Dan Brown’s ‘historical’ novel The Da Vinci Code was published in 2003, and has been at the top of the best-seller lists ever since. A year after its publication, it had sold almost six million hardback copies. The movie is on the way, directed by Ron Howard. The book is a gripping murder mystery, with an extraordinary number of events compressed into a period of little more than 24 hours. As a thriller, it succeeds at one level, with each of the 105 chapters (followed by an epilogue) ending in such a way that the reader feels compelled to read on. With suspense, conspiracies, and a touch of romance (albeit more Gnostic than physical!), it is a real page-turner. Having said that, the plot is clever but contrived, the story line is far-fetched, and the ending is particularly lame.
The message of the novel is that, in the words of Sir Leigh Teabing, ‘almost everything our fathers taught us about Christ is false.’ (p.235) Or, in the words of Robert Langdon, ‘every faith in the world is based on fabrication’ (p.341).1 ‘Those who truly understand their faith understand the stories are metaphorical’ (p.342). The reader is meant to be swept along with the belief that the Bible is a male plot against women, and the real Jesus was a feminist before his time. ‘Real Christianity’ is not what William Wilberforce thought it was – evangelicalism – but a mixture of goddess worship with what Brown thinks is Gnosticism.
Animated by paranoia and armed with a conspiratorial view of history, Dan Brown draws his readers into the ‘real’ facts – that Jesus had sexual relations with Mary Magdalene, that the Bible was decided upon in the days of the emperor Constantine (who died in A.D. 337), and that in 325 the Council of Nicaea voted that Jesus was divine, in a kind of ecclesiastical promotion, all to serve the interests of the male bishops. Mary Magdalene herself is supposed to be the Holy Grail – a secret guarded by the Priory of Sion. One can understand the sarcasm even of the extreme liberal, John Dominic Crossan, who has quoted the ancient and venerable principle of biblical exegesis, which states that if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it must be a camel in disguise.2
The Deity of Christ and the Council of Nicaea
Sir Leigh Teabing, who appears initially as the eccentric English historian of the Holy Grail, makes the most unhistorical claim concerning the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325: ‘until that moment in history, Jesus was viewed by His followers as a mortal prophet … a great and powerful man, but a man nevertheless. A mortal.’ Sophie Neveu’s breathless response is: ‘Hold on. You’re saying Jesus’ divinity was the result of a vote?’ Undeterred, Teabing pontificates on without batting an eyelid: ‘A relatively close vote at that’ (p.233). He even adds that the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi texts reveal a human Jesus. The reader is meant to understand that Sophie Neveu has just been initiated into what her name implies – ‘new wisdom’. As we shall see, the adjective is more appropriate than the noun.
How do we unpack all that? What is history and what is fiction? The short answer is that it is almost entirely fiction. Amy Welborn says that it is ‘so wrong, it’s beyond wrong.’3 It is true that there was a Council of Nicaea in 325. After that, Teabing gets nothing right. The council was called because a presbyter named Arius, who worked in Alexandria in Egypt, came to the view that Christ is the first created being. About the year 318 Arius was busy preaching that God created Christ, then the Holy Spirit, then the world. Like the modern day Jehovah’s Witnesses, Arius viewed Christ as the highest of the angels, not the divine Word made flesh. Whatever Arius’ deficiencies as a theologian, he certainly did not teach that Jesus was simply a mortal prophet. Neither side in the debate believed anything remotely as low key as that. Simon Cox’s explanation that ‘The belief that Christ was mortal was known as the Arian heresy’4 is as far from reality as is Brown’s novel.
Nor was the vote a relatively close one. We are not sure how many bishops were at Nicaea as no minutes have survived. Eusebius thought that 250 bishops attended the council but Eustathius of Antioch guessed that there were over 270. The historian, Sozomen, put the figure at 300, as did Athanasius, although he later adjusted this to 318 to match the number of troops that Abraham put in the field (Genesis 14). The emperor Constantine thought that over 300 were present. How many supported Arius? The Arian historian Philostorgius thought that 22 bishops were sympathetic to Arius, but his list includes Basil of Amasea who had been dead for some years. Sozomen writes that 17 supported Arius at the opening of the council, but only five bishops refused to sign the creed and/or the attached anti-Arian anathemas. So it seems that Teabing’s mathematical skills rival his expertise in history.
What about the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were discovered in 1947, not the 1950s (p.234)? They predate the New Testament, and unless one suffers from the same sort of hallucinations that have beleaguered the career of Barbara Thiering, one must conclude – not surprisingly – that they simply do not mention Jesus. The Teacher of Righteousness is not John the Baptist, and Jesus is not the Wicked Priest. The Nag Hammadi texts are different, however. They come from the second century and later, and are full of references to Christ. Gnosticism is a dualistic view of life, where spirit is seen as divine, and matter (flesh) as evil. This means that the Gnostics rejected the incarnation, and in the Gnostic scheme of things Christ is a divine spirit, not God made man. The Gnostic Christ, like Teabing’s, is a long way from the Christ of the Gospels, but for different reasons.
The Transmission of the Bible
Teabing explains that the Bible is a work of man: ‘The Bible did not arrive by fax from heaven’ (p.231). His claim is that ‘it has evolved through countless translations, additions and revisions’ (p.231). Teabing asserts that there were over 80 Gospels, but Constantine ordered a new Bible and had all the earlier Gospels burnt. He also refers to a ‘legendary Q document’ (p.256).
In reply, a number of points need to be made:
(a) The Bible has not evolved through translations. Translations usually go back to the early Hebrew and Greek texts. A worthwhile translation is not a translation of a translation.
(b) There is some genuine debate over some verses. The most important are John 7:59-8:11 (the woman taken in adultery); Mark 16:9-20 (the ending of Mark’s Gospel); and the three heavenly witnesses of 1 John 5:7b-8a. But there is not one Christian doctrine under threat in this debate. All the major Christian doctrines – such as the resurrection of Christ – are taught in many
places in Scripture.
(c) There are over 5,000 Greek manuscripts but 8,000 or so incomplete manuscripts, plus quotations from the early Church Fathers, plus early translations into other languages besides Greek. That is a huge number of manuscripts. There is no other piece of ancient literature which comes anywhere near that. For example, for Thucydides, only eight manuscripts exist. For Caesar’s Gallic War, there are 9 or 10 good manuscripts, for Herodotus, there are 8 manuscripts, and for Livy there are 20. That is typical for ancient writers, but not for the New Testament. The only work which comes anywhere near the New Testament is Homer’s Iliad, which has 643 copies, which is still a long way short of the New Testament’s five thousand basic copies plus others. The New Testament translator has more manuscripts to deal with than he can reasonably handle.
(d) There were only ever four Gospels. In his Against Heresies Irenaeus of Lyons – who flourished around A.D. 180 – contributed to the emerging pattern of orthodoxy. He asserted that there were only four Gospels because there were only four world zones, four winds, and four faces on the cherubim.5 His reasoning may seem less than incontrovertible, but the important thing is that, speaking for the Church, he was certain that there were only ever four authentic and authoritative Gospels. They were accepted well before Constantine was even born.
(e) Q is a hypothetical document referring to material common to Matthew and Luke but not in Mark. Its supposed existence is of almost no consequence to biblical criticism. One may accept or dismiss that Q exists, and still hold to the full authority of Scripture – and vice versa.
The Gnostic Gospels
Brown is relying on the so-called Gnostic Gospels, none of which can be dated in the first century and none of which can be regarded as reliable, let alone authoritative. He specifically mentions The Gospel of Philip and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene. His assertion, through Teabing, is that the Gnostics remained faithful to the original history of Christ (p.234). They also supposedly tell of Christ kissing Mary on the lips often (p.246). In fact, the text of the Gospel of Philip is quite broken and dislocated, and reads: ‘And the companion of the […] Mary Magdalene. […loved] her more than [all] the disciples [and used to] kiss her [often] on her […].’6
One may assume that it is Jesus who is kissing Mary, but it does not say that it is on her mouth. Greeting someone with a holy kiss was common practice in the early Church (Rom.16:16; 1 Pet.5:14). If more is meant, one needs to recall the Gnostic practice of allegorising Scripture. The Gnostics relied on ‘hidden’ meanings, and one of their practices was the so-called ‘bridal chamber’ where the physical represents the spiritual. The text is meant to be read allegorically. Nevertheless, the main point must remain that, even if the Gospel of Philip was trying to say something serious about literal history – which is unlikely – its credibility rating is not high.
Most of the apocryphal Gospels tell odd stories – when they tell stories at all. For example, in the Story of Thomas, Jesus strikes dead a boy who bumped him, then strikes blind the boy’s parents when they complain. Jesus also makes clay sparrows on the Sabbath, claps His hands, and the birds fly off. Many of the Gnostic Gospels are simply sayings, with hardly any narrative. Craig Keener is correct: ‘No 4th-century imperial directive was needed to suppress these works; the church had long ago disavowed them as Scripture.’7
Brown gives the wrong impression of the Gnostics. Because of their dualism, the Gnostics rejected the humanity of Christ. Christ appears rather like the old Phantom – ‘the ghost who walks’. For example, in the Acts of John it is said of Jesus: ‘I will tell you another glory, brethren; sometimes when I meant to touch him I encountered a material, solid body; but at other times again when I felt him, his substance was immaterial and incorporeal, and as if it did not exist at all.’ His footprint never appeared on the ground.8
To the dualistic Gnostic, God could not be the creator; the Word could not become flesh and dwell among us; Christ could not suffer on the cross; and the body could not be redeemed. It was widely believed in Gnostic circles that Christ did not suffer on the cross but escaped his body, and laughed at the ignorance of those who thought that he had been crucified.
The Gnostic writings – which are not all professing Gospels – are also to be dated far later than the New Testament. The Gospel of Philip, for example, dates from about A.D. 250. All Gnostic writings are to be dated well after the New Testament period.
Gnosticism was usually translated into an ascetic approach to ethics, on the grounds that the body was the enemy that had to be rejected and defeated. However, the Carpocratians were libertine, on the grounds that the body did not matter, so one could eat, drink, and be promiscuous. Hans Jonas thinks that libertinism was ‘the core of the gnostic revolution’. Irenaeus says that Marcus took sexual advantage of his followers, and Epiphanius accused some Gnostics of praying naked, and indulging in immorality, abortion, and the eating of an embryo. He also says that he joined a libertine Gnostic sect in his youth. No libertine texts have come from Nag Hammadi, but the fact that the Pistis Sophia and the Second Book of Jeu repudiate those who take male semen and female menstrual blood and eat it indicates that libertinism was not unknown. Asceticism, however, was more general, and Irenaeus accused the followers of Saturnilus of rejecting marriage and animal food – an echo of the situation found already in Paul’s Pastoral Epistles.
Some, such as Elaine Pagels, think that the Gnostics were for the liberation of women, but the Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas promises: ‘For every woman who will make herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven’ (see saying 114). In the Dialogue of the Saviour, Jesus tells Judas to pray in the place where there is no woman. Contrary to the impression left by Brown, all dualistic heresies down through the ages have tended to be fiercely misogynist. The perfecti of the medieval Cathars were vegetarian and celibate, and generally hostile to women.
Was Jesus married to Mary Magdalene?
Mary is supposed to have given birth to Sarah in Gaul, thus beginning the Merovingian line – the kings with the long hair! – which continued with Godefroi de Bouillon, the founder of the Priory of Sion. The Holy Grail is not a cup, but a person, Mary Magdalene. Ultimately, ‘The quest for the Holy Grail is the quest to kneel before the bones of Mary Magdalene.’ (p.454)
The real Mary is not said to be the woman who was a sinner in Luke 7:36-50 nor Mary of Bethany in John 12:1-8, but one out of whom Christ cast seven demons (Luke 8:2-3). She is a saint, not a demon, in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, and has churches named after her. In the New Testament, she is hardly dismissed as a whore. She is present at the cross (Matt.27:55-56) and at the resurrection (Matt.28:1; Luke 24:10). Indeed, in recording one of Jesus’ resurrection appearances, John centres on her alone (John 20:11-18).
The Oppression of Women by the Church
According to The Da Vinci Code, Mary Magdalene, not Peter, was the real rock of the Church. There was a rivalry between Mary and Peter, and ultimately Peter won out. Jesus is portrayed as ‘the original feminist’ (p.248), but the Church invented the Bible to suppress women. There is a problem of logic here, apart from a multitude of other problems. The Jesus of the Gnostic documents is hardly a feminist, and yet the Bible was supposedly written to suppress women. Where, then, is this feminist Jesus to be found? Not in the Gnostic texts nor in the New Testament. The one place remaining is Brown’s own imagination. The Jesus he writes about is one that he has invented.
Brown claims via Langdon that five million women were tortured and burned at the stake by the Church over a period of three hundred years (p.125). In actual fact, the dreadful witch trials, from 1450 to 1750, probably claimed more like 40,000 to 50,000 lives, with about 20% of them being men. Conspiratorial views of history are fictional views of history.
Chartres Cathedral has a statue of the Queen of Sheba in its collection. The poor woman is shown with a beard – one supposes to signify her wisdom (philosophers have beards) and her ‘manliness’. The Church has not always been convincing in finding the right role for women – but it has done a better job than the feminists.
The Message of the Sacred Feminine
According to Teabing, ‘Genesis was the beginning of the end for the goddess’ (p.238). The claim is even made that Shekinah was originally the consort of Jehovah – a claim that is so nonsensical that it is difficult to respond to. Simon Cox also asserts, with far more boldness than evidence, that ‘The goddess can truly claim to be the original and oldest deity.’9
Langdon tells Sophie who had been disgusted on stumbling across her grandfather’s involvement in a sexual ritual: ‘What you saw was not about sex, it was about spirituality. The Hieros Gamos ritual is not a perversion. It’s a deeply sacrosanct ceremony.’ (p.309) In the end, Langdon (or Brown) is proclaiming an ancient message – that the way to the divine is via the sexual act. Such a message is likely to welcomed by modern males high on testosterone, but the motives might be regarded as suspect by the more discerning ladies about town. The Da Vinci Code is indeed fiction, but not exactly pure fiction.
The Holy Grail, the Priory of Sion, and the Knights Templar
Alas, for Brown, the Priory of Sion is a hoax dating only from 1954 or 1956, not 1099. Pierre Plantard, a somewhat deranged anti-Semite who wanted to revive France, was behind it. It never had such distinguished members as Sir Isaac Newton, Sandro Botticelli, Victor Hugo, and Leonardo da Vinci.
The Knights Templar were a medieval order that was suppressed by Pope Clement V in 1312. This seems to have more to do with the politics of Philip IV, the king of France, than any desire on the part of the Church to hide the truth about Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Furthermore, the Temple Church in London is round, but not to honour the sun. It is in imitation of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
There are a few other less significant errors. Opus Dei does not have monks – so Silas, the mad albino, is a figment of Brown’s imagination. Frank Devine, a Catholic in an ironic mood, comments: ‘All good Catholics know Opus Dei is tolerant of assassins but hard on albinos.’10 He proved this claim by staking out its headquarters for a couple of days. He found that not one albino entered it, but a number of potential assassins turned up.
H. L. Mencken once defined an historian as ‘an unsuccessful novelist’. Dan Brown may illustrate that a novelist can be an unsuccessful historian.
Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code, London: Bantam Press, 2003.
Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, Henry Lincoln, Holy Blood, Holy Grail, 1981.
Darrell Bock, Breaking the Da Vinci Code, Nashville: Nelson, 2004.
Simon Cox, Cracking the Da Vinci Code, Sydney: HarperCollins, 2004.
James Garlow & Peter Jones, Cracking Da Vinci’s Code, Colorado Springs:
Amy Welborn, De-Coding Da Vinci, Huntington: Our Sunday Visitor, 2004.
Ben Witherington III, The Gospel Code, Illinois: IVP, 2004.
1 – Teabing’s name is an acronym for Baigent, one of the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail.
2 – Darrell Bock, Breaking the Da Vinci Code, Nashville: Nelson, 2004, p.31.
3 – Amy Welborn, De-Coding Da Vinci, Huntington: Our Sunday Visitor, 2004, p.31.
4 – S. Cox, Cracking the Da Vinci Code, Sydney: HarperCollins, 2004, p.46. This work is self-described as ‘The Unauthorized Guide to the Facts Behind the Fiction’, but in many ways it contributes to the fiction.
5 – Irenaeus, Against Heresies, III.xi.8.
6 – Wilhelm Schneemelcher (ed), New Testament Apocrypha, vol 1, trans by R. McL. Wilson, Cambridge: James Clarke and Co, 1991, p.194.
7 – Christian History, Issue 82, p.15.
8 – Wilhelm Schneemelcher (ed), New Testament Apocrypha, vol 2, trans by R. McL. Wilson, Cambridge: James Clarke and Co, 1992, p.181 (Acts of John, 93).
9 – S. Cox, p.60.
10 – The Australian, 18 June 2004.