mary Magdalene and not John the Beloved as one of the 12 disciples (in which case, where is the 13th person?). According to Dan Brown, the Council of Nicea, “officially declared” Jesus divine by a “close vote” in a patriarchal power play that also fixed the New Testament canon. Teabing asserts Christians up to that point believed Jesus was a mere mortal and believed other gospels. Fourthly, the book appeals to New Age adherents and some feminists who have abandoned monotheism and crafted their own romanticized pagan-based “divine feminine” and “goddess” religion and rituals.
Why should Christians care?
Not only are non-Christians being misled, but even some Christians have been influenced by the pseudo-scholarly nature of the book. Dan Brown goes to great lengths to make his novel appear to be based on hundreds of facts that are being hidden by the Church. For example, the prologue begins thus:
The Priory of Sion–a European secret society founded in 1099–is a real organization.8 In 1975 Paris’s Bibliothèque Nationale9 discovered parchments known as Les Dossiers Secrets, identifying numerous members of the Priory of Sion, including Sir Isaac Newton, Botticelli, Victor Hugo, and Leonard da Vinci. The Vatican prelature known as Opus Dei is a deeply devout Catholic sect that has been the topic of recent controversy due to reports of brain washing, coercion, and a dangerous practice known as “corporal mortification.” Opus Dei has just completed construction of a $47 million National Headquarters at 243 Lexington Avenue in New York City.10 All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.” [emphasis supplied]
It is these claims that have caused an outcry of dismay from Christians of all denominations, as well as journalists11 in the mainstream media, and highlyregarded theologians and historians, both Christian and secular.12
Refuting the claims in The Da Vinci Code
Virtually every so-called fact or personage mentioned in this work is either the product of the author’s imagination, is misrepresented, or is based on previous novels that Brown’s character Teabing notes were “international bestsellers” including The Templar Revelation, The Woman With the Alabaster Jar, The Goddess in the Gospels and Holy Blood, Holy Grail.13
The upside to all of this is that organizations, such as Opus Dei (a private Catholic prelature but not the organized crime offshoot of the Vatican as portrayed in the novel),14 are taking advantage of the book’s popularity and publicity to reach out to the public. Many churches are holding seminars, and pastors are addressing the book’s claims in sermons. Thus, the publicity storm around this novel and movie provides a unique opportunity for Christians to learn about the origins of our faith, and to share the underpinnings of our beliefs with a wider audience.
It was encountering this confusion about fact and fiction and truth and error among our own friends, relatives and co-workers, that led us to develop a seminar series entitled, “The Da Vinci CODE or Da Vinci CON: Are the Facts Stranger Than Fiction?” for non-doctrinal, educational outreach.15 This article is based on some of the hundreds of hours of research we spent in order to refute the more than 50016 errors and misrepresentations in this novel, although we can share but a few from that effort.
We found the following topics of interest: Historicity of Scripture, Christ’s Divinity, and Was Jesus Married to Mary Magdalene?
Historicity of Scripture and Jesus’ Divinity
Dan Brown alludes in The Da Vinci Code on page 231 to “80 other gospels” that were suppressed in favor of the “less-reliable” New Testament Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John that were actually included in the canon. Modern scholars17 agree that the earliest Gospel was by Mark (65 A.D.), followed by Matthew and Luke/Acts (80-85 A.D.), and finally John (ca. 90 A.D.). One of the first-known lists of the 27 books in our New Testament is a letter from Athanasius of Alexandria in 367 A.D.
This is after the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. The Council of Nicea was not called by the Emperor Constantine to “rubber stamp” the fact that Jesus was divine, which had been settled long before, but to deliberate whether He was co-eternal with God or a created being, as Arius of Alexandria claimed. This council put an end to the Arian heresy.
Although Brown does not use the term “Gnostic Gospels,” we can assume that it is these writings to which his fictional “expert” Teabing alludes as being earlier than our New Testament, and “ruthlessly suppressed” by male church leaders as well. Written from the second to fifth centuries A.D., they are ancient forgeries purportedly written by New Testament authors.18
Interestingly, Gnosticism (from the Greek gnosis–or knowledge, in the sense of special knowledge) portrays Jesus not as a mortal, as Dan Brown would have us believe, but as pure spirit. This docetic (from the Greek meaning “to appear”) view of Jesus meant that Gnostics sought salvation not from a fully divine and fully human Jesus, but from their own divine spark. Jesus just came to impart the knowledge on how to get out of this mortal realm if one had the spark. Accordingly, His death on the cross had no relevance to one’s salvation.
One of the biggest “howlers” in The Da Vinci Code is Brown’s opposite characterization of the Gnostic gospel view of the nature of Jesus, so that he can “prove” Jesus was a mere mortal married to Mary Magdalene. While Brown attempts to use these texts to prove his claim of Jesus’ humanity, in fact, the Gnostics rejected Jesus’ humanity in favor of pure divinity!
Evidence for belief in Christ’s divinity
Evidence for the belief in Christ’s divinity can be found in The New Testament, extra-biblical references, as well as in first to fourth century A.D. inscriptions and art in the Christian Roman catacombs.19
In addition to the many references that Christ and others in the New Testament make about His divinity (including His statement that “before Abraham was, I AM,” in John 8:58, KJV), for a figure of antiquity who died an ignoble death, there are a remarkable number of extra-biblical references to Him. These include mentions by the Jewish historian Josephus (37-100 A.D.) of both Jesus and His brother James,20 as well as critical mentions of Jesus in the Jewish Babylonian Talmud21 as a sorcerer, along with mentions of Christ or Christians in letters by various Romans critical of Christians and Christianity, such as Pliny the Younger.22
The earliest symbol for Christianity was the fish. The fish in Greek is ichthys– an acrostic for “Jesus Christ God’s Son Savior” (Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter23). The burials in the catacombs of Rome (first to fourth century A.D.) show through inscriptions and art motifs (Jonah, Daniel in the lion’s den, loaves and fishes), Judean burial style and burials within a family tomb of non-family Christians of all social strata, that the Roman Christians believed in the resurrection and life to come with Jesus, held a shared tradition with Judaism, and were demonstrating that, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28, RSV).
Was Jesus married to Mary Magdalene?
While it is difficult to argue from silence, one can safely assume that any marriage of Jesus would have been recorded. Since the New Testament records that some of His disciples were married (such as Peter24), it would be expected that any marriage of Jesus would be recorded. Genealogy was, and continues to be, a matter of great importance in Near Eastern religion and rule. Both Matthew and Luke take the time to give Jesus’ genealogy.
Mary Magdalene or Miriam of Magdala (in the Galilee) is mentioned some 14 times in the New Testament, and always with her name. Because she is only called “of Magdala,” and we know that she traveled with Jesus and helped to support Him, she may have been a widow or unmarried woman of some means. Jesus delivered her of seven demons, she was one of the very few to stay with Jesus at the Cross, and was the first to see the risen Christ. Possibly because of the gift of being the first to see the resurrected Jesus, early Church Fathers thought that she must have been of great virtue and referred to her as the “Apostle to the Apostles.”25
Mary Magdalene was not associated with prostitution until a sermon by Pope Gregory in the fifth century A.D. merged her with some of the other New Testament Marys and women whom we associate as repentant sinners from a life of prostitution. From that time on, Mary Magdalene has been shown in art with an alabaster jar, which comes from the story in Matthew 26:7, Mark 14:3, and Luke 7:37. This is really all that we have about Miriam of Magdala, until medieval romances take up the story, which we see embellished by Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code.
Although Dan Brown’s novel, The Da Vinci Code, has enjoyed great popularity, its claims of fact about early church beliefs and the nature of Christ are easy to refute, but require a foundation in early church history and knowledge of Greek, Roman, and Judean culture. This novel and film have given us all the opportunity “to make a defense to everyone that asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15, NASB).
Ron Bingham and Maxine Bingham hold graduate degrees, respectively, in physics and in Near Eastern Studies. They also lead in an Adventist ministry, Agora International Seminars, for reaching people with evidence of Bible truth. This article is based on a seminar they have developed to expose the errors in The Da Vince Code. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code (New York: Doubleday, 2003).
2. Sony Pictures Corporation, released in May, 2006.
3. The Daily Mail online, “Archbishop attacks the Da Vinci Code,” by Jo Knowsley, April 16, 2006.
4. Times Online, “Da Vinci Code author wins battle against plagiarism claim,” by Philippe Naughton, April 7, 2006; http://www.timesonline. co.uk/article/0,,200-2123521,00.html.
5. “Symbology” does not exist as a Harvard University academic specialty.
6. A medieval romance from around 1200 A.D., Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time: The Holy Grail, May 15, 2003, BBC Radio 4, http://www.bbc. co.uk/radio4/history/inourtime/inourtime_ 20030515.shtml.
7. For details, see: http://www.greatbuildings. com/buildings/Pyramide_du_Louvre.html.
8. A known twentieth century fraud perpetrated by Pierre Plantard; see the TV program “60 Minutes,” The Priory of Sion: Is The “Secret Organization” Fact or Fiction? Broadcast April 30, 2006, http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/ 2006/04/27/60minutes/main1552009.shtml.
9. The National Library of France, but anyone can put documents in it.
10. The only true factoid in the prologue is that Opus Dei does have new headquarters in New York City.
11. For example, Salon, “The Da Vinci Crock,” by Laura Miller, December 29, 2004, http://dir. salon.com/story/books/feature/2004/12/29/ da_vinci_code/index.html?pn=1.
12. Such as: Bart D. Ehrman, Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code (Oxford University Press, 2004) and Ben Witherington III), The Gospel Code (InterVarsity Press, 2004).
13. Da Vinci Code, p. 253.
14. The Spectator (UK), “Blessed are the spin doctors,” by Auston Ivereigh and “Opus Dei is so normal it’s scary,” by Mary Wakefield, May 6, 2006, issue.
15. The first series was held in early May 2006, co-sponsored by the Santa Cruz Seventh-day Adventist Church, in California, and Agora International Seminars, the authors’ lay outreach ministry. Contact davincicon@agorapr. com for more details about these seminars that we are using to augment Adventist churches’ doctrinal evangelism outreach.
16. See James L. Garlow, The Da Vinci Code Breaker: An Easy to Use Fact Checker (Bethany House Publishers, 2006).
17. See for example, Bart Ehrman’s Introduction to the New Testament, The Teaching Company, 2000 (www.teach12.com; 1-800-832-2412), which we have relied upon, along with other reliable sources.
18. For this article, we are primarily relying on Bart Ehrman’s Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew (Oxford University Press, 2003).
19. The Catacombs of Rome: http://www.catacombe. roma.it/.
20. Wikipedia entry, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Flavius_Josephus.
21. Early Christian Writings: http://www.earlychristianwritings. com/talmud.html.
22. Probe Ministries: http://www.probe.org/content/ view/18/77/.
23. http://www.eureka4you.com/fish/fishsymbol. htm.
24. Matthew 8:14 ff.
25. In Church Father Hippolytus’ (170-236) commentary on the Song of Songs 24-26.