Unravelling the Da Vinci Code:

This is the text of a presentation I gave at Exedra Bookstore, 13th April 2004 as a prelude to a discussion:

FACT: The Da Vinci Code has been hugely successful, earning its author, Dan Brown, a lot of money.

FACT: Before he became an author, Dan Brown was a professor.

FACT: I rather fancy earning a lot of money myself.

So, as I read  The Da Vinci Code, I ask myself – what is the secret of this book’s success? It does not live up to standard expectations about great literature. The prose-style is simple and the characterisation is thin, relying on easily stereotypes: Fache, the well-intentioned detective who never lets up in his pursuit of the wrong suspects; Teabing, who fits every American’s idea of a British aristocrat; and Father Aringarosa, the scheming head of Opus Dei. It has often been said that the ambition of Opus Dei was to take over the role of the Jesuits, and it seems that they have at least succeeded in becoming the most obvious target for anti-clerical sentiment.
But it would be unfair to say that Brown is pandering to prejudices. His characters are easy to remember, just as the simple prose is easy to read, and, like any good detective writer, he is aware of the likely prejudices and expectations of his readers and manipulates these to produce surprises. The plot is carefully crafted, so that at every stage, just when we think we’ve got it all figured out, a new revelation puts everything we thought we knew into a new perspective. This has been the method of modern detective stories at least since the time of Wilkie Collins, and Brown has certainly mastered this genre. However, I don’t think that this is sufficient to explain the extraordinary success of The Da Vinci Code. Brown feeds us with revelations not just about the murder of a librarian, but about the quest for the Holy Grail and the origins of Christianity. I say ‘revelations’, but the history will not come as a revelation to anyone, indeed, on p. 253, Brown helpfully lists his sources, including a previous international bestseller, Holy Blood, Holy Grail. Unlike The Da Vinci Code, this book was published as a work of history rather than a work of fiction, although its reputation amongst scholars does not quite match its popular success. Because he is not even pretending to write history, Brown is able to make use of the more sensational claims of this book, without having to worry about whether these claims can be substantiated. If this inspires readers to take a serious interest in the history behind the book, that’s all to the good, as long as people don’t mistake what is, after all, a work of fiction for a piece of serious history.
Brown does claim, on p.1 that

All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.

It is possible, however, to be highly misleading without being inaccurate. Consider, for example, the opening statement:

The Priory of Sion – a European secret society founded in 1099 – is a real organization. In 1975 Paris’s Bibliothčque Nationale discovered parchments known as Les Dossiers Secrets, identifying numerous members of the Priory of Sion including Sir Isaac Newton, Botticelli, Victor Hugo and Leonardo da Vinci.

In fact, there were three organisations called the Priory of Sion. The first version of the club, founded in 1956, was described by one of the founding members as four friends coming together to have fun. One of the four friends, Pierre Plantard was a man with an active imagination and extreme right-wing tendencies. In 1962, he founded another society with the same name, but his goal seems to have been to set up a secret society that would rival the freemasons, but would spread extreme right-wing ideas. Of course, any society that takes the freemasons as a model must have some history behind it, and Plantard duly invented one, and planted forged documents in the Bibliothčque Nationale. Forced to admit the fraud, he was resigned from the Priory of Sion in 1983. In 1989, he founded a third version of the Priory. In 1993, documents were uncovered in his apartment that claimed he was the true King of France. He died in Paris in 2000. For an excellent web-site on the topic, go to  http://priory-of-sion.com/ I won’t bore you with the details. I suspect that Dan Brown is playing a joke on his readers here; on p.217, he states that a BBC documentary corroborated the stunning results of Teabing’s research on the Grail. In fact, a BBC documentary was produced (I think it was in the 1990’s) on Holy Blood, Holy Grail. So far from corroborating it, the documentary exposed the book as a piece of nonsense. The moral is that you Americans should watch the BBC more often, then you wouldn’t be so easily taken in. I do think it’s unfair of Brown to include this in a section labelled ‘FACT’, but I guess he’s a joker, waiting to see how many people are gullible enough to fall for the bait. (More info on the Priory of Sion).

Mary Magdalene as the Lover of Jesus: The Da Vinci Code and History:

The Priory of Sion provides a useful way of linking many pieces of history – documents and art-works, in a grand thread. Once we realise that the Priory of Sion is a hoax, the thread unravels – but what about the details? The claim that I’ve been asked about most often is that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were lovers. Is this historically credible? I hope you will indulge me if I give you all a little lesson in New Testament studies (if you enjoy it, I’m teaching a course on this topic this Summer). For me, the patient process of searching for the historical truth is ultimately more exciting than a fictional wild goose chase.

I quote from pp. 245-246:

‘These are photocopies of the Nag Hammadi and Dead Sea scrolls which I mentioned earlier,’ Teabing said. ‘The earliest Christian records. Troublingly, they do not match up with the gospels in the Bible.’ Flipping toward the middle of the book, Teabing pointed to a passage. ‘The Gospel of Philip is always a good place to start.’
Sophie read the passage:
And the companion of the [Saviour is] Mary Magdalene.[ Christ] loved her more than [all] the disciples and used to kiss her often on her[ mouth]. The rest of [the disciples were offended by it and expressed disapproval.] They said to him ‘Why do you love her more than all of us?’

(Passages in [] indicate a gap in the MS, where the translator has guessed what the missing material might be. These passages are not bracketed in The Da Vinci Code.)

The Nag Hammadi documents and the Dead Sea Scrolls are real enough. They are the two most important manuscript finds for understanding the early history of Judaism and Christianity. The Dead Sea Scrolls are the work of a Jewish sect, not of Christians, and so can hardly be called ‘The earliest Christian records.’ The Nag Hammadi documents are indeed early Christian records, but they cannot, as a group, be described as the earliest. The Gospel of Philip, quoted here, may date from the second half of the 3rd Century (Note on dates). The familiar canonical Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all date from the 1st Century. We should be cautious about accepting this statement about Mary Magdalene as the historical truth. In fact, I will go further and say that I think we should reject this passage as fictitious. Allow me to explain why.
I should make it clear at once that I do not reject this passage in favour of blind adherence to the picture of Jesus that we have from the canonical Gospels. If we are serious about wanting to understand the historical figure of Jesus, we must be prepared to judge all the evidence, whether it comes from a canonical or non-canonical source, by the standards of critical historical enquiry. Let me give an example that concerns only the canonical Gospels. Bear in mind that most scholars think Luke used Mark as a source. (Biblical quotations from Revised Standard Version).

Mk 14: 46-48

And they laid hands on him and seized him. But one of those who stood by drew his sword and struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his ear. And Jesus said to them, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me?”

In the confusion of Jesus’s arrest, someone’s ear gets cut off. The way it’s described here, it could be accidental; the man who draws the sword might be part of the arresting party.

Lk 22: 49-51

And when those who were about him saw what would follow, they said ‘Lord, shall we strike with the sword?’ And one of them struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him.

This is the version Mel Gibson prefers; Jesus demonstrates that he forgives those who attack him. Luke emphasises forgiveness more than any other evangelist (he is the one who records the words “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”) Why does nobody else mention the healing of the ear? The most likely explanation is that Luke made it up, elaborating the story that he found in Mark. It isn’t so much that the healing itself is incredible: I don’t think its right to doubt that Jesus was a great healer. Its simply odd that nobody else records the fact, not even John, who claims to know the servant’s name (Malchus), and it fits so well with Luke’s theology of forgiveness. Stories get exaggerated as they are told again, and that seems to be what’s happened here. It looks as though the facts have been spiced up with a bit of fiction.

Now some passages from the non-canonical Gospels. First, the Gospel of Thomas - incidentally, this really is one of the oldest Christian documents we have: possibly from the 1st Century, possibly older than John’s Gospel (although Ehrman dates it to early 2nd Century):

Simon Peter said to them, ‘Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.’
Jesus replied ‘I myself will 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.’(Footnote 2)

Message: to enter the Kingdom, you must transcend your gender (elsewhere, we are told that men must become women: I’ll return to this). This then sets the stage for The Gospel of Mary, a dialogue that dates to the 2nd Century, and one that’s quoted by Teabing. The disciples ask Mary to reveal the teachings of Jesus, because she knew him so well. She tells them about a vision that she has had, but Andrew and Peter refuse to believe that Jesus would reveal teachings to a woman: they are jealous of her prophetic gifts. Peter also expresses jealousy of Mary in the Pistis Sophia, one of the most important gnostic texts that was known before the Nag Hammadi discoveries: it probably dates from the same time as the Gospel of Philip. Again, Jesus defends her.
The common theme then is that Peter expresses doubts about Mary, because she is a woman, but Jesus vindicates her. In Thomas, the question is whether she can be included in the group at all. In The Gospel of Mary, it is whether her vision is to be believed: she is more intimate with Jesus than Peter, so he is jealous. Nowhere in The Gospel of Mary does Mary claim to be his wife or companion however, which would have been the best way to shut Peter and Andrew up! In the Gospel of Philip, the level of intimacy between Jesus and Mary has reached its peak: he kisses her somewhere (‘the mouth’ is a translator’s guess: kisses on the mouth have ritual significance in this Gospel). She is his ‘companion’, which does seem to mean ‘wife’ or ‘girlfriend’, but then Peter’s question hardly makes sense: “Why do you kiss your wife but you never kiss me? Do you love your wife more than you love me?” I suggest that this is because the author of The Gospel of Philip invented this detail.(Footnote 3)

As these texts are being written, the gnostics who write them are being rejected by the orthodox Church that is emerging – Mary and Peter are probably being used to represent two positions in ecclesiastical politics. As with the ear of the high priest’s servant, the story grows in the telling. Incidentally, the same thing was happening with the other Mary, Jesus’ mother. In the mid 2nd Century, around the same time that the Gospel of Philip was written, the Proto-Gospel of James described the birth and childhood of the Virgin Mary, and includes a rather icky story about her perpetual virginity. This exercised a decisive influence on Catholic piety, but I don’t know of any scholar who takes it seriously as history, and if I came across such a scholar, I would find it hard to take their scholarship seriously.

Teabing adds (p. 245) that if Jesus had been unmarried, the Gospels would contained some explanation, given that marriage was the norm: ‘the social decorum at that time virtually forbid a Jewish man to be unmarried.’ He overlooks the Dead Sea Scrolls, whose importance he has just told us about. The scrolls were probably produced by the Essenes, a Jewish sect that seems to have favoured celibacy for religious reasons (note 4).

The canonical Gospels do contain plenty of evidence that Jesus rejected conventional family life because of the over-riding importance of the Kingdom. Not taking a wife would be entirely in keeping with this attitude to the family.
Most interestingly, as I’ve already mentioned, the Gospel of Thomas suggests that entering the Kingdom requires transcending gender: it’s a mixed up, muddled up, shook up world. (Note 5)
I’d like to spend more time on Teabing: his account of the Council of Nicaea, for example, is a highly misleading account of a very important event. Teabing the former Royal historian is a disgrace to his nation.
But then, here I am, judging a fictional character by the standards of real history. Besides, you’ve all come here for a discussion, not a lecture. The Da Vinci Code is a fiction, albeit one that is spiced with facts; a giant what if: what if the Gospel of Philip presented the truth, what if the Priory of Sion was more than a hoax…

Fiction and Religion:

I’ve already suggested that the canonical Gospels are not above mixing fact and fiction. Luke’s story about the slave’s ear, as I’ve said, provides an excellent illustration of forgiveness, even if it probably never happened: ‘Every religion describes God through metaphor, allegory and exaggeration’ says Langdon (p.341). So what does Brown hope to achieve by his appeal to the religious imagination?
As I’ve said, Dan Brown uses all the classic devices of a good thriller to keep the reader hooked: reading the book is an intense experience. As one reaches the end of such a book, a sort of disillusionment is bound to set in – after all, it was just a story. Langdon, our hero, is on the point of discovering the Holy Grail, but then we’re bound to remember that Langdon is just a fictional character, and even the most credulous reader must suspect that, whatever his abilities as a writer, Dan Brown has no more idea than the rest of us where the Holy Grail really is.
At this point, Brown, expert in manipulating readers that he is, rather cleverly delays the climax, and gives us the following little dialogue:

‘It is the mystery and wonderment that serve our souls, not the Grail itself. The beauty of the Grail lies in her ethereal nature…For some, the Grail is a chalice that will bring them everlasting life. For others, it is the quest for lost documents and secret history. And for most, I suspect the Holy Grail is simply a grand idea … a glorious unattainable treasure that somehow, even in today’s world of chaos, inspires us.’
‘But if the Sangreal documents remain hidden, the story of Mary Magdalene will be lost forever,’ Langdon said.
‘Will it? Look around you. Her story is being told in art, music and books…We are starting to sense the dangers of our history,,,and of our destructive path. We are beginning to sense the need to restore the sacred feminine.’ (p. 444)

I think its clear what Brown wants to make us feel here: even though he’s laid a false historical trail, still, hasn’t he pointed to a deeper truth: that we need to sacred feminine to save us from the destructive effects of Constantine’s attempt to fuse Christianity and Paganism:

The Priory believes that Constantine and his male successors successfully converted the world from matriarchal paganism to patriarchal Christianity by waging a campaign that demonised the sacred feminine … (p. 124)

Mother Earth had become a man’s world, and the gods of destruction and war were taking their toll. The male ego had spent two millennia running about unchecked by its female counterpart. (p. 125)

However, Langdon’s grasp of religious symbolism is just as simplistic as Teabing’s grasp of history. A religion that has strong symbols of the sacred feminine need not be matriarchal. Langdon is correct in saying that many pagan symbols of the divine feminine were absorbed into Christianity. Look no further than the Santuario Nacional: Dulce Cor Mariae Esto Salus Mea. Any future archaeologist would assume this was the temple of a goddess, and would such an archaeologist be wrong? We have fascinating discussions about that in my classes. But although the Church is dominated by Mary’s image, that doesn’t mean that women run the show.  Goddesses can incite people to war just as much as gods, and the fact that women embody a divine power is not always a reason for giving them authority. On the contrary, the fact that women embody a sacred power can be all the more reason for keeping them in their place: the purpose of rituals is very often to enable the sacred to perform its proper function. Consider the advice Langdon offers to his male students on the sacred value of sex:

‘The next time you find yourself with a woman, look in your heart and see if you cannot approach sex as a mystical spiritual act. Challenge yourself to find that spark of divinity that man can only achieve through union with the sacred feminine.’ (p. 310)

The Catholic Church also teaches that sex is sacred, that every marriage is a Hieros Gamos. The sacred nature of the sexual act is the very reason given by Paul VI in his encyclical Humanae Vitae for not allowing artificial contraception.
Of course, I don’t want to jump to the other extreme and say that belief in the Sacred Feminine is bound to lead to the repression of women; far from it. If we compare Gnostic Christianity with Orthodox Christianity, it seems that, for the most part, the Gnostics who believed in the Divine Feminine also offered more empowerment to women. I refer you to Chapter III of Elaine Paigel’s excellent study The Gnostic Gospels for a suitably nuanced discussion. (Elaine Paigels, The Gnostic Gospels, New York: Random House, 1979).

So what is the secret of Brown’s success? Certainly, it’s a matter of mixing fact and fiction, but it’s a question of how he mixes them. He drops in the most sensational facts, provides the most simplistic explanation – easy to understand, whether or not its true – then he moves the plot along. In short, although he uses facts to grab your attention, he never lets the facts get in the way of a good story.

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