The Da Vinci Code
Paul Young, Maesteg, Wales [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
An exposure of this powerful a widely read attack upon biblical Christianity
The Da Vinci Code is a novel, a work of fiction, written by Dan Brown and published in 2003. In the following year it sold six million copies in hardback and eventually spent more than one year on the New York Times best-seller list. It is the biggest selling hardback in history, while in all its formats it has achieved global sales of over 40 million and according to the Sunday Express Review (September 25, 2005) it has been translated into 42 languages. At one stage 50,000 copies were being sold each week in the United Kingdom. It was made into a film by Columbia Pictures, starring Tom Hanks, directed by Ron Howard and released in May 2006. There is also a sort of cottage industry which has spawned countless books, television documentaries and articles about the book.
The reasons for its success
There may be a number of reasons for its worldwide success.
- It is in many ways very well written and is a pacy, well-structured page-turner. There are all sorts of twists and turns in the main plot and numerous sub-plots that bring the whole work alive. A drawback may be that the characters are a bit shallow and one-dimensional and the end is a complete letdown.
- It is heavily focused upon symbols, codes, secret societies, conspiracies and plots of all kinds and that has a strong appeal to certain types of minds. One review has described it as a ‘riddlefilled, code-breaking, exhilarating, brainy thriller’.
- It is implied that though the ‘surface’ story is fictional it is embedded in a back-story that is factual. That backstory is a clear and sustained attack upon Christianity and strongly implies that a conspiracy on the part of the church has been uncovered and now the whole of the history of the last two thousand years can be explained in a different way. Thus, Brown’s book has been seen by many as a major challenge to Christian dogma and orthodoxy and this may also be part of its appeal. ‘If it were not for the undermining of the New Testament Gospels, this book would never have made it to the top. When books discredit Christ, they pay well’. (Edwards). However Time magazine has commented, ‘one of the very few books to sell more copies than The Da Vinci Code in the past two years is the Bible’.
The surface story
This starts with the death of a renowned curator Jacque Sauniere in the Louvre Museum in Paris. This leads to a gripping chase involving American Robert Langdon who is a professor of Religious Symbology and Sophie Neveu, a granddaughter of Sauniere, to sort through bizarre riddles while all the time being one step ahead of capture and death. They are not safe from the police, the other ‘friends’ who are also trying to gain access to Sauniere’s secret or from ‘Opus Dei’. The latter is a Roman Catholic organization, which in the story uses one of its members named Silas to kill people, this is in order to keep covered up a very deep secret. Thus, the chase is on to find the ‘Holy Grail’, the meaning of which I will explain presently, before the ‘bad’ people like Sir Leigh Teabing discover it. Indeed, if they fail then the truth about the Grail can be lost forever. There is a huge amount of dialogue, clues and background information but the twist is that Sophie is the Grail or has the Grail within herself! Now I can reveal that ‘the Grail’ is not a cup but is the line of descent, the bloodline that is from a supposed union between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. This turns out to be ‘the secret’ that has been hidden for two thousand years, guarded by a centuries-old secret society known as the Priory of Sion. This is the secret the church, and in particular the Roman Catholic Church, is supposed to have suppressed.
The instinctive reaction of many sincere Christians to such a story line is to be angry, cry ‘blasphemy’ and call down the wrath of God upon those who perpetuate such terrible ideas. However, with so many people reading this book there is need for more rationality and strength in our responses. We need to be prepared to look at facts and evidence and, so armed, be unafraid to engage in debate with the many who have read this book.
The names in the book
Names are very significant in the The Da Vinci Code and always seem to be have some deeper or double meaning to them. Jacques Sauniere’s name is the same as that of a priest of the nineteenth century who is rumoured to have discovered some important documents when renovating his church in a tiny village in France. He subsequently became rich and no one knows where his money came from. He also seems to have been protected by the Vatican from serious official investigation. This led to speculation that he knew something that could have been detrimental to the Roman Catholic Church.
Sir Leigh Teabing is the man in the story who double crosses Langdon and Neveu. The name Leigh is the surname of one of the authors of another book called The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. This book is the fountainhead for much of Dan Brown’s work. Teabing is an anagram of the surname of the second author of that book, Michael Baigent. It would be true to say that Brown derives much of his information from The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. The authors of that book were not amused with what they consider to be Dan Brown’s plagiarism and have served a writ upon him.
Sophie Neveu is the granddaughter of Sauniere and her first name means ‘wisdom’, while her second name means ‘descendant’. She would therefore be wise enough to uncover the truth and also be reminded that she was the Descendant. She is nicknamed ‘Princess Sophie’ by her grandfather and therefore the initials P.S. could also stand for ‘The Priory of Sion’, which is said to be the organisation that guards the truth of the bloodline story, and Sauniere was Grand Master of this organisation.
Robert Langdon is the Professor of Religious Symbology at Harvard University who on a visit to Paris gets caught up in the twenty-four hour chase that is the story of the book. Needless to say there is no such subject as ‘Symbology’ and it might be a Dan Brown amalgam of ‘symbolism’ and ‘cryptology’. Silas, another character, is a member of ‘Opus Dei’. He is an albino and was rescued by the man who became head of that Catholic Society. Silas indulges in corporal mortification and is willing to kill for his master.
Manual Aringarosa is the Opus Dei Cardinal whose name in Italian means ‘herring and red’ and therefore ‘red herring’. He is a powerful figure who thinks that finding the grail will help Opus Dei. Bezu Fache is the French police captain who seems to be convinced of Langdon’s guilt in the murder of Sauniere and who pursues the two fugitives. His first name means ‘cross’ or ‘angry’ and this is consistent with his abrasive manner. His second name is a location in southern France where the Knights Templar had a fort and near Rennes-le-Chateau. This is the village where the priest Berenger Sauniere lived and became so rich. So much then for the characters.
The background story
The underlying story is very much a theological issue and essentially focuses upon who was the person known as Jesus Christ. This is the heart of the book and essentially Brown makes his readers feel that ‘the church’ has hidden the truth about Jesus for many centuries, though a small group of determined and brave individuals have guarded the secrets that the church has tried to suppress. So the following are the ideas he puts forward in his book and which many may therefore believe are true: 1. Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and she had at least one child by Him, whose descendents became the kings of France. 2. Jesus intended Mary and not Peter to head up the movement He started. 3. The movement was hijacked by Peter and later by Emperor Constantine. 4. The Council of Nicaea in 325 AD upgraded the status of Jesus from mortal to divine and a new version of the Bible was authorized to affirm such ideas. It also implies that the vote to confirm Jesus as Son of God was won by a very narrow margin. 5. That there were earlier Gospels, which were suppressed because they expressed the true story and in their place the present New Testament was written to express a male dominated standpoint for Christianity.
The evidence for much of this, according to Dan Brown, is found in the now unearthed documents of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi writings. Also he maintains evidence is found in legends behind the Holy Grail and hints in works of art. The most important of these works of art as far as the book is concerned is found in ‘the Last Supper’ by Leonardo Da Vinci.
The last supper painting by Da Vinci
This is considered one of the world’s greatest paintings and was done on a refectory wall in the Dominican Friary in Milan and was completed in 1497 or 1498. Within twenty years the 15 by 29 foot picture was beginning to deteriorate and its composition is therefore subject to some speculation. Indeed in 1556 Vasari speaks of it as ‘so badly affected that nothing is visible but a mass of blots’. So, much of the original was lost and there has been much over-painting down the centuries.
Many aspects of the picture have been discussed but the important one for us is that the figure to the right of Jesus seems to be feminine and it is claimed rather than being the apostle John is in fact Mary Magdalene. She is leaning away from Jesus and so the gap between them is a V shape which is said to be the sign of the ‘sacred feminine’ and the configuration of their bodies makes a sort of M shape which is said to stand for ‘Mary’ or ‘Magdalene’. So the book concludes that Da Vinci was a Grand Master of the Priory of Sion and knew the secret of the sacred bloodline and hints at it in his painting.
Clearly such an interpretation is naive and it is inconceivable that the traditional guardians of the Catholic Church’s doctrine, the Dominicans, would not have noticed a female in the picture. It could hardly have been obvious and also the conception of beauty in the Renaissance period was different from our modern ideas. It was not uncommon for men to have some sense of the feminine about them when painted in those days. However, even could it be proven that Leonardo intended to have Mary Magdalene next to Jesus, this tells us nothing about what originally happened, and by no stretch of the imagination can it validate or vindicate the Gnostic Gospels.
The mistakes in the book
We must remember that a novel is a work of fiction and novelists do not necessarily make good historians and often for their story to be effective there can be major instances of ‘poetic license’ to enable the plot to live. Brown provides no footnotes or source materials for his work. David Shugarts, a journalist who investigated this novel, claims to have discovered seventy errors of fact, of which over sixty are significant. However the mistakes in this book move from the utterly trivial to the seriously inaccurate and misleading, but are extensive.
Firstly some geographical errors:
- The train station in Paris, the ‘Gare St. Lazare’, chapter 33, becomes ‘Gard du Nord’ in chapter 35, a mysterious change of name.
- Some places are not correctly located as far as the geography of Paris is concerned. In the drive from the Ritz Hotel to the Museum they pass the Paris Opera House but in fact this is in the opposite direction from the route they would take to the Museum.
- He writes of the ‘nuns’ of the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception, but there were no nuns in that order as it was a totally male group.
These are small details but if he is wrong about these can we trust him with bigger issues and has he done his historical research with very much rigour?
There is reference to the Dead Sea scrolls and other manuscript ‘evidence’
Sir Leigh Teabing says, ‘some of the Gospels that Constantine attempted to eradicate were found in the 1950s hidden in a cave near Qumran in the Judean desert’, (p. 317). Firstly, the scrolls were found in 1947 and over the subsequent decade a further eleven caves were investigated and in one of these a group of further fragments of scrolls were found. The scrolls have all been translated into English and although this took some time at the start of the process, which gave rise to conspiracy theories of suppression, the truth is that no Gospels were found in this collection of manuscripts.
They contain copies of the Old Testament books with the oldest copy of Isaiah ever found. There were commentaries on those Old Testament books, with psalms and hymns and material that related to the Qumran community itself. So to suggest that copies of ancient Gospels were found in those caves is just wrong. There is no historical or hard evidence to support such a claim.
Then there is the Nag Hammadi Documents. Again Teabing says, ‘These are photocopies of the Nag Hammadi and the Dead Sea Scrolls . . . the earliest Christian records. Troublingly, they do not match up with the Gospels in the Bible’, (p. 331). The Nag Hammadi documents were found in Upper Egypt in 1945 and were published in English in 1977. The manuscripts themselves are dated by scholars to around 350 AD although many of the original documents which underly these manuscripts date back to around 150 AD and are referred to by the Early Church Fathers. The documents are taken up with a form of teaching known as ‘Gnosticism’ which derives from the word for ‘knowledge’. The followers of this teaching felt they had arrived at truth through an enlightenment that was denied to lesser mortals. They regarded the creation of the earth as a mistake as all material things were evil and they saw the human spirit as imprisoned in the body. This is in marked contrast with the New Testament that sees the earth as positive because it was created by God and salvation as deliverance not from the body but from sin and guilt. These documents use the New Testament in an attempt to gain authoritative evidence for the views of Gnosticism. It was thus an attempt to hijack Christianity and to give it a significant difference. Neither do these documents give a ‘liberated view’ of the feminine in quite the way that the Dan Brown’s book suggests.
‘Thus far we have seen that the Dead Sea scrolls tell us nothing about the person of Jesus, while the Nag Hammadi documents present Gnostic teaching, which was a parasite upon authentic New Testament Christianity. One of the reasons for what is known as the pseudepigrapha, (that is, documents claiming to be written by people by whom they were not written), of the Hag Hammadi documents, was that they were attempting a ‘hijack’ of authentic Christianity, (Clark).
There is considerable reference to the Gnostic Gospels
1. The Gospel of Thomas was written in Coptic and was probably a translation from Greek and dated AD 400. It is a series of sayings of Jesus, which are mostly found in the New Testament though there are additions that indicate its Gnostic origins. It also takes a low view of women suggesting that the only way for a woman to be saved is to become a man. This is ironic as the Da Vinci Code claims that such ‘Gospels’ are more sympathetic to women than the New Testament.
2. The Gospel of Philip contains a passage which the Da Vinci Code insists proves that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. She is mentioned as the ‘companion’, presumably of Jesus, and He was said to kiss her often which caused jealousy to arise in the disciples. Teabing points out that the word ‘companion’ as ‘any Aramaic scholar will tell you, in those days, literally meant ‘spouse’. Firstly, there is no evidence that there ever was an Aramaic version of the Gospel of Philip and it was much more likely to have been translated from the Greek. However, no competent scholar would suggest that the word ‘companion’ would ever mean ‘spouse’. It is also interesting that the Gospel of Philip actually quotes from the New Testament, 1 Corinthians 8. 1; 1 Peter 4. 8; Matthew 15. 13, which suggests it was composed after the New Testament was written and tried to use the New Testament books to justify the line of reasoning that was taken by the author.
3. The Gospel of Mary. There is no evidence in this Gnostic Gospel or in any of the books quoted that maintains that Jesus was married or ever had a child. That Jesus was unmarried tends to be the one thing that the majority of scholars are agreed upon. ‘The Gnostic gospels were never among the books considered for the Canon of scripture by the early church. They were written a century too late to be written by the people they name. Even the Gnostic second-century leader, Marcian, did not list these as part of the canon but only the books found in our current New Testament. This is the strongest possible evidence that the socalled Gnostic gospels did not exist at that stage’, (Gumbel).
The Council of Nicea
The book suggests that at this Council the truth of Jesus as Son of God was accepted when up to that time He had been accepted as only mortal. The book further suggests that this was the result of a very close vote of the delegates present. It goes further to say that it was only at this time that the books of the Bible were brought together as we have them now and others were rejected because they took a different line. It was the winners who wrote the history because the Emperor Constantine was in power and he instigated these changes.
Firstly, the vote was not a narrow vote but an overwhelming endorsement with only two votes against in a Council of over 200 delegates. It is true that Constantine inaugurated the sessions and presided over the first session but he handed over the presidency for subsequent sessions.
Secondly, the book makes one of the most misleading claims ever when it says, ‘Jesus was viewed by his followers as a mortal prophet . . . a great and powerful man, but a man nevertheless, a mortal’. This is patently untrue as the Council of Nicea came into being to deal with the problem of Arianism which was named after Arius who promoted the teaching that there was only one God and therefore Jesus could not be God. Yet, even Arius did not believe that Jesus was just a mortal man but the first of God’s created beings. He also believed that through Jesus everything else was created. So the issue was not whether Jesus was just a man for even Arius concluded He was more than a man, but whether He was God. They came to a clear conclusion by a vote of 218 to 2 that the New Testament teaches the deity of Christ. This was not a ‘new interpretation’ but a ‘confirmation’ of the long held belief of Christians. Today Arianism is still around and most notably as taught by the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Thirdly, it has been suggested that Constantine embellished the Gospels that we now have but there is just no such evidence. A simple comparison reveals that all the parchments and copies from the earliest times are consistent and there is no great divide between those that were before Constantine and those that came afterwards.
‘If The Da Vinci Code only claims to be a novel, that is one thing but if it claims to be based on scholarship, that is another for it is fanciful, absurd and in the end ridiculous. It is another myth - a twenty-first century Gnostic myth’, (Gumbel).
The Priory of Sion
This is said to be a centuries-old ‘society’ and it underpins the whole of the plot of The Da Vinci Code. It was supposedly set up in Medieval times to protect the bloodline of Jesus. Its leaders have been said to have been some of the most ‘influential’ alchemists, freemasons and members of the Rosicrucian Order, who have ever lived. They have included Leonardo Da Vinci, Robert Boyle, Sir Isaac Newton and Victor Hugo amongst others. It is considered by many to be an elaborate hoax instigated by Pierre Plantard in 1967 who also made claim to the French throne. He was the main source of information for the authors of the international best seller Holy Blood, Holy Grail which appears to be the source for much of the information in The Da Vinci Code.
Yet the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail never did discover the real purpose of the Priory of Sion and so they developed the revolutionary concept that the bloodline of the French kings actually developed from the union of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, and she was believed to have found refuge in France after the crucifixion. The Society has said to have gone underground and ‘so the existence of the Priory of Sion continues to be an elusive mystery, even today’, (Cox).
Where does this leave us as believers in the Lord Jesus faced by the immense publicity this novel has and continues to create? Here are some points to consider:
- Dan Brown clearly has an axe to grind as far as Christianity is concerned. He makes the representatives of the orthodox ‘church’ and thus the usually accepted doctrines of Christianity with them, Silas and Aringarosa, utterly unattractive. No one would want to identify with them because in their different ways they are decidedly wierd and seem vulnerable, inadequate, extreme and even fanatical as well as dangerous.
However, the main characters, Robert Langdon and Sophie Nevau, are coolheaded, intelligent, rational, resourceful, quick-thinking, smart and attractive. They are used in the novel to expose what are set out as the ‘bogus myths’ of Christianity and so we see that the writer endeavours to make his readers sceptical, if not hostile, towards New Testament Christianity.
- He works into the novel a belief in a cover-up by the ‘church’, not by giving hard factual evidence, but, by creating certain images and impressions. He gives the sense that to believe the New Testament is to be blind to facts and impervious to reason and that the whole edifice is built upon a deception which has taken in the gullible.
- A detailed look at Dan Brown’s novel indicates a superficial appraisal of Christianity at best and a willful ignorance of historical analysis. He makes astounding claims with no supporting evidence and yet passes it all off as fact. He is essentially aiming at the Roman Catholic Church but seems never to have heard of the Reformation. Clearly there are some difficulties with the Roman Catholic Church because it has added tradition and makes such tradition as authoritative as the Bible itself. However, Christianity in its simplest is a faith that believes the Bible is the inspired word of God and that Jesus is the Son of God who came from heaven and died on the cross in order to be the Saviour of the world. Anyone who believes in Him will not perish but becomes the possessor of eternal life.
This is not blindness but a simple appreciation of the facts. Namely, the Bible is seen to be trustworthy in any statement of fact that can be verified externally and never has it proved to be wrong. There are few discrepancies between all the thousands of existing copies of the ancient text and ancient secular historians and writers have verified the truth of Holy Scripture. Writers such as Josephus, Pliny the Younger and Tacitus, who were not Christians or even sympathetic to Christianity, confirm many of the facts of the faith. Also there is a powerful internal consistency to New Testament documents. Archaeology continually confirms the truthfulness of the New Testament documents and the facts they record.
Finally, we focus on the Lord Jesus and in the New Testament He cannot be removed from the miracles. They are part and parcel of His life and ministry culminating in His resurrection from the dead. Anyone who seriously looks at the evidence for the resurrection is forced to the one and only conclusion and that is His tomb was empty because a miracle had taken place and the Saviour rose from the dead. That fact alone gives us hope and assurance as we trust in the Lord Jesus for eternal life.
FURTHER READING: -
The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown (Corgi Books).
The Da Vinci Code - Fact or Fiction by Hank Hanegraaff and Paul L. Maier (Tyndale).
Breaking the Da Vinci Code by Darrell L. Bock (Nelson Books).
The Da Vinci Code on Trial by Stephen Clark (Bryntirion Press).
Cracking the Da Vinci Code by Simon Cox (Michael O’Mara Books).
The Da Vinci Code, a response by Nicky Gumbel (Alpha International).
The Key to the Da Vinci Code by Stewart Ferris (Crombie Jardine).
The Da Vinci Code from Dan Brown’s Fiction to Mary Magdalene’s Faith by Garry Williams (Christian Focus).
Da Vinci, a Broken Code by Brian Edwards (Day One).
The Da Vinci Code (a Connect Bible Study) by Di Archer (Scripture Union).